No safe place for SEAsia’s political refugees
Thailand's deportation of a UN-recognized political refugee to Cambodia underscores the region's often politicized and abusive extradition practices
Last year, Sam Sokha fled Cambodia for Thailand to avoid arrest after video footage emerged of her throwing a sandal at the billboard of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) emblazoned with the image of premier Hun Sen.
His government claimed the shoe toss amounted to an “insult of a public official,” a criminal offense under local law. Her refugee status was recognized by the United Nations and plans were afoot to find her asylum in a third country outside of Thailand.
However, she was arrested by Thai authorities in early January and on February 8th was deported back to Cambodia, where she was immediately arrested by police. It emerged later that a provincial court had sentenced her in absentia to two years in jail in late January.
Bangkok’s decision to deport a UN-recognized political refugee raises concerns about the safety of more than 100 members of the recently dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), an opposition party, who have fled political persecution to Thailand. Half are thought to be applying for asylum, media reported.
“It’s sad but not surprising that [the Thai] military junta would do a favor for a neighboring dictator, but they should not cement their friendship at the expense of a refugee,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said in a statement referring to Hun Sen. The US-based rights branded the deportation a “shocking act.”
It also comes at the expense of “customary” international law, which prohibits the extradition of individuals back to countries where they are likely to face persecution or unfair detention.
But Southeast Asian governments habitually treat such guiding laws as opaque and gauzy, not least when it provides them with quid pro quo diplomatic opportunities. Indeed, there are suspicions that Phnom Penh might now reciprocate the gesture by deporting known anti-junta Thai dissidents living in Cambodia.
There is certainly precedent. After Thai and Lao defense ministers met in December they agreed to assist one another in tracking “threats to security,” which analysts interpreted to mean political dissidents who had crossed their mutual border.
But the extradition treaty signed between the two neighbors exempts the deportation of individuals wanted for political offenses, as well as for crimes that don’t exist in the other country. Laos, unlike Thailand, does not have a criminal lèse-majesté law on its books.
The Thai government has nonetheless attempted to manipulate the treaty, as was made explicitly clear last year by Thawip Netniyom, then-secretary general of the junta’s National Security Council. “If Laos wants any fugitives who fled from prosecution to Thailand, we would arrest and hand them over in exchange [for Thai dissidents],” he said last February.
Only a few months later, a Thai opposition activist and junta critic was abducted by armed men speaking Thai in Vientiane, the Lao capital, according to reports. Wuthipong Kachathamakul, also known as Ko Tee, fled to Laos in 2014 after a military coup, as did many other anti-junta and anti-monarchy activists. Wuthipong has not been seen since.
The status of political dissidents living in exile in the region could be made clearer, or more perilous, now that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is moving ahead with a regional extradition treaty that was first mooted in the 1970s.
Singapore, the regional bloc’s chair this year, has said the treaty is a priority, most likely to bolster anti-terrorism efforts. Indeed, the major criticism of the Asean Convention on Counter-Terrorism was that it didn’t “specify mechanisms for enforcement,” according to a report by Global Risk Insights, a risk analysis firm.
Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s foreign minister, has suggested regional leaders could first work on agreeing to a “Model Asean Extradition Treaty” before later signing a legally binding one. Work on the “model” treaty began almost a decade ago, but has been stalled since reportedly due to lukewarm responses by some bloc members.
Jose Tavares, director general for Asean cooperation at Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has optimistically opined that a legally binding treaty, not just a model one, will be agreed by this year.
Although the “model” treaty’s text has yet to be finalized, there are some indications of what it could mean for asylum seekers in Southeast Asia. A Malaysian minister privy to the discussions in 2005 told media that it would only deal “in criminal matters, nothing political.”
This is expected from a regional bloc that runs on the principle of non-interference in its member states’ internal affairs. Still, past discussions of the “model” treaty have made almost no mention of political refugees, an indication perhaps that the final text won’t either.
The concern, then, is that if the treaty makes no specific protection from extradition for people wanted for “political offenses,” and would allow regional governments to continue interpreting extradition regulations on the whim, as Thailand recently did.
Another concern is how the treaty frames “terrorism.” The likes of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have agitated for a unified message on extradition as a way of emboldening their anti-terrorism efforts as the concern becomes more transnational.
That concern came to the fore last year when foreign fighters, some from regional countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, traveled to join Islamic State-aligned Filipino militants in a months-long battle against Philippine state forces at the town of Marawi.
Thailand and Singapore, for example, currently have not signed an extradition treaty with one another. That likely explains why criminally convicted self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra is frequently seen in the wealthy city-state.
Stiff rules on extraditing alleged terrorists make sense when it comes to jihadists and those who actually engage in physical acts of terror-related violence. The Asean Convention on Counter-Terrorism strictly defines terrorism as found in 14 pieces of international law.
But the situation would be more open to abuse and diplomatic horse-trading if each government’s interpretation of “terrorism” is accepted by all other bloc members.
Last month, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party branded the US-based Provisional Government of Vietnam, a group formed in 1969 still loyal to the defunct state of South Vietnam, as a terrorist organization – a categorization contested by the US State Department.
The communist regime also frequently brands the unsanctioned Viet Tan political party, with members both in-country and abroad, as a terror organization based on its historic roots as an armed resistance organization in the 1980s.
Earlier this month, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen even described Sam Rainsy, the exiled former leader of the dissolved CNRP, as a “terrorist.” He also called a new exiled movement created by Sam Rainsy and former CNRP politicians a terrorist organization.
Making his threat more explicit, Hun Sen warned Sam Rainsy: “Do not come to Asia… If you try to be a terrorist, I will do my best to arrest you.” Whether Cambodia’s Asean co-members would oblige any request for extradition is an open and increasingly vexed question.