Cambodia guards against new deluge of refugees
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Thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday in Buon Ma Thuot, capital of Vietnam's Daklak Province, to take part in what was expected to be a peaceful Easter prayer-but the gathering turned into a major demonstration against religious repression and land confiscation.
The entire Central Highlands area was closed off to foreigners. Flights to Buon Ma Thuot remain canceled while roads into the town have been blockaded.
In a statement, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry blamed "overseas instigation" for the protests. "In recent days, some extremists in some localities in Daklak and Gia Lai provinces-with overseas instigation-have engaged in actions of causing social disorder, even assaulting authorities, destroying public welfare projects and property in some villages," the ministry said through its spokesman, Le Dung. "Local government has taken measures to stabilize the situation. All aspects of life in the above said areas normal."
A spokesman for Human Rights Watch in New York voiced concern about the situation and urged Hanoi to admit observers to the region.
"We have reports that many many people have been arrested and injured during the demonstrations that took place in Dak Lak," he said. "We also understand that many small demonstrations took place Saturday and Sunday in Gia Lai in which people were arrested and injured."
"We are concerned about what's happening there... and we would call on Hanoi to let independent observers to the Central Highlands."
"If you close off an area, people just assume the worst," U.S. Ambassador Raymond Burghardt told reporters. He said he was seeking more information on events in the area.
In February 2001, Hanoi crushed a major uprising in the highlands over religious and property rights and has since then kept the area under tight control-with diplomats and reporters required to obtain clearance before visiting. A deluge of refugees fled across the border into Cambodia, with nearly 1,000 accepted into the United States as refugees.
Cambodian police acted quickly this time in a bid to deter a new influx.
"We are on high alert all of the time because we fear that they will cross illegally into Cambodia," police chief of northeastern Ratanakiri Province Yoeun Baloung told Agence France-Presse.
His counterpart in neighboring Mondolkiri Province, Reach Samnang, said border police had been ordered to work round the clock. "We have strengthened our forces to guard the border and they will now work 24 hours a day. We won't allow anyone to enter without proper documents," he said.
The heightened security in Cambodia follows complaints by the interior ministry that the U.N. refugee agency had been operating secretly along the Vietnamese border to lure Montagnards into the kingdom. The ministry reportedly charged that the agency had secretly transferred 46 Montagnards to the capital over the past two years and granted them refugee status, including 16 in February.
The Cambodian government views Montagnard asylum-seekers as illegal migrants.
In its 2003 report on human rights around the world, the State Department cited "numerous credible reports that groups of Montagnards continued to flee to Cambodia to escape ethnic and religious repression in the Central Highlands. Government officials continued to harass some highland minorities, particularly the Hmong in the northwest provinces and several ethnic groups in the Central Highlands, for practicing their Protestant religion without official approval." #####