When men in uniform came to her door, Choen Sochoeun would cry, according to a close relative.
Widowed since pro-Funcinpec journalist Chuor Chetharith was shot dead in October, she felt haunted at every step, the relative said.
“She was feeling very scared in the street, scared for her life,” said a family member, who requested anonymity for safety concerns. “She could not live in Cambodia anymore.”
So on Tuesday, the 27-year-old traveled to Bangkok, trying to prove to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that the country of her birth has become too lawless, too ruthless and too violent for her to raise two small children.
She is one of thousands of Cambodians who have sought international protection from their own government, which they say is not able nor willing to provide them basic security.
According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, they must prove that their fear of persecution—for their politics, religion, nationality, race or membership in a particular social group—is well founded.
Many Cambodians are successful in that respect.
A refugee lawyer in Bangkok, who agreed to provide information on condition of anonymity, could not provide specific numbers but said a “significant” number of Cambodians had been deemed refugees.
“Today, it is widely known that [Prime Minister] Hun Sen has sought, and continues to seek, the elimination of political opposition to the CPP in Cambodia,” the lawyer said.
“Most asylum seekers are
fleeing persecution for working against the CPP, either through opposition parties, human rights work, journalism, or simply real or suspected sympathy for political change and democracy,” he said.
If they are granted asylum, the refugees are relocated to one of 18 nations in the world that accept them. If they are not granted asylum, and if they are not caught and placed in detention, they live illegally in Thailand, the lawyer said.
Sok Yoeun, one of the most high-profile refugees, was released from police custody on Thursday after four years in a Thai jail. The Sam Rainsy Party activist fled to Thailand seeking refugee status but was arrested after Hun Sen fingered him as the mastermind of a rocket attack on the premier’s motorcade in Siem Reap in 1998.
He was granted asylum and boarded a flight to a European country, according to opposition lawmaker Yim Sovann.
A year before that incident, when fighting between coalition partners Funcinpec and the CPP broke out in the capital, more than 20,000 Cambodians rushed to UN-assisted camps across the border in Thailand. The majority were royalists declared political refugees.
“They feared for their safety after the coup d’état, and there was a lot of intimidation in the country. They had to leave,” Yim Sovann said.
Lao Mong Hay, now employed at the Center for Social Development, was one of thousands whose life was threatened that year.
“Some friends insisted that I should go and seek asylum, because people like me were not welcome at that time,” he said.
Fear continues to drive many Cambodians out of the country. Choen Sochoeun’s relative said military and police officers were making random visits to her house, as part of the investigation. It scared the young mother to tears, he said.
The partner of slain union leader Chea Vichea, Chea Kimny, is also seeking asylum. Chea Vichea, an outspoken critic of the government, was killed in a similar assassination-style attack on Jan 22.
No arrests have been made in Chuor Chetharith’s case, and the investigation into Chea Vichea’s killing has failed to win the confidence of Chea Kimny and many human rights groups.
“A number of people have received threats,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights group Licadho. “The only way they can continue to exist is if they live elsewhere.”
Om Yentieng, head of the government’s human rights commission and a top advisor to Hun Sen, said he would not comment on the state of security in the country, but he said the government was powerless to stop the flow of asylum-seekers.
“We can not force them to stay, or we can not force them to leave. Otherwise they will regard the country as authoritarian,” Om Yentieng said.
Many already do, Yim Sovann said.
“This is an authoritarian government. They don’t care about these complaints, and they do not try to solve them,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)