Nearly 40 Vietnamese Catholics seeking asylum in Thailand say they fear repatriation and persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government.
Members of the group, which fled violence in connection with a land dispute near Vietnam’s central Da Nang city, said they do not feel safe while they await the United Nations refugee agency’s decision on whether to grant them refugee status and facilitate their resettlement to a third country.
One young woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many members of the group have been in the Thai capital since May following a clash with Vietnamese authorities over a cemetery connected to their Con Dau parish.
The asylum seekers stay inside cramped rented rooms most of the day to avoid being detained and repatriated to Vietnam by Thai policemen, she said, even though the majority of them have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangkok.
“We have been here for three or four months. Our lives are unstable. We have had to move several times, probably seven or eight times,” the woman said.
“We can’t speak the Thai language, so it is very difficult for us to communicate with people here. We can only go shopping every three to four days,” she said.
“When we come home we stay behind closed doors,” she said, adding that group members range from kindergarten age to 70 years old. “Some of us have children and they want to play, but for our safety we can’t let them.”
Relatives left behind
Another asylum seeker who asked to remain anonymous said that most group members remain concerned about the safety of relatives they left behind in Vietnam who were too old or too young to make the trip.
“We all want to be free to practice our religion in freedom. We had to leave our country because of persecution,” he said, adding that group members are not able even to attend church on Sundays for fear of being arrested and sent back to Vietnam.
“We are here, but our parents, wives, and children are still at home. They are constantly watched by the police. We want the U.N. to help us. We want to go to a third country so our children can resume their studies.”
A third member of the group, who arrived in Thailand shortly after the land clash in May, said he had met twice with the UNHCR but would have to wait another three months before a third interview.
The clash, which occurred last May, left dozens of Catholics injured and dozens more detained as they tried to bury the remains of an elderly woman at a cemetery the government planned to turn into a tourist spot, according to witnesses.
Sixty-six people were beaten by a large group of local police along with what appeared to be hired thugs, witnesses said.
They also said in interviews that police had confiscated the coffin containing the woman’s remains.
Authorities had posted a sign barring burials at the cemetery on April 20, because the land was to be transferred to make way for an eco-tourism resort project.
Shortly after the clash, members of the parish began traveling the nearly 800 miles overland to Thailand via Laos.
Travel through Laos
A man in the group who asked to remain anonymous said he had traveled with his children through one of the popular border crossings.
“Luckily I got a passport some years ago because I went to Laos to work as a construction worker. My passport is still valid,” he said.
“I left Vietnam through [a Lao border gate] … Many others, either with or without papers, also left Vietnam through [Laos].”
Upon their arrival in Bangkok, a Vietnamese priest named Anton Le Duc provided the first group of refugees with assistance.
“A priest in the United States told me there was a group of Con Dau people that had just arrived in Thailand. I was in Bangkok at the time, so I could help them with shelter and contact numbers, though I have not seen them since,” he said.
Call for probe
On Aug. 18, members of the U.S. Congress urged the United Nations to conduct an investigation into the incident at Con Dau parish after listening to testimony from relatives of villagers involved in the clash.
Families said that in addition to seizing the body of the elderly woman for cremation, authorities severely beat the villagers, including women and the elderly.
U.S. resident Tai Nguyen told the panel that police returned to Con Dau parish in July and detained his brother Nam Nguyen, who had led the ceremony procession in May. Nam Nguyen died in custody two days later and an examination of his body showed he had sustained severe bruising before his death.
Witnesses also testified that villager Le Thi Van had been beaten until she suffered a miscarriage.
At least six other villagers remain jailed, the witnesses said.
In a proposed congressional resolution, five lawmakers wrote that the United States should press the U.N. to appoint an envoy to investigate human rights violations in Vietnam, including those targeting the villagers of Con Dau.
In May, Vietnam's foreign ministry rejected claims that members of the Con Dau parish were injured in a clash, adding that testimonies of violence were part of a campaign to damage the country’s reputation.
Land disputes between churches and the state in Vietnam have become more common in recent years as the country industrializes.
There have also been demonstrations by Catholics seeking the return of Church property seized, along with many other buildings and farms, more than 50 years ago when communists took power in what was then North Vietnam.
Original reporting by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Khanh Nguyen and Minh-ha Le. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.