Vietnamese police questioned a group of Montagnards living in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh in what appears to be a failed attempt to get them to return to their native country, RFA’s Khmer Service has learned.
The move by the Vietnamese authorities on Tuesday was condemned by civil society as intimidation of the Montagnards, who rights groups say have been victims of persecution and repression in Vietnam. Rights groups also questioned how foreign police were allowed to enter and operate in Cambodia.
“Those Montagnards fled their country due to racial, political and religious oppression, and threats,” Suon Bunsak general secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC) told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“If officials from their country of origin came to visit them, this is a threat to their personal safety,” he added.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also questioned the meeting.
“No one who seeks asylum should be forced to meet the representative of the government they accused of tormenting them,” UNHCR official Vivian Tan told RFA.
Among the Vietnamese authorities who interrogated the group of about 150 Montagnards was the chief of Gai Lai provincial police, the Montagnards told RFA.
Afraid to go back
While the Vietnamese police attempted to persuade the Montagnards to return to Vietnam, the asylum seekers refused for fear of what might happen if they returned, they told RFA. The Montagnards also expressed fear that Vietnamese would kidnap them or that the Cambodian government would send them back.
Tan Sokvichea, head of the Immigration Department’s Refugee Division, told RFA he was unaware of the Vietnamese police visit.
“I did not receive any information because this is at the political level,” he said. “The leaders discussed it, but we as the implementing officials did not know about that. The U.N. was not involved. They just said that Cambodia needs to implement legal principles in accordance with international law.”
While immigration officials may have been unaware of the visit, the Montagnards told RFA that Cambodian police accompanied the Vietnamese.
Attempts to reach the ministry’s spokesperson Khiev Sopheak were unsuccessful, but Suon Bunsak told RFA that the visit was a black eye for the Cambodian government.
“First, if we talk about foreigners, whether they are civilian or state officials, if they enter the territory of the Kingdom of Cambodia without our knowledge, that points out the weakness of our administrative system,” he said. “Secondly, those who entered the country are illegal. Those who enter Cambodia without our knowledge are the subject of legal action.”
Vietnam’s Central Highlands are home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples, known collectively as Montagnards or the Degar. This group of Montagnards comes from the mountainous region of Gia Lai, Dak Lak, and Kon Tum provinces in central Vietnam bordering Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces of Cambodia.
They are among the more than 200 Montagnards who have fled their country and crossed the border into Cambodia seeking help from UNHCR, citing oppression by the Vietnam’s government.
Among the 200, some were sent back to Vietnam by the Cambodian authorities, while 13 were recognized by the Cambodian government as legitimate refugees in early 2016. They were relocated to the Philippines by the U.N. in May.
The rest are undergoing the process of determining their status by the Cambodian authorities. The UNHCR’s Tan said that some of them were already interviewed, but she does not know the result yet.
In 2015, at least four of three dozen Montagnards deported to Vietnam by Cambodian authorities after they were discovered hiding in the forest had disappeared from their home villages in Vietnam, other members of the group told RFA at the time of their disappearance.
The Montagnards have clashed with Vietnamese authorities before, and they were allies to the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
Early in the last decade, thousands of Montagnards 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 them charged with national security crimes.
Reported by Yeang Sothearin for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.