Rights groups in Thailand and around the world have criticized the Thai authorities for the arrest of a revered Cambodian Buddhist monk with international refugee status. Venerable Bor Bet, an environmental campaigner and a vocal critic of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, was arrested at a temple in southern Bangkok late on Wednesday, becoming the latest in a string of UN-certified Cambodian refugees to be detained by Thai police.
Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper reported on Thursday that the reasons for the monk’s detention were unclear, but human rights campaigners have expressed concern that Ven. Bor Bet could be returned to the country he fled, where he faces arrest for dissent against the government. If deported, Ven. Bor Bet will be the fourth refugee to be sent back to Cambodia in four weeks, with the United Nations refugee agency condemning Thailand for last week deporting refugee and ex-politician Thavry Lanh.
“If they deport me to Cambodia, I will be sent to prison like other refugees,” Ven. Bor Bet was quoted as saying yesterday in an audio message. (Bangkok Post)
According to a report in the Bangkok Post, human rights groups, lawyers, and a member of the Thai parliament had sought an injunction against Ven. Bor Bet’s deportation yesterday, with diplomats also working to intervene.
“We believe that these arrests should fall under prevention of torture and enforced disappearances that Thailand has committed to,” said Siripa Intavichien, a deputy spokesperson for Thailand’s Democrat Party, who was reported to have spoken with Ven. Bor Bet soon after his arrest. “Deporting [Ven. Bor Bet] back is against the agreement that Thailand committed to five years ago, and sending him back would put his life in danger.” (Thai Enquirer)
Siripa has called on the Thai government to adhere to the international human rights guidelines to which it is a signatory, and has been advocating for the release of Van. Bor Bet and other political dissidents. She also noted that the Swiss embassy in Bangkok has issued an emergency visa that would allow the monk to seek refuge in Switzerland.
Ven. Bor Bet has been Thailand since November 2020, after fleeing Cambodia to avoid detention for participating in protests in Phnom Penh calling for the release of a labor union leader arrested during a government crackdown on political opposition.
Cambodian premier Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Civil War in the 1970s, has headed the country’s authoritarian government since 1985. The Cambodian government has a long history of silencing critics and stifling public dissent. As a result, many Buddhist monks in Cambodia have embraced activism, working with a loose coalition of social movements to advocate for democracy, labor unions, human rights, and environmental protection.
“I am concerned that this case is more politically motivated than related to any criminal offense,” said Oeu Narith, an activist from Cambodia’s banned opposition party, who is also living as a refugee in Thailand. “Ven. Bor Bet is a social activist who escaped political persecution in Cambodia and received refugee status. While taking refuge in Thailand, prior to his arrest, he had been very active in political activities. I am really concerned of his personal safety as he faces deportation . . .” (RFA)
After arresting 35-year-old Ven. Bor Bet, who was ordained at the age of 13, Thai police officers forced the monk to disrobe and don civilian garments before taking him to the Suanplu Immigration Detention Centre. According the Theravada tradition, only senior members of the monastic sangha carry the authority to defrock a Buddhist monk.
“It’s quite clear there is some dirty, secret agreement between the Thai and Cambodian leaders to track down and force back political refugees hiding in Bangkok,” said the deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, Phil Robertson. “This is an appalling violation of human rights and refugee protection that should be universally condemned. This kind of ’swap mart’ arrangement, where refugees are treated as human chattel to be given for political favors and other under-the-table considerations, shows the authoritarians in Phnom Penh and Bangkok are cut from the same rights-abusing cloth.” (Thai Enquirer)
In November, the Thai authorities deported three Cambodians back to Cambodia to face what Human Rights Watch described as “politically motivated charges.” The UN’s refugee agency has also publicly criticized Thailand’s repatriation of Cambodian political activists.
“We are extremely alarmed by this trend of forcibly returning refugees to Cambodia, where they face a serious risk of persecution,” UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs said in a statement. “We urge the Royal Thai Government to refrain from deporting recognized refugees and to abide by its international obligations, particularly the principle of non-refoulement. UNHCR continues to offer its full support to the government in ensuring the protection of those in need in Thailand.” (UNHCR)
Thailand is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 94.5 per cent of the nation’s population of 69 million identifying as Buddhists, according to government census data for 2015. The Southeast Asian kingdom has some 40,000 Buddhist temples and almost 300,000 monks. Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia, with 97.9 per cent of the population of 15.6 million following the Theravada tradition, according to data for 2013 from The World Fact Book. According to Cambodia’s Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs, there are 59,516 Buddhist monks and 4,755 monasteries in Cambodia.
Cambodian refugee monk fears jail if deported from Thailand (Bangkok Post)
Thai authorities arrest, defrock, move to deport activist Buddhist monk from Cambodia (Thai Enquirer)
House committee slams Thai police for arresting, defrocking Cambodian monk (Thai PBS World)
Detained Cambodian monk with refugee status says he could jailed if deported from Thailand (Thaiger)
UNHCR dismayed by deportation of a third Cambodian refugee by Thai Authorities this month (UNHCR)
Cambodian Activist Monk Detained in Thailand Fears Deportation (Asia Sentinel)
Activist Cambodian monk is defrocked, arrested in Thailand-fellow refugee (RFA)
Activist Monks Flee Cambodia Fearing Arrest, Defrocking (Voice of America)
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