Government Won’t Help Montagnards

Food and shelter will not be offered to alleviate the plight of Montagnard asylum seekers who have languished for weeks in northeastern jungles, the head of the government’s National Human Rights Committee said Wednes­day.

Montagnards hiding in Ratan­ak­kiri province “are illegal and should be handled by the law,” said Om Yentieng, who also serves as an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“We won’t respond to the small demand of the Montagnards” for food and shelter, he said.

Om Yentieng’s comments mesh with the government’s widely criticized policy of declaring Montagnards illegal immigrants and summarily deporting them back to Vietnam.

Police and military forces have reportedly deported hundreds of asylum-seekers from northeastern Cambodia, where Vietnamese authorities are reportedly offering rewards in gold and providing Cambodian forces with food and other materials in return for hunting down asylum-seekers.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies met Wednesday in Phnom Penh to discuss ways to provide humanitarian assistance—such as mosquito nets, food and drinking water—to the fugitive Montagnards. No decision was reached Wednesday, said Antony Spalton, head of the Red Cross delegation.

As many as 160 asylum seekers are hiding in makeshift jungle encampments in Ratanakkiri province, asylum-seekers and local sources said Sunday.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said Wednesday that he plans to send letters today to the embassies of the US, Canada, Britain and Germany asking them when they plan to travel to the border areas to check on the influx of asylum-seekers.

Diplomats from the four nations recently met with Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng to request access to the border area.

“This is an urgent thing,” Son Chhay said. “If we don’t go and do something about it, those people will die.”

John Mitchell, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy, and Heide Bronke, spokeswoman for the US Embassy, both declined to comment Wednesday on whether diplomats would travel to the northeast provinces.

According to a letter passed to The Cambodia Daily from Montagnards who have fled the Central Highlands, the first hill tribe protests in 2001 came after years of land confiscation, and economic and religious discrimination by Vietnamese authorities.

The recent April 10 and April 11 demonstrations were to again protest the Vietnamese government’s oppressive policies, the authors wrote.

“Our demonstration was a peaceful demonstration but the communist authorities used force to vanquish and destroy the demonstration…. Many Montagnards [fled] to Cambodia and there are many women and children among them,” the letter read.

The letter also strongly denied that Montagnard asylum-seekers are motivated by economic reasons as Cambodian authorities have suggested.

“Our Montagnard community who fled to Cambodia and live there, is not to earn a living in the land of the Cambodian people, not to destroy the independence and sovereignty of the Cambodian people,” the authors wrote.

“Our Montagnard community are very nice and [have] peaceful [relations] with the people of Cambodia and the Government of Cambodia,” they wrote, citing a 1951 agreement between King Norodom Sihanouk and then Montagnard leaders.

That agreement allowed Montagnards flee to Cambodia as refugees in 1964 during the war in Vietnam, and it should still remain “valid,” the authors wrote.

“We are human beings,” the asylum-seekers wrote. “We are a nation with our own history, culture and land. Why do we not have those rights which are claimed by the whole world?”

Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said Monday that his organization has been accused of assisting the UN in “trafficking” asylum-seekers to Phnom Penh. Adhoc can now only compile information on the Montagnard influx, he said.

Montagnards who are hiding in Cambodia’s jungles will face grave hardship, Pen Bonnar added.

“From now until December, in Ratanakkiri there is a lot of rain,” he said. “The people know how to protect against malaria but the refugees go to the jungle. They will get malaria because they have nothing to protect themselves.”

(Reported by Daniel Ten Kate, Yun Samean and Kevin Doyle)

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