Prime Minister Hun Sen called reports of Montagnard asylum-seekers hiding in Ratanakkiri province “a lie” on Tuesday and threatened to use military force to flush out Montagnards who, he alleged, want to use Cambodia as a base to fight for an independent state in Vietnam.
Reports of Montagnard asylum-seekers hiding in Ratanakkiri with little food, water and medicine “can be regarded as a lie and an insulting offense against the King,” Hun Sen said while talking to reporters at the Council of Ministers.
But he added that if the government does find Montagnards, it will determine whether they are illegal immigrants or “real refugees.” Later, he charged that some Montagnards wanted to form an “autonomous zone” in Vietnam.
“We will use force to break the [Montagnards] if they live in their hiding places with weapons and their leaders,” Hun Sen said.
“If Cambodia allows the [Montagnards] sanctuary, they will break some Vietnamese provinces to become an independent country,” the premier added. “We will not offer them aid [and] also will use military measures to eliminate their site.”
Forty-two Montagnard asylum-seekers were interviewed in hiding in Ratanakkiri in the past month. They said they fled their homes because of persecution in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. They possessed no weapons and said they sought only UN refugee agency protection in Cambodia. They said they remain in hiding, fearing the government’s policy of deporting Montagnards back to Vietnam. Local sources reported that as many as 250 asylum-seekers may be languishing in Ratanakkiri’s forests.
Most of the 42 who were interviewed and photographed said they had fled following the April 10 and April 11 demonstrations for land rights and religious freedom in the Central Highlands. A letter written by asylum-seekers, dated April 24, said the Montagnards were demonstrating peacefully for freedom of religion, expression, social equality and land rights.
“Our Montagnard community who flee to Cambodia live there not to earn a living in the land of Cambodia, not to destroy their independence or the landowner rights of the Cambodian people,” the letter said. “Our Montagnard community is very nice and peaceful with the people of Cambodia and the government of Cambodia.”
Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung said Tuesday he doesn’t think any Montagnards are in Cambodia, but said the ethnic minorities are seeking autonomy.
“We know some Montagnards want to set up an independent state in the Central Highlands,” the ambassador said.
Nguyen Duy Hung said he was not aware of any fighting between Montagnards and Vietnamese government forces. But he added that during the April demonstrations Montagnards “used knives, sticks and stones to attack local authorities.”
Human Rights Watch disputed that account in a report issued days after the Easter weekend demonstrations, saying Vietnamese security forces used tear gas, electric truncheons and water cannons to disperse thousands of Montagnard demonstrators.
Vietnam blamed the demonstrations on the US-based Montagnard Foundation Inc, which it has called a terrorist organization.
Kok Ksor, the Montagnard Foundation’s leader, has refuted those allegations in a statement on his Web site.
“No violence, no demands for independence, only human rights and indigenous rights according to international law,” Kok Ksor wrote.
“I say here clearly and with utter sincerity before my God that our organization and I did not use nor intend to use violence and that we are not in any way connected to any organization that uses violence,” he added.
Hun Sen also said Tuesday that the government would allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to open offices in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, but not refugee camps.
The premier spoke to reporters after meeting with Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who serves as a goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR. Though Jolie said the plight of the Montagnards was “of concern” to her, she said the subject did not come up in her meeting with Hun Sen.
“Because we were dealing with five heavy topics, we felt that we should do five and not 10, but I’ll follow up on all of them,” Jolie said.
Last month, Jolie issued an urgent call for funds to bring relief to tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees after touring refugee camps in neighboring Chad.
Hun Sen questioned the reports of Montagnard asylum-seekers in Ratanakkiri since Ministry of Interior officials, Ratanakkiri provincial authorities and the delegation from the Royal Palace could not find the Montagnards.
King Norodom Sihanouk “is normally very kind, but I don’t know how to distribute the aid when there are no people,” Hun Sen said.
The Prime Minister quipped that those who misled the King about the refugees should die like they do in Chinese movies.
Last week, 15 opposition lawmakers called on Queen Norodom Monineath to order the Cambodian Red Cross to offer aid to Montagnard asylum-seekers. The King and Queen responded by offering the Montagnards food, water and medicine, but a royal delegation said Monday they could not find any asylum-seekers after touring three Ratanakkiri districts Sunday.
Opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy, who signed the letter to the Queen, stood by the aid request Tuesday.
“We have received information that there are Montagnards in Ratanakkiri from many sources that we can rely on,” he said. “We did not lie to the King.”
Canadian Ambassador Stefanie Beck said Tuesday that the government is willing to provide assistance, but it seems that the Montagnards fear being deported if they come out of hiding.
“It’s a Catch-22 situation,” she said. “To resolve the impasse, the government should provide assurances that it would allow the UNHCR to make a refugee determination on each Montagnard before taking action.”