Officials in Mondolkiri province issued conflicting reports Friday regarding the status of 24 people reported to be members of ethnic minority communities from Vietnam’s restive central highlands who were arrested on March 17 and March 22 for illegally entering Cambodia.
Reach Samnang, Mondolkiri province police chief, confirmed Friday that the 23 men and one woman have been sent to the provincial police headquarters in Sen Monorom town, where they are being detained.
According to Reach Samnang, the group was arrested in Cambodia without travel documents and police are waiting to question the group when a translator who speaks their dialect is found.
However, a senior police official said Friday that the group has already told officials that they fled Vietnam following the recent crackdown on hill tribe communities by Hanoi. The group is seeking asylum from Vietnam, the police officer said on the condition on anonymity.
Tor Soeuth, governor of Mondolkiri province, said earlier Friday he was unaware of the presence of the 24 in his province.
He later said that the 24 were still detained in the district of Pich Chreada, where they were initially arrested, and that provincial authorities have not decided what will be done with them.
Tor Soeuth said that officials are unaware of what the 24 were doing in Cambodia and he did not know if they are linked to the recent unrest in the Central Highlands.
Sources at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh said the group is part of the FULRO movement, a French acronym which translates as the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races.
The group comprises four or five ethnic minority tribal groups fighting for an independent state and has battled successive Vietnamese governments from the late 1950s until the early 1990s.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a senior Interior Ministry police official said Friday that ministry and Vietnamese officials in their neighboring border province asked Mondolkiri officials to crack down on minority ethnic Vietnamese living in their province.
“After the hill tribe protest [in Vietnam], some of them were scared to live in their country and asked to live here. They had no choice so they choose to live here,” said the official, adding that a plan is already underway to quickly return the group of 24 to Vietnam.
The are an estimated 200 families—many with links to anti-Hanoi movements—living in the area, he added.
You Hockry, co-minister of interior, said Friday that he was not aware of any plan to send the group back until a full investigation has been completed.
Director General of National Police Hok Lundy is in Mondolkiri to personally take charge of the case, he said.
Despite protests by human rights groups, Cambodian police officials have periodically arrested and delivered to Vietnam suspected members of the anti-Hanoi Free Vietnam Movement found in Cambodia.
(Additional Reporting by Agence France-Presse)