Human Rights Watch on Sunday released an advanced report contending that Hanoi’s intimidation and repression of Montagnards has increased and consequently so have the flights of refugees into Cambodia. The report also recommended that the Cambodian government cooperate with the UN High Commission on Refugees to re-establish refugee camps on the Vietnam border and maintain the refugee transit center in Phnom Penh.
Among the recommendations made in the report, set to be released to the public today, is that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees “remind the Cambodian government of its obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees not to return refugees to a place where their lives or freedom are under threat.”
UNHCR should “press the Cambodian government to authorize UNHCR to immediately establish a field presence in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, reopen the provincial refugee camps, maintain the refugee transit center in Phnom Penh, and provide protection and assistance to refugees from Vietnam,” the report says. “Offer technical assistance to Cambodian border officials and police on refugee protection standards.”
Since 2001 about 1,000 Montagnard refugees have successfully slipped through the jungle into Cambodia. From here they have been relocated by the International Organization of Migration to the US, many to the state of North Carolina. Their resettlement there has been aided in part by US veterans of the war in Vietnam, who fought alongside Montagnards against the North Vietnamese.
The Montagnards, who are predominantly Christian, have long been at odds with communist Hanoi. But an armed struggle for autonomy which sputtered out in 1992 has since evolved into massive demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom.
Hanoi responded to those protests harshly with arrests and police brutality, setting off a wave of secretive flight that many Montagnards have deemed their only shot at survival.
Despite some successful resettlement efforts, human rights groups have reported that hundreds more Montagnards have been returned illegally to Vietnam by Cambodian authorities or apprehended by Vietnamese agents operating in Cambodia. At least 70 Montagnard flight cases are said to be serving jail terms back in Vietnam.
According to the HRW report, during this year alone more than 100 Montagnards have been illegally deported from Cambodia to Vietnam, where they have been arrested and beaten on arrival.
The report also notes with dismay that the Cambodian government announced this month its intention to close the refugee transit center in Phnom Penh as soon as the 42 Montagnards still there awaiting resettlement leave for the US.
With no haven in Cambodia, hundreds remain on the lam along the forested border. HRW reports that on March 26 a group of Montagnards was fired upon by police and soldiers in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province. Five escaped; two were wounded. One of the wounded died in custody, and his body was returned to his family with his skull “severely crushed.”
Also in the HRW report are testimonies from hill tribe church leaders detailing cases of religious persecution. One ethnic Mnong Christian wrote in numbered succession the following points: “[The authorities] forced the preachers and leaders of the ‘Y’ church to scatter and destroy all the work of the church. To this day they no longer allow celebration of the church of Jesus. They summoned preacher ‘M’ and scolded the poor man from 7 am to 8 pm. They destroyed the place where a person stands to preach and damaged the door of the church. They said that the American and French religion is wrong, and that we are not allowed to preach or sing or assemble. There were a lot of other things.”
Among the testimonies are complaints of being denied use of the land. “Forestry officials don’t allow us to cut trees to make our houses and shoot at us with guns…. The land we inherited of old from our ancestors. The Vietnamese are destroying our land and mistreating us…. Soldiers live in every one of our houses,” another Montagnard wrote.
The report also provides what it claims are translated Vietnamese government documents that describe “swearing brotherhood” ceremonies in which Montagnards are to declare allegiance to the ruling party and “Fatherland” before pictures of Ho Chi Minh. Human Rights Watch says participation in these ceremonies has been encouraged through another recent wave of arrests.
One of the government documents describes the mission of the ceremonies as “to, step by step, eradicate out-dated and backward ways, and eradicate all illegal religious organizations; preserve and respect the traditional culture of the minority culture of the minority groups.
Brad Adams, executive director of HRW’s Asia Division, responded to that final sentiment, saying in the report, “Despite Hanoi’s statements of concern for its ethnic minorities, Vietnam is clearly escalating its repression of Montagnards. The United Nations and Vietnam’s international donors must take a more active role in protesting and preventing such serious human rights violations.”