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Cambodia: Vietnamese Montagnards Seek Asylum By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0016/ 2015

Thirteen Vietnamese Montagnards are in Phnom Penh right now seeking asylum. The Cambodian government has begun to consider their request. We would appreciate your assessment of what this might mean for Cambodian -Vietnamese relations.

Q1-Why do you think Vietnam held so much sway over what happened to the Montagnard refugee seekers in Cambodia previously?

ANSWER: In the past Vietnam could expect Cambodia’s acquiescence in requests to return montagnards who had fled Vietnam because the two regimes had a congruence of interests. Neither regime tolerated dissent. They had a natural empathy for each other. Hun Sen had no interest in refusing Vietnam’s requests to return montagnards. Both regimes also reject claims they are culpable of persecuting their own citizens including ethnic minorities. Since the 2013 national elections in Cambodia the Hun Sen regime no longer commands the support of many Cambodians. It has become more open to influence from without by international aid donors. Hun Sen can also turn to China, which has greater equity in Cambodia today than it did a decade ago, to ward off pressures from Vietnam. China will not cause problems if Cambodia recognizes the montagnards as asylum seekers.

Q2 -How might the past be different from the present now that Cambodia is under increased pressure following the refugee deal with the Australian government?

ANSWER: Up until the Abbott government, Australia had a credible record of promoting human rights in Cambodia. But Australia’s influence was limited. Now that Cambodia and Australia have reached an agreement on the resettlement of refugees from Papua New Guinea, the Australian government is obliged to lobby Cambodia to meet its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Cambodia will benefit from increased international respectability if it accepts refuges for resettlement. Cambodia also stands to benefit from the A$40 million assistance package that Australia has offered. The Abbott government will be motivated by domestic concerns to ensure that Cambodia meets its international obligations.

Q3-If Cambodia does grant these Montagnards refugee status, how could that affect relations with Vietnam?

ANSWER: If Cambodia grants the montagnards refugee status and they are resettled outside Cambodia, there should not be any real damage to bilateral relations. For political reasons, Vietnam does not want to see the legitimization of claims by montagnards that they were persecuted for their religious beliefs, ethnic status and/or land rights. While Vietnam would prefer to see the montagnards returned to Vietnam as “illegal immigrants,” Vietnam will quietly accept Cambodia’s decision to recognize their refugee status. Vietnam is under pressure from the United States to show “demonstrable progress on human rights” in order to purchase lethal weapons. It will not want to call attention to itself over the current montagnard affair. Vietnam also will not want to undermine its efforts to improve its international human rights reputation by membership on the UN’s Human Rights Committee.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email:

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