Co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath said Wednesday that the Cambodian army has not received orders to deploy forces to Ratanakkiri province to confront Montagnard asylum-seekers.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen charged that some Montagnards who may have fled to Cambodia want to form an “autonomous zone” in Vietnam and threatened to “use military measures to eliminate their site.”
The army is “sitting tight,” Prince Sirirath said Wednesday. “Whatever position the prime minister might have, we have to abide.”
A new group of 85 Montagnard asylum-seekers, including 61 men, eight women and 16 children—ranging from 20 months to 13 years old—were interviewed and photographed in Ratanakkiri on Tuesday, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday. The asylum-seekers lacked food and shelter, and were suffering from malaria, fever and rashes, the report said.
The group of 85, accessible only by crawling under thick brush, urged the international community to come to their aid as soon as possible, RFA reported.
In separate interviews with 42 Montagnard asylum-seekers hiding in Ratanakkiri over the past five weeks and in a letter written by Montagnards asylum-seekers in Cambodia, they have not mentioned a desire to fight an armed struggle against Vietnam. Possessing no weapons, those interviewed said they sought only UN refugee agency protection.
On Tuesday, Hun Sen called reports that Montagnards are hiding in the thick northeast jungle “a lie.” Hill tribe sources have said as many as 250 Montagnards are hiding in Ratanakkiri’s jungles, with more trickling across the border every week.
Thamrongsak Meechubot, the representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Phnom Penh, said Wednesday that the UNHCR has not interviewed Montagnards who want to overthrow the Vietnamese government through force.
“From the people we met, there is no indication of this type of activity,” he said, adding that the UNHCR does not protect armed fighters.
The UNHCR remains “very much concerned” about reports of asylum-seekers languishing in Ratanakkiri with little food, water and medicine, and has offered its services to the government, Meechubot said.
“Whatever we can do, we are here and ready to provide assistance, but we haven’t received any official response,” he said.
Hun Sen said Tuesday that he would allow the UNHCR to set up offices in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces, but he gave no indication of when or how that might take place. The UNHCR is waiting for the government to draft a memorandum of understanding that is expected to contain the conditions for setting up the offices, Meechubot said.
“We’d like to go up there and be functional,” he said. “The only way for us to address the issue is for the government to come up with the modality for us to operate.”
Human rights groups called on the government to allow the UNHCR to hear the asylum claims of those hiding in the jungles.
Local villagers cannot show government authorities where the Montagnards are hiding because they fear the asylum-seekers will be arrested and deported back to Vietnam, said Chan Soveth, an official with the rights group Adhoc.
“If the Montagnards show themselves, it’s not so good for them,” he said Wednesday. “The Ministry of Interior and the UNHCR should work together to convince the asylum-seekers to come out of the forest.”
Chan Soveth said Hun Sen’s threat to use force on certain Montagnards hiding in Ratanakkiri reflected the government’s policy of defining Montagnards as illegal immigrants and deporting them.
“Hun Sen talks for politics, not humanitarian [concern],” he said.
Kek Galabru, president of the rights group Lichado, agreed that the Montagnards need a guarantee that the UNHCR will hear their asylum claims before they show themselves.
“They are in hiding and are afraid the Cambodian government will send them back to Vietnam,” she said. “The solution is to have the UNHCR open refugee camps and offer protection.”
The plight of the asylum-seekers is becoming more dire by the day, Kek Galabru said.
“The situation is very bad now,” she said. “They will die. It’s very hard to see people die of starvation.”