The mother of a Cambodian activist arrested in Thailand has pleaded to authorities not to deport her son to Cambodia, where he could face persecution under strongman ruler Hun Sen’s sweeping campaign against political opponents.
Thol Samnang, a member of the opposition Candlelight Party, was snatched off the streets of Bangkok by men in plainclothes before dawn on Friday as he made his way to the office of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, according to an eyewitness and human rights advocacy groups.
The arrest is the latest in a series of incidents where foreign activists fleeing repression in their home countries have been detained on Thai soil.
“I’m afraid officials in Thailand may send him to Cambodian officials to be punished,” Chaet Lak, his mother who lives in Cambodia, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews. “I want human rights organizations to help prevent his deportation.”
Samnang fled Cambodia on July 4, a day after police and government authorities visited his home to detain him without a warrant.
The 34-year-old had criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen and the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on Facebook in the weeks leading up to his departure, his mother told RFA Khmer in an interview on Sunday.
Cham Chit, a Cambodian citizen who left the country with Samnang, said the two were seeking asylum in Thailand.
“But on July 7, plainclothes Thai officials arrested him and took him away on a motorcycle as we were leaving our residence near the Victory Monument,” he told RFA, referring to a military memorial at the heart of Bangkok.
Samnang was being held at an immigration detention center in the Thai capital, said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, a local NGO providing legal aid and advocacy for victims of human rights abuses.
“We received an assurance from the immigration officials that there will not be an immediate deportation,” she told BenarNews on Monday. “Our lawyer is processing him to gain protection through the UNHCR or the Thai government.”
She said Thailand’s recently enacted Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act prohibited the deportation of anyone who faces a serious threat to life or freedom – a key principal of the U.N. Refugee Convention known as non-refoulement.
Samnang would face an uncertain fate if forcibly sent back to Cambodia.
Hun Sen, who has ruled the Southeast Asian nation of 16 million for nearly four decades, has clamped down on democratic freedoms, jailed or exiled political rivals, and shut independent media outlets.
In May, the National Election Committee disqualified the Candlelight Party from competing in Cambodia’s July 23 parliamentary elections, leaving no credible challenger to the CPP.
‘Well-founded fear of persecution’
Human Rights Watch called on Thailand to protect Samnang.
“It is absolutely urgent that UNHCR be granted immediate access to Thol Samnang so he can explain his very serious, well-founded fear of persecution if he is forced to return to Cambodia, and receive refugee protection,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, told BenarNews on Monday.
“Quite clearly, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and key officials are turning up the heat against anyone who dares criticize government policies or questions the upcoming election, which Human Rights Watch believes will be neither free nor fair.
“Thailand should refuse to participate in Phnom Penh’s efforts at transnational repression against opposition political activists.”
A UNHCR spokeswoman said she could not comment on the details or even confirm the existence of individual cases. The Thai Immigration Bureau did not immediately respond to a BenarNews request for comment.
Thailand has hosted thousands of refugees from neighboring countries who fled war, natural disasters and human rights violations.
Still, rights advocates have criticized Thailand’s pro-military government for recent cases where refugees and asylum seekers have been deported to face prosecution and other rights abuses in their home countries.
Khoukham Keomanivong, a Lao activist living in Thailand as a U.N.-recognized refugee, was arrested by Thai police in Bangkok on Jan. 29, 2022, for overstaying his visa. He was released on bail on Feb. 1 with the help of a human rights lawyer, narrowly avoiding deportation.
In November 2021, Thai authorities deported to Cambodia two activists from a banned opposition party after Hun Sen ordered one of them arrested for a poem that criticized him on Facebook.
In August 2019, Lao democracy activist Od Sayavong, who was 34, vanished under mysterious circumstances in Thailand after posting a video clip online criticizing the Lao government. Listed as a “person of concern” by the UNHCR because of his advocacy for democracy and human rights in Laos, his whereabouts remain unknown.
RFA Khmer contributed to this report. BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Nontarat Phaicharoen and Harry Pearl for BenarNews.