Extradited Cambodian Activists Were Protected Refugees in Thailand

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Voeun Veasna, an activist with the court-dissolved CNRP opposition, pictured on a street in Thailand. (Photo from the activist’s Facebook page)

Two Cambodian opposition activists arrested in Thailand and sent to Cambodia were registered refugees under U.N. protection, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

Voeung Samnang and Voeun Veasna were arrested in Bangkok on Monday and have since been placed in detention at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison, officials said on Thursday.

Both members of Cambodia’s outlawed opposition party, the activists had continued to criticize the government online from abroad.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch said the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had intervened after Samnang and Veasna’s arrests, and both men were registered refugees under UNHCR protection.

“Thailand’s forcible return of these two refugees shows a blatant disregard for fundamental refugee protection principles,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrants director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai government’s actions make it complicit in the Cambodian government’s persecution of its political opponents, which appears to extend beyond Cambodia’s borders.”

Samnang and Veasna had fled to Thailand in 2020 amid a crackdown on the outlawed opposition, Human Rights Watch said. In recent months, Cambodian refugees hiding in Bangkok have reported escalating levels of surveillance and threats by unidentified people whom they believe are Cambodian officials, it said.

Forced returns of Cambodian refugees appear to have been facilitated by a Cambodia-Thailand “fugitive” arrangement, the group added.

“Thailand and Cambodia’s leaders appear to have cut a deal that puts the rights of refugees at grave risk,” Frelick said. “Refugee protection should never be sacrificed as part of deal-making between governments seeking to harass and pursue political opponents in exile.”

The Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights issued a statement on Friday saying that even though Thailand was not a signatory to 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it was not exempt from protecting individuals seeking refuge and should not return people who face the risk of human rights violations. 

“We have seen an alarming recent trend in the region of authoritarian regimes trading political dissidents in order to threaten them and silence their voices. As we’ve said previously, such acts risk turning our region into an authoritarian’s playground, where no critics are safe,” said Maria Chin Abdullah, an APHR member.

Catherine Stubberfield, a senior communication officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Thursday that she would not comment on the arrests due to confidentiality for the individuals.

In a statement, UNHCR said it was alarmed at the deportation of two Cambodian refugees, “despite having advised the Royal Thai Government of their refugee status and their well-founded fear of persecution if returned to Cambodia.”

The agency said the two refugees were arrested on November 8, taken to an immigration detention center in Bangkok, and deported on November 9.

“While we are seeking further clarifications on what exactly happened, we are deeply troubled by this deportation,” said Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

“I strongly urge the Thai authorities to investigate this matter. I appeal to Thailand to honour its fundamental international obligations, notably the principle of non-refoulement, and to refrain from such deportations in the future.”

Veasna on October 9 used a Facebook account to post a critical poem on a photo of Hun Sen’s grandson on the prime minister’s Facebook page.

In response, Hun Sen warned: “Try to get out of the country a little faster, nephew.”

The story was updated on November 12 at 3:22 p.m. with comments from UNHCR

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