sen monorom, Mondolkiri province – Amid reports emerging from this province that 19 Montagnard refugees were allegedly handed back to Vietnamese authorities late last month, ethnic minority members here say they need to be protected.
According to a former member of the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO), a decades-old hill tribes separatist movement, the alleged forced return of the group of 19 ethnic Jarai men to Vietnam has scared a new group of more than 20 Pnong and Radhe hilltribe refugees who turned up April 12 in Mondolkiri.
He said all but two of the new group have gone into hiding in the forests along the Cambodia-Vietnam border. The calls for greater protection for the fleeing refugees, who entered Cambodia from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, come amid reports that a bounty has been offered by Vietnamese district officials for each Montagnard sent back across the border.
Reached Sunday in Phnom Penh, Mondolkiri province Governor Tor Seuth said he was aware of the claims that a group of 19 refugees had been returned to Vietnam, and said he will launch an investigation when he returns to the province at the end of this month.
“I want to know who did this, and if it is true that they sent them back without approval from the government,” Tor Seuth said.
A human rights worker in Phnom Penh said Sunday he has received a report on the 19 refugees allegedly returned and will pass it on to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees office in Phnom Penh.
“They should have allowed the government to decide on the fate of the 19, and should not to have sent them back immediately, without any investigation or approval from the government,” the rights worker said.
Mondolkiri Third Deputy Governor Nha Rang Chanh said Thursday the reports that 19 refugees had been returned had no foundation, and were likely confused with the arrest of 19 Vietnamese nationals found illegally logging in the province.
Although Nha Rang Chanh said there has been no forced return of ethnic minority members to Vietnam, he also pointed out the province’s policy is to return ethnic minority members who enter Cambodia as illegal immigrants.
“According to the government policy, if they cross into Cambodia we want to send them back,” Nha Rang Chanh said.
“As I understand it, if this is not done properly the [refugee] problem will continue. We cannot encourage others to come and create turmoil in Mondolkiri. Our local authority has the duty to send them back.”
A person monitoring the situation in Mondolkiri said Thursday on the condition of anonymity that eyewitnesses reported the 19 Jarai men emerged from the forests in Koh Myeul village in Koh Nhiek district on March 24.
Following their arrest, ordered by a district official and a senior provincial official, the 19 were sent by truck under armed escort back to Vietnam at the Dak Dam border crossing at 5 am on March 26.
“They knew the villagers in Koh Myeul….They thought they would be allowed stay in Cambodia. They didn’t know they would be sent back,” the person monitoring the situation said.
The alleged return of the 19 took place almost simultaneously with the arrival of a first group of 24 Montagnards from Vietnam into Keo Seima and Pech Chreada districts. The 24 were taken to Phnom Penh, processed, and all have received asylum and left for the US. The last six refugees from this original group left Phnom Penh Friday night, according to US Embassy officials.
Local officials in Mondolkiri province were unwilling last week to talk publicly about the situation, citing the close work of at least one senior provincial official with Vietnamese government officials in neighboring Dak Lak province.
A provincial official claimed Thursday that Vietnamese officials from Dak Lak province have traveled to Sen Monorom on a number of occasions over the past month and met with senior and lower level provincial officials regarding the return of refugees surfacing in Mondolkiri.
Third Deputy Governor Nha Rang Chanh said he was unaware of alleged meetings between officials from Keo Seima and Pech Chreada districts with Vietnamese officials from Dak Lak province.
While Nha Rang Chanh maintained he personally has refused for more than one year to meet Vietnamese officials, one hour after giving an interview he was seen by reporters meeting with six Vietnamese men reported to be officials from Dak Lak province.
Driving a Vietnamese-registered Mitsubishi Pajero, the six identified themselves to restaurant staff as Dak Lak province government officials.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh, which has played a pivotal role in pushing forward the asylum process, has come under strong criticism from the Vietnamese government. At the same time, back room pressure was applied by Hanoi on Cambodia officials to return the 24 who ultimately left for the US. Hanoi says they are members of the anti-government FULRO group.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has been lauded by the US government and human rights organizations for agreeing to facilitate the processing of the 24 refugees despite the pressure.
The Prime Minister’s decision to change his original position that the 24 were illegal immigrants and should be returned has been seen as a ground breaking step away from Vietnamese patronage and a sign of his interest in building closer ties with the international community.
But that assistance has been strongly criticized by Hanoi, which has also charged the US with interfering in its internal affairs and attempting to support instability in the Central Highlands.
In a heavily forested area of Mondolkiri province just kilometers from the Vietnamese border, a former member of FULRO recounted Wednesday how he advised a recently arrived group of Montagnards to return to their jungle hideouts.
Based on the fate of the 19 Jarai, and reports of the Vietnamese bounty, he told the asylum seekers it was not safe to emerge.
“I told them that they should not come, as they will be arrested. I talked with them for one hour and I gave them 20 kilos of rice,” the FULRO member said.
“They cried and I cried. They blamed me, saying that they came here and I can’t help them. They said that if they go back they will be killed, and they can’t stay in the forest.”
The FULRO member claims around 1,000 Montagnards are in hiding just inside Vietnam, waiting for assurance of safe passage to enter Cambodia without being handed over to Vietnamese authorities.
“A FULRO contact sent a message to ask if the 1,000 should enter Cambodia. I sent a message back that there is no way to go to the US. We have no confidence in the authorities here,” he said adding that international aid organizations should provide food supplies for those he said are hiding in the forests.
One restaurant owner in Mondolkiri spoke of three extremely hungry ethnic minority members stopping at her restaurant last month to ask where the road to Phnom Penh was and the cost of a plate of rice.
Taking pity on the three, the restaurant owner said she gave them three plates of rice without charge. The group ate, then set out on foot toward Phnom Penh.
Human Rights Watch Asia issued a statement Thursday praising Cambodia’s handling of the refugee situation and condemning the Vietnamese crackdown.
“Persons in Vietnam who are involved in non-violent political activity deemed by the authorities to be anti-government are subject to arrest and prosecution,” Human Rights Watch Asia said.
“Vietnamese criminal law provides for harsh punishment for a wide variety of offenses, including vaguely defined political crimes such as undermining peace or subverting state unity.”
“If the [Cambodian] government allowed them to cross the border peacefully, they would come out of the forest. But the government is not helping,” said the person monitoring the situation. “It is sending [people] back,” he added.
Mondolkiri province governor Tor Seuth said Sunday that if NGOs or the UN want to create an office in Mondolkiri to monitor the situation, he would welcome it 100 percent.
“If there are many organizations in that area, it is good for communication, and if human rights are abused they can intervene on time,” Tor Seuth said.
UNHCR’s acting country representative John Farvolden remained tight-lipped regarding the Montagnard refugee situation Sunday, stating that the organization was continuing to monitor events from Phnom Penh.
Representatives from UNHCR have not yet traveled to Mondolkiri and he could not comment on whether one will eventually travel there.