WASHINGTON, July 26, 2004 — ; Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Monday condemned the Cambodian government's arrest of two reporters, including an RFA stringer, and a human rights worker as they tried to reach 17 Montagnard asylum-seekers from Vietnam. RFA President Richard Richter called on the Cambodian government to release the men immediately and unconditionally and to drop human-trafficking charges against them.
"These arrests are clearly aimed at frightening Vietnamese asylum-seekers away from Cambodia and stopping the media from carrying out their responsibility to report the Montagnards' plight, which has been ignored far too long already," Richter said. "This is a legal travesty, and the international community should unite in demanding that these men be released and all charges against them dropped immediately."
Cambodian RFA reporter Sok Rathavisal, Irishman Kevin Doyle of the English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper, and Cambodian Pen Bunna of rights group Adhoc were detained on Sunday in O Leav, deep in the jungle of northeast Cambodia, where many Montagnards from Vietnam have been hiding for weeks.
Pen Bunna was trying at the time to locate 17 more Montagnard asylum-seekers and bring them to safety, with permission from the governor of Rattanakiri Province, Khmer sources said. The three men, along with the 17 Montagnards, are now in custody in Kon Keak, in Cambodia's Mondulkiri Province, Cambodian sources who asked not to be named said.
Sok Rathavisal, Doyle, and Pen Bunna all now face charges of human-trafficking, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told RFA's Khmer service. He also said all three men could be freed within 24 hours if they sign statement in which they would admit to trafficking in humans. What would happen to the 17 Montagnards is unclear.
Pen Bunna had been helping journalists and officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) find Montagnards hidden deep in the densely forested region once criss-crossed by the hidden pathways of the Ho Chi Minh trail.
A State Department official who asked not to be named said that the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia was "monitoring the situation" and that U.S. officials hoped all the men would be freed soon.
"We are aware of reports of the detention of three individuals, including a reporter from Radio Free Asia, in Cambodia. The Embassy is monitoring the situation, but our information is sketchy at this time," the official said.
"We hope they will be released shortly. The UNHCR and the United States have been working actively for many months to ensure that the Montagnards entering Cambodia receive appropriate protection under international law."
In New York, the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called for the journalists' immediate release.
"CPJ calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Sok Rathavisal and Kevin Doyle," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. "These journalists were simply carrying out their professional duties and should be allowed to continue with their important work of reporting on the dire situation of Montagnards who have been living in hiding."
Around 200 Montagnards have come out of the Cambodian jungle in the last week. They say they were forced to flee persecution in their ancestral homes in the coffee-growing Central Highlands of Vietnam following Easter protests over land and religious rights.
Hanoi has angrily denied reports of persecution and accused the UNHCR enticing the Montagnards to flee the Central Highlands with offers of asylum in Cambodia. More than 1,000 Montagnards won asylum in the United States after fleeing Cambodia following a similar crackdown in 2001.
In an article published by the Communist Party's Nhan Dan (People) newspaper Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung said the UNHCR "has continued to conduct many wrong activities to lure ethnic minority people in the Central Highland to illegally flee to Cambodia, and even considered to give these people political refugee status."
Though Vietnam has repeatedly stated that those who have crossed the border into Cambodia are illegal migrants, the U.N. agency has continued to treat them as political refugees, Dung said. "The UNHCR's actions are wrong, just serving the interest of elements hostile to Vietnam by inciting people who are leading peaceful lives in Central Highland to illegally cross borders into Cambodia, thus causing instability along the Vietnam-Cambodia border and violating Cambodian sovereignty," Dung said.
On Saturday, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Raymond Burghardt said he was open to discussing with Vietnam a plan to resettle ethnic Montagnards in the United States. Burghardt also said the U.S. would consider accepting Montagnards currently seeking asylum in Cambodia.
The April protests in the Central Highlands of Vietnam drew an estimated 10,000 people to the streets in Daklak and Gia Lai provinces and turned violent as Vietnam's police and security forces clashed with demonstrators. Human rights groups have said that at least 10 people died and dozens others were injured, while Vietnam maintains only two were killed.
Vietnam has accused the U.S.-based Montagnard Foundation, led by a former guerrilla leader allied with America during the Vietnam War, with organizing what it called an "uprising" to call for a separate state.