A U.N. team of refugee and human rights officials was blocked on Friday by authorities in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province from searching for 13 ethnic Montagnards hiding in the jungle, despite assurances of cooperation from central authorities in the capital Phnom Penh, sources said.
The team was stopped by armed police as it attempted to travel to Lumphat district to locate the group, which trekked across the border from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province seven weeks ago, and assess their current status and needs, according to a U.N. statement on Dec. 19.
“The local authorities in Ratanakiri have refused to allow the team to meet with the group or transport them to the capital,” said the statement, released jointly by the Bangkok offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHCR) and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
The refusal, which followed similar interference from local authorities last week, came “despite a clear instruction by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior H.E. Sar Kheng to cooperate with the joint team,” the U.N. said.
The Montagnards have previously told RFA they were forced to enter Cambodia to escape persecution from Vietnamese authorities, and have been hiding to evade capture by Cambodian authorities who they believe will force them to return home.
Since then, they have been receiving food and shelter from a group of Cambodian Jarai, one of many tribes that make up the Montagnards, according to reports.
After seven weeks of hiding in the forests, “the group’s situation has become extremely precarious,” the U.N. statement said, adding, “They are reportedly suffering from various physical ailments including dengue fever and malaria, and are afraid to venture out due to fears of arrest and deportation.”
And though Cambodian authorities have agreed that the group will be allowed to apply for asylum, provincial police are continuing their own search for the group, “possibly with a view to returning them to Viet Nam,” the U.N. said.
Ratanakiri deputy governor and provincial spokesman Nhem Sam Oeun refused on Friday to respond to requests for comment.
'Unwillingness to help'
Chhay Thi, Ratanakiri coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service however that by once again obstructing the U.N. in its search, Ratanakiri authorities are abusing the Montagnards’ human rights.
“The local authorities have expressed their intention to cooperate with the U.N. team,” Chhay Thi said, adding, “but their actions have shown their unwillingness to help.”
“The U.N. wants to find the Montagnards in order to show that those refugees are there,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak meanwhile said that Cambodia’s government still has no certain information that the refugees are present in the province.
“So far, only the media—especially RFA—has broadcast stories about this. [Cambodian] authorities haven’t located them yet,” he said.
“If we can find them, we will gladly cooperate with any relevant NGOs—including OCHCR and UNHCR—in accordance with [international] refugee conventions,” he said.
In a Reuters report on Friday, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville described the still-frustrated search for the group as a “complicated and rather disturbing game of cat-and-mouse going on between the Montagnards, who are still hiding, the local authorities and the U.N. and central government team.”
“We believe there are substantial grounds for believing that the Montagnards may be in danger of being subjected to human rights violations if they are returned to their country of origin, Vietnam,” he said.
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards, or the Degar, and suffer extreme persecution, according to rights groups.
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 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 RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.