Cambodia to send back Montagnard refugees

Vietnamese Montagnards say they are fleeing to Cambodia to escape repression. Picture courtesy Reuters.

Vietnamese Montagnards say they are fleeing to Cambodia to escape repression. Picture courtesy Reuters.

Cambodia says some 200 Montagnards, who fled to the country claiming persecution in Vietnam, must return home within three months or face forced repatriation.

13 of the Montagnards  – ethnic minorities from the Central Highlands of Vietnam – have been granted refugee status but the government said the others were all deemed to be illegal immigrants.

The decision was immediately condemned as outrageous by human rights groups, and as a violation of Cambodia’s commitments under international agreements.

The latest wave of Montagnards began crossing the border from the Central Highlands of Vietnam into Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province last October.

They say they are victims of religious and ethnic persecution in Vietnam.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch concluded that indigenous people in the Central Highlands were subject to a long list of abuses by the government – including arbitrary arrest, abuse while in custody, intimidation, surveillance and religious persecution.

Much of the conflict has focused on the question of religious freedom. Many of the indigenous people subscribe to a Protestant church which the authorities do not recognise and which they have tried to suppress.

Their repatriation would amount to a gross violation of the Refugee Convention, which has been signed by the Cambodia government, said Denise Coghlan, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, in comments quoted by the Cambodia Daily. The group has been providing assistance to the Montagnards in Phnom Penh.

“There are more than 200 asylum seekers from the Montagnard areas in Vietnam. Some of them have suffered imprisonment and beatings. Many have been asked with force to sign that they will not practise their religion,” she told the newspaper.

Cambodia sent troops to the border area in May to try to prevent more refugees from crossing the border.

“We do not recognize that they are Montagnards because they have illegally infiltrated into Cambodia and we have proposed the UNHCR repatriate those Montagnards back to their home towns,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.

Nearly 50 are reported to have been repatriated in recent months.

There has long been tension in the region between the Communist authorities and the highland ethnic minority groups, which have a long tradition of resistance to government control.

Many highland groups were recruited by the US military and South Vietnamese government to fight against the Communists during the Vietnam War.

The government in Hanoi has accused outside groups of stirring up trouble in the area and has launched successive attempts to stifle dissent.

Analysts say that Cambodia is anxious not to antagonise Vietnam by granting refugee status to many of the Montagnards.

They say the issue has not received much international attention so far and the Vietnamese government is anxious to keep it that way.