Hun Sen creates new refugee group

Hun Sen creates new refugee group

For 35 years, Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia with a swath of scandals, his heavy-handed approach for political opponents, brutality and oppression. Drawn straight from the dictator's handbook used by despots the world over, the strongman has abused his power to obliterate any opposition and dissent. His family's wealth is astounding: it is estimated between US$500 million and US$1 billion (16-32 billion baht) -- a far cry from his prime ministerial salary of US$1,100 per month.

Having publicly declared his desire to lead the country well into 2030 and beyond, the former Khmer Rouge commander has little tolerance for political debate or public dissent. So absolute is his desire to maintain power, that scores of political opponents have found themselves incarcerated in jails across the country. From spurious charges of treason, to allegations of conspiracy to stage a coup d'état, resistance is almost always dealt with swiftly and with no avenue for recourse. In 2017, he went so far as banning the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and throwing party President Kem Sokha into prison. This was followed by a prolonged period of house arrest for treason allegations. Such actions thereby cemented a predictable landslide election result in November 2018, with Hun Sen's party winning all 125 parliamentary seats.

Following the farcical election -- a process that was rubber-stamped by disreputable and zombie-like election monitoring bodies -- Hun Sen again set his sights on his political opponents. In 2019 alone, several dozen CNRP representatives were rounded up and thrown in jail. Hun Sen's tried and trusted methods of intimidation, violence and imprisonment were again in full swing for all to see. Such flagrant state-led persecution, purely designed to silence opposition voices and further solidify power, meant that many other CNRP party members were forced to flee to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia for protection.

As both Thailand and Malaysia are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and both are currently bereft of any national legislation or administrative framework, refugees from Cambodia are forced to live on the margins of society. Unable to work, generally unable to send their kids to school, and unable to live an open and free existence, these individuals are living in a perennial state of fear and desperation. On top of worries about basic livelihood opportunities, they also face a myriad of additional protection concerns that are not faced by most other refugee groups ie the constant threat of potential arrest and forcible return to Cambodia. In fact, as recently as December 2019, an abduction attempt was made on Soun Chamroeun, a CNRP member living in exile in Bangkok. Such an attempt, in downtown Bangkok, clearly illustrates just how precarious life is for Cambodia's political dissidents, even after escaping.

Mu Sochua, vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party describes the law in Cambodia being used as "a political weapon by Hun Sen to target the opposition and dissenting voices, even putting a man born with polio behind bars for expressing his wish to see a change of government". These victims of Hun Sen lawfare either live under the radar inside Cambodia or have fled to neighbouring countries seeking political asylum. For all of them, life is uncertain, and their families have also had to share the serious impact of being labelled as "traitors or rebels". Children have had to leave school and their family income has been disrupted. It is imperative that more is done to make sure that Cambodian refugees cannot only escape persecution, but that they are able to continue their work, education, and family life. For this, urgent intervention is needed by resettlement countries.

One Malaysian based activist, Ponleak Noun (name changed for security purposes) describes the constant fear and anxiety he faces on a daily basis as "heartbreaking and something I'd not wish upon anyone". After travelling to Malaysia for a training session organised by Mu Sochua and other party heavyweights, Ponleak was declared by the ruling CPP as persona non grata. With only the clothes on his back and a small overnight bag with toiletries, he suddenly faced a life in exile, unable to return to his homeland. Subsequently having his passport revoked, and with an arrest warrant awaiting him in Cambodia, he is stuck in an untenable situation. "I can't move forwards in my life, and I can't go back to Cambodia. What should I do?"

As long as Hun Sen remains in power in Cambodia, there will inevitably be a steady trickle of political opponents like Ponleak forced to flee the country. This trend should not be ignored by governments around the region, but rather should be setting off alarm bells as a catalyst for immediate attention. It is unconscionable for countries, especially those with strong ties to the region such as Australia, to continue to sit on the sidelines and silently observe the erosion of fundamental human rights. Whether it be through individual sanctions, non-issuance of visas, or even asset freezes, the time of idly sitting by has passed. Instead, it is incumbent upon them to take swift action before democracy in Cambodia is dead.

Evan Jones is a Southeast Asian-based refugee advocate.

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