Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Civil society groups decry deportation of CNRP asylum seekers

A man drives a motorcycle with a woman past the former Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters in Phnom Penh. Picture taken May 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A man drives a motorcycle with a woman past the former Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters in Phnom Penh. Picture taken May 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The recent deportations of three members of the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from Thailand to Cambodia has been criticized by a number of civil society groups for blatantly violating their rights as refugees recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The deportations have caused widespread concern among other activists who have sought political asylum in Thailand.

Over the past two weeks, the Thai government has arrested and deported three UNHCR-recognized refugees, all of whom were activists or officials connected to the now-dissolved opposition party. 

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak confirmed that the deportations were linked to a treason case related to their alleged support of the failed return of exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy on November 9, 2019.

“There was an arrest warrant, which the court has charged with treason,” he said. “The law enforcement isn’t wrong because the Interior Ministry has implemented the law.”

On November 8, Thai police arrested CNRP online TV broadcaster Veourn Veasna and former commune official Voeung Samnang. The next day, Thai authorities deported them to Cambodia, where they were then transferred to Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1 (CC1).

On November 20, Thai immigration arrested and sent back Lanh Thavry, a former commune-level official in Banteay Meanchey province, who had sought political asylum in Thailand in 2017.

Political analyst Seng Sary said that the deportation of former CNRP officials was a result of the government’s anger at being criticised from across their border. 

“We have seen that the CNRP’s activists have attacked the Cambodian government from Bangkok, so they are furious at those activists who are in hiding [in Thailand],” he said.

He said that Cambodia and Thailand had an agreement not to allow any group of politicians to use either country to attack the other, stemming back to when the Cambodian government had limited the anti-government Red Shirts from attacking the Thai government while in exile in Cambodia. The Red Shirts were supporters of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a military coup by the conservative establishment in 2006.

Sary said that the Cambodian government still considers Thailand as the battlefield of the opposition party, as the country is home to what he claimed were 2 million Cambodian migrants in Thailand who seemingly did not support the ruling CPP.

“If 2 million people stand up, it isn’t a small issue, because according to research those people have a political tendency towards the opposition party, so it is a strategy that the government must be cautious about,” he said.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Right Watch, said that the move made it clear that the Thai and Cambodian governments have an arrangement where each side is willing to trade refugees and dissidents in return for political favours. 

“The Cambodian government wants to shut down the CNRP in Bangkok because they are angry at those activists using social media to broadcast alternative news into Cambodia using Facebook Live and other social media programs,” he said.

He claimed that Prime Minister Hun Sen sent senior aides to Thailand to meet with relevant Thai ministers to ask for their support in this effort. But Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak denied that the government had requested the activists’ deportation. 

Ren Roth, a CNRP activist from Kampong Cham province now living in Thailand, told CamboJA via social media that he is concerned for his safety after hearing news of the deportations from UNHCR.

“Yes, I am really concerned about my safety,” he said. “However, I continue to struggle to demand democracy in Cambodia because what I’ve said on social media is just exercising freedom of expression, which is stated in the law and the constitution.”

Roth fled to Thailand in August 2019 after returning from Malaysia, where he had participated in a workshop with CNRP leaders. He was accused of incitement in connection to his support of Sam Rainsy’s attempted return. 

“It seriously violated human rights related to deporting political asylum seekers,” he said. He said that the Cambodian government is afraid of the CNRP’s movement abroad. 

According to the court warrant, the Kompong Cham provincial court will try Roth for incitement on November 24 based on his alleged criticism of the government through Facebook

Pa Chanroun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said that the current Thai government was not adhering to its obligation to protect the rights of refugees in its apparent agreement not only with Cambodia but seemingly with Laos and Vietnam to return exiled political dissidents to their home countries. 

“So, Thailand right now is no longer safe for political asylum seekers,” Chanroeun said.

He believed there will be more political refugees sent back to Cambodia due to the tightening political situation in both countries.

National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun could not be reached for comment.

In November last year, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court began the trial of more than 130 former CNRP members and supporters on incitement and plotting charges.