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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Silence on Montagnards

Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang
Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang is greeted at the Vietnamese Friendship Monument by an honour guard yesterday in Phnom Penh during the first day of his two-day visit. Heng Chivoan

Silence on Montagnards

The topic of Vietnamese Montagnards seeking asylum in the Kingdom was conspicuously absent from high-level discussions that kicked off Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s two-day visit yesterday.

Following a more than two-hour meeting between heads of state at the Peace Palace, spokesmen said there were no substantial issues addressed.

“The meeting did not focus on any problem, it was just a ceremonial meeting. They did not focus on the 13 Montagnards or on any other issue,” said Eang Sophalleth, personal assistant to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

According to the National Police website, the 13 Montagnards yesterday started interviews at the government’s refugee office to determine the validity of their claims to asylum.

The head of the refugee office told the Post that the screening process can sometimes take the understaffed department up to four years to complete while the refugee seekers wait on temporary visas.

The group of Montagnards, who are currently under the care of the UN refugee office, emerged earlier this week after almost two months hiding in Ratanakkiri’s forest. The minority group allegedly fled persecution and jail time in Vietnam’s highlands.

The Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh again refused to comment on whether the country had made any requests to Cambodia about the asylum-seekers, even though political analysts speculated be-hind-the-scenes negotiations would occur.

“Cambodia is likely in a quite difficult position facing pressure due to its close diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which would want Cambodia to violate international conventions and send the refugees home rather than acknowledge a human rights problem,” said Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang
Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang (left) talks with president of the National Assembly Heng Samrin (right), during a welcoming ceremony at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh yesterday. Heng Chivoan

In 2010, under pressure from Hanoi, Cambodia shuttered a UN-run refugee processing center that had assisted hundreds of Montagnards in gaining resettlement to third countries.

Earlier this month, provincial authorities vowed to root out and deport the “illegal” Montagnards staying in the forest.

The government has since retracted such sentiments against the asylum seekers, maintaining that no country could interfere in Cambodia’s sovereign affairs.

However, Phnom Penh has been accused of bowing to political exigencies while handling previous refugee cases, most infamously in 2009, when the Kingdom deported 20 ethnic Uighurs to placate Beijing. More than $1 billion in grants and loans was delivered to Cambodia just two days later.

However, the likelihood the Montagnards will face the same fate is slim, some said.

“Vietnam does not have the same power over Cambodia as China. Vietnam and Cambodia are on more equal footing, but China is a different story,” said political analyst Chea Vannath.

While the heads of state avoided the refugee issue yesterday, the Vietnamese president did allude to Cambodia’s census of foreigners, which has seen a large number of Vietnamese nationals deported from the Kingdom as illegal immigrants.

“The Vietnamese president has praised the relationship and cooperation between Vietnam and Cambodia, and also asked Cambodia to continue supporting and protecting Vietnamese people who are now living and running business in Cambodia,” said Keo Piseth, a spokesman for Cambodian Parliamentary President Heng Samrin.

From July – when the census began – through November, the government has forcibly repatriated 1,181 foreign nationals, 82 per cent of whom were Vietnamese.

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