Amid increasingly aggressive protests from the Vietnamese, US Ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann maintains the US decision to offer resettlement to two dozen hill tribe members is not driven by a larger US-based policy targeting its former enemy.
“There’s no broader anti-Vietnamese impulse that lies anywhere behind this,” Wiedemann said, deflecting criticism that the US is politicizing what the Vietnamese are trying to characterize as the normal repatriation of illegal immigrants.
The 24 ethnic minority members were arrested last month by Cambodian authorities in Mondolkiri province after fleeing unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. They have since been granted refugee status by the UN. The first 10 left Pochentong Airport for the US Thursday night.
Wiedemann said the US interest in the 24 is not a hard-line stance toward Vietnam by the new US administration, but is purely humanitarian.
“This is not an issue between the US and Vietnam,” he said. “It is simply whether that person has claim to a well-founded fear of persecution if he were to return home.”
Wiedemann said the push for a quick resettlement of the 24 actually came from the Cambodians, who suddenly found themselves at odds with a neighbor who has been their political patron since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
“There is no question [Cambodia] has come under a lot of criticism directly from Vietnam for having decided not to send them back,” Wiedemann said. “The longer the  stay here, the more concerned the Cambodian government is that it will cause more friction with relations with Vietnam.”
The Interior Ministry, along with Foreign Affairs officials, have received the majority of Vietnam’s complaints. Chu Dong Loc, the Vietnamese Embassy’s press attache in Phnom Penh, said Wednesday that “many, many” notes have been sent to both ministries and meetings between Cambodia and Vietnam have been held, though he would not say who the participants were.
But government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the Vietnamese have yet to speak directly with Hun Sen, who has been in personal contact with US officials on the matter since last week.
Chu Dong Loc still maintains the 24 are not political refugees and, even in the face of decreasing likelihood, said his government is “hopeful” at least some of the refugees will be returned.
Cambodian officials have offered a number of explanations as to why Prime Minister Hun Sen reversed his decision to send the 24 back to Vietnam—instead saying they would be best sent to a third country.
Prevalent among these is the idea that Cambodia has developed politically and economically beyond the point of needing such tight ties with the country that has been it closest ally during the last two decades.
“We are a sovereign state. No one can pressure us,” Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said simply.
Hun Sen’s decision to allow the UN access to the 24, despite opposition within his own political party, shows a willingness to strengthen ties with the international community rather than continue engaging in political cronyism with Vietnam, diplomatic officials have said.
“It’s not business as usual. There is a changing dynamic,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“Whenever Vietnam demanded something we always gave it to them, but not any more.”
Diplomatic officials say Hun Sen’s motivation may be more economically motivated, rather than driven by some nationalistic bent.
One commented last week that Cambodia is being pragmatic about where future investment and money is likely to come, and playing to the humanitarian concerns of those potential markets.
“[Hun Sen] is free to change his mind based on his own interests,” Chu Dong Loc said. “Surely the US is richer than Vietnam. But we have given Cambodia much aid…in the past.”
Chu Dong Loc also hinted that the US push to shelter the 24 may be driven by the new US administration.
“The Clinton administration made many improvements,” Chu Dong Lo said. “I understand the [George W] Bush administration may want to change some international policies.”
Observers have noted the emergence of a seemingly less reconciliatory US administration, which has clashed recently with regional neighbors China and North Korea. The US State Department weighed in this week on the issue of the Vietnamese asylum seekers by saying the US was only processing cases referred to it by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
But at the sme time, the US government-appointed US Commission on International Religious Freedom has called for the withdrawal of Washington’s support for most World Bank and International Monetary Fund money for Vietnam.