A Cambodian activist living in Thailand faces deportation this week by authorities there who have already forced other refugees home, prompting criticism by rights groups.
Mich Heang, a member of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in Thailand with two other Cambodian workers on Saturday and is now being held at a detention center in Bangkok, sources told RFA.
The workers arrested with Mich Heang, a native of Cambodia’s Kampong Cham province, have already been sent back.
Mich Heang’s employer in Thailand said he was told by Thai police that the veteran activist, who had criticized the government of Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen on social media while living in Thailand, was being held at the request of Cambodia’s government over a “political issue.”
In a statement Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) voiced concern over Thailand’s forced return of other native Cambodians in recent weeks.
“We are extremely alarmed by this trend of forcibly returning refugees to Cambodia, where they face a serious risk of persecution,” said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection.
Thailand this month arrested Cambodian activists Voeun Veasna, Voeung Samnang and Lahn Thavry and quickly sent them back to Cambodia. A Thai government spokesman on Tuesday defended the deportations, calling them consistent with Thailand’s foreign policy.
“There have been a number of arrests of various groups of illegal migrants recently,” foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“We will continue to coordinate closely with relevant agencies to make sure our practices are in accordance with international principles and obligations,” Tanee Sangrat said.
Thailand has a duty to protect refugees and respect human rights, said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“And most important is that under no conditions should U.N.-recognized refugees be sent back to face persecution in the countries that they fled from,” Robertson told BenarNews.
Also on Tuesday, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, vowed to remain in office to “destroy extremists” and preserve “peace in the country” for the benefit of future generations.
“I would like to extend my mandate for however long it takes, and for as long as people vote for me,” Hun Sen said, speaking at the inauguration of a China-financed bridge in central Cambodia’s Kampong Cham province.
'We want a dialogue'
Mu Sochua, acting president of the CNRP, which was dissolved by order of Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017, ahead of a national election that saw Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party returned to power with no opposition, told RFA on Tuesday that Hun Sen wants only to remove all opposition to his rule.
“He wants to destroy the opposition party and everyone who dares to speak the truth,” Mu Sochua said, adding that the banned CNRP still hopes to enter into political discussions with the ruling party.
“We want to start a dialogue. We don’t regard any of our Khmer people as enemies,” she said.
Cambodian social, labor and border activists recently released from prison meanwhile held a press conference on Tuesday to show their unity in opposition to Hun Sen’s rule, with union leader Rong Chhun, who was freed from Prey Sar Prison earlier this month, pledging to continue his fight for “freedom, human rights and democracy.”
“As citizens, we must think about society, and in a democratic country we must actively contribute to it,” Rong Chhun said, speaking on a public street after authorities refused permission for the group to gather at a private venue.
Sok Ey San, spokesman for the ruling CPP, told RFA the activists won’t need to fear rearrest as long as they obey the law.
“They were released on probation by the court, so there will be consequences if they continue to break the law,” he said
The activists will face many challenges due to the conditions set for their release by Cambodia’s CPP-controlled courts, though, said Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for the Cambodia-based ADHOC rights group.
“The courts should instead have dropped all the charges against them,” Soeung Sengkaruna said. “Everything they did was aligned with the principles of a democratic society.”