Official: Montagnards Unlikely to Get King Aid

ratanakkiri province – A Royal Palace fact-finding mission toured parts of Ratanakkiri province on Sunday in preparation for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Montagnard asylum-seekers who have languished for weeks in the province’s dense jungles.

Palace Undersecretary of State Um Em was dispatched to Ratan­ak­kiri on Saturday following King Norodom Sihanouk’s offer on Friday of food, medicine and money to alleviate the plight of more than 250 Montagnards who are reportedly hiding in the jungle. They are short of food, some have succumbed to sickness and they have little medicine, a hill tribe source said.

However, Ratanakkiri Second Deputy Governor Moung Poy maintained Saturday there were no asylum-seekers in the province.

On Sunday, he said that since the royal mission did not meet asylum-seekers during their visit, it was unlikely that the King’s assistance would be sent.

“I think [Um Em] will not provide assistance to them because we cannot see them,” Moung Poy said by telephone.

Phath Keomuny, director of the Red Cross in Ratanakkiri, said on Sunday that the delegation spent four hours driving around and talking to villagers in O’Ya-daw district.

“We asked the villagers but they said they didn’t know the Montagnards’ whereabouts,” said Phath Keomuny, adding that the Red Cross cannot help the asylum-seekers.

Assistance cannot be given secretly and “before we provide the aid we must inform authorities. I am not responsible for any action the authorities take toward” the asylum-seekers, he said.

Um Em, who left Ratan­akkiri Sunday evening, could not be reached for comment.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith also said Sunday that the Cambodian Red Cross only helps natural disaster victims and does not help asylum-seekers.

Khieu Kanharith said helping asylum-seekers is the work of the International Red Cross and the UN refugee agency. Both organizations, however, say they have been prevented by the government from helping the asylum-seekers.

Montagnards, said Khieu Kan­ha­rith, can be divided into two groups: Those who were political refugees and those who want to establish their own autonomous state.

“We have to be careful of them,” he said.

For those ethnic minority villagers in Ratanakkiri who have taken personal risks to assist the Montagnards hiding in the jungles near their villages, news of the King’s assistance was greeted with relief Sunday.

“It is a good outlook for me, to hear the message of the King,” said a 44-year-old man who has been smuggling food and traditional medicine to asylum-seekers since the first influx arrived in 2001.

News of the assistance, broadcast on Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, made him less fearful of the authorities who have been monitoring his movements more closely in the last few weeks.

“I have been helping these people and didn’t have any hope at all. Now, someone is coming to help,” he said.

The task of those trying to help the more than 250 Montagnards in hiding has become more difficult since police launched a crackdown last month on villagers suspected of providing aid to the asylum-seekers in Kong village, O’Ya-daw district.

Residents said Saturday that 14 district policemen armed with guns arrived in the village on the morning of June 24.  They interrogated villagers suspected of hiding refugees in their homes, residents said.

There was no violence or ar­rests, the residents said. But the police and military presence has since be­come stifling, hastening the rapid decline of living conditions for those hiding in the jungle.

Stung Treng provincial police have also been deployed in the area, residents said.

Before the crackdown, asylum-seekers occasionally sent representatives to pick up the food and supplies donated by sympathetic villagers. Now, with uniformed district police and soldiers patrolling villages nearly every day, they are too afraid to leave their jungle hiding places, another villager, also 44, said Saturday.

“Now there is much illness among them,” he said.

The health of a group of 21 Montagnards photographed in Ratanakkiri province last month is deteriorating quickly, said a 25-year-old villager.

One man suffers from severe stomach problems. Another looks jaundiced. Many have fever and chills but the police presence is too strong to bring in a doctor to treat them, they said.

The villager, who said he received some informal medical training during the Pol Pot regime, has been giving traditional remedies to the ailing asylum-seekers.

On Sunday, villagers said the shipment of medicine, food and money from the King could be the leverage needed to force the government into granting aid workers access to the asylum-seekers.

They said that they were ready to take aid workers to the Mon­tagnards’ hiding places, if their safety could be guaranteed and no harm comes to the asylum-seekers.

“I believe there will not be much [government] resistance, because it is the King’s order,” said one villager.

But without a guarantee of continued access by the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, the sudden attention drawn to the asylum-seekers could do more harm than good, said one man who has been working with the Montagnards.

“I have mixed feelings on that. Maybe once the goods are distributed, bad things will happen to the refugees,” he said. Villagers balked at the idea of contacting the Cambodian Red Cross for help, saying they are suspicious of the aid agency’s ties to the government.

“It’s like spicy soup,” one man said of the asylum-seekers’ precarious situation. “You don’t add more spice to it.”

Given news of the King’s order on Saturday, the reaction of some provincial officials in Ratanakkiri suggested that there may be more resistance than the villagers are expecting.

Asked about the Montagnards shortly before he boarded a flight to Phnom Penh on Saturday, Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun said only, “I have no opinion on that,” and deferred further questions to his second deputy governor, Moung Poy.

Interviewed later Saturday, Moung Poy said, on behalf of the provincial authorities, “I don’t know anything about this issue.”

He denied that there were any asylum-seekers hiding in his province, and dismissed as rumors reports that police were searching for the Montagnards.

He knew nothing of the government’s policy to deport Mon­tagnards as illegal immigrants, he said.

Human rights groups issued a statement last week deploring the capture and summary deportation of five Montagnards in Ratanak­kiri in late June.

Moung Poy also said that before allowing the King’s supplies to reach the Montagnards, he would first have to ask permission from the Ministry of Interior.

“The King has kindness toward the Vietnamese refugees,” he said. “But I still have to get approval from the national level.”

As the honorary president of the Red Cross in Ratanakkiri, Moung Poy said the agency will be unable to provide assistance to the refugees.

“The role of the Red Cross is only to help people who suffer from environmental disasters. Also, the Red Cross can help the poorest among the poor in the province,” he said. “But for the refugees, no. There is no official rule that says we can help refugees.”

Villagers said they will continue to help those hiding in the jungles, despite the risks, while awaiting the King’s assistance.

Said one villager as he prepared to take medicine to the asylum-seekers on Sunday: “If something happens and I am captured, please don’t forget to help me with that.”

(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)

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