A new group of 18 asylum-seeking Montagnards from Vietnam have taken refuge in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province amid fears they could be forcibly repatriated, a rights group and an ethnic Charai villager who is assisting them said Thursday.
The 18 Montagnards—Christian indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands—crossed the border into Cambodia on Jan. 28 from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province, said the villager, who spoke to RFA’s Khmer Service on condition of anonymity.
The latest group of 16 men and two women brings to 32 the total number of Montagnards currently hiding in Ratanakiri and who claim to be fleeing religious and political persecution in Vietnam. A total of four groups have entered the country this month alone.
“We are helping them hide and providing them with food, and we have already reported the situation to a local rights group to ask the U.N. to assist them in the forest,” the Charai villager said of the 18 new arrivals.
“Still, it is very difficult for me to help them alone. I am afraid that if they are arrested they will be [deported and] persecuted,” he said, calling on the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) to provide the group with protection as soon as possible.
One of the Montagnards who helped lead the group across the border told RFA by telephone that he and the others had fled from their village in Vietnam to avoid religious persecution by authorities seven months earlier.
On Jan. 20, he gathered the 17 others and left Gia Lai, walking for some eight days before they came across Khmer villages, where they asked residents to pass their request for asylum on to the U.N.
“We are [Christian] worshipers—the Vietnamese authorities stopped us from practicing Christianity,” he said.
“They had threatened to imprison us.”
Vietnam's communist government says it respects the freedom of belief and religion, but religious activity remains under state control.
Chhay Thy provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, confirmed that the 18 Montagnards were hiding in Ratanakiri and urged the Cambodian government to adhere to its obligations under the U.N. Refugee Convention.
He cited local villagers as saying “there will be more refugees” crossing the border going forward, referring to additional Montagnards from Vietnam.
The Phnom Penh Post on Thursday cited a U.N. officer, who asked not to be named, as saying they were aware of the latest arrivals, but that the U.N. was “advocating and negotiating” with the government to deal with the issue.
Recent border crossings
The 18 Montagnards form the second group hiding in Ratanakiri after a group of five arrived earlier this month and was joined by nine others who crossed the border on Jan. 17. The two groups are hiding in separate locations.
Sixteen Montagnards are currently applying for asylum under U.N. protection in Phnom Penh. One group of 13 emerged from nearly two months in the jungle on Dec. 20 and a second group of three traveled directly to the capital after crossing the border on Jan. 26.
Authorities have also deported nine Montagnards—seven who were sent back to Vietnam on Jan. 24 and another two who were returned earlier this month after accidentally wandering across the border, according to police.
The Cambodian government denies sending any refugees or asylum seekers back home.
National Police spokesman Kiet Chantharith told RFA Thursday that the seven returned to Vietnam over the weekend “were not refugees.”
He said the seven were “regular Vietnamese Charai villagers who lost their way and accidentally entered Cambodian territory,” so authorities sent them back home.
Cambodian villagers who had with the seven also told RFA they were not refugees.
The Montagnards are an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands made up of about 30 hill tribes, including the Charai.
Although a population of Charai lives in Ratanakiri, most members of the ethnic group live in Vietnam’s Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces. All Vietnamese Charai are considered Montagnards.
Early in the last decade, thousands in the Central Highlands staged violent protests against religious controls and the confiscation of their ancestral lands, prompting a brutal crackdown by Vietnamese security forces that saw hundreds of Montagnards charged with national security crimes.
Representatives of the minority group have said 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 Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.