Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Category: Migration (page 2 of 2)

Thai miltary killing Cambodian loggers

By Chak Sopheap

Published on UPI Asia, December 23, 2009

Niigata, Japan — Phorn Sarith, a 37-year-old Cambodian logger, died when Thai soldiers reportedly fired indiscriminately on 25 loggers working in the Dangrek mountains in Oddar Meanchey, a Cambodian province on the Thai-Cambodian border, last Saturday.

Since September Thai soldiers have killed six Cambodian loggers, wounded several more and arrested others. While loggers are warned by authorities in the province not to stray across the porous border into Thailand, most end up crossing it to earn more money from illegal logging, in order to feed their families.

Although such cases have increased, the Thai government has done little to understand the situation or conduct proper investigations into the cross-border intrusions.

According to an October report released by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, several cases of killings and mistreatment of Cambodians by the Thai military were reported in the three-month period from August to October. One case mentions that 12 Cambodians, reportedly missing for nearly a month, were later found to have been arrested and detained by Thai soldiers in August 2009 on suspicion of illegal logging. Two other allegedly illegal loggers were found dead in the same month; the Thai military claimed to have shot them in self-defense.

In another case, 16 Cambodian loggers were arrested, tried and handed prison terms ranging from three months to nine years by the Ubon Provincial Court in Thailand, for illegal logging. The sentences were excessive and Thai authorities reportedly mistreated the loggers. Some were brought to court with their hands and legs chained and shackled, the CCHR report said.

In another case, Thai soldiers burned 16-year-old Yon Rith to death during an illegal logging mission with other villagers in September. Although the Thai government denied the cause of death, evidence shows that soldiers killed him.

Such cruel killing by the Thai military, which enjoys impunity, was seen in a number of incidents during the late 1970s and 1980s. While the killings have not stopped, the Cambodian government has also been negligent in its role to prevent citizens from illegally crossing over to neighboring Thailand.

Although the media and human rights organizations have reported many incidents of Cambodians killed by the Thai military after illegally crossing the border, there has been no satisfactory explanation by the Thai government. Instead, it has proclaimed that the rule of law prevails in the country and that it has an independent judiciary.

Thai authorities have also failed to employ preventive measures to stop illegal crossings of its border. The issue has been overshadowed to some extent by border disputes and military skirmishes between the two nations.

The continuous arbitrary killing and mistreatment of Cambodians are clear violations by the Thai government of U.N. rights conventions and of basic principles of human rights, including the right to life, the right to a court hearing on criminal charges and the right to be protected from cruel punishment, as guaranteed by the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Thailand is a signatory.

Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture precisely defines the term “torture” as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.”

Article 2 of the CAT also asserts that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

As a signatory to CAT, the Thai government must take immediate and unconditional steps to fulfill its legal obligation to respect human rights, especially as it says that the rule of law prevails in the country.

If the Thai government says that it has an independent judiciary, then it must end impunity for those who kill and mistreat civilians, including Cambodian illegal loggers or any such immigrants.

At the Bangkok launch of the United Nations Development Program’s report on “Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development,” on Oct. 5, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva proudly impressed audiences by saying that Thailand respects migrants’ rights.

“We realize that the most effective way to protect these migrants is to legalize their status and bring them into the formal labor market,” he said. “The migration is simply an expression of the freedom and desire of each individual to seek better opportunities in life.”

If what Abhisit said is true, then the Thai government must acknowledge the rights of the poor Cambodian loggers who cross into Thailand looking for better opportunities to sustain their families. As a civilized nation, the Thai government must fulfill its commitment and obligation to respect human rights.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog,, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

Doubts about ASEAN's human rights body

By Chak Sopheap

Published on UPI online, December 02, 2009

Niigata, Japan — This year’s theme for Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 is “non-discrimination,” based on the concept that all human beings are born free and are equal in dignity and rights. However, much needs to be done before this concept will be a reality in many nations. Though many countries have endorsed the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, initiated 60 years ago, challenges still persist in implementing it.

On Oct. 24, ASEAN inaugurated its Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights in Bangkok, Thailand. But there are many concerns as to whether this commission will be more than just a propaganda organization, given that many of its member states have very poor human rights records.

Current human rights violations within ASEAN member states range from intimidation to the killing of journalists and political and social activists who advocate the public interest and the rule of law. The recent political massacre in Maguindanao in the Philippines, where 57 people were killed including nonpolitical civilians and journalists, is proof that politically motivated intimidation still commonly practiced in that country.

Military-ruled Myanmar refuses to release political prisoners including the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been kept under house arrest for over 14 years, despite domestic and international appeals.

In Cambodia there are many reports of arrests, coercive force and intimidation of journalists, political activists and community rights defenders that protest against land grabbing, forced evictions, border issues and government corruption.

In Thailand there are restrictions on the freedom of press and speech; the alleged killings of Cambodians who illegally cross the border to work in the forests of Thailand; the abuse of refugees from Myanmar who are turned back to the sea and left to perish without food and water.

Given the lack of human rights protections in these member countries, ASEAN’s ability to create an effective, rule-based institution to protect human rights is questionable. Only four member states – Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines – have independent human rights commissions, none of which is very effective.

Cambodia needs an independent National Human Rights Commission. Although there are three existing human rights commissions in Cambodia – under the National Assembly, the Senate and the government – none is independent and capable of subscribing to the Paris Principles established in 1991 by the U.N. Human Rights Commission as the standard for national human rights bodies.

