A United Nations refugee agency team returned to Phnom Penh Friday after failing to make contact with 13 ethnic Montagnards who are hiding in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, to which they fled following alleged persecution in Vietnam, according to a rights group Friday.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) team left after local authorities refused to cooperate with them in their search by restricting their movements, sources said.
The team had hoped to assess the needs and status of the group, which crossed the border from Vietnam’s Gia Lai province in early November and has been hiding in the forests to avoid being forced by Cambodian authorities to return home, where they say they face persecution.
The UNHCR team left Ratanakiri after being told by provincial deputy police chief Chea Bunthoeun that they “can’t travel in the province without permission from authorities,” provincial coordinator for the Adhoc rights group Chhay Thi told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The U.N. team is concerned about the Montagnards’ well-being and promised to return soon,” Chhay Thi said.
Chea Bunthoeun could not be reached for comment, but speaking separately and on condition of anonymity, police sources told RFA that provincial authorities will not be able to help the U.N. team in its search until the team receives permission from Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior to proceed with its mission.
The Montagnards had told RFA’s Khmer Service last week that they were forced to enter the country illegally to escape repeated threats from Vietnamese authorities, and have been hiding to evade capture from Cambodian authorities, who they believe will force them to return home. They hope to seek asylum in Cambodia, and meanwhile have been sleeping in hammocks without any shelter in the forests.
Appeals for help
Local villagers have meanwhile become concerned for their safety as police raid homes and farms in the area in their own search for the Montagnards, at least two of whom are now seriously ill, Chhay Thi said.
“[The group] has informed the villagers that they are facing shortages of food, and are urging the U.N. and other donors to help them immediately.”
“The government has failed to honor its commitment to implement international obligations” protecting the rights of asylum-seekers, he said.
A UNHCR spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung told RFA this week that Cambodian authorities want to provide the Montagnards with food and medication, but have been unable to find them.
He refused to comment on whether the government would deport the group if it determines its location.
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 and Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.