Montagnard refugees suffer malaria, hunger along Cambodian border


2003-08-28
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Cambodia urged to let UNHCR help

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 28, 2003--Dozens of Vietnamese Montagnard refugees have languished in northeastern Cambodia for the last six weeks, living on bamboo shoots and wild tubers and suffering from malaria, as U.N. refugee officials try to negotiate access to them through the Cambodian government, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

Some 60 Vietnamese Montagnards--who represent a variety of indigenous minorities--fled from Vietnam into a heavily forested area of Koh Nhek in Mondulkiri Province, in northeastern Cambodia, on July 20, according to members of the group and Cambodian military sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Thirty-four have given up and returned to Vietnam for fear of starvation, four have been arrested, and two are in the custody of the U.N. refugee agency--leaving 20 people, including three women, still hiding in the forest. All continue to live on bamboo shoots and manioc tubers, and all have contracted malaria, they say. Two are in critical condition.

Two leaders of the group have sought aid from a local human rights group, ADHOC, in Rattanakiri. Both men were transferred to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rattanakiri. The UNHCR has since been negotiating with Cambodian authorities for permission to aid the remaining Montagnards, according to official sources who asked not to be named.

"With regard to this problem, we [the government] will start to discuss and will cooperate with UNHCR in order to clearly identify whether they are qualified as refugees," Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Cambodian Interior Ministry, told RFA�s Khmer service. "In fact, if we look at this issue carefully, our neighbor Vietnam, which is a member of the U.N. and of ASEAN, is a country that has no war. [I wonder] why such a refugee issue arises."

One of the Montagnards, a 38-year-old man hiding in the O Lvea Leu region along the Sre Pok River, said the group had fled Vietnam to escape intimidation and threats from Vietnamese authorities. Another, a 20-year-old woman, said they have been living on bamboo shoots and manioc tubers, which have sickened many.

A Cambodian military official responsible for monitoring the movements of Vietnamese refugees in O Lvea said he had sent four of the Montagnards back to Vietnam in exchange for 100 kilos of rice and 15 liters of gasoline.

A local fisherman said that four Montagnards had asked him on Aug. 3 to take them to Cambodian authorities. Now, he said, he fears for the rest of the group--and for himself, should Cambodian border guards discover that he has been helping to hide them.

"I want to say that this is my place to live and to make a living, fishing," he said in an interview. "I have been living here for a long time. Now these Montagnards have come to live in my place. I am very worried. I would like to request that [measures to remove them from here] be taken as soon as possible. Otherwise, I will take some measures myself."

Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia and from the UNHCR declined to be interviewed for this report.

But in a statement released to RFA�s Khmer service, however, the U.S. Embassy said it "urges the Cambodian government to permit the U.N. High Commission for Refugees to carry out its duties under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and also encourages the Royal Government of Cambodia to honor its commitments as a signatory to the 1951 Convention."

Vietnamese authorities also declined to comment.

Several thousand Montagnards staged protests in February 2001 to call for independence, return of ancestral land, and religious freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnamese authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive show of force, deploying thousands of police and soldiers and arrested hundreds of indigenous people in the Central Highlands.

More than 1,000 highlanders fled to Cambodia, where they were sheltered in two refugee camps run by the UNHCR. In March 2002, Cambodia authorized the processing for resettlement in the United States of more than 900 Montagnard asylum-seekers who had fled to Cambodia over the preceding year. Cambodia has now closed down its refugee camps, sealed its borders with Vietnam, and announced that any new arrivals will be immediately deported.

While Vietnam's Central Highlands are now largely closed to foreigners, journalists, and human rights groups, the U.S. State Department�s most recent report on human rights around the world cited "numerous credible reports" of harassment and repression of Montagnards.

It said, however, that Hanoi has tried to address the causes of Montagnard unrest. "National government officials regularly visited the Central Highlands" in 2002, the report said, adding: "The government began a special program to allocate land to ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands."

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