62 Detained Ethnic Khmers To Be Deported To Cambodia

Sixty-two ethnic Khmers from Vietnam, including five former Buddhist monks, who fled to Thai­land seeking asylum, were arrested in Bangkok on Saturday and will be deported to Cambodia, representatives of the asylum seekers, who are known as Khmer Krom, said on Sunday.

Thach Setha, executive director of the local organization Khmer Krom Community, said the ethnic minority members were seeking refugee status from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refu­gees in Bangkok before they were arrested by Thai police.

“They were accepted by the UNHCR in Bangkok as refugees, and were waiting to be interview­ed for asylum,” Mr Setha said on Sunday.

“The Khmer Krom Association in Bangkok told me that 62 Khmer Krom people, including five former monks, who had recently fled to Thailand, were arrested and will be returned to Cambodia,” he said.

Kamrob Palawatwichai, first secretary for the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, said Sunday that he was on vacation and had not heard about the arrests. Thai Ambas­sador Viraphand Vachar­athit could not be reached for comment.

Regional UNHCR spokeswom­an Kitty McKinsey was also on vacation and could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

Speaking by telephone from Bangkok on Sunday, Tim Sakhorn, a Khmer Krom monk who is currently undergoing the asylum pro­cess in Bangkok, said that the five former monks were arrested on Saturday despite having received letters of protection from the UNHCR in Bangkok.

“If the UNHCR cannot negotiate with Thai authorities to protect them, they will be sent to Cam­bodia—maybe on Monday,” Mr Sakhorn said, adding that he is concerned that he would be arrested also.

The UN refugee agency has granted Mr Sakhorn temporary refugee status, valid until June 20. However, Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and has been criticized many times internationally for its poor treatment of refugees, most recently the ethnic Rohingyas fleeing Burma.

Yont Tharo, a Khmer Krom and SRP lawmaker for Banteay Mean­chey province, said Sunday that the arrested Khmers had fled Vietnam in the wake of land dispute protests there.

“I do not know about their fortune yet, but I ask the government to please not return them to Vietnam…the authorities in Viet­nam might imprison them,” he said.

Though the loss of Kampuchea Krom, or lower Cambodia to Viet­nam, has long been an emotive issue for Cambodians, only in re­cent years has information em­erged out of the Mekong delta area of southern Vietnam that ethnic Khmers have protested over a myriad of alleged abuses related to land, education and religion practices of the ethnic Khmer population.

Vietnam, which maintains an iron grip on its ethnic populations, denies such abuses and maintains that there is no discontent among its sizeable ethnic Khmer population. News that so many Khmer Krom had fled to Bangkok seeking asylum may also come as something of a surprise to the government in Hanoi.

Ang Chanrith, head of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organization, said that he was worried that the asylum-seekers would be ultimately deported to Vietnam if they were returned to Cambodia.

“We have concerns about their security if they return to Cambo­dia,” he said.

Cambodian officials contacted on Sunday said they had no knowledge of the arrests and pending deportations.

Government spokesman and Min­ister of Information Khieu Kanharith said on Sunday that he had not heard of the mass arrests. and neither had National Police spokes­­man Kieth Chantharith.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said on Sunday that, though he was unaware of the arrests, whe­ther the asylum seekers would be deported was a decision for the Thai authorities.

“Our government will have to respond for them if they are real Khmer, because the Constitution protects them and the government has to protect them, too,” Mr Yeap said.

(Additional reporting by Bethany Lindsay)


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