Thailand refugee deportations trigger condemnation, defiance

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Thailand has turned back several Cambodian opposition activists in a move condemned by the UN refugee agency and rights groups.

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This month, Thailand deported three opposition activists who were recognized as refugees, even as violence against political dissidents escalated and another activist was killed in Phnom Penh on Sunday. was murdered.

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Thailand deported Weurn Vesna and Woung Samnang on 9 November and Lanh Thavari on 20 November. All three were members of the banned opposition political party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017 after a strong. Performances in that year’s local commune elections.

The dissolution was widely condemned at the time by rights activists and democratic nations, who saw it as a politically motivated move to prevent the party from jeopardizing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decades-long hold on power. Can you Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party ran almost unopposed in the 2018 national elections on all 125 seats in parliament.

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Thavari was one of 489 CNRP candidates elected as commune chief in 2017, while Samnang was deputy commune chief and Vesna is the CNRP online broadcaster. Thavari was accused of attempting to overthrow the government for allegedly supporting CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy’s attempt to return from exile, while Veena was accused of posting a poem branding Hun Sen a traitor. After that he was accused of abetment. It was not immediately clear what charges Samang was facing. A fourth CNRP member, Mitch Heng, was arrested in Thailand on Sunday according to BanarNews and remains in a detention center in Bangkok to face possible deportation.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) condemned both sets of deportees, saying it had informed Thailand that all three had refugee status, and warned that they “face a serious risk of persecution” in Cambodia. “.

The agency said in a statement on Tuesday, “This action violates the principle of nondisclosure, which obliges states – which includes Thailand – not to expel or return people to an area where their lives or Freedom to be threatened.” sought an “immediate clarification” from Thailand on the matter.

Hun Sen has cracked down on all kinds of criticism, with even a 16-year-old autistic boy being jailed for posting comments critical of the government on Facebook. Kak Sovananchay was released earlier this month [Heng Sinith/AP Photo]

The alarming rise in deportations comes against the backdrop of escalating violence against opposition activists in Cambodia.

On Sunday, CNRP worker Sin Khon was killed by unidentified swordsmen near Wat Chas, a pagoda where he was a monk’s disciple. Monk told local outlet VOD that Khan had been attacked earlier in May and had received death threats. In April, the 16-year-old son of a CNRP officer was injured when he was hit on the head by a brick.

Cambodian police spokesman Chae Kim Khoun denied that Phnom Penh had requested their extradition, telling Reuters news agency that the trio had been deported for violating Thai immigration laws and arrested on their arrival in Cambodia. because there was – incidentally – an active warrant for his arrest. ,

Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer at Griffith University, Australia and an expert on authoritarianism, said cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia “expands the true regional reach of authoritarian regimes”. He said Cambodia has long participated in such arrangements, such as the extradition of Uighurs to China and Montagnards to Vietnam.

“Authoritarian cooperation may still be in its infancy, but it is becoming more common,” he said. The deportation also has implications for Myanmar’s dissidents, many of whom have fled Thailand since a February coup that brought the country back to a military dictatorship after 10 years of democratic reform.

Morgenbesser warned that the dissidents would be “an obvious target”, but said Myanmar’s military would need to give Thailand something in return.

increasing surveillance

CNRP’s vice president, Mu Sochua, told Al Jazeera that he was “concerned and saddened by the insecurities of our people in Thailand”.

She says the party plans to write a letter requesting a meeting with the Thai ambassador to France or the US to discuss the matter. Sochua is a dual nationality who also holds American citizenship, while party leader Sam Rainsy has French citizenship. Thailand also collaborated with Cambodia to block his return from exile in 2019, denied Sochua entry to immigration in Bangkok, and refused to allow Rainsy to board a Thai Airways flight from France.

Sochua acknowledged, “Not much can be done if Thailand agrees to cooperate with Hun Sen, but called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to act, warning that it would would otherwise become “ASEAN’s failure to protect human rights”.

While Morgenbesser agrees that there is “clearly a role” for ASEAN to address the issue, he added that it is highly unlikely that the bloc will actually intervene, especially given Cambodia’s plan for 2022. The chair is occupied.

Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader is urging ASEAN to do something to protect dissidents, but the country now heads a 10-member grouping [File: Handout via Reuters]

Human Rights Watch has also been outspoken in its condemnation of the deportations, saying in a statement that Cambodian refugees hiding in Bangkok in recent months had reported increasing levels of surveillance and threats by unknown people they believe. that they are Cambodian officials.

“Thailand’s action to send these three Cambodian refugees back into harm’s way is outrageous and unacceptable, and should be condemned globally,” Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director, told Al Jazeera. “EU countries at the upcoming ASEM meeting should call on both Cambodia and Thailand on this blatant violation of refugee protection and rights, and demand an end to these forced deportations.”

ASEM, formally known as the Asia Europe meeting, is scheduled to take place virtually Thursday and Friday with Cambodia as the host.

Seung Mengbunrong, a CNRP youth activist who has been in Thailand for seven months, says he and other CNRP members feel “less safe” as a result of the recent deportations.

“We don’t know when the Thai police [will] Arrest us back in Cambodia and we will go to jail,” he said, accusing the Thai authorities of disregarding human rights and refugee rights.

But Mengbunrong said that despite the threats, CNRP activists in Thailand “will not remain silent” and will continue to “fight to restore democracy in Cambodia”.

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