tbong khmum district, Kompong Cham province – During the day-long truck ride Monday out of Mondolkiri province, most of the Montagnard refugees in a UN convoy watched happily as the Cambodian countryside rolled by. Some even broke loose from the quiet awe that had gripped the group and threw water on passing Cambodian New Year’s revelers.
Behind them was a UN refugee camp that had been home to more than 500 of them for more than a year, ever since they fled what they claimed was the Vietnamese government’s stranglehold on their life in the Central Highlands.
Most of those who ran into the forests of eastern Cambodia, braving manhunts and the threat of being sent back to, at best, a closely scrutinized existence, in Vietnam, had said they wanted to go to the US.
But as he began the first step of that long journey Monday, one refugee who emerged over the months as one of the Montagnards’ de facto camp leaders said reality had begun to settle over many of those in the convoy heading toward a refugee processing center in Phnom Penh.
“America is good for us,” said Bion, a softly-spoken man in his early thirties who had spent months asking any camp visitor he met one question: Do you know what will happen to us?
“But we worry that if we go to America, people will forget what happened in the Central Highlands,” he added.
More than 1,000 Montagnards living for the past year under UN protection in either Mondolkiri or Ratanakkiri province brought into sharp focus what they continue to describe as a “tense” situation in their homeland.
“It’s worse than before,” Bion said. “We have no freedom to move. [The authorities] control our land and human rights [conditions] are worse.”
Unconfirmed reports have filtered into Cambodia of mass jailings, public beatings, torture and disappearances of politically active Montagnards.
Observers say a more likely reality is the disappearance of a hill tribe culture whose Christian religion is being attacked and whose land is being taken by the Hanoi government, which is trying to relieve desperate overcrowding in the lowlands by moving as many as 10,000 Vietnamese a year into an area that once belonged exclusively to the Montagnards.
“These people had reasons for leaving in all aspects of [their] lives,” said one official with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who interviewed Montagnards when they first fled to Cambodia.
“They are being deprived of a nation, of a means of living, of an identity. They are taking this risk so that in the long run they can be masters of their own house.”
But that long run may never come for this group of refugees. With their resettlement to the US, the Cambodian government has declared the refugee crisis over. Future asylum seekers will be returned, and officials allowed the burning of the Mondolkiri refugee camp an hour after the refugees left.
Despite warnings from human rights groups that Montagnard refugees will be filtering into Cambodia for a long time to come, even the Montagnards’ staunchest diplomatic allies have quietly dropped the question of whether Cambodia is obligated to keep its doors open to future asylum seekers.
“That [silence] was part of the deal,” one observer said of the negotiations that preceded Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision to allow to Montagnards under the UN’s care to go to the US.
That deal making is not lost on Bion, who sees his situation as a step forward for his family, but perhaps a step backward in the larger fight for a hill tribe homeland that is independent of Hanoi.
“The first thing I want to do is study and better my situation,” he said. “I want to send my daughter to school but I hope she will be useful for helping our nation….[But] in the future we don’t have a better life because my nation, my homeland is lost.”