King Norodom Sihamoni yesterday commuted former “yellow shirt” leader Veera Somkwamkid’s sentence, releasing the activist after only two of eight years served – amid the first visit of a Thai delegation to Phnom Penh since May’s military coup.
The Royal pardon of the ultra-nationalist, who was convicted of espionage in February 2011, was announced during a two-day diplomatic discussion over the recent exodus from Thailand of more than 250,000 Cambodian migrant workers.
“Upon receiving the pardon request, Samdech Hun Sen announced that Mr Somkwamkid is released following the King’s Royal pardon, and can return to Thailand [today] with the Thai delegates,” Eang Sophalleth, spokesman for the prime minister, said.
Veera and his secretary, Ratree Pipattanapaiboon, were sentenced to eight and six years, respectively, after being arrested in December 2010 along with five other Thai nationals during an alleged inspection of disputed border territory.
Successive Thai administrations made repeated attempts to secure the release of both activists, but all efforts failed, including in 2011, when the minister of foreign affairs rejected a request on the grounds that criminals must serve two-thirds of their sentence before clemency is considered. In February 2013, however, Ratree was freed during a pardoning of more than 400 prisoners that coincided with King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s cremation ceremony.
“The prime minister was asked to consider a pardon for Somkwamkid in the context of the upcoming [July 11] march commemorating the former King’s ashes,” Sophalleth said.
During yesterday’s talks and clemency arrangements, both Prime Minister Hun Sen and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong reiterated release requests of their own. They asked once again that Thailand release 14 jailed Cambodian labourers who were caught with fake visas earlier this month while they were fleeing from the junta-led country.
“They were cheated by their brokers. They are victims of human trafficking,” said Namhong. “I asked [acting Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow] to understand this. His Excellency has agreed to take my request to General Prayuth Chan-ocha for further discussion.”
The government, however, remained tight-lipped yesterday about any further details regarding the jailed workers, refusing to reveal identities, ages or home provinces, while no rights groups are being allowed to openly monitor the case.
“So far, we have identified one to two lawyers to help them,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong before adding that he was “too busy” to share other details.
But political experts have suspected since the workers’ arrests that Cambodia and Thailand would seek some sort of deal involving a mutual release of prisoners.
“I don’t understand why Thailand arrested these 13 workers to begin with … but once they did, I think the military thought, ‘Ah, we could take advantage of this’.” said Kevin Hewison, a political analyst and director of the Asia Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University.
“For both sides, I think this will be seen as a good deal and buy them political capital,” he said.
Hewison added that the arrangements, coming on the tail end of one of the largest repatriations of Cambodian workers, could be a way for the neighbours to smooth relations and improve strained diplomatic ties.
“This military government is going to stick around for a while, so Cambodia, despite previous ties with Thaksin [Shinawatra] and the ‘red shirts’, is going to have to learn to deal with them,” he said.
Mutual cooperation featured prominently during yesterday’s dialogue as the two foreign ministries reaffirmed new policies and policy enforcement meant to return legalised Cambodian migrants to work in the more robust neighbouring economy.
In another of its labour reform announcements, Thailand said it would reduce the number of days it takes to issue a visa to Cambodians from three to just one.
Meanwhile, in addition to its own slew of recent revisions to overseas documentation policies, Cambodia announced that brokers will be responsible for paying for applicants’ passports and worker identification cards. The Ministry of Labour informed agencies that they can charge labourers $35 for the Thai visa, food and transportation; the other costs will have to be shouldered by the employers or the agencies.
The reforms have yet to be implemented, but the government insisted workers are queuing to return: 13,000 migrants have received documents to work in Thailand since June 6, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Thailand’s new policy is to legalise workers. In this context, Cambodia understands the sending back of Cambodian workers,” Namhong said, adding that these changes are “good news for workers”.