The lives of Cambodia’s opposition activists who have fled to neighboring Thailand to escape persecution back home are growing increasingly desperate, according to one former party official, who said they cannot earn enough to provide for their families and face the constant threat of deportation.
Khin Roeun, the 38-year-old former chief of the youth wing of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, relocated with his teenage daughter to Thailand in October 2018, a month before his wife, Leng Kolyan, joined him with their 10-year-old disabled son.
Their exodus to Thailand followed the arrest of CNRP President Kem Sokha in September 2017, the dissolution of the CNRP by Cambodia’s Supreme Court two months later, and a wider crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Khin Roeun, who was jailed for three years in Cambodia after joining an opposition protest in Phnom Penh in 2014, told RFA’s Khmer Service that regular persecution of CNRP supporters after the election—including arrests on what observers have said are politically motivated charges—forced him and other activists to flee their homeland with their families.
But while they no longer face the threat of arrest and can freely pursue their activism campaigning for political change back home, many of those who have relocated to Thailand are now living under difficult conditions in which they cannot work because they lack legal status.
Khin Roeun said that he and his family are living in a single room in Bangkok with a small bathroom, but no kitchen, which they rent for around 3,000 baht (U.S. $100) a month.
“We couldn’t afford to live in conditions better than this,” he said, adding that “even when we have enough to eat, we are still lacking.”
“We need to evade the Thai police every day, because we don’t have legal documents to work.”
While Khin Roeun and his family were granted refugee status by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Bangkok in August 2019, Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, and he said that he and his family members live under the constant fear of deportation.
Because they cannot work, Khin Roeun said that his family relies on a monthly stipend of U.S. $100 from the CNRP leadership in exile, and that when their son requires emergency medical treatment, they have been forced to ask for hundreds more from relatives back home.
They receive some support from the UNHCR, he said, but not enough to provide for his family in Thailand, and they regularly collect food from ethnic Khmer Buddhist monks at local pagodas.
“We are so strained by the cost of living here that we must apply for aid from the U.N., which offers us assistance once or twice a month,” he said.
“I regularly go to one or two pagodas where Khmer monks live, as they know me, and they provide me with food donations.”
Leng Kolyan told RFA that her son’s health has worsened ever since Khin Roeun was jailed in 2014, but that despite the challenges her family faces in caring for him, they had to leave Cambodia because of the harassment they faced.
“I am very upset [about how difficult life is here], but we can’t say anything just because we see that some people have food to eat when we do not,” she said.
“I want to go to work, but there is no one to take care of my children. If my husband found a job, we’d be afraid that the police would arrest him because we don’t have work permits, so things are very difficult.”
Leng Kolyan said that despite the difficulties, she believes in her husband’s work, and has always supported him in helping to bring democratic freedoms to Cambodia.
“I'm not angry with him because he is doing a job for the nation,” she said.
Khin Roeun’s daughter, Sovan Lyda, told RFA that she has had to suspend her regular education since relocating to Thailand and now attends classes to study the Thai language at the Bangkok Refugee Center.
“The teachers are Thais and there are students of many different nationalities, but few Khmer students, so I am forced to speak Thai to everyone,” she said.
“My dad is committed to his work and I am his child, so we have to follow him. I'm not angry at him about it.”
While both Hun Sen and Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng have both repeatedly claimed that Cambodia is fully free and democratic, they have also called refugees from the CNRP “illegal rebels” and accused them of plotting to overthrow the government.
Cambodia’s National Police spokesman Chhay Kimkhoeun recently told RFA that his government was unconcerned about opposition activists fleeing to Thailand and dismissed reports that authorities are persecuting them.
He also suggested that the activists’ fears are unwarranted and that the decision to leave the country was entirely up to them.
Meanwhile, multiple local and international nongovernmental organizations have issued reports condemning Cambodia’s government for what they say are “serious human rights abuses” in the country, and have demanded that political freedoms are reinstated so that the public can feel safe enough to express their own opinions.
London-based Amnesty International recently said it had found that rights violations—including persecution, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of CNRP supporters—saw a significant increase in 2019.
Acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy’s planned to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9 last year to “restore democracy” through nonviolent protest, but Hun Sen’s government labelled the move part of a “coup attempt” and ultimately blocked his entry.
In the aftermath, authorities jailed around 100 CNRP activists and supporters, and charged a similar number with crimes widely dismissed as politically motivated.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pheap Aun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.