pech chreada district, Mondolkiri Province – There were 12 living in this sparse jungle camp until a recent night raid by local authorities forced the ethnic minorities from Vietnam’s Central Highlands to scatter into the dark.
Now Y Tos Nha, who had been suffering perhaps from malaria or tuberculosis, is missing and may have died or been arrested, said Y Minh, one of the minorities who was staying with him in the camp.
Since the night of the raid a week ago, Y Minh and 10 other ethnic minority members who fled recently from the Central Highlands have become hunted men and have moved their jungle camp twice.
Y Minh now fears Y Tos Nha’s fate will befall the other members of the Montagnard group if they stay in the jungle much longer.
UNHCR has visited the group and provided all but four, who arrived more recently, with documents stating they are under UN care while their requests for asylum are investigated.
But paper documents offer little protection for this group of men huddled together under thin plastic sheets in the rain-sodden jungle.
Malaria and unscrupulous security forces will not respect his UN documents, said Y Minh, adding that a $15,000 bounty on his head has been offered by Vietnamese officials. He said Vietnam accuses him of being a member of the anti-Hanoi FULRO group and being responsible for bringing fleeing Montagnards to Cambodia. Y Minh, a Pnong hill tribe member, has lived in Cambodia since the mid-1980s and is married to a Radhe hill tribe woman from Cambodia. He once held the position of First Lieutenant with FULRO but gave up service with the organization in the mid-1980s.
Since the resettlement in the US of 24 Montagnards who fled to Mondolkiri from Vietnam in late March, Y Minh’s life has turned upside down and he is now a marked man, he says.
“They blame him for the 24 and say he is working with the Americans,” Y Minh’s wife said.
One provincial official in Mondolkiri said last week that officials in the area believe it was no accident that members of the US embassy visiting Mondolkiri province in March stumbled upon the Montagnard refugees.
If the US Embassy had not reported the Montagnard presence in the province, there would be no refugee situation now, he said, implying that provincial officials would have sent the refugees quietly back to Vietnam.
The high-profile resettlement of the 24 and the ensuing influx of more Montagnards to Mondolkiri, has government officials scrambling for a solution that will not anger longtime ally Vietnam, but will abide by Cambodia’s commitment under international law to refugees.
On Friday, The New York Times reported that members of the group of 24 who have resettled in the US were among 300 Montagnards who took part in a protest outside the American Stock Exchange in New York, where they called for a ban on coffee from Vietnam.
The protesters then moved on to the UN building to demand recognition as an endangered people and then to Vietnam’s diplomatic mission in New York to demand equal rights to land, education and emigration.
“The security is very tight. The Vietnamese do not trust the Montagnards. But we do not plan to overthrow the government. We only want our rights,” said Nem, 42, who was one of those resettled in the US from Cambodia, according to the Times report.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has said that fleeing Montagnards who are in Cambodia will be given full protection while their asylum requests are processed.
However, at the provincial, district and commune level in Mondolkiri province, no one is sure what Cambodia’s position really is toward the Montagnards who have sought refuge here.
In the apparent void of decision making, the refugees themselves and those monitoring the situation, including provincial officials, are nervous.
Y Minh’s 14-year-old son was accosted early last week by Cambodian soldiers who tried to intimidate him into disclosing the location of his father’s jungle hiding place, the boy’s mother said.
The boy said nothing and was punched in the arm because of it. His mother is afraid soldiers or police will return and use more force later.
Vietnamese officials have also been in the village asking after the Montagnards, she said.
After three weeks of hiding in the jungles, the group of men with Y Minh are nervous and edgy as they wait for another scouting party who might try to root them out.
Lack of sunlight in the jungle has sallowed their complexions, but their food and water supply have not been cut off and they remain largely healthy. But for how long, Y Minh wonders.
“Now they want to catch all of us. We have UNHCR documents, but the police don’t care,” Y Minh said. He said he fears being harmed by Cambodian authorities, “who are getting money to send us back.”
Until it is safe to emerge from the jungle, these 11 men will remain in hiding, they say. But they want the international community to know at least that they exist.
As another night in the wet jungle fell on the group Thursday evening, Y Minh made an emotional appeal: “We will die if this is not sorted out soon.”