After a high-ranking RCAF general urged Ratanakkiri authorities to help prevent the province from becoming a “place of Christianity,” observers expressed concern that action to curb religious freedoms would only inflame a relatively stable situation.
“Those kind of statements are very alarming and quite out of character for the Cambodian government, which has long upheld freedom of religion, unlike its neighbor, Vietnam,” a representative for Human Rights Watch said Monday.
RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief General Meas Sophea delivered the contentious comments at a meeting in the provincial capital of Banlung, where he told police to keep watch over Christian activities in the area to prevent further Montagnard asylum-seekers from crossing into Cambodia from Vietnam, according to a recording of his comments.
The asylum-seekers, many of whom are Christian and have claimed religious persecution, have brought attention to minority communities in northeast Cambodia, some of whom have aided the Montagnards.
Steve Hiett, Mondolkiri province team project manager for International Cooperation Cambodia, a Christian NGO, said that the Montagnards influx has led to increased scrutiny of Christian groups, as well as the occasional instance of intimidation.
“We know that because the Montagnards fleeing Vietnam are Christian…the local authorities are very preoccupied with Christian activities,” he said.
One source familiar with the Ratanakkiri hill tribe communities said Sunday that the comments “will increase tensions between people.”
The source said that although Montagnard sympathizers have been told that helping the asylum-seekers is not illegal they have been discouraged from doing so. “There’s a double message happening that reflects the pressure from Vietnam,” he said.
Targeting Christians in the northeast might create more problems than it solves, the Rights Watch representative said.
“It could be counterproductive by creating mistrust and resentment among minority Christians,” the representative said.
(Additional reporting by Wency Leung)