Thousands flooded across the Thai border after the Vietnamese invasion. Some sought and received protection in the 1980s. After the 1997 factional fighting, Cambodians came again.
Jailed Sam Rainsy Party activist Sok Yoeun is one of thousands of political refugees who have escaped a perceived threat of persecution and found refuge in Thailand. But Sok Yoeun’s case is believed to be the first in Thailand in which a Cambodian granted “person of concern status” by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has been sentenced to a jail term for illegally entering the country. Indeed, Thailand has a long tradition of sheltering refugees without visas during the Pol Pot regime, after the factional fighting, and up to this day.
The decision by the Thai government to invoke its sovereign right to jail Sok Yoeun and potentially deport him—despite his special UN protection—highlights just how precarious the situation is for those who have sought protection when a case becomes politicized.
And though his case is exceptional, involving charged accusations by rival political parties in both countries, it has apparently panicked other refugees. As many as 32 Sam Rainsy party members have attempted to stay underneath trees and in the hallways of UNHCR offices in Bangkok, fearing they will be arrested or deported to Cambodia, opposition party officials say.
“Special persons status means these are people needing international protection, and UNHCR tries to provide that protection,” said Bernard Doyle, UNHCR’s senior program officer and the acting head of its Cambodian office. “It doesn’t mean we can tell a country what to do.”
Military intelligence officials here claim Sok Yoeun was involved in a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Hun Sen last year, a charge opposition party members say is fabricated.
He received person of concern status on Nov 12.
Thai authorities arrested Sok Yoeun in December on charges that he entered the country illegally, after a Thai parliamentarian revealed his presence on Thai soil and accused political opponents of harboring a criminal. The revelations led to a series of front-page stories in Bangkok papers and prompted Cambodia to request his extradition.
It’s unclear what impact Sok Yoeun’s case will have on the future of others. One analyst said that UNHCR appears to have gone “way out on a limb” by granting the status to Sok Yoeun in such a politically charged case—unless they have done a thorough investigation into a case which to most remains murky. The case has raised the profile of UNHCR and led some politicians to suggest an examination of its operations in Thailand.
One Thai government source stressed that “we consider these cases humanitarian cases and let them stay for awhile. But if it is safe, they should go back.”
Doyle declined to discuss the Sok Yoeun case, citing a UNHCR policy that protects the confidentiality of those it helps. He also declined to confirm or deny the presence of Sam Rainsy Party members at UNHCR offices.
But neither he nor a Thai government source could recall a person of concern being sentenced to a jail term for illegal entry in Thailand in recent years.
Thailand has a long tradition of helping Cambodians. After the fall of the Pol Pot regime, hundreds of thousands were camped on the border. After the factional fighting of 1997, thousands fled to Thailand. In 1998, 50,000 still remained, according to UNHCR statistics. The majority were repatriated and the last refugee camp closed last year.
But there have also been instances where the Thais have forced refugees back. After the Vietnamese invasion, thousands were forced into Oddar Meanchey province, and many died, until international pressure was brought to bear, said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.
“Of course this case will set a precedent,” Lao Mong Hay said. “But as far as refugees and displaced persons have been concerned, Thailand has not been consistent. They think about their own interests and try to extract advantage from our government. Sok Yoeun’s case is another one. If the price is right, maybe they will comply.”
Applicants for person of concern status must meet three criteria: They must be outside their country of origin, have a well-founded fear of persecution for race, religion, nationality or political opinion and receive a UN ruling on their case, Doyle said.
If the country has signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, persons are granted “refugee status,” and once the country has passed implementing laws they are theoretically bound to respect UN protection. If they have not—as in the case of Thailand—the term used is “person of concern.”
There are 101 Cambodians in this category living in Bangkok, Doyle said. In 1999, 107 Cambodians voluntarily returned.
More than 200 Sam Rainsy Party members sought refuge in Thailand after the factional fighting, said Yim Sovann, an opposition National Assembly member who has visited Sok Yoeun in jail. Between 60 and 70 received concerned person status. About 40 remain.
Sok Yoeun fled on foot after police surrounded his Battambang home in early October. For two weeks, he holed up with relatives in Banteay Meanchey province, Yim Sovann said.
He crossed the border at Poipet on a one-day pass and enlisted the help of a former Sam Rainsy ally, Sovann Puty, to get to Bangkok.
Sovann Puty invited him to dinner, and filmed a videotaped confession of the assassination attempt. The Sam Rainsy Party claims the confession was coerced by Puty and four unidentified Thai men. Government officials here maintain it was not. Now his future remains in doubt.
The weight of the UN remains considerable, and a Thai government source stressed that Thailand is proud of the role it has played on humanitarian cases and “counts” on UNHCR to help sort out cases from Vietnam, Pakistan and other countries.
Yim Sovann claims a request was made for Sok Yoeun to receive shelter in Switzerland.