Thailand may not be as safe as previously thought for the 100 or more Cambodian dissidents who have fled across the border since late last year to escape political repression at home.
Many former activists and elected politicians from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest and only viable opposition party until its dissolution last November, are known to be laying low in Thailand.
Many of them would face potential politicized charges and harsh prison sentences if returned to Cambodia amid one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s toughest clampdowns on dissent in recent memory. The repression has effectively eliminated any challenge to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party ahead of general elections in July.
Thailand’s ruling generals have had both rocky and smooth relations with Hun Sen, though bilateral ties are now notably on an upswing. Whether Bangkok would be willing to do Hun Sen’s bidding by rounding up en masse political dissidents, a move that would raise hackles with Western governments and rights groups, is yet to be seen.
There is no clear estimate of the number of Cambodians now living in self-exile in Thailand. The Phnom Penh Post reported last month there could be around 100. Others suggest that figure could be twice as high if independent journalists, critical commentators and NGO activists who have taken flight due to concerns for their security are also counted.
“The Thai junta is looking for Cambodians in exile – especially those who have outstanding warrants, summons and convictions – to deport them back to Cambodia,” claims Ry Kea, general secretary of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), a political movement founded earlier this year by exiled CNRP leaders.
Sam Rainsy, a former CNRP leader and CNRM founder, declined to comment to Asia Times on the issue of political exiles in Thailand over concerns for their safety. Sam Rainsy has recently threatened from exile to launch large anti-government street protests and called on the military to mutiny against Hun Sen.
The Phnom Penh Post reported in early February that Thai police have visited several Cambodian exiles, asking to see their travel documents. Kong Mas, who was going to run for parliament before the CNRP’s dissolution, was quoted as saying that there were “serious attempts to intimidate our activists.”
One Thai official who requested anonymity told Asia Times that Bangkok has no plans to deport Cambodian exiles but that the ultimate decision would be made on a case-by-case basis by Thai security agencies.
The same official suggested it was possible that certain high-profile exiles could be sent back to Cambodia if Hun Sen’s government is willing to “pay enough” to pliant security officials in charge of immigration matters.
Hun Sen has made clear his desire for Bangkok to send back politicians and activists who his government considers criminals and traitors. Indeed, the CNRP was formally dissolved, the Supreme Court ruled, for trying to orchestrate a “color” revolution to topple his regime.
Thailand’s ruling military junta should “chase” Cambodian exiles “staying in Bangkok,” Hun Sen said in a speech last year soon after the CNRP’s dissolution. The party’s leader, Kem Sokha, is currently detained in Phnom Penh on treason charges, a message to the CNRP’s rank and file that no one is safe from persecution.
One exile who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Cambodian government “agents” are actively monitoring areas of Bangkok where Cambodians are known to reside, including the capital’s Saphan Kwai area. That’s caused many to stay holed up in their apartments, he said.
Like other exiles, he fears a wider bilateral deportation deal could be in the works. On February 12, Thai and Cambodian prison authorities met to discuss the possible deportation of roughly 2,000 Cambodians now held in Thai jails, nearly all of whom are not wanted for political offenses.
But a spokesman for Cambodia’s Department of Prisons, when asked by local media about political exiles, insinuated that they would be treated the same as common criminals. “They committed a crime and when we wanted to arrest them, they used the political excuse to seek asylum,” the spokesman was quoted as saying.
Some believe Thailand and Cambodia could yet arrive at a quid pro quo arrangement where each side returns the other’s political dissidents, though clearly the initiative is now being driven by Phnom Penh.
Several self-exiled, anti-junta ‘Red Shirt’ dissidents are known to spend at least part of their time in exile in neighboring Cambodia. Unlike Hun Sen, however, it’s not clear that Thailand’s junta wants all its political exiles sent home for what would be viewed as politicized punishment, particularly after recently repairing ties with the West.
The royalist junta does, however, want exiles that are openly opposed to the monarchy, now in transition to a new king. Junta officials have recently attempted to notch such a deal with other neighbors.
Thawip Netniyom, then-secretary general of the Thai junta’s National Security Council, reached out to Laos in February to establish a “reciprocity basis” for extraditing dissidents. Members of Laos’ nascent pro-democracy movement have fled into Thailand after past attempts to demonstrate, which have been almost immediately stifled by authorities.
