Since last week, fears have spread about a potential deal between Thailand and Cambodia on dealing with ‘foreign fugitives’ that could affect the safety of politicians, activists, and government critics. Though specifics remain unclear, the controversy around such collaboration reflects broader suspicions around cooperation among the two authoritarian regimes that are only further fueled by the back of transparency and accountability on this front.
Concerns about how governments in Thailand and Cambodia treat those who disagree with them are far from new and are far more complex than often presented, with both countries long displaying a mix of freedom and repression in accordance with various factors such as domestic politics, international scrutiny, and even the type of opposition in question whether in politics or in other realms.
But those concerns have intensified over the past few years, with fears about an authoritarian alliance of sort emerging between the ruling junta in Thailand led by Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen as they seek to suppress dissent and consolidate their authority at home (See: “The Truth About US-China Competition in Cambodia“). Those concerns have continued on into 2018 given the fact that it is an important year for both regimes, with Cambodia having elections in July and Thailand planning polls next year after multiple postponements (See: “Why Thailand’s Next Election May Not Matter“). These have been deepened further by tough statements Hun Sen and Prayut have made on cracking down on their political opponents at home and abroad.
One particular aspect of this has been fears regarding what this means for politicians, activists, and government critics. Though figures are difficult to verify, dozens of Thais are said to have sought refuge in Cambodia following the May 2014 coup, while Cambodians, including several members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), have fled to Thailand following an ongoing opposition crackdown which included the CNRP’s dissolution by the Supreme Court last November.
Those fears were heightened in February when Cambodian citizen Sam Sokha was extradited from Thailand, where she had initially fled to for fear of facing charges for throwing a shoe at a ruling party billboard with Hun Sen’s image on it. Other concerning developments have also made the headlines, including Thai police surveilling Cambodian opposition figures living in Thailand and both governments meeting to discuss extradition and strengthening collaboration on prisoner exchange.
Concern on this front once again intensified earlier this month during Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh’s visit to Thailand. Though his visit had a broader focus in terms of meeting with top Thai officials including his counterpart Prawit Wongsuwon for the 13th iteration of the Thailand-Cambodia General Border Committee, the media attention was overwhelmingly focused on his meeting with Prayut on March 21, where both sides had agreed on what Thai media outlets characterized as cooperation in searching for “fugitives.”
Few details have been publicly disclosed about exactly what has agreed upon. Those specifics are important, not just for the sake of accountability and transparency that is too often absent on these issues and feeds into preexisting fears, but because both countries have an existing bilateral extradition treaty and wider international obligations within which any new collaboration would be situated within. That would also play into options for those who might be affected, some of which have already sought refuge in other countries.
But given the already significant concerns that had existed even before the meeting, it is also no surprise speculation has nonetheless continued to spread about what was agreed upon and what this could mean. CNRP working group member Kong Meas told Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service this week that the deal, in his view, was intended to prevent CNRP party members from regrouping. Those comments came as ex-CNRP members in Bangkok told the Phnom Penh Post that a vehicle with Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) license plates had been following opposition members over the past few weeks, causing some to relocate.
A RCAF spokesman predictably denied the report, and said that such vehicles were only there for the official meetings being held. Irrespective of what is actually going on, such denials miss the broader point: that broader fears at play about an authoritarian alliance between the two regimes puts additional scrutiny on any ongoing activity, and the lack of accountability and transparency by both countries on aspects of their cooperation only further feeds into such fears.