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International relations

Southeast Asia's strongmen unite against political dissidents

Thai police arrest Cambodian opposition leader following earlier deportation

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, and Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha have been stepping up co-operative efforts against political dissidents.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- In moves that appear to portend greater political oppression in Southeast Asia, the region's authoritarian governments are closing ranks on political dissidents who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

Thai Immigration this week helped Hun Sen, Cambodia's 65-year-old prime minister of 33 years, by detaining Sam Serey, head of the opposition Khmer National Liberation Front, at an immigration center north of Bangkok. He was later deported to Denmark, and has been banned from re-entering Thailand for five years. A few weeks ago, Hun Sen accused Sam Serey of plotting bombings in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, during a speech to university students.

It is the second arrest of its kind this year in Thailand targeting Cambodian dissidents and banned opposition parliamentarians. Many of these political refugees crossed the country's porous border to escape Hun Sen's harsh crackdown that began last year. In February, Sam Sokha was forcibly repatriated after overstaying her visa. She gained celebrity status after a video of her throwing a shoe at an image of Hun Sen went viral on social media. Sam Sokha was jailed soon after her return for "insulting a public official."

Observers are concerned by the shrinking number of regional safe havens for political dissidents who have to slip across borders for their own safety. "The key crossroad for political dissidents for years in this region has been Thailand, and now that crossroad is looking increasingly hard to traverse," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), a global rights watchdog, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Robertson believes the rights-abusing governments of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar having found a willing ally in the Thai junta, which itself wants its own political dissidents repatriated. "The new political dynamic is working both ways at the cost of respect for political refugees," he added.

Cambodian dissidents appear to be the most affected. Human rights group believe some 120 have slipped into Thailand since last year when Hun Sen began tightening his grip on the opposition ahead of this year's general election. Many have dropped their profiles further to avoid possible arrest and deportation. A 37-year-old Cambodian political activist in Bangkok spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review on condition of anonymity. "Thailand is no longer a safe place for those who came here for refuge," she said. "We are now always moving about and learning to live in a security-conscious way."

Even political activists from Myanmar, who for years enjoyed relative safety in Thailand, are having a harder time. Thai authorities forced a human rights group from Myanmar's Karen ethnic minority to cancel the launch of a report Wednesday in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Myanmar had made diplomatic representations to block the report's release.

Earlier in the week, an understanding was achieved with Laos to track Thai nationals who flee there. The Lao army chief of staff promised greater vigilance to a delegation of Thai generals visiting Vientiane, according to Thai press reports.

Most Thai political exiles are wanted for lese-majeste offences against the royal family. Lese-majeste carries harsh penalties of up to 15 years in jail. Since the military seized power in May 2014, at least 90 people have been sentenced.

According to human rights groups, at least 40 Thai political dissidents have fled to Laos since the coup. Among the most high profile was Wuthipong Kachathamakul, better known as Ko Tee, who gained notoriety in Thailand ahead of the coup for anti-monarchy commentaries aired on a community radio station.

Ko Tee, a strident supporter of the elected government the junta overthrew, was abducted last July off Vientiane's streets and disappeared. A hit squad of 10 armed men dressed in black and wearing balaclavas grabbed him in the Laotian capita. He was shoved into a car and "driven away to an unknown location," said HRW. "According to Wuthipong's wife and his friend (who were also attacked but left at the scene), the assailants were speaking among themselves in Thai."

The government of Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, which took office in April 2016, has meanwhile stepped up social media vigilance. According to Shalmali Guttal, executive director of Focus on the Global South, a regional think tank, digital tracking and surveillance has become ubiquitous in the last two years. "It is now more powerful, sophisticated, and a form of socio-political control," she said. It has also given rise to a fear that state surveillance is "supported by Chinese technology -- that is what we are hearing from people."

Worried by the rollback of political free space, a group of parliamentarians from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a 10-member regional bloc, sent individual letters to the heads of all Southeast Asian governments on the eve of a regional summit in Singapore this weekend. "In the last year, we have seen an especially alarming regression of democracy and human rights protections regionwide," wrote the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

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