Saturday, December 6, 2014

Vietnam Again Puts Cambodia on the Spot Over Montagnards

Criticism of Cambodia’s handling of asylum seekers also puts a recent Australian deal back in the spotlight.

There are no shortage of government critics in Cambodia. But what has made it perhaps the best place to live on mainland Southeast Asia, particularly for foreigners, has been largely driven by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s understandable desire for respect at the international level.

Those attitudes have helped to underpin a free press, secure three convictions at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, and gain Cambodia acceptance at a level undreamed of a decade ago, despite the country’s well-documented flaws.

The Rockefeller Foundation has asked Phnom Penh to join its 100 Resilient Cities network alongside Sydney, London, Montreal and Singapore. Its point is to form a growing network of urban centers around the world that are ready to respond to the social, economic and physical shocks and stresses that are a part and parcel of 21st century living.

“Members of the 100 Resilient Cities network are leading the world in showing that not only is it possible to build urban resilience in every kind of city, but it’s an imperative,” Judith Rodin, President of The Rockefeller Foundation, said earlier this week.

It’s a growing list that will add some cache to a country whose reputation had been dragged out and thoroughly beaten by journalists, politicians, and human rights workers – it’s becoming harder to tell them apart – over its deal with Australia to accept recognized refugees who volunteer to come here.

Amid the scorn heaped on Cambodia were constant, and justified, references to the forced repatriation of Montagnards – also known as Degar – who sought political asylum here after fleeing Vietnam where their persecution has also been well documented, more than a decade ago.

In particular, was the confiscation of their traditional lands which were turned into coffee plantations. But they also face religious intolerance for the practice of a syncretic form of Christianity based around Protestantism.

Their plight is again in the headlines with reports that at least 13 Montagnards had crossed over into what’s left of Cambodia’s northeast jungles in search of safety, with Hanoi apparently determined to get them back – again.

Cambodia is one of only two countries in Southeast Asia that is a signatory to the UN refugee conventions and its international obligations dictate that these people have their cases heard before the proper authorities and that they be treated appropriately.

Vietnam’s attitude to the plight of its own minorities is perverse given its appointment to the UN Human Rights Council just over a year ago. The three-year appointment alongside China and Russia was widely condemned as inappropriate amid warnings it would undermine the credibility of the council.

And the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has warned against forced repatriation.

“The involuntary return of the individuals to Vietnam would represent a violation of international legal obligations which the government of the Kingdom of Cambodia has freely entered into,” UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said. “The group had indicated that they wish to seek asylum in Cambodia.”

Cambodia again has a chance to prove its international credentials and Hun Sen has an opportunity to answer his critics like Kok Ksor – the U.S.-based head of the Degar Foundation – who claims the prime minister is controlled by Hanoi.

At least one Montagnard says he fled after being threatened with arrest because he supported the Degar Foundation.

A repeat of what happened more than a decade ago when hundreds of Montagnards were forced back will only sour Cambodia’s reputation further in the eyes of the international community and make its highly controversial deal with Australia even less palatable. And that is something that neither Hun Sen nor Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott can afford.

Luke Hunt

1 comment:

  1. Cambodia’s treatment of Vietnamese refugees sets a troubling precedent for Australia’s Catholic Vietnamese refugees.
    As we have recently reported, Cambodia’s treatment of ethnic minority Vietnamese refugees has put the country back in the spotlight and, as Fairfax Bangkok correspondent Lindsay Murdoch has noted, Australia’s deal to send its refugees for resettlement in Cambodia is receiving more scrutiny as a result. One thing not yet reported is what might happen to Vietnamese refugees in custody here.
    The ethnic minority group are apparently Protestants from the Central Highlands, part of the J’Rai group who are, according to a 2009 World Bank report, among other sources, a group indigenous to Vietnam. Protestants in the Central Highlands can suffer quite high levels of repression from provincial authorities, thanks in part to their piecemeal assistance to Americans during the war and distrust of their “illegal” home churches. Those who escaped to Cambodia allege ongoing abuse by authorities. If Cambodia repatriates them, what might the nation do to the refugees Canberra gives it?
    Vietnam has the second-largest Catholic population in Southeast Asia, with some six million of its 90 million people following the faith. The Vatican and Hanoi have achieved a cautious rapprochement in recent years and religious freedom is gradually improving, although still very rocky. Nonetheless, many Catholics, thanks to black marks on their families’ histories, may be prevented from accessing education or jobs.
    It was alleged last year by refugees and advocate groups that the Australian government may have allowed security officials to interview those detained in Western Australia, which terrified the detainees. This could, in fact, have been a breach of international law.
    The problem now may be that any Vietnamese resettled in Cambodia may be more vulnerable than most, Catholics especially. Anti-Vietnamese sentiment is an easy populist topic and one opposition politicians such as Sam Rainsy are keen to use. Ethnic Vietnamese were killed in riots this year.