Cambodian refugee monk arrives in Switzerland following brief arrest in Thailand

2021.12.13
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Cambodian refugee monk arrives in Switzerland following brief arrest in Thailand The Venerable Bor Bet after deplaning in Switzerland, Dec. 13, 2021.
Luon Sovath's Facebook page

A defrocked Khmer Buddhist monk who was briefly arrested by Thai authorities after fleeing Cambodia safely arrived in Switzerland on Monday, where he initiated a bid for political asylum, according to sources.

The Venerable Bor Bet refused to speak with RFA’s Khmer Service after landing in Switzerland, citing advice from Swiss officials and representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). His arrival was confirmed by fellow monk Luon Savath on his Facebook page.

Prior to boarding his flight from Thailand late on Sunday, Bor Bet told RFA that he was traveling on his recently issued Swiss-passport with assistance from UNHCR, Human Rights Watch and Swiss Embassy officials in Bangkok. He vowed to pursue his activism for social change in his homeland from Switzerland.

“Regarding my past activities, including my advocacy activities in defending the forests [against illegal logging], land conflicts in Cambodia, and particularly the political situation in Cambodia, I will still actively participate and continue my activism. I will keep monitoring Cambodia and voice my constructive criticism against the government using social media platform.”

Bor Bet said he faced imminent re-arrest and the likelihood of deportation to Cambodia at Phnom Penh’s behest if he stayed in Thailand. Authorities there made no effort to obstruct his departure, he said.

“The Thai authorities permitted me to stay in Thailand for no more than a month, by the end of this month at most. It is thanks to intervention of diplomats and international human rights organizations that I was able to have this moment,” he said.

Bor Bet, who said he had been living in Thailand for more than 10 months, called on Thai authorities to respect the rights of refugees whose status has been recognized by the UNHCR.

“This is crucial. Refugees who take refuge in Thailand do not really want to do so. But they are escaping persecution in their own countries of origin because they fear arrest and intimidation,” he said.

“I beg Thai authorities in the name of a country that respects Buddhism like their neighbors in Cambodia, please help ensure the protection of refugees so that they feel safe in your country. Otherwise, Thailand will receive criticism from the international community.”

Awaiting asylum

On Monday, members of Cambodia’s banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who have received refugee status from UNHCR in Thailand while awaiting asylum in a third country voiced their concerns over Thai authorities continue to arrest Cambodian activists and deport them.

CNRP women’s activist Leng Sotheary warned Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-char that acting against political refugees as a favor to Hun Sen, his counterpart in Cambodia, would damage his image.

“You will share the same bad image as Prime Minister Hun Sen and the people will hate you as well,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.

Oeu Narith, another CNRP activist who is currently taking refuge in Thailand, said Cambodian political refugees are simply exercising their freedom of expression to demand the restoration of democracy and human rights in their home country.

“I feel sorry for the fact that Thai authorities have pledged to honor Cambodia’s request,” he said.

“We have done a lot of work to get more protection from the U.N. for refugees. They are taking care of us and paying more attention to our cases nowadays.”

Oeu Narith said the CNRP is working with the international community and the UNHCR to ensure Thai authorities comply with international law and laws that protect refugees. The CNRP has requested that the Thai government stop deporting people at Cambodia’s request.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, the country’s main opposition party, in November 2017 over an alleged plot backed by the United States to topple the government.

The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on political opponents, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the Cambodian People’s Party to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Since then, hundreds of critics of the regime have fled to Thailand to avoid arrests and convictions they say are politically motivated.

On Dec. 4, pro-Hun Sen media outlet Fresh News reported that Sok Sokrethya, the prime minister’s personal advisor and son of ruling party spokesman, Sok Ey San, held a meeting with Prawit Wongsuwan, the Thai deputy prime minister in charge of national security.

During the meeting, held at Prawit’s house, Sok Sokrethya reportedly requested that the two countries cooperate in combating “fake news” and preventing Cambodian opposition activists from using Thailand as a base for anti-Hun Sen campaigns on social media. Fresh News reported that the Thai deputy prime minister pledged to honor Cambodia’s request. 

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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