US officials expect access to the two dozen ethnic Vietnamese minorities currently in Cambodian custody as early as Tuesday, a US Embassy official said Friday, anticipating that some, if not all, of the detainees will ask for political asylum.
The 24 hill tribe members thought to have fled political unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands are currently being interviewed by the UN’s High Commissioner on Refugees, who are working to determine if any of the group should be given refugee status.
Those determined to be refugees will undergo further interviews by US officials. The US has already agreed to resettle any of the 24 who ask for asylum, despite sustained pressure from the Vietnamese government that the group be returned to Vietnam.
But efforts to communicate with the 24 have been hampered by the lack of a translator who speaks Radeh, their native hill tribe dialect, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said.
“Clearly there are difficulties, these people speak a very rare tribal language,” he said. All the interviews thus far have been made in Vietnamese—spoken by a small number of the group—and translated into English.
Some officials have expressed concern that the slow pace of the interviews could give the government more time to build enough of a criminal case against the 24 to justify their return to Vietnam.
Despite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision earlier this week that the group would be best off in a third country, factions inside his own CPP loyal to the Hanoi government are pushing for the group’s repatriation.
In what some observers claim is an attempt to stall the asylum process, interior ministry officials are lobbying for the group’s prosecution in Cambodian court on charges that they illegally entered the country.
The 23 men and one woman were arrested late last month after crossing into Mondolkiri province from Vietnam. While it remains unclear if any in the group had political affiliations, the Vietnamese government maintains the 24 are not fleeing for political reasons and insists they be returned.
Authorities vow none in the group will be harmed if returned to Vietnam.
Vietnamese Ambassador to Cambodia Nguyen Duy Hung said earlier this week that the US’s offer of asylum could create a refugee situation on the Vietnamese-Cambodia border. Many others could flee the country trying to get passage to the US. It could destabilize the region, he said.
A report on the situation has been sent to Hanoi, which has yet to decide what “future action” will be taken on the matter, Nguyen Duy Hung said.
But despite Hanoi’s anger, Wiedemann said Vietnamese pressure and dissent within the Cambodian government isn’t likely to stop—or even slow—the asylum determination process.
“I know there are probably some who would like to see them sent back to Vietnam, but the prime minister has been very clear, very firm, about his decision,” Wiedemann said.
Wiedemann also dismissed the argument that the 24 should first stand trial for illegal entry, saying they are already too far along in the asylum process.
“The fact is [Cambodia] gave the UNHCR access to determine if these people are refugees, and if the UNHCR does determine this—and that appears to be happening—any other evidence is contradictory and not credible,” he said.
Hun Sen’s agreeing to send the 24 to a third country marks a distinct break in his relationship with Vietnam, which has long been a patron of Cambodia and has exerted a huge political and cultural influence over its impoverished neighbor.
But one Asian diplomat said this week that perhaps Hun Sen is turning more away from the political cronyism that has defined Cambodia’s relationship with Vietnam in recent years.
“This is one in a string of actions that will show the country wants to be sovereign,” the diplomat said.
“The old guard will grumble, but the government is pragmatic. It knows that investment and money is going to come from the west, not Vietnam….On this issue Vietnam is quite isolated.”