Prime Minister Hun Sen said Tuesday there was little chance that Cambodia will return two dozen hill tribe minorities detained here to Vietnamese authorities, who claim they belong to an anti-Hanoi group and should be sent back.
Instead, the premier said it would be easier for the 24 to be sent to a third country. Hun Sen’s remarks come shortly after the US agreed to take the group, pending UN approval, and marks a complete reversal of the government’s position of a week ago that the 24 would quickly be repatriated.
“I understand these 24 could not topple the Vietnamese government,” Hun Sen said. “If a third country would take them, I think that is a good path.”
Hun Sen said he wanted to avoid a refugee situation in Cambodia, but said that if Vietnam could control unrest in its hill tribe regions, ethnic minorities there wouldn’t feel compelled to leave the country.
Echoing Hun Sen’s sentiments, US Ambassador to Cambodian Kent Wiedemann said Tuesday that ethnic unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands needs to be dealt with by Hanoi to avoid further waves of hill tribe members from seeking refuge in Cambodia.
“We would hope Vietnam will take action so as to end whatever abuses are occurring that have resulted in these people having to come to Mondolkiri,” Wiedemann said.
On Monday the US embassy here announced it would help the two dozen go to the US if they are determined to be asylum seekers.
“These people would probably prefer to stay in Vietnam but they felt they had to escape in order to save their lives or keep from serious harm,” Wiedemann said.
The group that was arrested late last month for illegally entering Cambodia is being questioned by the officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who are trying to determine whether they should be considered political refugees and given asylum in a third country.
Shortly before the group’s discovery in Cambodia, Vietnamese authorities cracked down on ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands, leading some observers to speculate the 24 had fled persecution there.
Wiedemann said Tuesday that embassy officials, as well as representatives from the US State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Services, have been in contact with the 24 and that the US has urged UNHCR to speed up the interview process.
Officials from those agencies will follow UNHCR with their own interviews, Wiedemann said.
The US’s offer of asylum has been met with demands from Vietnam that the US stop interfering in the case.
“The fact that the United States has announced it might give these people asylum status clearly shows a US attempt to take advantage of them to interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hanoi said in a statement Tuesday, according to Reuters.
While disturbances have occurred in the highlands region they were not connected to local problems, but rather engineered by outside forces who have tried to destabilize the area, Vietnamese Embassy Press Attaché Chu Dong Loc said Tuesday.
“We admit that there has been some unrest but that was bad elements from outside the country,” Chu Dong Loc said. “The matter is settled already and now is quiet,” he said.
Chu Dong Loc said their is no exact information on which outside group was behind the “unrest” but noted that members of the anti-Hanoi group FULRO have resettled in the US.
Some of the group’s former members are still in the Central Highlands, he added.
Mondolkiri province Governor Tor Seuth said Tuesday that the resettlement of the 24 in the US could lead to an influx of similar asylum seekers in his province.
The 24 told provincial authorities that as many 1,000 more hill tribes people are preparing to enter Cambodian territory from different locations in Vietnam, Tor Seuth said.
The 1,000 are alleged to be currently hiding near the Cambodian border, but the detainees gave no further details, he added.
Officials have been sent to investigate the refugees’ claims and border security has been increased to prevent more people from crossing the border from Vietnam.
“If other country’s accept such people openly then others that do not have a problem will run to Cambodia in hope of moving to a third country,” Tor Seuth said.
Touch Naroth, police chief of Stung Treng province, said Tuesday that rather than being frightened of arrest, Vietnamese illegally entering Cambodia will seek detention in the hopes of becoming asylum seekers.
“Everyone wants to go to the US. So why should the Vietnamese hesitate to come to Cambodia and get arrested and then get a visa to the US,” Touch Naroth said.
UNHCR’s acting Cambodia Director John Farvolden said he could not predict the impact of the US’s decision to grant the 24 asylum. He said commenting on future asylum cases would be “pure speculation” at this point.
Wiedemann said any further asylum seekers would be treated on a “case-by-case” basis, though he hoped the Vietnamese wouldn’t act in a way that created more refugees.
“We seek to have relations with Vietnam be as cordial as possible, but in cases like this, where there have been apparent problems…we do have concerns,” Wiedemann said.
“Based on initial interviews, it seems like our concerns have been borne out by accounts from these prospective refugees.”
Wiedemann said he had no explanation for the prime minister’s reversal other than perhaps the emergence of “new facts about the situation.”
“Cambodia is taking a very principled position here that is obviously difficult given the demands of its neighbor,” he said. “But it is living up to international standards here to refer on to the UNHCR those possibly claiming refugee status.”
(Reporting by Seth Meixner, Thet Sambath and Kevin Doyle)