BATTAMBANG PROVINCE — Lanh Than never wanted his sister to be involved in politics. He advised her against joining the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party years ago, and then urged her to defect to the ruling party when Prime Minister Hun Sen moved to crush the CNRP.
“It is risky,” Than, 35, who works as a driver for a private company, said during a recent interview with VOA Khmer.
But Lanh Thavry, now 33, didn’t listen to her brother. Instead, she became the chief of Russey Kroak commune in Banteay Meanchey province, along Cambodia’s western border with Thailand.
But her time in office was short lived, as the CNRP was dissolved in 2017 and the government immediately stripped the party 5,007 commune councilors of their elected positions. Now that she’s jailed in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, after being deported from Thailand in November 2021, Than hopes his sister may finally heed his warning. But he knows she might not.
Thavry the mother of a boy and girl, who are now living with her ex-husband, was among dozens of activists and opposition members who fled to Thailand to avoid political prosecution under Hun Sen’s government amid its crackdown on voices of dissent in Cambodia.
She was recognized by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as a political refugee after fleeing to Thailand, yet was still deported to Cambodia in November on criminal charges of “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest,” a charge widely used to silence critics, according to her lawyer, Sam Sokong.
The move by Thai authorities has been condemned by the U.N. refugee agency and Human Rights Watch, which said it showed a “blatant disregard” for international principles of human rights and political freedom.
‘She just listened but she didn’t follow’
After the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the opposition party on November 16, 2017, Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 36 years, asked all opposition members to defect to secure position at the communes.
Than advised his sister to make the leap to the party she had been struggling against for years.
“She just listened but she didn’t follow. She said she couldn’t betray voters’ will,” he said in a recent interview at his rented room in Battambang City.
“Not only she didn’t follow me, but also she fled the country,” he added.
Than hasn’t met with Thavry since she won her commune post in the June 2017 local election. He said he is strangely happy that she is back in Cambodia.
“I am happy that she has been jailed here. It is very weird that I say so. But when she is released she will have freedom to live in Cambodia,” said Than, a father of two. “She doesn’t need to be worried all the time that she can’t come back to Cambodia, fearing arrests.”
Thavry finished high school in Battambang province, and then got married and settled down with her husband in Banteay Meanchey province, where she started her political life as a grassroots activist of CNRP in 2016 and a year later contested the local elections.
“When she studied at high school, she was not interested in politics. I don’t know why and how she became interested after she got married,” Than said.
Thavry called him during those early days of activism and asked what he thought about her involvement with the opposition party.
“She told me that she joined politics. I told her that it is your right since you have a husband. I can only prohibit you if you are under my responsibility,” he said.
Not long after that, she was placed at the top of the CNRP’s candidate list in Russey Kroak commune and then became commune chief when the CNRP won six commune council seats to Cambodian People’s Party’s five — receiving 4,868 votes to CPP’s 4,003, according to the data of the National Election Committee.
“She told me that she won the commune post. I was not happy at all,” he said.
“She was still young and had no experience of how to lead a commune,” he added. “But I told her to work well and respect the elderly people [from the ruling party].”
Across the country, the opposition party won close to 500 commune chief positions — short of their expectations but far more than the few dozen seats won by the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party, combined, in 2012.
The local election was a warning shot for Hun Sen and his ruling party, already reeling from their narrow victory in the 2013 national election, in which the CNRP won 55 seats in the National Assembly and nearly 45 percent of total votes, forcing the CPP into a short-lived power sharing deal.
Around two months after their impressive showing in local elections, opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested in a midnight raid and whisked away to the Trapaing Plong prison along the Vietnamese border.
Senior CNRP leaders quickly left the country fearing they were next, and lower-level officials quietly slid into Thailand — with many more following them after the dissolution of the party weeks later.
‘I think it is a charge against her ideas’
The last message Than exchanged with his sister was on October 19, 2021, when she asked him to transfer money to be treated in Thailand for her chronic lung disease.
“My party always gives me money when I get sick,” reads the Facebook message she sent to her brother. “But this time I don’t want to tell them. [I feel] ashamed.”
Although Than never wanted his sister to get caught up in politics, he defended her freedom to express herself, and urged the court to speed up her trial so that the family knows how long she will remain behind bars.
“I think she does not commit any treason. I think it is a charge against her ideas. This is a charge against her support for the opposition party,” he said.
“I think it is very unfair to bring charges of treason against the political supporters or those who dare to express opinion in democratic society,” he added.
Thavry was deported back to Cambodia along with CNRP members Voeun Veasna and Voeung Samnang, ostensibly for violating immigration laws though they were quickly jailed for serious criminal charges upon returning to their home country.
Voeung Samnang’s wife, Teang Chenda, 34, says she doesn’t know much about her husband’s political activities with CNRP, adding that her husband lived in Thailand for around four years.
“If he doesn’t commit anything wrong, I call for his release,” said the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, in an interview with VOA Khmer.
Samnang is jailed on charges of alleged plotting and incitement to provoke chaos, according to Chhay Kimkhoeun, spokesman of Cambodia’s National Police.
Other Cambodian political refugees in Thailand say they are living in fear after the deportations.
Ron Chanthy fled the country in 2019 when he was told that he was wanted by the authorities, and was later sentenced in absentia to one year and a half in prison on charges of incitement and plotting.
“We live under pressure now,” Chanthy told VOA Khmer. “The government is worried about the opposition democratic politicians trying to grab their power. So, they break us.”
The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh has not responded to VOA Khmer’s emails requesting comment on the arrests.
‘Nowadays, we can’t say anything’
A number of villagers in Russey Kroak commune, where Thavry was elected as the leader, said that they didn’t want to talk about politics or the opposition when approached by VOA Khmer reporters.
VOA Khmer reporters asked about 10 people to be interviewed, but they refused to talk even without giving names.
However, after about 10 people refused to speak with VOA, even without using their names, a rice farmer who was surveying his field agreed to talk.
Marn Torb, 62, said he wanted top politicians to be “comprising”, which he said will be beneficial for the country and his rice production as well, as it would avoid potential EU sanctions on rice coming from the country.
The rice farmer said he had learned of Thavry’s arrest and return to Cambodia through the news.
“I am afraid of talking [about politics] since I am concerned about disappearance,” he said. “When they got along with each other, there was no problem when we said something. Nowadays, we can’t say anything. We pretend to completely ignore,” he said.
“There is no democracy. How can we have since the opposition party was dissolved?”
As Torb was giving the interview, a neighbor was listening in. Before driving off, he told reporters “You interview him, but don’t put my name. I am afraid that when I leave here, you will ask my name since I didn't participate in the interview.”
Than says that he is “very worried” about Thavry’s health.
“She needs to be treated well and live in a favorable condition. She still uses regular medicines. Otherwise, she coughs with blood,” he said.
Than says he will again ask his sister when she is out of jail to end her political life.
“I again insist that she stops. This is my public call. I hope my sister will hear this after she gets out of jail,” he added.
“I don’t prohibit her, but as her only brother, I ask her to stop, but if she doesn’t stop, it is her affair,” he said. “But if she denies again, I only have one final word: regret.”