Interview: ‘There Was an Order to Make You a Cripple for Life or Go to Sleep Inside a Coffin’

While exiled in Thailand, CNRP official Khin Chumreoun was attacked by Hun Sen’s agents, so he relocated to Finland as a refugee.
Interview: ‘There Was an Order to Make You a Cripple for Life or Go to Sleep Inside a Coffin’ Screenshot of Khin Chumreoun's video interview with RFA's Khmer Service, June 29, 2021.

Khin Chumreoun was an elected official representing the people of Chbar Ampov district in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. As a member of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), he was arrested and detained in what authorities said was participation in a riot at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park in 2014. After a three-year stint in prison he was released, but agents of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) threatened him and his family to force him to defect to the CPP.

After an attempt on his life, he moved his family to neighboring Thailand, where he continued his advocacy for Cambodian democracy. But Hun Sen’s agents attacked him in front of his Bangkok apartment in Dec. 2020. The UN then granted his family refugee status and he relocated to Finland. In an interview with Sek Bandith of RFA’s Khmer Service, Khin Chumreoun talks about his persecution from his time as a political prisoner and an exiled activist, and how he will continue his advocacy for Cambodian democracy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: Please talk about the struggle of being a political prisoner for more than three years, and how do you compare the hardship you faced both in and out of prison in Cambodia with the time you were engaged in advocacy work outside the country in Thailand?

Khin Chumreoun:  My life in prison and as a political refugee were very different.  In the prison, at first I was badly treated by the prison guards. But after two or three months the situation got better, because the relationship between myself and the prison guards had improved. We understood each other better. So I knew that they were just doing their jobs, and they knew that we’re not criminals and they apologized to us. 

A big problem in the prison cell was smoking. Each day the prisoners smoked no less than 10 packs in my cell. The prisoners are under constant stress, so they smoke. But the most difficult time for me and my fellow prisoners came as a result of radioactive exposure in the prison.

The Hun Sen regime accused us of clandestinely using cellular phones inside the prison to call the outside would. To try to find them, they often starved us and isolated us from others. They searched our cells, but they found no phones. This is why they installed radioactive equipment inside the prison, to prevent prisoners from using cellphones.

Exposure to the radiation really messed with my head. Before I was imprisoned, I could speak English and had good computer skills, but after I got out, I became forgetful because the equipment used to jam the phones was installed in the prison and affected my memory and brain. I had a headache, nasal inflammation, and a runny nose and flu, and I had to take medicine every day. LICADHO and other human rights organizations visited us in prison and gave us medicines.

Inside the prison, the visits from our families and the CNRP leadership kept our spirits strong. Also, the Cambodian People’s Party sent its agents to try to persuade us to defect from the CNRP to join the CPP. We were told that we would be set free immediately if we agreed to join them. But I did not betray my people, who voted for me to be the council member representing Chbar Ampov district. I would not disappoint the people who voted me into office.

This dictatorial regime has relentlessly persecuted people, and my case underscores that. I was imprisoned twice. After I was released, I thought that I would be safe. But I was not. A car full of Hun Sen’s agents attempted to kill me by running me over, so I had to jump from my motorbike. 

A few days later, a man came to tell me that I should flee for my own safety. He said, “I feel pity for you, so you have to flee, because there was an order from high up to make you either a cripple for life or make you ‘go to sleep inside a coffin.’”           

RFA: You say that relentless threats and persecution were made not only against you, but also against your wife, so that made you decide to flee to Thailand. Tell me more about how they were threatening and persecuting her.

Khin Chumreoun: From the time I was in the prison in 2015, my wife and children were constantly pressured, and they threatened to hurt my family to get them to try to make me defect to the CCP. My wife and children were followed wherever they went. This made me very worried while I was in prison.

I can tell you that even though I was in prison for more than three years and lost all my property, and even though my family was subjected to constant persecution, despite all that, the regime still did not want me to live, or wanted me to live in misery or under its control. So that is why I decided to flee to Thailand. 

Even in Thailand, the Hun Sen regime sent its agents to hunt me down. On Dec. 15, 2020, at around 05:30 PM, six unidentified men came to arrest me while I was walking down from my apartment.  Security camera footage showed to me by my landlord showed there were six men hitting me from the back and the front. They crushed me against the columns of the apartment building while attempting to arrest me. I was struggling hard and managed to get away from them and ran up to my apartment. Because of this, the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] helped me leave Thailand to resettle in Finland. 

RFA: Now that you are safe in a third country, how are you going to organize your political life, and what messages do you have for your friends and comrades who still live in politically unsafe places?

Khin Chumreoun: The government of Finland has been providing living assistance to my family for four years, to start with. Secondly, even though I am living here, it will not make me forget my people, my hardships, and the hardships of my people in Cambodia. I will continue to struggle to sacrifice my time and whatever I can to fight toward restoring democracy in Cambodia for the Khmer people. Lastly, I wish to send messages of encouragement to our activists in Thailand.  You have to continue to struggle, and I am still with you. For the people in Cambodia, I want you know that I will not abandon you nor will I abandon my country. Thank you.  

Reported by Sek Bandith for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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