A Vietnamese Montagnard family is moved to a United Nations safe house in Phnom Penh, in this file image taken July 2004. (Photo by Suy Se/AFP)
Cambodia is coming under increasing international pressure ahead of hosting the prestigious World Economic Forum (WEF), following its handling of about 50 asylum seekers, all Montagnards from Vietnam, with about half of them fleeing here for Thailand in recent weeks.
Most of the other half have already been "voluntarily returned" to Vietnam with some assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Increased numbers of Montagnards fled Vietnam in late March and early April and a group representative said the 26 Montagnards returning to Vietnam were unhappy and frightened the government will put them in jail amid ongoing restrictions of their religious and political rights.
That has human rights activists concerned about Cambodia's ability to hold the WEF.
"Really Cambodia is one of the last places that a major meeting like the WEF should be held in the region," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
"Not only is the human rights situation already in free fall, but any large meeting in Phnom Penh immediately prompts massive round ups of poor people, homeless persons and sex workers who are thrown into detention as part of a so-called 'beautification' campaign'," he added.
Business groups and the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen had hoped the May 10-12 WEF would afford Cambodia an international stage to show-off the solid economic strides which have been made here since three decades of war ended almost 20 years ago.
"A lot of good has occurred here in business and the forum is a fantastic opportunity for this country, but human rights is another issue and it would be unfortunate to see a World Economic Forum marred by bad behavior in regards to people seeking political asylum," one businessman, who declined to be named, said.
Grace Bui, of the U.S.-based rights group Montagnards Assistance Project, told Radio Free Asia a total of 50 Montagnard asylum seekers had arrived from Cambodia over recent months and that has pushed the number based in Bang Yai, in central Thailand’s Nonthaburi province, to 250.
"The reason is the government of Cambodia is very close to the government of Vietnam and it has returned some Montagnards to Vietnam," she said. "This makes a lot of people worry, so they traveled to Thailand."
Montagnards have faced religious intolerance for their practice of a syncretic form of Christianity based around Protestantism. Many have seen their traditional lands acquired by the state over the last 15 years and transformed into coffee plantations.
Historically, they travelled through Cambodia, hiding in the northeast forests before making a pitch for asylum through the UNHCR office in Phnom Penh. However, that pattern is changing with many heading to Thailand fearing forcible repatriation.
"In this case, I believe the Cambodian government is justifying its Cambodia-Vietnam Extradition Treaty to send back those vulnerable groups," said Ren Chanrith, a founder of Angkor Helps Khmer Social Enterprise.
"However, Cambodia is obliged under international humanitarian laws which protect refugees and such vulnerable group. For this reason, it is a good idea that the Cambodian government opts to respect international humanitarian law by not sending them back, but by taking care of them instead," he added.
Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) have also been sharply criticised for undertaking a crackdown on dissent through the courts where opposition critics have been jailed for criminal defamation. A person with a criminal conviction can not stand for public office.
"Unless the WEF is prepared to speak out forcefully against the ongoing intimidation of civil society and undermining of democracy by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government, they should hold the meeting somewhere else." Robertson of HRW added.
Spokespeople for the WEF and the government were unavailable for comment.
However, Mu Suchua, a senior figure with the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, said discussing human rights should be a part of the world economy.
"Any country with such a human rights record as Cambodia should be required to significantly improve human rights before given the privilege of hosting the World Economic Forum," she said.