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 can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt