U.S. Warns Asean That Cambodia Exiles Face Torture if Sent Back

Philip J. Heijmans and Derek Wallbank

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. has warned the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that Cambodian dissidents attempting to return home to restore democracy to the authoritarian state could face torture if forcibly handed over to officials.

Southeast Asian countries have shown a willingness to accommodate requests by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to detain and deny entry to a number of returning exiles including Sam Rainsy, leader of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party and his deputy, Mu Sochua. The U.S. said it was the obligation of authorities to “protect and respect” the human rights of dissidents while lending its support to “the reopening of political and civic space in Cambodia.”

“We call on ASEAN member states to comply with their obligations under international law and to respect the principle of non-refoulement where individuals may be at risk of persecution or torture if returned,” said U.S. Embassy in Cambodia spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg.

On Thursday, Sam Rainsy told reporters at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris he was denied a boarding pass for his flight to Bangkok, saying the airline staff received instructions “from very high up” not to allow him to board. Mu Sochua, along with two other activists, were detained at an airport in Malaysia late Wednesday before being released.

Now in Kuala Lumpur, Mu Sochua told Bloomberg she plans to return to Cambodia by land despite fierce opposition from Hun Sen. The Cambodian leader, in power since 1985, has massed troops on the border and promised to “use weapons of all kinds” to stop the group from returning to Cambodia on Saturday, the country’s independence day.

“Democracy does not come on a silver platter,” Mu Sochua said by email. “We are moving forward in our plan to return home.”

A government spokesman on Thursday described members of the opposition group as “persona non-grata” and said they have asked regional countries to arrest exiled dissidents after accusing them of plotting a coup. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters in a speech this week Sam Rainsy was in violation of Asean “rules” and ordered his immigration department to deny him a visa. Both Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua have been in exile for four years.

The moves come shortly before Europe is expected to issue a decision on whether or not to pull Cambodia’s preferential tariff status due to its deteriorating human rights situation, a move that could devastate its economy. The EU is Cambodia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 45% of all exports in 2018.

“Thailand should stop playing footsie with Cambodian dictator Hun Sen, and recognize that all people have the right to both leave and return to their home country,” said deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson, who assisted Mu Sochua in attaining her release from detention in Kuala Lumpur. While the primary blame falls on Cambodia for ordering airlines to not transport Sam Rainsy and his colleagues to Phnom Penh, “there’s no good reason for Bangkok to serve as Cambodia’s picket fence to keep the exiles out.”

Back home, Cambodian authorities have arrested nearly 100 activists and others on various charges, including plotting against the state, incitement to commit a felony since Sam Rainsy announced in August that he would return to Cambodia. The U.S. urged “all parties to engage in a peaceful and inclusive process” to restore “genuine” democracy.

“We are deeply concerned by the recent expanding series of arrests, harassment, and intimidation of members of the Cambodian political opposition and by efforts to thwart the return to Cambodia of citizens seeking peaceful participation in the political process,” said Zeeberg.

--With assistance from Anisah Shukry.

To contact the reporters on this story: Philip J. Heijmans in Singapore at pheijmans1@bloomberg.net;Derek Wallbank in Singapore at dwallbank@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ruth Pollard at rpollard2@bloomberg.net, ;Chua Baizhen at bchua14@bloomberg.net, Derek Wallbank

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.