“If Laos wants any fugitives who fled from prosecution to Thailand, we would arrest and hand them over in exchange [for Thai dissidents],” he said.
Legal analysts, however, say such an arrangement would infringe upon the two sides’ extradition treaty, which exempts the deportation of individuals wanted for crimes that don’t exist in the other country.
Communist Laos does not have lèse majesté, or anti-royal, laws on its books; it’s a crime punishable by 15 years in prison under Thai law. Certain Thai dissidents in Laos have openly aired anti-monarchy sentiments, including over a Red Shirt radio station broadcast from Laos into Thailand.
Cambodia and Thailand’s extradition treaty also only covers offenses punishable under both countries’ laws. However, lèse majesté was added to Cambodia’s Criminal Code this month with immediate effect, now making it legally possible under the treaty for Cambodia to extradite Thai exiles for anti-royal crimes.
One potential quid pro quo lèse majesté target for extradition would be Jakrapob Penkair, a Red Shirt organizer and former government spokesman under self-exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who is known to have been laying low in Cambodia for nearly a decade.
At one point, he was living in a safe house provided by Hun Sen, according to Thai activists familiar with the situation. But there has not been any public statement on whether he is still in Cambodia or whether Thailand’s royalist military regime has asked Phnom Penh to deport him.
The criminally convicted Thaksin earlier maintained strong ties to Hun Sen, at one point serving as an advisor to his government after being toppled in a 2006 coup. Thaksin has openly met with his Red Shirt supporters in Cambodia in recent years, including at a massive rally staged in Siem Riep in April 2012 during the Buddhist New Year.
His sister, ex-premier Yingluck Shinawatra, toppled in a separate coup in mid-2014, is widely believed to have fled Thailand via Cambodia last year before being convicted to a five-year jail term for criminal negligence for her government’s loss-making rice price subsidy scheme.
“When wrongdoers wanted in foreign countries are in Thailand, we make arrests, prosecute them and deport them to the countries of origins,” Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha said in a speech last month.
He went on to ask other nations to reciprocate the gesture amid reports the fugitive Shinawatra siblings were touring the region, including in China.
The fate of Cambodian exiles in Thailand thus hangs in a precarious balance. People familiar with the situation say that roughly half of them are seeking refugee status with the United Nations. The UNHCR’s Bangkok office has expedited certain sensitive cases, the sources say.
Other Cambodian exiles are thought to be trying to obtain permission to travel onwards to third countries such as Australia or New Zealand, which a few have already safely done.
Bou Rachana, the widow of murdered Cambodian political commentator Kem Ley, arrived safely in Australia in February with her children after being granted asylum. She had spent almost two years in Thailand, leaving Cambodia shortly after her assassinated husband’s funeral drew thousands into the streets in July 2016.
Others have been treated less sympathetically. Last month, Sam Sokha, a Cambodian woman who fled after being filmed throwing a shoe at an image of Hun Sen, was sent back to Cambodia by Thai authorities despite being recognized as a political refugee by the United Nations.
The UN was reportedly trying to arrange for her safe passage to a third country at the time of her deportation.
While the US, UN and rights lobby Human Rights Watch all condemned the move, Thailand justified it on the legal grounds that her visa had expired. She was sentenced in absentia to a two-year jail term by a Cambodian court for defacing Hun Sen’s image and was taken straight to prison after being deported from Thailand.
Bangkok could have refused her deportation as the Cambodia-Thailand extradition treaty has a “mandatory refusal” clause covering political offenses. Another clause states that extradition should be rejected if the individual is found guilty in absentia by a court, as was her case.
While many have taken refuge in Thailand’s lax tourist visa requirements, they must leave the country after 90 days. The cost of frequently traveling across the border and acquiring new visas is already putting several exiles near a financial breaking point, according to people familiar with the situation.
Moreover, many risk getting ensnared in the junta’s ramped up effort to document migrant workers, part of the regime’s bid to improve its international image for human trafficking. Earlier this month, Prayuth launched an angry tirade against his Labor Ministry for being “sluggish” in its documentation and registration of migrant workers, many of whom are Cambodian, though most are from Myanmar.
The task was supposed to have been completed last year but the new cut-off point to register roughly 700,000 currently undocumented migrant workers has been pushed back to June 30. That will make it even more difficult for Cambodian exiles to lay low and ideally wait out the storm in their homeland.