LUMPHAT DISTRICT, Ratanakkiri province – Under the cover of darkness in a clearing deep inside the forests of this northeastern province, Rash Len Van spoke of the repression that led him and seven fellow Montagnards to flee Vietnam for Cambodia on October 30.
“Police threatened to arrest me and kill me if I joined with people who supported the Degar Foundation and continued to practice the Christian religion, so I decided to flee from Vietnam again,” Mr. Len Van, 28, said Wednesday night, referring to the U.S.-based foundation that advocates for the rights of Montagnards.
His first attempt to flee his home country, he said, ended in failure after authorities found him hiding in Phnom Penh in 2008 and escorted him back to Vietnam. Mr. Len Van said he was briefly detained at Vietnam’s Gia Lai provincial prison before re-entering a society tightly controlled by the communist party, which has long persecuted Montagnards, also called Degars, a mostly Christian group of ethnic minorities from Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Mr. Len Van’s story is a familiar one among the 13 Montagnards who have crossed into Cambodia over the past month and are currently hiding in Lumphat district. Having split into three groups, the 12 men and one woman have so far managed to evade capture by local police.
Once he crossed the border, Mr. Len Van met his brother Rash Len Phal, and siblings Kosal Yunna and Kosal Ly—who all entered the country separately through the forest along the porous border—in Ratanakkiri province. The four were met by local ethnic Jarai villagers who led them to a base inside the forest and provided them with mats, water and rice.
Speaking in his native Jarai, with a local translating into Khmer, Mr. Yunna, 20, described a life in Vietnam of constant surveillance and few freedoms for Montagnards.
“Police arrested me because I am a practicing Christian and they saw I had a Degar Foundation flag on my Facebook,” Mr. Yunna said, adding that he was seriously beaten by police during his incarceration in June.
Down a winding dirt track through sparse woodland, local fixers led reporters across a river to meet another group of four Montagnards who emerged from a wooden shack.
Nay Klenh, who also entered Cambodia on October 30, claimed he was tortured by Vietnamese authorities after being imprisoned in 2008 and 2011 and fled to Cambodia for fear that he will be targeted again.
“The first time they arrested me, they tied my arms behind my back and authorities beat me with a long stick and stabbed me in the back with a sharp steel bar after they found I was meeting with other Christians,” Mr. Klenh said.
After a month in prison, the 40-year-old farmer from Gia Lai province said he was followed and harassed by authorities before being arrested again in November 2011 for contacting a relative in the U.S. over the Internet, sparking accusations that he was “associating with an anti-Vietnamese resistance movement.”
Also in the group with Mr. Klenh was Sal Yoeum, the only woman among the 13, who said she was also imprisoned for joining secret Christian ceremonies.
The Montagnards have long been treated with hostility by Hanoi for their loyalty to U.S. forces in the Second Indochina War, their religious practices and their long-held hopes for an autonomous homeland.
In 2001, the Montagnards held mass protests that were violently suppressed by Vietnamese police. As a result, more than 1,000 fled across the border to seek refuge in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces.
A similar chain of events occurred in 2004, with hundreds more Montagnards crossing into the country.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up camps in the two provinces to protect the asylum seekers, and some 2,000 Montagnards were resettled in the U.S. between 2001 and 2004.
The group of Montagnards currently hiding out in Ratanakkiri voiced hope that the U.N. would again intervene, and had little doubt about the harsh treatment they would receive if sent back across the border.
“I wish to appeal to the UNHCR to help us,” Mr. Yunna said. “I don’t mind where they send us, that is their decision.”
Vivian Tan, the regional press officer for the UNHCR in Bangkok, said Thursday that the organization was working with Cambodian authorities to ensure the safety of the group.
“Discussions are ongoing with the government to try and move the group from their current location so that they can access the asylum process,” Ms. Tan said.
But the Montagnards interviewed Wednesday had little confidence that local authorities would be sympathetic to their cause.
“I’m very worried we will be caught, because we know the commune police are searching for us,” Mr. Yunna said.
On Monday, police in Ratanakkiri province’s O’yadaw district, which borders Lumphat district, said they were searching for a group of Montagnards after receiving information from local villagers who spotted them hiding in the forest.
Deputy provincial police chief Chea Bunthoeun vowed to deport the “illegal immigrants” if they were caught.
Mr. Yunna was unequivocal about the danger the group faces if sent back to Vietnam.
“If we are arrested by the Khmer authorities and sent back to Vietnam, I think they will kill us,” he said.
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