Bangkok-Phnom Penh deal? Deportation of Sam Sokha and uncertain future of Thai exiles

On 5 January 2018, the Thai authorities detained Sam Sokha, a prominent labour activist, and deported her to Cambodia on 8 February. The incident has raised concerns among various human rights organisations that Hun Sen and the Thai military government are covertly making a deal on exchanging political refugees. 
 
The Thai and Cambodian government officials cooperated in arranging a hurried deportation of the activist. She was deported little more than a month after she was arrested. During that time, Sam’s lawyer had appealed against her conviction for illegal entry and tried to add to the investigation report that she refused to return to Cambodia. The Thai authorities still extradited her.  
 
Bussadi Santiphitaks, Director-General of the Department of Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that the deportation of Sam Sokha followed the Migration Act of Thailand and was an act of cooperation between the two countries. She believed that relevant agencies had assessed that the activist would not be in danger after the deportation. Bussadi’s belief has been proven false as on 25 January, a Cambodian court had already found her guilty in absentia of “insult of a public official” and incitement to discriminate in relation to a video clip that featured her throwing shoes at a portrait of Hun Sen and Heng Samrin. 
 
(Left) Sam Sokha
(Right) Hun Sen shakes hand with Prayut Chan-ocha
 
The circumstances of the forcible repatriation have prompted the international community to question Thailand over its treatment of asylum seekers. Sam Sokha was a refugee under the protection of the UNHCR and there have been clear threats to her life after she was deported. Although Thailand has never ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Thailand and Cambodia, as members of the international community, are obliged to respect the principle of non-refoulement, the ban on forcibly returning those who fear persecution in their home country.
 
Brad Adams, Executive Director of the Asian Division of Human Rights Watch, said Thailand was fully aware of Sam Sokha’s status as a refugee, yet still returned her to Cambodia, where she is likely to face a prison term for expressing her political views. “It’s sad but not surprising that a military junta would do a favour for a neighbouring dictator, but they should not cement their friendship at the expense of a refugee.”
 

More Cambodian exiles in Thailand 

 
A source who works in an organisation that provides legal assistance to Cambodian political exiles explained that more Cambodians have come to seek asylum in Thailand since the political situation in Cambodia intensified, especially after the courts dissolved the main opposition party late last year.
 
Because Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers cannot apply for refugee status in Thailand but usually transit Thailand to a third country. Those who wish to take refuge in a third country will seek asylum status from the UNHCR and wait for relocation. The whole process usually takes about one to two years, the source added. 
 
Living in a transit country like Thailand, exiles have to bear various kinds of pressure. Some entered the country illegally. Some stay after their visas have expired. After the junta enacted the Royal Decree on Managing the Work of Aliens, employers became more active in identifying their migrant workers. This increases the chance of exiles being detected.
 

Thai exiles in Cambodia fear extradition

 
Somchai (pseudonym), a Thai exile in Cambodia, said that he feels sad and ashamed by the deportation of Sam Sokha. “I feel ashamed that I can come to hide here, but a Cambodian who went to hide in Thailand was deported. If I were in another country, I wouldn’t have this feeling,” said Somchai.
 
Several years ago, Somchai fled Thailand to Cambodia after he was accused of violating Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse majesté law. He and other exiles live in Cambodia without any papers and are not recognised by the Cambodian government as asylum seekers. He told Prachatai that the Thai refugee community in Cambodia, so far, remains unchanged. However, he is unsure about the future. The deportation of Sam Sokha has increased the climate of fear among Thai exiles as they are concerned that Phnom Penh will deport them back to Thailand to return the favour.
 
Since the Cambodian government recently endorsed a royal defamation law, Somchai has been concerned that he might be at risk of deportation and plans to move to another country. However, he speculated that the new lèse majesté law of Cambodia is aimed at silencing Hun Sen’s political opponents, rather than the Thai refugees.
 
Another Thai refugee, who asked not to be named, said that he would not move to a third country and is willing to fight through the justice system if he is deported.