banlung, Ratanakkiri province – Unlike others in the group of 30 Montagnard asylum-seekers preparing to board an airplane from Banlung airport to Phnom Penh Monday, Puih Hlin said he wasn’t worried about the flight.
The 55-year-old Jarai minority member said he grew accustomed to traveling in military helicopters and transport planes during the war in Vietnam, when he worked as an army medic with US forces in Pleiku province during the late 1960s.
Speaking in slow but clearly American-accented English for the first time in decades, Puih Hlin tried out his first sentence shortly before departing Banlung with UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff.
“I am very happy,” said Puih Hlin, adding that he hadn’t spoken English “because I haven’t seen an American since [the 1960s].”
He then spoke about the arrest of his son earlier this year in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and his hope that he might meet again the US army doctors he worked with during the war.
“They captured my son and put [him] in the ministry six months ago. He is still there,” he said.
“I don’t know where I am going. Maybe I will meet my doctors,” said Puih Hlin, listing off several officers’ names, ranks and units shortly before boarding the airplane.
Allied with US forces during the war in Vietnam, several Montagnards interviewed in recent weeks said that their former links to the US made them particularly reviled by Vietnamese government authorities. But the main reason for their flight from Vietnam was the loss of their ancestral lands and suppression of their Protestant religion.
UNHCR staff were scheduled to meet today with provincial Governor Kham Khoeun to arrange a mission to the O’Leave and O’Tang areas of Lumphat district, where a reported 16 asylum-seekers are hiding near the banks of the Se Pok river.
“We tried to impress upon [authorities] the urgency of the meeting because we have good information that the people are starving,” Raymond Alikpala, UNHCR protection officer, said Monday following a preliminary meeting with Ratanakkiri police chief Yoeung Balong.
If Kham Khoeun allows the operation to take place Wednesday, it will be the first that the UNHCR has conducted by boat, Alikpala said.
Five asylum-seekers who emerged from Bokeo district Sunday and remain in Banlung will not be transferred to Phnom Penh until Saturday, as one man is suffering from malaria and typhoid.
Doctors have said the man cannot travel until he recovers, Alikpala added.