From My Gut: Reflecting on My Deportation From Cambodia

The Facts

My given name is Margarita, my family name is Bujosa Segado. I am a Ph.D. researcher at the Women’s and Gender Studies Institute of the University of Granada and an anthropology master’s degree student at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. I landed in Cambodia in February 2009. Since June 2014, I have been implementing ethnographic research in the Boeng Kak community, in villages 22 and 24.


As I explained to the immigration police, an important part of ethnography is participatory observation. They didn’t understand. I kept explaining that “this means to observe and describe the experiences you share with the group object of your study.” They were silent. “I do as they do. For example, eating ‘borbor’ (rice soup) for breakfast, even though I like to eat bread, eating ‘prahok’ even though I do not like fish, giving ‘toek mun’ (charity to the monks) even though I am agnostic. Also, joining the demonstrations with a black T-shirt even though I am only documenting them.”

On August 16, I was pushed by a group of state security guards into the Daun Penh district police station. Uk Heisela, chief of investigations at the immigration department, was waiting for me there. He asked me about the reasons for my presence there. I told him I was a researcher. He asked for my passport. I was not carrying it with me. Then he forced me into a car and drove me to the general department of immigration.

At the time of my arrest, my passport and my visa were both valid. I was not working. Recently, I got a three-month internship in a researchers’ network. According to the Labor Law of Cambodia, I do not need a work permit for that. After I gave a written promise to “never participate again in any political activities conducted by the Boeng Kak community,” an immigration officer sent me back home without my passport.

On August 17, Mr. Heisela confirmed to me by SMS that I could pick up my passport in the morning. After waiting for a while at the immigration office, Mr. Heisela informed me verbally that I would be deported. He also told me that I would stay in detention until I left the country. The reason he gave me was that my visa had been stripped because my “request for freedom was a danger to the nation.” I guess he was referring to Tep Vanny and Bov So­phea’s freedom.

He told me I needed to pay for the ticket myself and that I would go directly from the immigration office to the airport. Afterward, I asked if he would allow me to contact the Spanish Embassy, as well as keep my mobile phone with me because I needed it to buy the airplane ticket. The embassy informed me that the immigration officers must give me an official document detailing the reasons for my deportation. I asked for it, but it was never delivered to me.

The immigration officials used violence against me, with the purpose of intimidating me, on two occasions (see related story). The first time, on August 16, when, after I requested my passport back, Mr. Heisela shouted, threatening me with immediate deportation or imprisonment. When I asked to speak with the Spanish Embassy, he ordered two immigration officers to physically prevent me from reaching my phone that was outside.

The second time, on August 17, while I was laying down on the floor after immigration officers took my phone by force, the immigration officer who was aggressive toward me the day before kicked me in the stomach on three occasions, while a second one kicked me in the torso once. Another five immigration officers were inside the cell, one of them shooting a video of the battering.

I spent the day of my deportation isolated, locked in a cell. At about 6 p.m., my friend was allowed to tell me that I had permission to go and pick up my stuff. Four officers escorted us to my apartment. They gave me 10 minutes to prepare my luggage. After bargaining a bit, I got 20.

They escorted me to the door of the plane. They gave me back my phone a few minutes beforehand. All my photographs had been deleted.

I called Mummy—Boeng Kak resident Nget Khun—to tell her I was at the airport. She was with other friends, all community members. They passed the phone from one to another to say farewell to me. Finally, my tears were streaming out. I love them so much; each one of them had shared a special moment with me. All of them had exemplified solidarity, toughness and simplicity.

I got on the plane without knowing when I would be able to come back. I still do not know.

I knew the risks. The police had been very suspicious about me for a while. They took photos of me, they called me by my name, they checked my Facebook, they prevented me from walking freely during Black Monday protests. They even interrogated human rights defenders in detention about me. I decided to keep going.

Why This Happened

I decided to start my Ph.D. research because of the furious resistance of Ms. Vanny and her community against a system that seemed to me to be invincible. I am not talking about the party in power but about corruption, a lack of wealth distribution and a lack of access to resources. I found the Boeng Kak community’s fight just and necessary, and an isolated example of resistance against injustice.

Yes, I guess I am an idealistic person who wants to improve the world. Yes, I think this is possible—you just need to believe it, set your goals and do your best.  

Why in Cambodia and not in my country? Because I felt I owed it to Cambodia, where I always got more than I gave. Because I like prahok anytime, borbor and iced coffee for breakfast, dancing to loud music at weddings, having a family the size of a country, the bold proudness, the sharing, the patience, the lack of attachment.

Furthermore, I am very curious to know what path Khmer people will take in the future. I am sure that once they free themselves from the corrupt system that keeps 80 percent of the population uneducated, they will lead the way for other societies that will have since collapsed.

The Lessons I Learned

If people in power consider me a danger to the nation, it is because they are weaker and more paranoid than I ever thought. They live in fear and it is because they know they have already lost control and their end is near.

Certainly they will try to hold on to power by using violence, even if it is unnecessary. Even if everyone in this country is pacific and democratic apart from them. The machine is on, and they pressed the button by themselves. They did it first when they started stealing land from the true owners; they continued by killing and jailing innocents.

Khmer people seem quiet because they are patient, but they also endure, proud to keep their word until the end and young enough to not forget. I learned it from my sisters, aunties and grandmas in Boeng Kak.

Ms. Vanny used to refer to herself as a victim. Once, I told her, “You are not a victim anymore. You are the only one who has won a battle against Hun Sen.” She stared at me with the saddest smile I ever saw and told me, “I got the land title, but at night I cry.”

I can tell she is not proud of herself. Even if she gained notoriety, the eviction destroyed her life. She is not interested in power. She told me a hundred times: “When everything is over [when everyone in her community has a land title], I will go to Omlaing [commune in Kompong Speu province] and raise animals with my father.”

She keeps fighting because she is in pain and she has nothing to lose. This feeling is becoming very common.

I have neither regret nor resentment. Before my deportation, I was only a foreigner following events. By deporting me, the government gave me the legitimacy to speak loudly and clearly about the injustices and human rights abuses it is carrying out, and I will.

Thank you, Khmer people, for making me better than I was.

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