Khmer Krom: Thailand Expels Asylum Seekers
Rights workers say group was trucked out of Thailand after UN officials previously intervened to secure release of others
Following the release on Monday [16 March 2009] of 19 Khmer Krom refugees from a Bangkok prison, the seven remaining in detention were abruptly expelled from the country under suspicious circumstances, according to local rights activists.
Ang Chanrith, head of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Human Rights Organization, said seven Khmer Krom political refugees were shuttled to the Poipet border crossing in Banteay Meanchey province in the middle of the night Thursday [19 March 2009].
The original group of 19 Khmer Krom, who hold refugee documents from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), were released after the UN office petitioned Thai officials to recognise them as legitimate asylum seekers, he said. Ang Chanrith has been working on the case with UN officials in Bangkok and Phnom Penh.
Members of the group released Monday [16 March 2009] had contacted him early Thursday [19 March 2009] morning to warn of the departure of the seven left in detention, who were recent arrivals to Bangkok and therefore had not yet been registered with the UNHCR, he said.
"We are concerned they could be taken back to Vietnam," he said.
Escaping the past
Ang Chanrith said all 26 people had fled Vietnam after they feared imprisonment at the hands of authorities there following public demonstrations against limits on their freedom of culture, religion and speech.
Rights groups and Khmer Krom activists have accused the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments of engaging in a persistent and often violent campaign to stifle the rights and distinct identity of the Khmer ethnic group originating from what is now Vietnam's southern Delta.
Hun Hean, provincial police chief of Banteay Meanchey, said he had not heard about the incident, adding that between 100 and 200 illegal Khmer immigrants were turned over by Thai authorities at the border each day.
Suong Sopheap, a program officer with the Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre in Banteay Meanchey, said his staff had attempted to track the whereabouts of the group without success.
"We have staff remaining in Poipet who are continuing to monitor the situation," he said.
Christophe Peschoux, head of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Phnom Penh, said his office was following the case but had not been in contact with the group.
"It's a very tricky situation for Khmer Krom in Cambodia," he said. "Even if the government gives them citizenship, if they agitate from Cambodia it could create tension between the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments; and Cambodia could be pressured to prevent it or hand them over to Vietnamese authorities."
The government has said all Khmer Krom are entitled to Cambodian citizenship, but Khmer Krom activists and rights groups say their status as Cambodians is ambiguous and can be stricken at the whim of the state.