ratanakkiri province – Camped in makeshift tents in the rain-soaked jungles of Ratanakkiri province and facing food shortages and sickness, 21 Montagnard asylum-seekers who fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands made an impassioned plea Sunday for humanitarian assistance and UN protection.
Located deep inside dense jungle near the Vietnamese border in Ratanakkiri province, the Montagnards, ranging in age from a 17-year-old woman to men in their late 40s, said they were sick
after spending weeks hiding in
the jungle with little food or medicine.
All said they had fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands in the wake of the April 10 and April 11 demonstrations that were brutally suppressed by police and military forces, brandishing electric batons, water canons and tear gas. Civilian militiamen, who supported the regular security forces, were armed with crude cudgels, electric batons and whips, the asylum-seekers reported.
In the aftermath of the demonstrations, military and police forces conducted mass sweeps of Montagnard villages, during which homes were destroyed and many people were beaten and arrested. The crackdown forced many of those interviewed to flee to the jungle in Vietnam and cross into Cambodia in the past month.
The asylum-seekers, predominately from the Jarai minority in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, and sympathetic locals in Cambodia estimated on Sunday that as many as 160 refugees are in hiding near Ratanakkiri’s border with Vietnam.
But with torrential rainstorms becoming a daily occurrence, the conditions of those in hiding could be a looming humanitarian disaster, rights workers said Monday.
Huddled in a tiny clearing in deep jungle canopy that could only be entered by crawling along animal tracks, a group of five asylum-seekers said Sunday they were suffering from stomach problems and a shortage of food and drinking water.
What provisions they had were donated by local minority sympathizers, who had barely enough to feed their own families.
“During the demonstration the soldiers hit us and they used sticks of wood with nails to beat us…. The police, soldiers and Vietnamese people came to our village and kicked in our doors and attacked us in our homes,” said one 40-year-old Jarai man.
“I saw with my own eyes one person killed in my village,” the man said.
The man fled his village and into the jungle on April 13. More joined and soon a group of 33 attempted to cross into Cambodia, arriving near the frontier on May 25. Twelve were caught by Vietnamese forces during the attempt to cross the border, he said.
“We want the international community and the UN to help and protect us,” said the man, who reported his group of five were suffering from diarrhea, stomach cramps and one case of malaria.
At a second camp, five young people sat huddled on wet leaves preparing a watery soup of forest mushrooms and rice donated by locals.
Two young Jarai women, aged 17 and 18, looked pale and sickly. They had been in the Cambodian jungle for 19 days. Two days without water to wash with and the surrounding scrub brush their only toilet, the two young women were self-conscious about their personal hygiene and said they wanted to find somewhere to bathe but they were afraid of being discovered.
They didn’t complain, but their stoicism seemed to weaken when asked what they had fled from and what they expected to find in Cambodia.
The 17-year-old’s father was called to the commune office in her district in Gai Lai province before the April demonstration. She has not seen him since.
When police and soldiers conducted reprisal raids after the demonstrations, she made the decision with her friends to take to the forest. They now live beneath a flimsy roof of blue- and red-striped tarpaulin. The cleared area the five of them inhabit is the exact width and length of their five hammocks, about 1.5 meters by 2 meters.
“We think a lot, but we don’t know where we will go. We can’t go back because we are afraid the Vietnamese government will kill us or we will be put in the prison. We want the UN to help us. If we stay in the jungle, we have no medicine,” said a 19-year-old Jarai man from Gai Lai province.
“We don’t know how long we can stay in the jungle,” he said, but reiterated that returning to Vietnam was not an option.
At a third camp, six men squatted on a bed of mulched leaves and weeds. Torrential rains on Saturday night had turned their hillside jungle hideout into a river. With only one small sheet of waterproof material between them, they all stayed awake, hunkered together to stay dry.
Their clothes and slippers hung to dry over the patches of canopy where sunlight penetrated. Though high in spirits when speaking about the crackdown they had left behind in Vietnam, the six men, ranging in age from 21 to 48, had no idea what to do next. They had no mosquito nets, and only a little bit of rice.
