Cambodia will support efforts by U.N. refugee officials to locate 13 ethnic Montagnards said to be hiding in the country’s northeastern Ratanakiri province after fleeing what they claim to be persecution in their traditional home in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, a government spokesman said today.
Until now, the Cambodian government “has only heard about those Montagnards,” though, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday.
“We don’t know where they are, and we haven’t seen them,” he said.
RFA’s Khmer Service interviewed the Montagnards in a secret location two weeks ago after the 13 from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province trekked 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 could forage.
Last Friday, a team from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) returned to Phnom Penh after local authorities in Ratanakiri refused to cooperate with them in their search for the Montagnards and restricted their movements. The team had hoped to assess the needs and status of the group.
Sopheak said Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has now informed EU ambassador Jean Francois Cautain that “if the Montagnards are there, we will cooperate with the U.N. [in helping to find them].”
“If the U.N. confirms that the 13 Montagnards are there, please let us know. And if we find them first, we will tell the U.N.,” he said.
Second trip planned
Khieu Sopheak denied reports that the Montagnards had already been located and sent back to Vietnam.
“If and when they are found, we will honor the request that our officials cooperate with the U.N. and that the U.N be allowed to communicate with the group,” he said, quoting from a Dec. 5 letter from the deputy prime minister to EU ambassador Cautain.
Also speaking to RFA, Ratanakiri provincial coordinator for the Adhoc rights group Chhay Thi welcomed the government statement, saying that the U.N. should now be able to carry out a second mission to find and help the Montagnards, at least two of whom are believed to be seriously ill.
“The U.N. team failed the first time because of obstacles created by the local authorities,” he said.
For now, the Montagnards remain safe in hiding, though Cambodian police are continuing to search for them, he said.
The U.N. is now planning a second trip to Ratanakiri, but no date for the visit has been set, U.N. spokeswoman Vivian Tan told RFA by e-mail on Wednesday.
“It’s true that the Cambodian authorities, the OHCHR [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights], and UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] have agreed to undertake a joint mission to Ratanakiri shortly,” she said.
“The Montagnards who are found will be brought to Phnom Penh where they can apply for asylum.”
Land rights denied
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards or the Degar, who rights groups say suffer extreme persecution.
Early in the last decade, thousands in the region staged violent protests against the confiscation of their ancestral lands and religious controls, prompting a brutal crackdown by security forces that saw hundreds of Montagnards charged with national security crimes.
Representatives of the minority group have said that they are only calling for indigenous land rights and basic human rights in Vietnam, despite attempts by Hanoi to link them to overseas separatist groups.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.