On September 15, Duong Chantra received an anonymous message on Facebook in which the sender threatened to kill him and two colleagues.
The message, followed by three knife emojis and a photo of a handgun with a finger on the trigger, was from a Facebook account called “Kla Pikheat Reach Theany,” or “Tiger Killing Capital.”
The person behind the account first sent photos of Chantra and his two colleagues. Then, the sender threatened to arrest and jail Chantra, a former CNRP provincial deputy head, and two other ex-CNRP officials living in Thailand. If they were not detained by the end of the month, the sender said he would murder them.
“In a week or two at the latest, I will send the three of you to jail. If not, I will kill the traitors like you in Bangkok,” the message said.
After the main opposition CNRP was accused of conspiring to overthrow the government and dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017, more than 200 of the party’s leaders and activists fled across the border to Thailand to avoid arrest on charges related to their continued support for the banned party.
Nearly five years later, about 40 CNRP political exiles still remain in Thailand, including Chantra. They have been granted refugee status by the U.N., but many continue to live in fear due to anonymous death threats and risks of arrest, deportation and imprisonment by Thai and Cambodian authorities.
“If we stay here, we will be scared for the rest of our lives,” said Chantra, a former CNRP deputy chief in Kampong Chhnang province who fled after refusing to join the ruling CPP. “We have almost lost our minds.”
In 2019, when CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy announced his intention to return to Cambodia after years of living in exile in France, Chantra said he planned to gather CNRP supporters to first welcome Rainsy in Bangkok. The opposition leader was not able to board his flight to Cambodia, but the Kampong Chhnang court still issued a warrant for Chantra’s arrest that year, accusing him of conspiring against the government, a crime that carries a prison sentence of five to 10 years. His passport was also revoked by the Cambodian government, leaving Chantra with a U.N. letter stating that he has asylum in Thailand.
Life as a political refugee keeps Chantra in constant fear. Thai police regularly ask his landlord to share the names of Cambodians staying in the building. Chantra has so far managed to evade them.
“Even though the CNRP was dissolved, the Cambodian government is still pursuing the opposition leaders no matter where we are,” he said.
Living in Fear
Since 2017, more than 200 CNRP political refugees have fled to Thailand, with less than 40 resettled in third countries and about 40 still living in Thailand, according to Sao Palak, who leads the CNRP’s refugee administration committee in Thailand.
More than 150 have since returned to Cambodia and three were arrested and deported back to the country, Palak said.
Voeung Samnang and Lanh Thavry, both former CNRP commune officials, and Voeun Veasna, a CNRP online TV broadcaster, were arrested by Thai authorities and deported to Cambodia last November. All three had been recognized as political asylum-seekers by the U.N. Refugee Agency. At least two of them have since been convicted of incitement charges and sentenced to 18 months to two years in prison, according to human rights group Licadho. All three remain in prison in Cambodia.
Since his three colleagues were detained and jailed, Chantra said he has mostly refrained from leaving his house. He also stopped working in construction early this year, fearing Thai authorities will catch him at his work site and send him back to Cambodia.
“For us, moving to Thailand to live is quite challenging. We often run out of food and struggle to leave for work out of fear,” Chantra said. “We always fear being arrested. We are quite concerned about the threat coming from the Phnom Penh government.”
Sat Pha, another CNRP activist, said that since arriving in Thailand in April she has moved dwellings twice because she has seen strangers watching her, standing in front of her room daily and following her when she walked alone to a nearby pagoda to get food.
Pha said she doesn’t feel safe in Thailand since she believes political refugees who stay will eventually be returned to Cambodia by Thai authorities.
“We dare not go out because we face arrest and threats to our lives,” said the activist, who had been jailed over a 2020 protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh. “I fled to a second country to live in hardship with no house and no income. I live by asking for food at the pagoda.”
Pha has applied to the U.N. Refugee Agency for asylum in a third country.
The death threat sent to Chantra last month was also directed at Hong Theng, a former CNRP deputy head in Kampong Speu province, who lives in Thailand.
Theng said he received a similar death threat from the same Facebook account on June 5, when he posted a Facebook livestream the day after Cambodia’s commune elections. Theng had spoken about election irregularities, including some polling stations lacking independent observers.
CNRP exiles are in “serious danger” and deeply worried by the death threats, he said.
In mid-September, Chantra, Theng and ex-CNRP commune councilor Tang Sophon informed the U.N. Refugee Agency and Thai asylum lawyers about the threats against them.
While Chantra said he first applied for asylum in a third country in 2019, he has yet to secure resettlement and fears arrest and deportation.
“We are still in danger even if the UNHCR has granted us asylum. Because I have had this experience before, I am worried that if the UNHCR does not find a safe place for me to live, I may have the same problems as [deported former CNRP officials] Samnang and Veasna,” he said, referring to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
In recent years, human rights advocates have noted an apparent quid pro quo between Cambodia and Thailand in which political dissidents taking refuge across the border have been swapped.
Cambodia and Thailand reached an agreement in 2018 to “exchange foreign fugitives” in order to prevent either nation from becoming a base for “riot and conflict incitement,” the Phnom Penh Post reported at the time, citing a Thai government statement. Days later, Cambodian opposition members in Bangkok told the Post they noticed Cambodian military vehicles near their homes.
Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and “has no laws in place to provide refugees with any legal status,” according to refugee rights group Asylum Access Thailand.
This effectively means that thousands of refugees lack legal status, which “puts them at constant risk of arrest, detention and deportation back to danger” in their home countries.
Morgane Roussel-Hemery, a U.N. Refugee Agency spokesperson in Thailand, said less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled annually, and as of the end of September, Thailand had some 4,800 urban asylum-seekers and refugees.
“With limited quotas available for resettlement each year, UNHCR Thailand and the resettlement countries prioritize refugees for resettlement on an individual basis based on their protection needs,” Roussel-Hemery said in an email. “Not all refugees will be eligible for resettlement.”
“Follow the Law”
Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan rejected claims by CNRP exiles in Thailand that the Phnom Penh government had sent authorities to surveil them.
“The government understands national law and international law so the allegations that competent authorities were sent to operate in Thailand is not the case,” he said.
National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun said former CNRP officials and activists in Thailand may fear “their evil past actions in Cambodia” and subsequent arrest.
“We have never seized politicians. All criminals have a court order related to the crime [before they are arrested],” he said.
Regardless of asylum claims, extradition was dependent on the host country sending people back to Cambodia, Kim Khoeun said.
“We do have cooperation, but we all follow the laws of each country,” he said.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said some countries, including Thailand, have cooperated with the Cambodian government in returning Cambodian activists to the country.
“It is a violation of political asylum [principles], which are guaranteed by the United Nations. Member states should uphold U.N. guidelines in protecting and guaranteeing refugees’ safety,” Sopheap said.
To protect refugees in Thailand, she said third countries should expedite the asylum process to accept people who are under threat.
“Because longer procrastination [in resettling refugees] puts them at greater risk,” Sopheap said.
Despite the death threats and risks of arrest and deportation, CNRP exiles said they remain hopeful that they will find safety in a third country, and would continue to struggle for their right to participate in politics. Anything less, some said, would be accepting injustice.
Chantra, the ex-CNRP provincial official in Thailand, said he motivates himself by thinking about the future of his country and its people.
“I will not give up on my desire for genuine democracy in Cambodia for the next generation.”