Police in Takeo province tried to deport 21 members of the Khmer Krom ethnic minority back to Vietnam Wednesday morning, though the group turned around after the police had left and walked back into Cambodia, officials said.
An Sam Ath, chief of the border police stationed in Kiri Vong district’s Kamnoap commune, said he released the group, which included 12 children, at 7 am at an unofficial border crossing.
An Sam Ath said he did not inform Vietnamese authorities when he released the group because he felt pity for them.
“These people must pay gratitude to me for that,” he said, adding: “It is my duty to send them back to Vietnam.” The group had previously been held at the commune police station after being apprehended Monday evening.
Nguyen Son Thuy, counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy, hung up the phone when contacted by a reporter.
Dozens of Khmer Krom have crossed the Takeo border from Vietnam in recent days allegedly fleeing after anti-government protests in Soc Trang and Can Tho provinces.
The 21 are now seeking refuge with the Takeo-based Khmer Kampuchea Krom Friends Association, said association director San Savang. “There are 42 Khmer Kampuchea Krom in my office right now,” he said. “We will find jobs for them,” he said, adding that in the meantime they can work for Takeo farmers.
Lam Titay, a 50-year-old Khmer Krom from Vietnam, said police loaded her group onto trucks destined for the border at 2 am Wednesday.
“Police wanted to deport us,” she said by telephone. “I don’t have employment in Khmer Kampuchea Krom. I came to Cambodia to sell my labor to Cambodian farmers,” she said.
She also said she feared “chaos” in Vietnam following the alleged anti-government demonstrations, which she claimed to have watched on television.
Lam Set, 58, said he jumped off the police truck as he was being taken to the border and ran away.
“We didn’t want to go back. The women cried and the men jumped,” he said.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined comment Wednesday, referring questions to the Interior Ministry.
Interior Ministry spokesman and Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment. (Additional reporting by Emily Lodish.)