At 4 a.m., still dark, Ekapop Luara, aka Tang Acheewa, hurriedly packed his suitcase and left Sihanoukville, a town in Cambodia. The next destination was unknown. But he knew he had to run to avoid being captured by agents of the Thai military. Since Thailand’s coup of May 22, Ekapob has been hunted by the junta. The charges against him: being anti-coup and committing lèse-majesté.
Ekapop is among a number of Thai fugitives seeking refuge in Thailand’s neighboring countries. By now, it is clear that Ekapop is hiding somewhere in Cambodia. He is under the protection of the Cambodian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But that does not necessarily guarantee his safety, particularly after the recent rapprochement between Thailand and Cambodia.
On Sept. 1, only a few days after the military Cabinet was formed, the newly appointed deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Gen. Thanasak Patimapakorn, also the current chief of defense forces, visited Cambodia. Thanasak met with Prime Minister Hun Sen. The mood of a celebration was upbeat. After the meeting, Cambodia declared that Thanasak’s visit was meant to improve bilateral relations that had deteriorated following the territorial dispute over the Hindu Temple of Preah Vihear that erupted in 2008.
Meanwhile, Thanasak promised to “look after” Cambodian workers in Thailand following rumors of forced deportation as part of the Thai junta’s crackdown on illegal workers.
More weighty was Thanasak’s real agenda, to demand cooperation from Cambodia in sending home anti-coup Thai fugitives. Cambodia has served as a sanctuary for Thai dissidents in recent years, most notably Jakrapob Penkair, former minister of the Prime Ministerial Office who also faces charges of lèse-majesté. Cozy ties between Hun Sen and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had undoubtedly influenced the Cambodian policy toward Thailand.
After Thaksin’s falling out with the Thai establishment, which led to a coup ousting his government in 2006, Hun Sen adopted an inimical attitude toward the Thai elite. For Hun Sen, Thaksin represented Cambodia’s long-term interests because of his popular support. Cambodia was thus willing to serve as a launching pad for Thai dissident groups, from anti-establishment bodies in the past to anti-coup fugitives recently. Cambodia has also been a favored bolt hole for red-shirt activists.
When Thaksin visited Siem Reap in September 2011, shortly after his sister, Yingluck, won a landslide election victory, Hun Sen celebrated the event by organizing a soccer match with the red-shirt team of Thailand. It is known that Thaksin and Yingluck have enjoyed massive support from the red shirts.
But political change has arrived in Cambodia, too. Hun Sen, one of the longest serving leaders in the world, almost lost the majority at the last election. Consequently the situation compelled him to readjust domestic and foreign policies to maintain the legitimacy of his government.
Now that the military is in control of Thai politics, Hun Sen finds it necessary to reconcile with the Thai establishment, for the sake of a safe environment along their common border. More importantly Hun Sen wants to sidestep criticism from the opposition who rally against his persistent interference in Thailand’s politics. The shift in Cambodia’s policy has benefited the junta in rounding up anti-coup activists in Cambodia.
Ekapop revealed to the UNHCR that the Thai military sent officers to monitor his movement in Cambodia, even to rent a room next door while he was hiding in Sihanoukville. Earlier the Thai Army arrested a Cambodian friend of Ekapop who crossed the border into Thailand to conduct business. He was interrogated and forced to disclose the whereabouts of Ekapop. Now the Thai Army has received a “green light” from the Cambodian authorities to abduct Ekapop and take him home, even if it infringes Cambodian sovereignty.
Ekapop is not the only target. Other fugitives have complained about similar harassment from the Thai military with the consent of the Cambodian government. Their lives are in danger. The lack of humanitarian elements in Cambodia will only worsen the situation of those unfortunate fugitives.
The plot to abduct anti-coup activists reaffirms reports of the junta’s continued persecution of dissidents. In May, Kritsuda Kunasen, a red shirt working as a volunteer for political prisoners in Bangkok, was taken away and held almost a month by the junta.
Once freed, she escaped to Europe and unveiled her traumatic ordeal under detention. She had been punched in the face, stripped naked, suffocated and almost killed. She is now in the care of the United Nations.
Last week a student activist from Mahasarakham province, Worawut Thuagchaiphum, managed to escape from Thailand after being summoned twice and having his life threatened by the military. Now a free man, Worawut gave an interview to NHK, unfolding his trauma under the detention:
“The army officers told me he could just vanish without a trace, that they are now in control of the country, and that if they wanted to kill him, they could do so despite the law.” Thai media has reported that Worawut could have been seeking refuge in Japan.
Meanwhile, more international organizations, like Amnesty International, have recently expressed serious concerns about the gross human rights violations in Thailand.
And on Sept. 10, a group of red-shirt Thais in Japan gathered in front of the United Nations University in Tokyo to protest against the coup. Representatives of the group also submitted a letter to Japan’s Foreign Ministry to request stronger action from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in pressuring the Thai junta to return power to the people and abolish the martial law.
Ironically, today, the Thai junta still claims to promote democracy despite overthrowing the previous elected government. More ironically, such claim is made while it hounds anti-coup groups in the region around Thailand.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.