A group of 24 Vietnamese who have been detained on charges of illegally entering Cambodia told Mondolkiri provincial officials they are just some of about 1,100 tribes people who have crossed the border to flee government forces in Vietnam.
So far, only the 24 have been found, but government officials said they were searching in the northeastern provinces of Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng for more people.
The Vietnamese are believed to be from tribes in the Central Highlands who protested a government crackdown on their Christian religion, then fled as forces from Hanoi responded to the unrest.
“They said that their group has up to 1,100 people who entered our country,” said Tor Soeuth, Mondolkiri province governor. “I heard they came here to seek asylum,” he said.
“We are carrying on research to find more people,” Tor Soeuth said. “It’s up to the government what should be done with those people.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen refused to comment Tuesday on the issue.
“I won’t talk to you,” he told reporters. “What I said was enough,” he added, apparently referring to comments he made on Monday that the detainees should be returned to Vietnam. He said Monday that Cambodia would not offer the detainees political asylum.
Officials in Ratanakkiri said they had no confirmation of any additional Vietnamese entering the country.
“I deployed border officials to check for illegal immigrants,” said Governor Kham Khoeun, speaking by phone from Ratanakkiri province. “Nothing [has developed] in my province,” he said.
The UN High Commission for Refugees has asked permission to meet with the government and interview the detainees, said John Farvolden, the UNHCR officer in charge. The government has not responded to a request sent Monday, he said.
“At this point we will monitor the situation for further developments,” he said.
Some of the detainees, who were arrested between March 17 and March 22, told Tor Soeuth that they have engaged in non-violent demonstrations to protest religious repression and to air land grievances, according to the Associated Press.
Though the identity of the detainees could not be confirmed Tuesday, their flight from Vietnam coincides with the government’s persecution of an ethnic minority group that resulted in an uprising earlier this month over land grievances and what they said was religious persecution.
The protests led to violence two weeks ago when Vietnamese government forces responded to the rare uprising with force. Government officials blamed the unrest on a US-based ethnic group, the Montagnards.
Members of the group fought alongside US forces in the war in Vietnam, a history that has led to strained relations with Hanoi.