A SUB-DECREE trebling the number of police stationed along Cambodia's north-eastern
border has raised fears it is a further attempt to crack down on ethnic minority
Montagnards fleeing repression in Vietnam.
Sub-decree 124, which was signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on December 20, orders
that another 600 police be recruited and posted along the Vietnamese border with
effect from March. Around 300 border police currently operate in the two provinces
of Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri.
The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, said the move had "serious implications"
for any Montagnards seeking asylum in Cambodia.
"The fact is that the police are out there searching for people and denying
them access to asylum," said Nikola Mihajlovic, head of UNHCR's liaison office
in Phnom Penh. "We always hear people are being deported, but we have no way
of confirming that. But it is for UNHCR [not the government] to say who is an illegal
immigrant and who is in need of asylum.
"Every country has the right to deploy its security personnel the way it wishes,"
he said of the potential effects of the sub-decree, "but we know in the provinces
that people are not managing to claim asylum, and we hear rumors that people are
being deported back to Vietnam."
A US Embassy spokesperson said the international community recognized that Cambodia
was "in a difficult position" when it came to dealing with Montagnards
coming across the border.
"It also recognizes that the source of the problems is not in Cambodia, but
in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and that is where the focus of addressing the
Montagnards' legitimate concerns needs to be directed," the spokesperson said.
However, the embassy noted, that did not relieve Cambodia of its obligations under
the UN Convention on Refugees regarding the right to first asylum.
"We would join UNHCR in encouraging Cambodia to adhere to its international
obligations ... in those cases that warrant protection under international law."
The move comes in the wake of a recent report by US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW)
detailing increased repression of Montagnards in the Central Highlands area of Vietnam,
which is adjacent to Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces.
HRW noted that the increase in police numbers matched a similar effort by Vietnam,
which last October placed some 600 'Fast Deployment' military teams on its side of
The governor of Mondolkiri, Tor Soeuth, denied the intention was to turn back asylum
seekers, but then seemed to contradict himself, saying one purpose of the law was
to prevent "illegal migration" across the border line.
"This sub-decree is not related to restricting Montagnards," said Soeuth.
"It is to work for security along the border. It is very important that we can
patrol the border and quickly get information on drugs trafficking and illegal migration
across the border."
The governor said 200 men in 25 posts currently worked the 250 kilometer border.
"We don't have enough police or proper shelters for them, and we were therefore
unable to patrol some parts of the border, and lacked the ability to communicate
information," Soeuth said.
His comments were echoed by a senior provincial official in Ratanakkiri province,
who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity. He denied the move was in response
to Vietnamese pressure to turn back Montagnards. However he did admit that Hanoi
had asked for help to combat "cross-border migration".
February marks the second anniversary of an uprising by the ethnic minority tribespeople
in the Central Highlands. The Montagnards organized widespread protests, which were
quickly crushed by Hanoi, following complaints of mistreatment and discrimination.
The crackdown caused hundreds to flee across the border to Cambodia, which as a signatory
to the UN Convention of Refugees is obliged to provide sanctuary to asylum seekers
until their status has been properly assessed.
Around 900 Montagnards were eventually accepted as refugees by the United States.
Reports both during that time and since indicate that hundreds more were deported
or sold back to Vietnam by Cambodian authorities. UNHCR said that only a dozen Montagnards
had made it to Phnom Penh since the refugee camps in the two provinces were closed
in March last year.
It was around that time that Phnom Penh decided it would no longer respect its obligations
under international law, and would regard any new asylum-seekers as illegal immigrants.
Those caught have been immediately deported without the chance to have their claims
The new policy followed pressure from Hanoi, which was annoyed at widespread international
criticism of the repression that followed the Montagnard uprising. It had criticized
Cambodia for not deporting all the Montagnards.