Ratanakkiri province – Six ethnic Jarai minority members from OYadaw district in Ratanakkiri province have joined Montagnard asylum seekers in the jungle, out of fears they have been targeted for arrest by police for providing food, water and medicine to those in hiding in the province, human rights workers and officials said on Tuesday.
A seventh Jarai man has sought shelter at the provincial office of local human rights group Adhoc fearing he too was targeted as having helped the asylum seekers.
“The [villagers] from Kong Thom village in Pate commune in OYadaw district fled on Sunday night following a tip that warrants for their arrest had been filed with the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh,” Rocham Dom, 44, said in a statement to local rights group Adhoc on Monday.
Rocham Dom said he, too, had fled to the jungle but then traveled to the Adhoc office for safety on Monday morning.
On Saturday and Monday, OYadaw district officials called meetings in several Jarai villages where they warned that those who gave assistance to the asylum seekers would face arrest, local villagers who attended the meetings said.
The seven who fled on Sunday night had attended a meeting for the inhabitants of Plong, Kong Thom, Paar and Kong York villages on Saturday morning. Villagers reported that officials had threatened to arrest those assisting the Montagnards, and issued a five-day ultimatum for them to inform authorities of the locations of those in hiding. Villagers in nearby Lum village reported a similar meeting on Monday where similar directives were issued.
Provincial officials on Tuesday dismissed claims that plans were in motion to detain the seven. They said instead that they were preparing for a visit by a delegation from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which may be allowed take the estimated 250 Montagnards in hiding in the province to the UN office in Phnom Penh to evaluate their asylum claims.
“I have intervened with the provincial governor and passed the case to the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee to summon a meeting and discuss this matter,” Pen Bonnar, director of Adhocs provincial office, said on Tuesday.
“We have intervened to ask that the provincial authorities do [not arrest those men] because it contradicts the government policy that has given a green light to UNHCR [to assist the asylum seekers],” Pen Bonnar said on Tuesday.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said on Tuesday there were no orders to arrest those who aided the asylum seekers and said the seven had fled to the jungle based on unfounded fears and rumors.
“No one was arrested and no arrest warrants from the court were issued. I ordered local authorities to go to the commune and villages to ask the villagers to tell us the location of the refugees,” Kham Khoeun said of the village meetings.
“We wanted to know how they had hid them so well that we could not find them,” he said.
“Maybe they were scared themselves because they are involved with anti-government activity,” he added.
The UNHCR is scheduled to arrive in Banlung, the provincial capital, on Thursday with Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives, said Kham Khoeun, adding that the UN will likely not be allowed to set up a refugee camp in the province, but might be allowed escort the Montagnards to their office in Phnom Penh “for questioning.”
Ratanakkiri Deputy Police Chief Hor Ang also denied there were arrest warrants for the seven.
“There is no problem like this. I received a [message] UNHCR will arrive,” he said, adding that local authorities would be cooperating with the refugee agency.
In interview on Monday at the Adhoc office, Rocham Dom said there were no aspirations for rebellious activities among the asylum seekers or those assisting them.
“If they were bad people we would not help them and give them food. They are good people coming here to try and survive,” he said.
None of the asylum seekers have weapons, he added: “They only have knives to cut trees to build shelters and tie up their hammocks. They do not want to mistreat the Vietnamese.”