Senior government officials maintained a wall of silence about the outcome of a high-level meeting Thursday at the Interior Ministry to discuss the fates of 24 people from ethnic minority communities in Vietnam currently detained in Phnom Penh.
A senior government source said growing publicity surrounding the case has forced the government into silence on its announced plans to repatriate the group, which was reportedly fleeing persecution in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Co-Ministers of Interior Sar Kheng and You Hockry, Director General of National Police Hok Lundy, Chief of Military Police Sao Sokha and Foreign Affairs Undersecretary of State Long Visalo were either unavailable or declined to comment on the meeting.
Sar Kheng said the meeting was an internal matter of the Interior Ministry. He would not elaborate.
Long Visalo also declined to give details of the meeting or the government’s plans for handling the case.
Neither You Hockry nor Hok Lundy were answering their telephones.
Human rights activists and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have expressed concern that they have not yet been allowed access to the 24 to determine if they are seeking refuge or asylum.
During Thursday’s meeting, two Interior Ministry officials angrily ordered local and foreign journalists waiting outside the meeting room to leave the ministry compound.
A government source close to the case said the government is moving cautiously due to international publicity the case has generated.
“The whole world is now watching,” the source said.
Despite the attention, he said, there likely will not be a change in plans announced earlier this week by Prime Minister Hun Sen that the 24 will be sent back.
But the return of the 24 may be tied to the fate of around 300 ethnic Vietnamese families who have been stranded on the Bassac River in Kandal province since their eviction from the riverbank near Phnom Penh’s Monivong Bridge in 1999.
The families, all long-time Cambodian residents, have been refused entry into Vietnam because they lack the proper documentation to identify them as Vietnamese nationals.
“They refuse to receive hundreds of them, but want to receive 24,” the source said. “If they want to receive back the 24, they must also receive back the hundreds of illegal immigrants in Chrey Thom.”
The source also discounted reports from Mondolkiri that more than a thousand ethnic minorities members have fled into Cambodia border region in the northwest of the country.
“Maybe there is 25 of them and not 24. But there is not hundreds of them,” he said.
Kham Khoeun, governor of Ratanakkiri province, said there has been no sudden migration to the province from Vietnam in recent months.
Deputy Police Chief of Stung Treng Province Touch Naroth also said there has been no visible increase in the number of Vietnamese on the Cambodian side of the border.
Vietnam’s Ambassador to Phnom Penh Nguyen Duy Hung reiterated Thursday that the 24 should be returned to Vietnam. Cambodian officials are still questioning the detainees. No date has yet been set for the return operation, Nguyen Duy Hung said.
Nguyen Duy Hung said he had not heard of large numbers of ethnic-minority members fleeing into Cambodia in recent weeks.