The 44-year-old Rohingya man sat cross-legged on a porch in Phnom Penh yesterday, the outskirts of the city spreading out before him like a dusty prize. He is one of 32 Rohingyas who have applied for asylum here after fleeing Burma.
“We have nowhere to go,” he said. “That’s why we came to Cambodia.”
The man was bare-chested and wore a black-and-green checkered sarong, or lungi, as it is called in his homeland. Rohingya men and children sat nearby, while women from the ethnic Muslim group listened from an adjacent room.
“We cannot stay in our home country the same like [we stay in] Cambodia,” he added. “We are thinking we are happy here. We want to stay here.”
The man asked to remain anonymous because he didn’t want any “trouble” with the authorities in Burma. He cited persecution in the military-ruled country, also known as Myanmar, which has come under widespread criticism for its treatment of the minority.
“We [have] no…freedom, no have rights,” he said, quickly growing angry. He cited forced labor and limitations on movement, and handed over a printed page describing more abuses.
The Rohingya asylum-seekers arrived in Phnom Penh in separate groups and by various means, with the first individuals coming in January, the 44-year-old said. The group of 32—19 men, eight children and five women—live in several houses in the city.
He said he has asked for a larger food allowance from a relief organization, but denied that there was a “food crisis,” as reported by a Rohingya news agency.
“They already tell me they will provide,” he said.
The mood in the house seemed upbeat, given the circumstances.
“We are very happy the Cambodian government works with us,” said another man, aged 30, who also asked not to be named.
The government is reviewing the applications of the 32 Rohingya asylum-seekers, according to Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The Council of Ministers, Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Interior Ministry have already interviewed them,” he said, adding that the government is “just verifying the information.”
Mr Kuong said he did not know when a decision on the asylum requests will be made. Asked if Cambodia’s relationship with Burma might affect that decision, he said, “I don’t think so,” and declined to comment further.
In December, Cambodia sent back to China a group of 20 Uighur asylum-seekers, which prompted criticism from around the world. Human rights organizations said the deportation was at least partly a result of Chinese pressure on the Cambodian government.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mail yesterday that he did not think anything similar would happen in this case.
“I can’t imagine that the…government of Burma is going to be rushing to accept these 32 Rohingyas back, unlike the Chinese government which heavily pressured the Cambodian government to forcibly return the 20 Uighurs,” he wrote. “For the [Burmese government], it appears their policy towards the Rohingya is the more that leave, the better.”
Asked about the asylum request, he said that “the Rohingyas are certainly good candidates for receiving asylum.”
“The Rohingyas face some of the most intense political persecution of any group in Southeast Asia and they are singled [out] for persecution and discrimination on the basis of [their] ethnic identity,” he wrote.