“We fled our village one month and 15 days already. We fled from Vietnam because they suppress our religion. We cannot stay in Vietnam because there is no freedom and they make arrests everyday,” said a 44-year-old Jarai man in the group.
One of those in the group talked at length about the protests, the suppression of their Christian religion and confiscation of their tribal land by the government and the years of economic and social discrimination that led to the demonstrations.
“We fled to Cambodia because we want to meet the UN and international human rights groups to help us,” said the 31-year-old asylum seeker, who handed over a roll of film taken during the protest in Gai Lai province’s Cu Se district.
He acknowledged that their conditions were growing increasingly precarious but added, “It is better to die here than in Vietnam.”
Contacted on Monday, Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said there were no Montagnards hiding in his province and that, if there were, he promised to feed them until the UN High Commissioner for Refugees collected them.
However, Kham Khoeun changed his mind when told that reporters had met and interviewed asylum-seekers, who were appealing for humanitarian assistance and for the UNHCR to give them protection.
“I will contact the government to ask some advice,” Kham Khoeun replied.
Kham Khoeun said he had never seen any asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri province and that those who fled to Ratanakkiri’s jungles only did so in the hope of securing resettlement and finding well-paying jobs in the West.
“Those who brought them to Ratanakkiri should be responsible for giving them rice and food,” Kham Khoeun said.
“Those people are trying to make business off the Montagnards because they bring the Montagnards to Ratanakkiri, then they send them to Phnom Penh,” he said.
He also blasted the UN, who he accused of paying “middlemen” to bring asylum-seekers to Phnom Penh.
“Those Montagnards want to live in the US because they believe they can make a lot of money. That is why they keep coming to Cambodia. This problem has given me a headache.”
Om Yentieng, head of the government’s National Human Rights Committee, said Monday he was too busy to speak to reporters.
Vietnam maintains that the unrest in the Central Highlands, which came to the world’s attention with the first Montagnard demonstrations in 2001, is the work of US-based extremists. The government has adamantly denied claims that possibly scores of protesters were killed by their security forces.
Nikola Mihajlovic, UNHCR’s country representative for Cambodia, called the situation on the border a continuation of a government policy that has existed since the UN was forced out of the northeastern provinces in 2002.
Montagnard asylum-seekers can only find protection if they arrive at the UN office in Phnom Penh, since the government has prevented them from operating near the border, he said.
All 94 Montagnard asylum-seekers who have made it to Phnom Penh in the past several months spent time hiding in either the Vietnamese or Cambodian jungle, and each suffered health problems to varying degrees.
“It breaks our hearts that they must come to us, because that is what the government is making us do. It’s unfortunate. We keep hearing about people in the forest but there is nothing we can do. They must come to us,” Mihajlovic said.
Mihajlovic noted that diplomats from the US, Canada, Britain and Germany met with Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on May 26 to express their concern at the government’s handling of the asylum seekers issue and ask to be granted access to the border regions.
The new reports of Montagnards hiding in Ratanakkiri would give the diplomats an “excellent opportunity” to travel to the province and obtain some “politically concrete results” from their trip.
John Mitchell, first secretary at the British Embassy, said Monday that the meeting with Sar Kheng to discuss the Montagnards was conducted in a “constructive and positive” manner. He declined to comment on the latest reports of asylum-seekers requesting international intervention.
Heide Bronke, US Embassy spokeswoman, said Monday that the US “continues to discuss the issue with the government,” but also declined to comment on the latest revelations.
Canadian Ambassador Stefanie Beck, who also attended the meeting, was not in Cambodia on Monday and officials at the German Embassy also would not comment.
A representative of US-based Human Rights Watch said Monday that no one should underestimate the seriousness of the situation in the Central Highlands and the level of police oppression there.
“They have no place to run to. They cannot cross the border to Cambodia and if they do so it is extremely dangerous. If they, quote, ‘find a safe hiding place’ in Cambodia, they then face the elements, no food or shelter, and the world is ignoring this,” the Rights Watch official said.
“Embassies and diplomats in Cambodia need to send a clear message to the Cambodian government that it should uphold its obligations under the Refugees Convention. In addition, it would be good to see diplomats going up to Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri province and getting out of the provincial capitals,” where they would probably find asylum seekers, the rights worker said.
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)