Sao Mon* hasn’t left his small, fifth-storey apartment in Thailand since the May 22 coup.
The 37-year-old asylum seeker came to Thailand looking for a safe haven five years ago, but now fears that at any moment, he, his wife and two young daughters will be arrested and added to the swell of over 250,000 Cambodian returnees. But as Khmer Krom, Mon and his family could face more than just economic consequences upon return.
“If they arrest us and send us back to Vietnam, I will die,” said Mon, who sorts chilies in his living room to make money without leaving the house.
Mon fled Vietnam in 2008 after police arrested him and his father for celebrating a moon festival observed annually by the Mekong Delta’s indigenous Khmer Krom families. Police beat Mon’s father until he was permanently crippled.
“We are Khmer, so we have to learn our language, but the Vietnamese always think for some reason the people are against them,” Mon said.
Though he shares the language, culture and religion of Cambodia, Mon felt no safer in the Kingdom, where rights groups note that while Khmer Krom are in theory recognised as citizens of the state, in practice they struggle to obtain ID cards and constantly face the possibility of deportation. The Minority Rights Organization (MIRO) estimates that as much as 30 per cent of Khmer Krom in Cambodia are in effect stateless, living without an official nationality.
Five months after leaving Vietnam, Mon raised enough money to again smuggle his family across a border, this time hoping to obtain asylum through the UN refugee agency in Thailand. Mon applied for asylum in October, but in February the UN rejected his application. Since then, Mon and monitoring NGOs attest that what was already a dicey security situation for refugees in Thailand has deteriorated into complete instability.
“For Khmer Krom in Thailand, the circumstances have gotten even worse as Thai authorities [started] raiding to collect illegal migrant workers and send them back to Cambodia. Most of [the Khmer Krom] are in hiding and locking themselves in their rooms,” Ang Chanrith, MIRO executive director, said.
In 2009 and 2013, groups of asylum seekers were arrested and forcibly deported from Thailand at Cambodia’s behest due to their political activities. But now, Mon and others said they don’t even dare identify themselves as Khmer Krom.
“It’s no secret that Thailand and Cambodia aren’t the friendliest of friends, and that may have added an unwanted layer of complexity to the situation,” US-based political analyst Peter Tan Keo said. “The military junta may be reacting, negatively of course, to Thai dissident Jakrapob’s presence in Cambodia . . . Indeed, Khmer Kroms are seeking asylum during an extremely inopportune time.”
Advocates said alternative options are extremely limited: No other country in the region will host them as refugees.
“As long as the military is in power, they will be more vulnerable and living in fear, but I don’t see much option,” said Ou Virak, Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman.
For now, Mon and his family are holding their breath for an asylum application appeal. “I really miss my homeland . . . but I cannot go back and I cannot stay here,” he said.