King Norodom Sihanouk called on the government Wednesday to open its borders to Montagnard asylum seekers and cease its policy of declaring them illegal immigrants and summarily deporting them.
“Today, I beseech the [Royal Government of Cambodia] and the UN to protect these Montagnards and never expel or let be expelled from Cambodia these unfortunates who take refuge in our home,” the King wrote from Pyongyang, North Korea, in a message posted on his Web site Wednesday.
Montagnard protests for religious freedom and land rights in Vietnam’s Central Highlands over the weekend spurred Vietnam to seal off the region from international observers, including foreign diplomats and journalists. Human rights groups say an unknown number of Montagnards were wounded and killed in clashes with police and hundreds are now missing.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, human rights groups and opposition lawmakers expressed outrage after border police in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces were ordered Sunday to increase patrols to prevent Montagnards from seeking refuge in Cambodia, as they did after a similar Vietnamese police crackdown in 2001.
The King’s statement Wednesday came in response to a letter he received from Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Son Chhay, in which the lawmaker likened the Montagnards’ plight to that of those who lived under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith on Wednesday deferred all questions to the Interior Ministry. Calls placed to Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and spokesman Khieu Sopheak went unanswered.
Nuth Sa An, the ministry’s secretary-general, declined to comment, saying: “Nobody dares to respond to the King’s statement.”
On Saturday, thousands of Montagnard protesters in Vietnam’s Dak Lak and Gia Lai provinces were met by police wielding tear gas, electric truncheons and water cannons, said a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch released Wednesday.
With tanks ready, Vietnamese police shot at groups of Montagnards who would not disperse, the report alleged. Other protesters were beaten to death or arrested, and “dozens, if not hundreds” are now missing , the report said.
“The human rights situation for Montagnards in the Central Highlands has plummeted to a new low,” Brad Adams, a Human Rights Watch official, said in a statement Wednesday.
Vietnam blamed the protests on “extremists” and fiercely denied accusations of “so-called ethnic and religious persecution” in a statement on Monday.
The US Embassy in Hanoi on Wednesday asked that a delegation be allowed to visit the Central Highlands, and state-controlled media reported that Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Highlands on Tuesday, urging local leaders to provide Montagnards with housing and farmland to “maintain political stability and social safety.”
As recently as last month, Human Rights Watch said that local authorities in Dak Lak convened mandatory public denunciation sessions every Sunday morning, at which villagers were forced to renounce Christianity and pledge loyalty to “Uncle Ho.”
Cambodian authorities deported 270 Montagnards fleeing Vietnamese persecution last year, the report said.
“The fact that so few refugees have been able to make it to Phnom Penh during the last year does not mean that the Vietnamese government has ceased its harsh practices against Montagnard Christians,” Adams said. “It simply means that Montagnards fleeing persecution in Vietnam are unable to cross the border and obtain UNHCR protection in Phnom Penh.”
The UNHCR office in Banlung, Ratanakkiri’s provincial capital, has been closed at the government’s request since 2002. Fifty-nine Montagnards have arrived at the UNHCR’s Phnom Penh office since January.
“Montagnard minorities and others from Vietnam continue to face difficulties in seeking asylum in Cambodia,” wrote UN human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht in a yearly human rights review, which he is scheduled to present to the UN Secretary-General on Monday.
“Asylum-seekers must travel some 600 km over land to reach Phnom Penh,” he added.
Last month, Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs documents, sent to the UNHCR concerning its “unauthorized office in Banlung,” blasted the refugee agency as “arrogant” and reiterated that the government must authorize any UNHCR activity.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia is in the process of preparing a Sub Decree on Refugees and Asylum,” the documents said. “Once the said Sub Decree is signed, the Ministry would consider any request of the UNHCR on the possibility of opening its office in any area of the country.”
UNHCR submitted a draft law to the Foreign Affairs Ministry in December that would hand over asylum determination to the government. The ministry has yet to respond, UNHCR country representative Nikola Mihajlovic said this week.
In his report, Leuprecht questioned handing over asylum determination to the prime minister’s office since the National Assembly had not delegated legislative authority regarding refugees and asylum.
“Even after the establishment of the relevant office to deal with asylum…UNHCR needs to remain involved in refugee status determination until domestic officials and institutions are able to undertake this work in a reliable and independent manner,” Leuprecht wrote.
“Cambodia’s recent record of failing to comply with its international obligations regarding refugees makes the timing of this ‘handing over of ownership’ particularly unfortunate.”
Mihajlovic said Monday that UNHCR would “retain high monitoring ability” over asylum determination.
(Additional reporting by Wency Leung, Thet Sambath and The Associated Press)