Cambodian opposition figures seeking asylum in Thailand have been visited by Thai police in recent days, fuelling fears they may be deported back to the Kingdom.
Scores fled Cambodia after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was forcibly dissolved following the arrest of its president, Kem Sokha.
One of them was Kong Mas, who was due to run as a candidate for a lawmaker position in this year’s national election before his party was disbanded.
“In the past few days in Bangkok, there have been serious attempts to intimidate our activists who are asking for political asylum,” Mas said yesterday.
“The Thai government forces still standby to monitor when we go and return – they keep one car here and keep watching us,” he said.
He said that on Saturday Thai police entered his room to check documents of Cambodian opposition supporters, but that he had not been home at the time.
“They checked everything, even our phones … and they checked to find any documents, like passports,” he said. “After they checked, they took photographs as evidence. They left because we had enough documents.”
There are estimated to be more than 100 self-exiled CNRP members hiding out in Thailand, roughly half of whom are reportedly seeking refugee status. Mas put the number closer to 200, and estimated around 60 percent had taken the first steps to seek asylum from the United Nations. Former CNRP lawmaker Long Botta said a dozen had already left for Australia or New Zealand.
The extradition last week of UN-recognised Cambodian refugee Sam Sokha – who was convicted in absentia by a Cambodian court and sentenced to two years in prison for throwing a sandal at a ruling party billboard – has heightened fears that the government will seek the repatriation of opposition activists and officials.
The Thai police visit was confirmed by a former CNRP commune chief, who initially fled to Thailand but has since returned to Cambodia. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said he kept in close contact with his colleagues in Thailand. “They chat with me about the issue, they said they are really worried … They are scared to be sent back and put in jail,” he said.
“They said Thai police came to check and inspect whether their visas expired – they are very strict when their visa expired,” he added, saying most of his associates were on two-month tourist visas.
Sokha had been detained over an expired visa prior to her deportation to Cambodia, despite her refugee status.
Back in Cambodia, the source said he was also concerned for his safety. “If they do not like us, they can do anything to make an accusation against us,” he said.
Thai government spokesman Werachon Sukondhaptipak did not respond to requests for comment yesterday, while other Thai Foreign Ministry officials could not be reached.
Cambodian officials had reportedly visited Sokha while she was in immigration detention in Thailand to “pressure” her to return, but Cambodian National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith maintained the government had not requested her extradition.
However, he declined to directly answer questions as to whether his department had requested the inspection of Cambodian opposition supporters in Thailand, saying immigration checks were simply “the implementation of the law”.
“You should understand that Thailand is a free country, not a communist one. If we say [a case] is involved with politics or human rights, they won’t arrest [people] for us,” he said.
Chak Sopheap, from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that the reported visit by Thai police, if true, “is a particularly worrisome development”.
“In the current political context, where many are being detained for simply exercising their freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, the possibility of persecution is, regrettably, a reality,” she said.
Her fears were echoed by global human rights observers, among them International Federation for Human Rights Asia Director Andrea Giorgetta.
“The fact that Thailand appears to be actively hunting down Cambodian political activists who seek asylum within its territory in order to deport them to Cambodia is deeply troubling and reflects the Thai military junta’s complete disregard for international law,” Giorgetta said in an email.