Hiding from Persecution

The journey is long, painful and life threatening. It involves sleeping in mud, eating leaves from trees or roots from the earth and fighting off legions of mosquitoes armed with malaria all while staying clear of authorities with orders to arrest and deport.

But since 2001, hundreds of Montagnards have traveled on foot from their ancestral lands in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, seeking refuge in Cambodia’s northeast provinces.

Ksor, 42, and Rahlan, 24—their family names—recounted on Thursday evening from their jungle hiding place in Ratanakkiri province how they swam the Se San river with 41 other asylum seekers—including women—clinging to a tree trunk. The water was cold two months ago when they attempted their dangerous crossing at dawn just 100 meters from the Vietnamese river border checkpoint. Three of those crossing could not swim, so it was up to those who could to use their arms and legs to propel their craft across. It took more than one hour and people lost valuables and money when a woman got into difficulty in the water and others came to her assistance. Rahlan said he came to Cambodia to follow his brother to the US. He was resettled there following the 2001 demonstrations in the Central Highlands.

“My younger brother told me not to go [to the US]. But I want to go there,” he said. He recounted his many grievences with the Vietnamese authorities and said he felt better living in a Cambodian jungle than back in his village in Pleiku province. “I don’t know for how long, or on which day I will stop hiding in the jungle. But living in Vietnam is more dangerous than here,” he said. Who are the Montagnards? And why do they risk death to leave their homes?

The Montagnards, a French word for “mountain dwellers,” are indigenous minorities, comprising more than a dozen ethnic groups. Members now frequently refer to themselves as Dega, a word that combines their rich heritage and more-recently adopted Protestant faith.

Culturally and ethnically different from the Vietnamese, Montagnard tribes fought with the French colonial administration against the communist Vietminh in the 1940s. The French repaid them with a level of political autonomy in the Central Highlands, but following the Geneva Accords in 1954 and the withdrawal of the French from Vietnam, the Montagnards lost those political privileges.

When the US entered the War in Vietnam, it sought out the Montagnards for their jungle survival skills in the strategically important Central Highlands, which split Vietnam’s warring north and south. US Special Forces teams and the Central Intelligence Agency began recruiting and arming Montagnards to fight against the communist north.

By 1964, a group of Montagnard separatists joined with the Chams and Khmer Krom to form FULRO a French acronym for the United Front for the Liberation of oppressed Races. After the US reportedly agreed to covertly support a Montagnard rebellion against Vietnam as Saigon fell into Communist hands in 1975, thousands of Montagnards connected to FULRO started guerrilla warfare in the Central Highlands.

But support from the US never came, and by 1977, many rebels left the jungles and quit fighting, though pockets of resistance persisted. The Vietnamese government moved more than 100,000 ethnic Vietnamese into the Central Highlands, creating a buffer against the Montagnards and diminishing their influence.

In 1992, a group of Paraguayan UN peacekeepers serving with Untac discovered 398 Montagnard resistance fighters in a remote area of Mondolkiri province still armed with AK 47s—one of the last groups of FULRO fighters to have been found.

The US airlifted them to Phnom Penh and later resettled them in North Carolina, where many former US Special Forces soldiers live. Many Montagnards abandoned the armed struggle after converting to Christianity in the early 1990s.

For the rest of the decade, tensions between Montagnard tribes and the Vietnamese government escalated after authorities increasingly halted religious activities and confiscated the ethnic minorities valuable land, used for profitable coffee production.

In February 2001, thousands of Montagnards, urged on by Kok Ksor, former FULRO member and president of the Montagnard Foundation Inc, peacefully demonstrated for land rights and religious freedom in the Central Highlands. The Vietnamese government cracked down hard, according to human rights groups, torturing demonstration leaders, destroying churches and intimidating Montagnard Christians.

Hundreds of Montagnards fled to Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri following the 2001 protests, taking up cover in the rain-soaked forests. Two UN refugee camps opened, and in 2002 about 900 Montagnards were processed for resettlement in the US.

Since then, it has not been easy for Montagnards to cross the border. Cambodian villagers who live near Vietnam tell of bounties paid for turning in Montagnards, of an increased police presence in communes and intimidation from local authorities, who warn them of arrest if they assist asylum seekers.

Human rights groups say Cambodia, pressured by close its ties with Hanoi, has deported more than a hundred Montagnards last year alone. To make matters worse for asylum seekers, the government forced the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to close its Ratanakkiri office in April.

Though Montagnards have continually trickled across the border since 2001, their numbers increased substantially following the Easter weekend demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom.

Like in 2001, thousands of Montagnards demonstrated in the Central Highlands, Vietnamese authorities responded with force and now hundreds of ethnic minorities are believed to be hiding along the border of Cambodia and Vietnam.

After several weeks of seeking pleas for help from Montagnard asylum seekers, including very young children, the government granted the UNHCR permission to travel to Ratanakkiri to see the situation for itself.  UN representatives arrived in the province on Thursday, and it remains to be seen whether refugee camps will again be established.

(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)

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