Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara defended his actions Monday, reiterating that the hundreds of Vietnamese villagers who were kicked out of their homes last week near the Monivong Bridge area had to leave because they are illegal immigrants and are polluting the Bassac River.
“I will not stop my actions of removing illegal immigrants because what I do has support from my people,” he said. “If any NGOs criticize me, I will listen. But if they want me to stop, it’s not possible.”
More than 350 villagers living in floating homes and sampans have been removed so far from Meanchey district. Officials say the remaining Vietnamese living in shacks on land will be kicked out throughout this month and next month.
Human rights groups have questioned whether the approximately 1,000 Vietnamese villagers living in Meanchey district are indeed illegal immigrants as authorities claim. The groups said the government needs to have a process to find out whether the villagers are here illegally.
“There are immigration and nationality laws, so there has to be a process using those laws,” one human rights official said. “Right now it’s indiscriminate.”
Kek Galabru, founder of the local human rights group Licadho, has asked for a meeting with Chea Sophara to ask him to thoroughly investigate the status of the villagers.
Chea Sophara admitted that officials did not check for identification documents.
He said officials will check for identification later. He said his first objective was to remove the villagers and separate them. Then it will be easier to find out whether they are illegal, he said.
About 30 Vietnamese filed complaints at Licadho on Friday and more filed Monday, Kek Galabru said. The villagers told Licadho they have documents that prove they are legal.
She said she is not yet sure whether the immigrants are legal or not because the documents they have could be fake.
“Before we conclude anything, we have to talk to each family,” Kek Galabru said. “We can’t just take their word.”
Human rights groups said the Vietnamese are being targeted because of the historic animosity Cambodians have felt toward their neighbors.
But residents of Preak Pra, where many of the Vietnamese villagers went after they were kicked out, criticized Licadho for being pro-Vietnamese.
“We must continue to kick them out from our land,” said Sok An, 50.
Chea Sophara said Cambodians asked officials to remove the Vietnamese from the area.
Kek Galabru noted that Licadho also worked on the illegal Chinese immigrants case, but no one criticized the group then.
“We have to help,” she said of the Vietnamese. “If we don’t, we’re not a real human rights group.”