Thach Ry, a 64-year-old Khmer Krom man, fled Vietnam in 2008 after authorities there tried to arrest him for protesting the government’s treatment of his community.
Arriving in Cambodia with his wife and daughter, authorities here tried to arrest him, too, he said, so like many politically active Khmer Krom, he fled to Thailand to apply for asylum at the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
But the UN said no.
“They said we did not have any problems and could [safely] live in Cambodia … so they did not accept us,” he said yesterday.
According to a new report from the Minority Rights Organisation (MIRO), Ry’s experience is a common one for Khmer Krom – the ethnic Khmers who live in southern Vietnam.
The UN most often denies asylum to Khmer Krom based on the idea that they can live safely in Cambodia as citizens, the organisation found.
This is an idea which, according to Chanrith Ang, director at MIRO, is patently false – despite numerous statements by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, including directly to the UNHCR, that Khmer Krom have the same rights as Cambodian citizens when residing in Cambodia.
“They refuse to honour their word that Khmer Krom will be protected in Cambodia.…That’s why when [they] have problems in Vietnam, they escape to Bangkok and just use Cambodia as a way through because they are afraid of the Cambodian government,” he said.
In 2007, Tim Sakhorn, an outspoken Khmer Krom monk, disappeared in Phnom Penh and later turned up in Vietnam, where he was charged with violating national unity and sent to prison.
That same year, the morning after protesting outside the Vietnamese embassy, a young Khmer Krom monk was found with his throat slit at a pagoda in Kandal province.
The UNHCR’s belief that Khmer Krom can live safely in Cambodia is hence “suggestive of a poorly informed and misguided asylum processing system”, the report says.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong yesterday said that Khmer Krom were “treated as Cambodian people”.
But government spokesman Phay Siphan offered a more nuanced assessment.
“If they immigrate to Cambodia for economic purposes and family purposes [yes], but if they were here because of political [activities] against Vietnam, we don’t want to interfere,” he said.
“We don’t want them to use Cambodian territory as a springboard.”
The UNHCR could not be reached for comment yesterday.