Returned Montagnards Facing Intimidation, Spying in Vietnam

A group of 25 Montagnard refugees who were returned to Vietnam last week are being subjected to surveillance and intimidation, while others have been forced to read “confessions” to be broadcast on television, according to Montagnard rights groups.

The Montagnards—who escaped to Cambodia in recent years after fleeing what they described as religious and political persecution at the hands of the Hanoi government—arrived in Vietnam just over a week ago.

A group of Montagnards who last month left Phnom Penh for Vietnam. (Montagnards Assistance Project)

The U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Cambodian government claimed the repatriation was voluntary, but some of the Montagnards refuted this, saying that they were warned they had to go back or face forced eviction.

Shortly after arriving in Vietnam, the returnees say, they were already being targeted by Vietnamese authorities.

Y-Lhul Buonya, who conducts investigations for the U.S.-based Montagnards Support Group, said on Tuesday that he had interviewed two men by telephone: a member of a group that went to Dak Lak province with six others, and a Montagnard asylum-seeker in Phnom Penh who had received reports from friends and family who were among 18 sent back to Gia Lai province.

Both men said their groups had been placed under surveillance upon return, according to Mr. Buonya, who fled the Central Highlands to Cambodia in 2004 before being settled in the U.S. The two returnees requested anonymity out of fear for their safety.

Most of the Montagnards were immediately interrogated by Vietnamese authorities and warned not to stray far from their homes, Mr. Buonya said.

“They reported that the Vietnamese prohibited them [from leaving], saying, ‘If you go out of the village, or go around to visit anyone, or go to work during this time, then we’ll put you in the jail,’” he said, adding that he was unaware of any arrests so far.

During the meeting with authorities, some claimed they were forced to give filmed confessions admitting they were wrong to flee Vietnam that were later broadcast on TV, Mr. Buonya said.

“They did that to post around the Central Highlands to make sure that all the Montagnard people know that those people have committed [actions] against Vietnamese law,” he said.

They were told they must toe the same line when speaking to other Montagnards, he added.

Mr. Buonya said both groups reported that plainclothes police had been deployed to spy on the new arrivals.

“It’s the same thing in both provinces. They said the Vietnamese government, the non-uniformed people, were monitoring their families. Sometimes they visit daytime and nighttime. They will be there recording

,” he said.

Grace Bui, program director for the Montagnard Assistance Project in Thailand, said she had also received reports of widespread surveillance on the recent returnees, and that some of them had told relatives in Bangkok to refrain from contacting them to avoid incurring the ire of Vietnamese officials.

A senior Montagnard now living in the Thai capital after fleeing Cambodia last month had been told by fellow Monta­gnards who returned to Vietnam “not to contact too much because if he contacts the people, the people are going to get in trouble,” Ms. Bui said.

“So far, nobody went to jail yet, that I know,” she added. “The surveillance around the house is very tight. They cannot leave.”

“They’re being watched 24 hours a day because the government is afraid they will run away again—this time to Thailand, not Cambodia.”

The Montagnards say they face religious and political oppression in the Central Highlands because they are Christians who supported the U.S. during the Second Indochina War. The Communist Party of Vietnam also stands accused of widespread land grabbing against indigenous groups.

The UNHCR has generally claimed that it has found no evidence of retaliatory persecution against returnees from Cambodia.

Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UNHCR, said on Tuesday she would check the latest allegations.

The latest wave of Monta­gnards fleeing into Cambodia began in late 2014, but stopped the following year as the Cambodian government began forcibly deporting asylum-seekers.

There are currently about 70 Montagnards still in Phnom Penh waiting to hear whether their refugee applications have been accepted. In March, about 50 fled their U.N.-funded temporary accommodations in Phnom Penh to Thailand, where the chances of being deported are far slimmer.

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