Thirty people believed to be Montagnards were reportedly sent back to Vietnam from Ratanakkiri province, and an additional eight people may still be hiding elsewhere in O’Yadaw district, Adhoc provincial coordinator Pen Bonnar said Aug 12.
On Aug 7, police arrested 24 people, including three or four children, all of whom Pen Bonnar believed to be Montagnards.
“They…were about one or two kilometers from the [Vietnamese] border,” in O’Yadaw district, he said.
That same day, police found six others believed to be from the same ethnic minority elsewhere in the district, and deported all 30 possible Montagnards back to Vietnam, Pen Bonnar said.
Provincial Police Chief Ray Rai denied that the 30 deported were Montagnards, saying they were Vietnamese people who had slipped across Cambodia’s border in order to take advantage of the country’s mineral resources.
“They were workers who came to mine illegally. They were not Montagnards…. They were just normal Vietnamese citizens,” he said, adding that he had documents to prove it.
Ray Rai said he had no information about the eight people who may be hiding in the area. In any case, he said he does not think they are Montagnards either. “Maybe they broke off from the group of 30,” Ray Rai said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said Aug 12 that he was unaware of anyone being deported in recent days. However, he said, people are sent back across the Cambodia-Vietnam border all the time, regardless of their ethnicity.
“When we make arrests and send people back, it is not only Montagnards,” Khieu Sopheak said, adding that border security is paramount. “We never know whether they are Montagnards or what. We must protect the border.”
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith and Vietnamese Embassy spokesman Trinh Ba Cam both said they were unaware of the case.
Villagers reported seeing eight people believed to be Montagnards in O’Yadaw district around Aug 1, Pen Bonnar said. But he alleged that authorities had intimidated locals to discourage them from aiding Montagnards.
Khieu Sopheak denied that authorities had intimidated villagers.
Pen Bonnar said he did not know where the eight Montagnards were hiding or have details about their health, but said he had made the UN High Commissioner for Refugees aware of their presence.
“There is no response yet from UNHCR…. They need to write a letter to the government asking for permission to form a mission [and retrieve them],” he said. Requesting such permission is a process that usually takes about a month, Pen Bonnar said.
UNHCR officials could not be reached for comment Aug 12.
(Additional reporting by Emily Lodish)