The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Cambodia and Vietnam reached a tentative agreement in Hanoi on Tuesday to resettle or repatriate more than 700 Montagnards housed in UN facilities in Phnom Penh, a UNHCR country representative said Wednesday.
Under the agreement, the Montagnards will be given the option of returning to Vietnam or resettlement in a third country, but will not be allowed to remain in Cambodia long-term, Thamrongsak Meechubot said.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that three Montagnards were sentenced to up to 11 years in prison in Vietnam’s Central Highlands for organizing demonstrations and inciting other Montagnards to flee to Cambodia.
But Meechubot said Vietnam has assured that the Montagnards will not be persecuted upon their return and that the UNHCR will be allowed to visit the Central Highlands, an area closed to outsiders since 2001.
“The UNHCR is operating on the goodwill of everyone concerned…and whatever is available as a solution,” Meechubot said. “We’ll try to resettle everyone within six months.”
A source close to the Montagnards said Wednesday that some have threatened to kill themselves rather than return to Vietnam. Asked about the reported threats, Meechubot said: “If they have such a fear…they can go for resettlement.”
Montagnards who do not want to return to Vietnam or go to a third country have one month to choose, the Vietnamese Embassy said in a statement released Wednesday.
“If they are unable to make a choice after the deadline, the Royal Government of Cambodia will coordinate with the Vietnamese government to bring them home in a safe and orderly process in line with the two nations’ laws,” the embassy said.
The embassy accused the Montagnards of fleeing Vietnam illegally, “not for reasons of suppression,” but pledged that they will not face legal action or discrimination on their return.
A tripartite agreement fell apart in 2001 when UNHCR officials were not permitted to travel freely in the Central Highlands.
Sok Phal, director of the Interior Ministry’s Central Security Department, said that Long Visalo, Foreign Ministry secretary of state, signed the three-party agreement for Cambodia.
Police barred reporters from interviewing Montagnards at one UNHCR facility Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana and Kevin Doyle)