A group of 13 ethnic minority Montagnards who fled alleged persecution in Vietnam to neighboring Cambodia are reeling from malaria and a food shortage but are not budging from their new mosquito-infested jungle home for fear of being detained and repatriated.
Most of the Christian Montagnards from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province trekked their way across the border into Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province in early November, sleeping in hammocks in the forests without any shelter and surviving on whatever food they can forage on.
Speaking on condition of anonymity in their first media interview since arriving in Cambodia, the Montagnards told RFA's Khmer Service that they took a risk and entered the country illegally because they were pushed to the wall by the endless threats from the Vietnamese authorities.
Some of them had previously been caught by Cambodian authorities and repatriated home.
"Gai Lai police threatened to kill me," one of them told RFA's Khmer Service, underlining the severity of what he called persecution of the Montagnards in Vietnam, who mostly live in the country's Central Highland provinces often off-limits to independent, international rights groups.
Giving few details of himself, he said he was prevented by Vietnamese authorities from worshiping since 2009 when he was caught in Cambodia and sent back.
"Since then I was targeted and monitored," he said, sitting with a few of his compatriots on a fallen tree in a small cleared area within what appeared to be partially a bamboo plantation as mosquitoes buzzed around their campsite.
At least three of them have been struck by malaria, a mosquito-borne infectious disease that causes a high fever and chills..
Another Montagnard said he was imprisoned by Vietnamese authorities in 2008 and 2011 because he was caught talking to his relatives overseas by telephone.
"The authorities asked me not to talk with my relatives overseas," he said, adding that recently, he was summoned to a police station and asked not to celebrate Christmas or hold any gathering in his village to mark the festival.
"If there is any gathering of more than 10 people, they will arrest us," he said. "The reason I fled from Vietnam is because it is not safe and I was constantly monitored," he said.
Another Montagnard in the group said he had been targeted by the Vietnamese authorities since he was caught in June trying to gather information about a U.S.-based foundation striving to preserve the lives and the culture of the indigenous Montagnards, also known as the Degar people of the Central Highlands.
He claimed he was tortured while being interrogated and that his grandfather was executed by the authorities.
"Those believers of Christianity, the authorities summoned them and they faced persecution. I was arrested and tortured because I believed in Christianity. There is no place of worship aside from our homes and the authorities will arrest people if they find out that we worship at home."
The U.N. refugee agency said it was making arrangements to initiate a process for the Montagnards to seek asylum.
"The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been urging the central and local authorities not to send the group back to Vietnam," UNHCR spokeperson Vivian Tan told RFA.
"Discussions are ongoing to try and move them from their current location so that they can have access to the asylum process," she said.
The Cambodian government has a refugee department that has been handling asylum claims since late 2009.
Ratanakiri provincial deputy police chief Chea Bunthoeun confirmed that authorities had received a report about the 13 Montagnards, but said he did not know their location.
He said that if the group members come forward to the police, authorities will evaluate them to determine whether they qualify as refugees or economic migrants.
“We will evaluate them. If they apply for refugee status, we will report their case to the government,” he said.
Dismal rights record
Phil Robertson, deputy director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, charged that Cambodia had a dismal record of protecting the Montagnards and always gave in to Vietnam's demands to forcibly return them.
"Cambodia's already shoddy refugee protection record [is] being tested as a group of Montagnard fleeing persecution in Vietnam hide at the border," he said on Twitter.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, told RFA earlier this week that authorities would conduct an investigation into whether the Montagnards were eligible for assistance from the government.
“When we get [further details], we will travel to the province to see if they are really refugees,” he said, adding that Cambodia has acted several times in the past to help refugees resettle in third countries.
But Chai Thy, an official with Cambodian rights group Adhoc who is based in Ratanakiri, told RFA that the Montagnards do not trust local authorities, adding that his organization would do whatever it could to prevent them from being returned to Vietnam.
“They don’t want to go to the authorities first—they are waiting for help from international organizations, because they are afraid of the local authorities,” he said.
Reported by Ratha Visal of RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.