The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and rights groups on Monday expressed concerns over a new deal between Cambodia and Thailand they said could be used to target critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government who have sought refuge across the border.
Last week, Cambodia’s Defense Minister Tea Banh met with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok and approved a deal in principle on the exchange of “foreign fugitives” using their territories as a base for “sowing chaos and incitement.”
On Monday, CNRP working group member Kong Meas—who is currently based in Thailand amid a crackdown on the opposition, media and civil society ahead of Cambodia’s general election in July—told RFA’s Khmer Service the deal was intended to prevent members of his party from regrouping, following its dissolution by the Supreme Court in November.
“Upon dissolution of the opposition party, we saw many opposition officials flee the country to take refuge abroad,” he said.
“As we wouldn’t agree to defect [to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party], they adopted a new law … to force us to end our activities. Now they have entered into new deal in order to persecute opposition party officials until the end. They don’t want to let us escape.”
Since the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the CNRP for its alleged involvement in a plot to topple Hun Sen’s government, several of the party’s officials and activists have fled to Thailand fearing arrest. Others who remained in the country have been subjected to harassment and bullying by authorities.
Kong Meas’ concerns about the new deal came as the Phnom Penh Post quoted Mao Vibol, a former CNRP exile living in Bangkok, as saying that a vehicle with Royal Cambodian Armed Forces license plates had been following him and other opposition members in the Thai capital over the last two weeks, causing him to change apartments, and some to leave the city.
Dy The Hoya, a program officer of labor rights group CENTRAL, told RFA Monday that the new deal could be used to target human rights defenders, politicians, and government critics.
He called on the governments of both Cambodia and Thailand to define who is subject to deportation, noting that political refugees should not be persecuted because of their activities or affiliation.
“For those who have been accused or become victims of political issues, the government should consider their cases to ensure they adhere to international law on human rights,” he said.
“If they simply deport everyone without clearly specifying who is subject to extradition, our citizens will become victims. Should this deal be properly adopted, more challenges will be faced by those who hold opposing views and who are critical of the government, especially rights activists and politicians.”
In addition to the wave of CNRP members who have fled there since the dissolution of their party, many Cambodian journalists and human rights, environment, and social affairs activists are currently living in Thailand amid fear of possible arrest and persecution by Hun Sen’s regime. Around 100 Thais have also sought refuge in Cambodia from legal proceedings following a military coup in 2014.
Concerns over the deportation of political refugees from Thailand mounted in February when CNRP supporter Sam Sokha was arrested by Thai authorities and returned to Cambodia, despite having earlier been granted refugee status by the United Nations’ refugee agency. She was later tried for throwing a shoe at a CPP billboard and is now serving two years in prison.
Cambodia has ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and civil society groups have said the new deal is in contravention of both domestic and international law, as well as a violation of human rights.
While Thailand is not a signatory to the convention, its government—and that of Cambodia—is obliged to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the forcible repatriation of those who fear persecution in their home country.
In January, London-based Amnesty International called on Thai authorities not to deport UNHCR-recognized refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.