Banlung, Ratanakkiri province – The final group of the 198 Montagnard asylum-seekers who emerged from the jungle in Ratanakkiri province in recent weeks departed to Phnom Penh by air Saturday, while the last remaining staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees left the province by road on Sunday.
There was a lighthearted mood in Banlung’s small wooden airport as the 31 Montagnards, sporting new T-shirts and backpacks donated by the UN, sat waiting to board the Russian-built twin-propeller airplane. Those leaving Saturday included a group of 11 men and six women who were detained two nights last week at an RCAF military post on the river border between Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces.
UNHCR staff joked and posed for photographs with members of the Interior Ministry delegation who were sent to Ratanakkiri two weeks ago to investigate reports that Montagnards had fled Vietnam and were in hiding in the province’s jungles with little access to food, clean water and medicine.
Despite the jovial mood at the airport, human rights workers warned Sunday that more asylum-seekers are reportedly in Ratanakkiri and neighboring Mondolkiri province, and a senior provincial police official hinted Sunday that Montagnard asylum-seekers might continue to be treated as illegal immigrants.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun declined to comment Sunday. Ratanakkiri province Deputy Police Chief Hor Ang said he was indifferent regarding the departure of the 198, but noted their good fortune.
“I tell you that the Montagnards, they are fortunate this time because the villagers hid them. If the authorities had found them, they would have sent them back. They would not have luck like that,” he said.
Asked what the police policy would be toward Montagnards in the future, Hor Ang said: “In the future we will implement the same law.”
Pen Bonnar, provincial director of local rights group Adhoc, said Sunday that he was relieved that all 198 asylum-seekers were now safe under UN protection in Phnom Penh. Pen Bonnar was instrumental in providing information, passed on by local sources in Ratanakkiri, to the UNHCR regarding the locations where the Montagnards were in hiding.
“I am very, very happy. We were able to save a lot of people and now they have been successfully sent to the UNHCR,” he said.
Amid unconfirmed reports that more asylum-seekers may still be hiding in the jungles along the Vietnamese border, Pen Bonnar said Adhoc stands ready to assist the UNHCR in the future.
“I will still do again,” he said.
During Pen Bonnar’s last mission to escort 17 Montagnards out of their reported forest hiding places in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district, on the border with Mondolkiri province’s Koh Nhek district, he and the asylum-seekers were detained at a military river post from Sunday night until Tuesday morning. RCAF soldiers at the remote post said they had orders to arrest anyone crossing the Cambodian border illegally.
Though Mondolkiri was the site of the largest number of Montagnard asylum-seekers crossing into Cambodia following demonstrations in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 2001, the area is under a massive security clamp down and off-limits to outsiders, including reporters. Human rights groups have charged that security officials in the province have arrested and deported scores of Montagnards to Vietnam in recent months.
A Western human rights worker said Sunday that it is imperative that the international community investigate what is taking place in Mondolkiri. The province is adjacent to Vietnam’s Dak Lak and Dak Nong provinces, the site of the largest organized Montagnard demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom over the Easter weekend.
Mondolkiri’s acting police chief Sam Sameth said Sunday that his province does not have asylum-seekers.
“I don’t have any trouble with this issue in my province,” he said, adding that the fate of Montagnard asylum-seekers was “up to the government.”
With Sunday’s departure of UNHCR staff, who so far have been unable to secure government permission to re-open its office in Ratanakkiri, sources familiar with the Montagnard asylum-seeker issue expressed concern for the safety of Cambodian ethnic minority villagers living in the areas from which the asylum-seekers emerged.
Sources have reported an increased police presence in at least one ethnic minority village in the area, from which some of the 198 emerged. The same sources also reported that last week six men were seen in a forested area bound by their hands with hammock rope and being led by police in the direction of the Vietnam border.
Reports have also emerged that two of six asylum-seekers, who voluntarily returned to Vietnam earlier this month after hiding in Cambodia with the 198, were arrested on their return.
According to the Western human rights worker, witnesses in Vietnam say they saw the two men being beaten by Vietnamese police and bleeding heavily from the head and mouth.
Though noting the good cooperation between the government, UNHCR and Adhoc in bringing to safety the 198 asylum-seekers, a representative of the New York-based Human Rights Watch lamented the UN’s speedy departure from Ratanakkiri.
“It is a shame that the UN has completely withdrawn its presence from the province. Clearly there is an ongoing need for the UN to be up there in order to respond to ongoing, credible reports that more people have crossed the border,” the representative said.
The UN’s withdrawal “makes it all the more difficult to respond properly to people who are in critical need of protection.”
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)