o’reang district, Mondolkiri province – It didn’t take much time for Pnong hill tribe member Dien Y Lien to decide to move half a world away to the US from his forest refuge here in Mondolkiri province.
Squatting on hard packed earth in a newly cleared patch of jungle, Dien Y Lien, 38, thought for a few moments, took a long look at his young family crowded under a half-built wooden shelter and came to his conclusion.
“We would go to the US,” he said. “We want to live in a peaceful and comfortable country.”
The family of seven fled to Cambodia in March from their home in Kong Dieng village in Vietnam’s Dak Lak province after threats of arrest from authorities there following the Feb 6 protests in the Central Highlands.
Here in Mondolkiri province he was in no danger, he told reporters in an interview on April 18. The Pnong minority have lived in Cambodia for centuries, and one more hill tribe family living among the many villagers here would not make a difference to authorities, he thought.
But on Tuesday morning six men identified by local sources as Cambodian police and district officials arrived with a truck, loaded Dien Y Lien, his wife Maria Nam Linh, 33, and five children—four girls and a boy—aboard it and disappeared.
They have not been seen since.
Both the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh knew of the family’s presence in the province, Montagnard sources reported.
About 10 days ago the UNHCR gave the family UN protection documents. They also gave a Mondolkiri deputy governor a copy of the protection document and the general whereabouts of the family in the hopes that they would be better protected.
Sources in Mondolkiri province believe the seven were driven the 35 km journey to the Dak Dam border crossing with Vietnam and deposited into the hands of waiting Vietnamese officials.
Montagnard sources and provincial officials have confirmed that a bounty is being offered by Vietnamese officials for each Montagnard refugee sent back from Cambodia. US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann was told Monday by Director General of National Police Hok Lundy that at least 19 other Montagnards have been repatriated, though this was done in late March, two days before Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered that asylum seekers in Cambodia be protected.
Vietnamese border police and officials have accompanied Cambodian police in searches of the province, a Mondolkiri district official confirmed last week—a claim that was also made earlier by a Phnom Penh diplomatic official.
On Monday night, Hok Lundy assured Wiedemann there would be no deportation of potential asylum seekers. But the assurance came too late for Dien Y Lien and his family.
UNHCR’s Acting Country Director John Farvolden said Wednesday that his organization will not be making a statement on the disappearance of the family, which was under his office’s protection.
“We are working with the government on this,” Farvolden said.
Local Montagnard sources and diplomats in Phnom Penh have questioned why UNHCR has not devoted more resources to investigating and protecting the estimated 160 Montagnard refugees who are still in hiding in Mondolkiri province.
Mondolkiri Provincial Cabinet Chief Svay Sam Eang said Tuesday the disappearance would be investigated. But provincial Police Chief Reach Samnang said Wednesday he was not investigating the disappearance of the family as he has not been officially informed that it took place.
Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth was not answering his telephone Wednesday. An assistant answered the governor’s telephone on Tuesday and Wednesday and said Tor Soeuth was busy and could not talk.
Sau Phan, deputy director-general of National Police, said Wednesday the Interior Ministry has received no reports of the missing asylum seekers. If a report arrives, there will be an investigation, he said.
Two UNHCR investigators are currently in the province, but face the twin obstacles of precarious weather conditions and the remoteness of jungle locations in which the refugees have chosen to hide.
And the future of some 160 Montagnard refugees in hiding in Mondolkiri remains in question as UNHCR and the government slowly work to establish a clear position on how to deal with Montagnards fleeing from Vietnam.
Dien Y Lien had told reporters he was happy to stay in Cambodia, but if it became too dangerous, he was willing to move to the US.
“I don’t know anything about America,” he admitted. “But, it looks very nice in photographs.”
Dien Y Lien’s main worry was where to find food in the US for his family.
“In big cities you can’t grow rice. How will I have rice to eat if there are only houses, roads and cars in the US?”
His 17-year-old daughter said she would miss the forests if she went to the US. But, with the situation as it was, she said she wanted to go.
“I don’t know what America is like. But if I see it, I will know how I feel about it,” she said.
(Additional reporting Phann Ana)