US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann on Wednesday said he expects to file a formal request with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Cambodia and Vietnam to clarify a Montagnard repatriation agreement signed Monday, saying it is unclear and incomplete.
“The issue here is this agreement, stated in the form of a report—and we regard it as nothing more than a report or statement—is not a final or firm agreement,” Wiedemann said.
“It only touches on some aspects of the discussions and omits references to some things we find quite fundamental…. Clearly I would expect some modification.”
One of Wiedemann’s biggest concerns is that the phrase “voluntary repatriation” appears nowhere in the four-page written statement signed by the two countries and the UNHCR, despite repeated assurances from the UNHCR that none of the nearly 1,000 Montagnards under its care in Cambodia will be forced to go back to Vietnam.
UNHCR regional representative Jahanshah Assadi said Monday his organization would not be involved in forced deportations.
Wiedemann also said that although Vietnam agreed to allow the UNHCR access to the Central Highlands before, during and after the repatriation process, the agreement “does not spell out what that means.”
Nor does the agreement categorize the Montagnards as either “refugees” or “persons of concern,” and Wiedemann said such vague wording might allow Cambodia to stop offering new arrivals from Vietnam access to the UNHCR.
Though he acknowledged that not every person coming from Vietnam might be a legitimate asylum seeker, Wiedemann said, “It’s very clear there have been instances in Vietnam of conflict, oppression, jailings, perhaps violence involving the Montagnard people.
“The presumption is that anyone coming across the border has a pretty damned good case in asking for asylum.”
UNHCR officials in Phnom Penh could not be contacted Wednesday.
After months spent quietly observing the Montagnard situation from the sidelines, the US appears to have again become involved.
At least 38 Montagnards were resettled in the US early last year shortly after the first groups of asylum seekers appeared in Cambodia following a heavy-handed government crackdown in Vietnam.
The US move was heavily criticized by Vietnam, which accused the US of meddling in its internal affairs.
Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Chu Dong Loc maintained Wednesday that the Montagnard situation remains an issue to be resolved by the UNHCR, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“These were discussions between these three parties only,” he said.
The Montagnards have support in the US, which forged strong ties with Vietnam’s ethnic minorities during the US war in Vietnam. The US accepted almost 400 Montagnard former fighters in 1992.
“This does receive a lot of attention within our administration,” Wiedemann said. “There is a clear sense that although the numbers here are not large, there is still the fundamental issue of the persecution of a minority by Vietnam.”
Montagnard advocates in the US—some of whom have visited the UNHCR camps in Cambodia—have demanded that none of the asylum seekers be returned to Vietnam.
Wiedemann again said the US is willing to take Montagnards who choose not to go back to Vietnam. He said he will push the UNHCR to keep third-country resettlement as an available option, and claimed it was the only option for some asylum seekers in Cambodia.
“Resettlement obviously flows from the principle of voluntary repatriation,” he said.