Many rights violations continue to occur, yet the so-called human rights commissions have not intervened or taken measures to address them. Only a transparent and truly independent institution can robustly support and defend human rights in Cambodia.

In Europe, victims of human rights abuses can complain to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg, France. However, Cambodians have no place to voice their complaints if powerful officials abuse them. On many occasions they protest in front of the National Assembly but are turned back by riot police and their complaints are ignored.

However, Prime Minister Hun Sen has made a commitment to make Cambodia the fifth ASEAN nation to have a national human rights council. Such a council should be authorized to hear complaints from all bodies and given the power to mediate between parties. It must have the ability to advise parties of their rights, and make binding legal decisions. These may subsequently result in making recommendations to the authorities.

The commission must be able to operate independently, with its own budget and offices, separate from those of the government.

It is hoped that the advent of Human Rights Day, which is generally marked by the government and civil society, will raise awareness of rights violations and the need for a body to address this problem.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog,, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

Agony of repatriated Khmer Rouge refugees

By Chak Sopheap
Guest Commentary, Published on UPI Asia

Niigata, Japan — One of the untold tragedies of U.S. policy has been the forced repatriation of young Cambodians, mainly men, who went to the United States as refugees after escaping the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s. The United States took in 130,000 Cambodian refugees between 1985 and 1995 as tacit acknowledgement of U.S. involvement in the destabilization of Cambodia in the early 1970s, according to a report in the National Journal, “Between Two Nations,” by Bruce Stokes.

By November 2008 about 189 refugees had been deported to Cambodia under a law that mandates deportation for noncitizens who commit felonies, according to a New York Times report. Another 2,000 Cambodians are in the deportation pipeline waiting their turn.

Although these Cambodians had obtained permanent resident status, they lost the right to remain in the United States after being convicted of a felony, despite having already served sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

As a result, they are being sent back to a country where they were traumatized, with which they are unfamiliar after spending most of their life in the United States, where they have no family and little hope of escaping poverty.

Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, noncitizens who commit felonies must be deported. Previously, immediate deportation was enacted only for offences that could lead to five years or more in jail. This included crimes such as murder, terrorism or threatening the president. However, the 1996 law expanded the scope of crimes meriting deportation to include even minor crimes such as shoplifting.

In one case, a man was ordered to be deported after being convicted for urinating in public. Another example is that of a woman, whose children were born in the United States and are therefore citizens, facing deportation after serving three years in jail for disciplining her children with unlit incense sticks.

The 1996 law was applied retroactively to those convicted of deportable offenses, including some who had committed minor offences decades ago. Moreover, the act stripped judges of nearly all discretion in determining whether permanent residents should be deported. There are limits on litigation that prevent individuals or groups from suing the government or appealing decisions by the Immigration Department or lower courts.

In fact, Cambodian criminals were not deported until an extradition agreement was reached between Washington and Phnom Penh in 2002; after that, Cambodians convicted of felonies were subject to deportation after finishing their prison terms in the United States.

Cambodians who had not applied for U.S. citizenship suddenly found themselves liable to be deported even for committing misdemeanors. This included those with green cards or married to U.S. citizens. It seems that many missed the opportunity to apply for citizenship either because they didn’t think it necessary, or they didn’t understand the process due to lack of information in the Cambodian Language.

Most U.S. immigration laws enacted in the past 20 years were introduced during periodic episodes of anti-immigrant hysteria. Immigration has been a major political issue during presidential election campaigns as well. The 1996 law was signed under Clinton administration in September, shortly before the election in November that year. Also, the 2002 extradition agreement between the United States and Cambodia was signed after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.

In his book “Deporting Our Souls,” Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and Asian American studies at the University of California in Davis, offers explanations by criminologists, social scientists, parents and criminals themselves as to why there has been a relatively high level of criminality in the Cambodian refugee community in the United States.

First, he cites the refugee camp experience, with few activities or opportunities to be productive. The crowded camp life easily led to violence and crime. Many parents who survived the Khmer Rouge’s inhuman genocide suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and their mental health was affected by long periods of malnutrition.

In addition, once they arrived in the United States the difficulties of language and cultural assimilation strained the relationship between parents and children. Many were resettled in low income neighborhoods where poverty and poor academic performance were common. Young men tended to band together in gangs, which they viewed as family.

Those who ended up committing crimes and serving jail time are now being doubly punished by being deported to their home country. Older refugees are still traumatized by the inhuman acts of the Khmer Rouge and may be terrified of returning. As for those who came to the United States as children, they have adapted to American life and culture. Most cannot speak, read or write Khmer, the Cambodian language.

It is a tough challenge for such returnees to communicate and make a living in Cambodia, where they carry the added burden of their criminal deportee status. It is even tougher for those who are separated from their parents, wives or children. They surely never expected to face this deportation nightmare after setting foot in the United States, the “land of opportunity.”

As young refugees these people were legally accepted into the United States and are essentially the product of that country. Thus it would seem the U.S. government should take responsibility for them, rather than sending them back to a land they hardly know. The deportation of convicted refugees should be reexamined and their right to appeal should be granted.

Most of all, U.S. policymakers should not take advantage of the plight of immigrants for their own political benefit at the expense of the refugees’ lives and their families’ happiness.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog,, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)

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