Cambodian Activists and Family Members Arrested in Thailand

Three Cambodian human right activists, including a former government party member, have been arrested in Thailand, according to human rights groups.

Lem Sokha, Phan Phana and Kung Raiya were arrested Friday, along with their families, the Manushya Foundation and Human Rights Watch told VOA.

The arrests come just days before Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet will make an official visit to Thailand on February 7.

Lem Sokha, 45, is the vice president of the Cambodian Refugee Committee and had been in Thailand since 2017. He was arrested in Bangkok. Phan Phana, 41, is a member of the Global Cambodia Youth Network and fled to Thailand in 2022. And Kung Raiya, 32, who fled to Thailand in July, is a former member of Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party and Cambodia’s ruling government party.

All three activists had fled to Thailand to avoid political persecution. The Cambodians are recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also known as UNHCR, as persons of concern.

All three were reportedly planning to arrange a political protest on the day of Hun Manet’s arrival in Thailand. A report by VOA’s sister network Radio Free Asia shows a photo of Raiya as Thai immigration officials arrive at his home.

Both Phana and Raiya’s families were also arrested.

Emilie Palamy Pradichit, the founder of the Manushya Foundation in Bangkok, contacted VOA about the arrests. She described the arrests as unjust and called for the activists’ release.

“The unjust arrest of three Cambodian activists, along with their families, including four small children aged between 1 and 5 years, just before PM Hun Manet’s upcoming visit to Thailand is deeply concerning. This highlights the harsh reality of transnational repression, where Cambodian and Thai authorities are working hand in hand against these individuals. We, a coalition of human rights organizations, are tirelessly working to secure their release,” she told VOA.

Phana, who was arrested at his home in the city of Rayong but was taken into custody in Bangkok, has been charged with crossing the border illegally, according to VOA sources familiar with the matter who chose to remain anonymous. His wife, Seim Kork, 33, and two sons, aged 1 and 2 years old, were also arrested.

Raiya was detained in Bangkok and was charged for overstaying his visa in Thailand, according to VOA sources familiar with the matter. His wife Sok Sreynich, 28, and their son, 1, and daughter, 5 were also arrested but are being held in a different detention facility.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, insists the activists and their families should be sent to a third country.

“Our view is that those people shouldn’t be arrested. It shouldn’t be a crime to seek protection in a neighboring country when you’re on the run for your political or human rights activities in your home country. They should be finding a way to help them go to a third country where they’ll be safe instead of persecuting him in this way,” he told VOA.

“How traumatic is this for a two-year-old and a four-year-old they see their dad being arrested in Rayong and with his wife and children separated from them. This is the real drama that these decisions by the Thai officials cause for these refugee families,” he added.

VOA contacted the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand for comment but has yet to receive a reply.

Leaders promise new era

Cambodia has been ruled by the same political party for 45 years. The Cambodia People’s Party has maintained its grip on power by banning opposition parties and cracking down on dissidents. Critics of Cambodia’s leadership have been threatened with arrest and targeted either at home or abroad in recent years, including in Thailand.

Thailand and neighboring Cambodia have endured a complicated relationship over the years, mainly over border and cultural conflicts. Now Bangkok and Phnom Penh have new government leaders and both have promised a new era in relations after Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin met Manet in Cambodia last year, vowing to work together on transnational crime.

Arrests seen as transnational repression

Robertson says Friday’s arrests are an example of transnational repression.

“This is Thailand’s welcome gift to Hun Manet who was supposed to be arriving here next week. Transnational repression rears its ugly head at a time when Hun Manet is consolidating control and making pals in the neighborhood with Prime Minister Srettha and the rest. What is quite clear we’ve seen a very close relationship between the top leaders of Cambodia and Thailand,” Robertson added.

Since 2014, more than 150 individuals in Thailand have been victims of transnational repression, according to a 2022 report by Freedom House.

Pradichit is now concerned the Cambodian refugees may face deportation but warned it would violate Thailand’s own laws.

“We, a coalition of human rights organizations, are tirelessly working to secure their release. We urgently call upon Thai authorities not to deport these activists to Cambodia, where they, along with their families, face the grave risk of imprisonment and torture. Such deportation would flagrantly violate Section 13 of the Thai Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act, enacted in February 2023,” she said.

Thailand enacted the Act on Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance in 2023, which prohibits sending or deporting a person to another country where that person would be in danger of torture, inhumane treatment or enforced disappearance.

But Thailand has not ratified the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention, so it has no specific domestic legal framework for the protection of urban refugees and asylum-seekers, meaning protection for refugees, even if recognized by the UNCHR, is limited.

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