The governor of Ratanakkiri province is not cooperating with efforts by the U.N. to negotiate safe passage for five Montagnard asylum seekers who crossed the border from Vietnam nearly two weeks ago, a U.N. official said Thursday.
Wan-Hea Lee, the country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said in an email that her office had attempted to open a line of communication with the governor, Thorng Savun, to discuss allowing the Montagnards to apply for asylum.
“[On Thursday], he responded that he is unable to participate in what he deemed would be an unofficial teleconference,” Ms. Lee said.
She added that Mr. Savun asked OHCHR to get permission from the interior and foreign affairs ministries before he would agree to a discussion.
“OHCHR is unaware of any laws or regulations requiring international organizations to obtain authorization from these Ministers to meet with a provincial governor,” Ms. Lee said.
Contacted Thursday, Mr. Savun confirmed he had received a request from an OHCHR official asking for cooperation in allowing the Montagnards—members of an ethnic minority from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—to apply for asylum.
“I told him I would not be able to receive those officials unless the Ministry of Interior instructs me to participate in finding those people,” Mr. Savun said.
“I will not allow the U.N. to meet the five people in a forest if they have not received permission from the upper levels,” he added.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he had returned from a holiday Thursday and was not up to date on the Montagnards’ situation.
An ethnic Jarai villager, who has been hiding the group since their arrival and requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from authorities, said the Montagnards were still in hiding and waiting for contact from the U.N.
He said that district police, who began an aggressive door-to-door search of Jarai homes on January 10, were still searching for the group.
Thirteen other Montagnards fled from Vietnam to Cambodia in October and hid in the forest for more than two months until the U.N. eventually reached them in late December. They were then transferred to Phnom Penh, where they are still in the process of seeking refugee status from the Interior Ministry.