Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Boeng Tamok Activist Flees to Thailand, Seeking Refugee Status

Prak Sophea points to the landfill of the lake behind her house on February 25, 2023. (CamboJA/Phon Sotthyroth)
Prak Sophea points to the landfill of the lake behind her house on February 25, 2023. (CamboJA/Phon Sotthyroth)

Fearing arrest, well known land rights activist Prak Sophea fled to Thailand last week and applied for refugee status over the weekend, she told CamboJA.

Sophea, an outspoken resident of the Boeng Tamok lake community set for eviction, already faced three court orders since last year and said she left the country after she heard another complaint would be filed against her.

“I have asked for the United Nations to intervene and help me live here under protection and for them to help our [Boeng Tamok] community, ” Sophea said. 

She explained that she sent a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) requesting refugee status.

UNHCR Associate External Relations Officer Morgan Roussel-Hemery declined to comment on Sophea’s case. 

“For protection and confidentiality reasons, UNHCR is not in a position to comment on the details or even confirm the existence of individual cases,” Roussel-Hemery said in an emailed response.

Before escaping away from home, Sophea said she was being watched by people wearing civilian clothing and riding back and forth across her house while at the same time she received information that someone close to Prek Pnov district​ authorities planned to file a complaint on her. 

Samrong district Deputy Police Chief Sim Veasna denied that Sophea had been under surveillance and said authorities were simply patrolling her village to prevent crime as they normally did.

“We just have our forces patrolling the target to prevent crime on a regular basis, to go back and forth on street 151 [where Sophea resides],” he said. “We are patrolling in general and we do not have any work to monitor her, we go to see all the people.”

Thim Saman, district governor of Prek Pnov, which encompasses Boeng Tamok, declined to comment. Samrong commune chief Yun Im and Un Orn, chief of Sophea’s Samrong Tbong village, could not be reached for comment.

There are 75 houses remaining in Samrong Tbong village, where residents’ lives have been in limbo for the past few years as the Boeng Tamok lake has been granted to well-connected elites. Several dozen families left after accepting compensation by authorities to relocate. Residents in the village earn their living by fishing at the lake behind their homes, though most of the lake has already been filled in for development. Community members like Sophea have repeatedly clashed with authorities as they attempt to continue living and fishing in the area.

Since 2022, at least 10 Boeng Tamok residents have been charged in ongoing court cases. 

From Thailand, Sophea appealed to new Prime Minister Hun Manet to resolve her community’s case fairly.

“I urge the new Prime Minister to consider the tears of the people, consider the development, let there be peace in the hearts of the people not only in name,” she said.

However, she explained that she will only go back to her homeland after the government promises to apply the law fairly to all citizens. 

“I will return to my homeland as long as my country is truly democratic, as long as my country changes the laws to be truly fair, as long as my country has real peace of mind,” she said. “But I am willing to die [in Thailand] and leave my bones to rest in this country.”