Montagnards Reach Phnom Penh

A group of 13 Montagnard asylum seekers who have been hiding from authorities in the forests of Ratanakkiri province for weeks arrived in Phnom Penh last night, according to the U.N.

Just after 6 p.m., a convoy of two U.N. vehicles and an SUV from the Interior Ministry’s immigration department arrived at the department’s headquarters opposite the Phnom Penh International Airport.

The vehicles turned into the department’s drive and sped through the open gate, which was quickly shut by security guards, who barred reporters from entering.

“We confirm [the Montagnards] arrived safely,” Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an email last night.

Ms. Lee referred further questions to the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Vivian Tan, the regional press officer for the UNHCR, said by telephone Sunday that her office would take care of the group, but that she could not provide any more details about when, or if, they will be processed for refugee status.

“In theory, we’re supposed to be taking care of them,” Ms. Tan said.

“The Refugee Department will register their claims and we will arrange for their accommodation,” she added in an email.

Neither the officials at the Interior Ministry nor its immigration department could be reached Sunday.

The arrival of the Montagnards in Phnom Penh follows weeks of threats by local authorities in Ratanakkiri, who have vowed to deport the group back to Vietnam.

On Friday, the U.N. failed for a third time to reach the Montagnards after armed police blocked a joint U.N.-Interior Ministry mission from entering ethnic Jarai villages in the province.

Chhay Thy, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said Sunday that all 13 Montagnards were finally able to meet with a U.N. delegation in the northeastern province on Saturday night.

Mr. Thy said a group of eight Montagnards left the forest voluntarily and met the U.N. in Lumphat district’s Seda commune, while border police found the remaining five in O’yadaw district’s Yatung commune.

He said the police handed the group over to provincial authorities, who passed them along to the U.N. later that night.

Since arriving in Cambodia, a group of Cambodian Jarai—one of the about 30 tribes that make up the Montagnards—have been hiding the asylum seekers in a forest in Lumphat district.

The asylum seekers say they are fleeing oppression at the hands of the Vietnamese government.

Vietnam’s Montagnards, an indigenous group concentrated in the country’s Central Highlands, have long been persecuted for supporting U.S. and French forces during the First and Second Indochina Wars.

Most Montagnards also observe a form of Protestantism that Vietnamese authorities have outlawed, which led to a violent crackdown on Montagnard churches beginning in 2001.

Thousands sought asylum in Cambodia over the following decade. About 2,000 were resettled in the U.S.—most in North Carolina —while the rest were deported. Many of those sent back to Vietnam were reportedly jailed and tortured.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the Montagnards’ arrival in the capital was an important first step, but warned that their ordeal was far from over.

“[T]here is still a long way to go for this group, especially with refugee status determination that will need to be done by Cambodia government officials,” Mr. Robertson said by email.

“It’s going to be critical that the refugee status determination be impartial and transparent, and in no way be affected by the close diplomatic relations that Phnom Penh enjoys with Hanoi.”

pheap@cambodiadaily.com, mueller@cambodiadaily.com

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