When Phok Chhoeuth was deported from the US to Cambodia in November, he was by all accounts normal and healthy.
Acquaintances described him as talkative and “regular,” and he was hired as a plumber almost immediately upon his arrival by a local maintenance company—a job he held for at least two months in Siem Reap town.
It didn’t take long, however, for Phok Chhoeuth to begin showing signs of severe mental illness. He was arrested earlier this year in Siem Reap town after he caused a disturbance in a restaurant and refused to pay his bill.
More recently, police in Phnom Penh arrested and detained him over the weekend after Phok Chhoeuth—appearing aggravated—jumped from the roof of a guest house onto the roof of a military official’s house.
Interviewed on Saturday, the day after his release from police custody, Phok Chhoeuth continued to show signs of mental instability.
His mental instability, however, could have been easily minimized if the US upheld its part of the March 2002 deportation agreement that has put 56 Cambodians back in Cambodia, according to observers.
“If we’d have known what [Phok Chhoeuth’s] medication was, we could have kept him on a maintenance dose and none of this would have happened,” said Bill Herod, coordinator for the Returnee Assistance Project. “This is an outrageous breach by the US of the memorandum of understanding.”
The March 2002 agreement signed by former US ambassador Kent Wiedemann and Ministry of Interior Secretary of State Em Sam An allows the US to deport Cambodians convicted of aggravated felonies to Cambodia after the ex-convict served his or her sentence.
The text of the agreement also states that the US will inform Cambodian authorities of the medical histories of the deportees in question.
However the US has never provided medical information for any of the deportees currently in the country, including Phok Chhoeuth.
“We’re not talking about not providing medical records—we’re talking about withholding vital medical information,” Herod said. “Chhoeuth could have committed suicide—he could have killed someone.”
US authorities reportedly provided Phok Chhoeuth with medication—lithium and thorazine—for his diagnosed bi-polar disorder while he was waiting in the US Immigration and Naturalization detention facility before he was sent to Cambodia, and his medication regimen was continued when he traveled from the US to Cambodia by plane.
“The medical officer on the plane provided me with my medication,” Phok Chhoeuth. This was confirmed by two other Cambodian deportees who were on the same air transport with him.
He ran out of medication a month after landing in Cambodia and soon began to suffer from symptoms of lithium withdrawal and other problems associated with his mental illness, Herod said.
US Embassy officials refused to comment directly on Phok Chhoeuth’s case, saying that under privacy laws the US could comment on a deportee’s personal medical records.
One US official, however, conceded that the US has not provided any medical records or information to the Cambodian authorities.
“We are in the preliminary stages of implementing the memorandum of understanding with the Cambodian government and we are continuing to cooperate with the Cambodian government to ensure that any problems are ironed out as soon as possible,” said the official on Wednesday.
Earlier this week Phok Chhoeuth began to stabilize after he was given the appropriate medication. Herod said he contacted Phok Chhoeuth’s attorney in the US who had medical files on his client. On Wednesday, Herod said Phok Chhoeuth had become lucid and was almost back to normal.
“This could have been averted if the US provided the medical records to the government,” he said.