Two environmental activists who fled Cambodia out of fear for their safety and were seeking asylum abroad announced yesterday that they want to return to the Kingdom as early as this week.
Twin brothers Chum Hout and Chum Hour left Cambodia on July 14, claiming they were under surveillance after speaking with the media about the death of slain analyst Kem Ley, who the brothers had met just days before his murder.
The pair have since been residing in Thailand and seeking asylum in a third country through the UN refugee agency. Now, despite continued fears that they might be targeted, the twins say they have changed their mind about seeking asylum and would like to return to Cambodia to continue their environmental activism.
“We would not be happy if we left the Cambodian people who are affected by the Don Sahong hydropower dam,” said Chum Hout. “We want to continue our work to help them.”
The pair have long been known for their vocal opposition to the controversial dam located just north of the border between Cambodia and Laos. In January, the two were briefly detained by Laotian authorities after being discovered photographing the dam.
Meas Nee, a social analyst who knows the twins, said the men were important members of the Kingdom’s environmental activist community and had worked closely with Kem Ley on a variety of environmental issues.
The brothers now say they are discussing their situation with their lawyer and hope to return to Cambodia as soon as possible. They are also applying for visas to travel to the United States to speak about the effects of the Don Sahong dam, Hout said.
But the men’s Minnesota-based lawyer, Paul Lelli, says he did not think it was prudent for the activists to return to Cambodia.
“I do not think that they would be safe in Cambodia because of the recent events and their involvement,” Lelli said.
Still, he said the men are free to return to Cambodia whenever they want despite the danger and added that he didn’t possess any specific information about threats.
“The main thing is that their voice continues to be heard, whether it’s from the moon, from the United States, or from another country,” Lelli said.
UNCHR declined to comment on the specifics of the case. “We can’t discuss individual cases because of confidentiality,” said Jennifer Bose, a UNHCR representative in Thailand.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak also declined to comment.