Ten of the 24 Vietnamese refugees left Cambodia Thursday evening, despite last-ditch efforts by the Vietnamese government to persuade the group to return to their native land.
The 10 left at about 6:30 pm from Pochentong Airport on a flight to Bangkok. From there, they were headed to Los Angeles for resettlement in the US, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said.
“Clearly the Cambodian government was under a great deal of pressure from a neighboring country, but they remained resolutely steadfast and abided by international law,” Wiedemann said. “My country appreciates that greatly.”
Before leaving Cambodia, the 24 Vietnamese were shown a videotape Thursday morning featuring a plea from their relatives to return to Vietnam, government and diplomatic officials said.
In addition, a delegation from the Vietnamese Red Cross also visited the refugees and sent a letter to Cambodian Red Cross President Bun Rany, asking her to facilitate the return of the 24 Vietnamese. Bun Rany is the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The group, which was granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Monday, rejected both the pleas from their relatives and the request from the Vietnamese Red Cross to return to their homeland, a high-ranking military police official said.
“The Vietnamese Red Cross and UNHCR met the 24 Vietnamese and they also want to show a videotape from their relatives,” he said. “But the 24 disagreed and refused to accept the things that they claimed were from their relatives.”
UNHCR representatives were present at both the Vietnamese Red Cross delegation visit and the viewing of the videotape.
“I am aware of the Vietnamese Red Cross and the videotape,” Wiedemann said. “But we made sure that UNHCR, a neutral body, was present during those times.”
The military police official said the video was turned off before it was finished, after the refugees said they did not want to watch it any longer.
Chu Dong Loc, press attache to the Vietnamese embassy, said the Vietnamese government is still working on the case through meetings with Cambodian authorities and other means. Official letters were sent from the Vietnamese government to the Cambodian embassy in Vietnam, the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other agencies requesting the refugees’ return.
“I hope the Cambodian government will grant our request based on our fine relationship,” he said.
The letter from the Vietnamese Red Cross said the organization “considers the assistance for those people to return to Vietnam as a good humanitarian effort to help them reunite with their wives, husbands, children and family.”
But time is running out for the Vietnamese government. US immigration officials will continue interviewing the remaining 14 Vietnamese and they will leave Cambodia “as soon as possible,” Wiedemann said.
Vietnam has said the 24 are ordinary citizens who crossed the border illegally, while the group say they are hill tribe minorities fleeing unrest in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. The 24 were arrested more than two weeks ago in Mondolkiri province.