Thirteen ethnic Montagnards have emerged from the jungles of Cambodia, where they hid for more than seven weeks after entering the country from Vietnam to flee alleged persecution, the United Nations and local authorities said Saturday.
The group had concealed themselves in a remote area of northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province to avoid being forced by local authorities to return home, while maintaining contact with the U.N. and rights groups.
Eight of the Montagnards—including one woman—left their jungle hiding spot in Lumphat district early Saturday to meet a U.N. team as it arrived in the area, said Wan-Hea Lee of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The group of eight, with members ranging in age from 18 to 50, “have been relocated to a safe place,” Lee told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that the U.N. team had notified immigration officials from Cambodia’s Interior Ministry.
On Saturday night, the five other Montagnards were picked up by local authorities and joined the rest of the group “at a hotel under U.N. supervision,” according to Chea Bunthoeun, the provincial deputy police chief in charge of immigration.
Speaking to RFA through a translator, the Montagnards said they were suffering from malaria, dengue fever and diarrhea after enduring harsh conditions in the jungle over the last seven weeks.
But they said they had made their own decision to come out of hiding to the U.N. and expressed gratitude for the protection they had received.
"We came here by ourselves—no one convinced us to come,” one of the Montagnards said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We have come out to request that international NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) take us anywhere, as long as it is away from Vietnam, because we are afraid of persecution.”
Officials said that the 13 Montagnards will be sent to the capital Phnom Penh on Sunday for a screening interview to determine their refugee status and consider their request for asylum.
The U.N. was able to meet with the group a day after it said a team had been blocked by armed police in Ratanakiri while attempting to travel to Lumphat to search for them, despite assurances of cooperation from central authorities in Phnom Penh.
The refusal had followed similar interference from local authorities last week.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, as saying that even on Saturday, local authorities “still wanted to ban [the U.N.] from meeting the Montagnards.”
Agence France-Presse quoted Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, as saying that regardless of the involvement of the U.N.’s refugee and human rights agencies, the status of the Montagnards could only be determined by Cambodian authorities.
"They can bring them to Phnom Penh, but whether or not they are considered as refugees will be decided by the host country," he told AFP.
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards, or the Degar, who 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.
While Hanoi has attempted to link them to overseas separatist groups, representatives of the minority group have said they are only calling for indigenous land rights and basic human rights in Vietnam.
Reported by Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.