pech chhreada district, Mondolkiri province – Cambodian territory in northeastern Mondolkiri province on the frontier with Vietnam’s restive Central Highlands is closed to outsiders, and visitors now need official permission to travel in the area, police said.
Mondolkiri police officials said Tuesday that travel has been restricted in eastern Pech Chhreada district—location of the first major crossing of Montagnard asylum seekers into Cambodia in 2001—because of security concerns.
However, members of the ethnic Pnong minority in the province said the restrictions are in place because Cambodian police and military are trying to arrest and detain asylum seekers fleeing the neighboring Central Highlands, where a security crackdown has followed Montagnard demonstrations that erupted there April 10 and April 11.
On Tuesday, police in Bou Sra town, Bou Sra commune detained and questioned two reporters for almost one hour before telling them to leave the district.
The reporters were followed by an RCAF soldier when they entered the town and were later ordered to the district governor’s office, where they were met and questioned by Yim Mak, Pech Chhreada deputy district police chief.
Yim Mak said permission was now needed from provincial authorities to travel in Bou Sra town, which is a short drive east of Bou Sra waterfall, a popular tourist destination.
Having questioned the reporters about their nationalities, their purpose in the area and where they had traveled from, Yim Mak spent more than 20 minutes contacting superiors by radio, seeking further instructions.
After receiving orders to allow the reporters to return to Sen Monorom, the provincial capital, Yim Mak said there were problems with security in the area because of robbers and kidnappers.
However, Yim Mak admitted that not many such incidents had occurred. Asked whether the reason was the renewed influx of Montagnard refugees from Vietnam, Yim Mak replied: “It is time for you to go.”
More than 160 Montagnard asylum seekers have been detained and deported this month in Mondolkiri province by Cambodian police and military forces, rights workers and ethnic minority members in the province have alleged.
“Journalists who go there must inform local authorities beforehand about what they intend to do,” Reach Samnang, Mondolkiri provincial police chief, said Wednesday.
“If you go to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office you must get permission first,” he added. “By the law, the authorities must know where you are.”
Information Ministry Secretary of State and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said he would check on the situation.
“Usually we don’t have this kind of restriction,” Khieu Kanharith said Thursday.
Across the border in the Central Highlands, Vietnamese authorities have kept the area off limits—apart from official guided visits—to journalists since the first public demonstrations by Montagnards in 2001 and the resulting security crackdown.
The ban was put in place after thousands of ethnic minority villagers turned out in Vietnam’s Dak Lak provincial capital Buon Ma Thuot to demand the return of their ancestral lands and freedom to practice their Protestant faith.
On Wednesday, human rights workers and Sam Rainsy lawmaker Ahmad Yahya claimed four Montagnards were deported this week from Mondolkiri, while 26 more had scattered into the jungles to avoid capture. Villages in neighboring Ratanakkiri province made similar reports last week.
Ethnic minority members in Mondolkiri also reported this week the existence of smaller groups of Montagnards in hiding. But with the government denying asylum and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees barred from border areas, the Montagnards are trying to reach Phnom Penh on their own, the sources said.
Police and military on the border and checkpoints on roads leading to Phnom Penh have seriously hampered those efforts, and only small groups have been successful in reaching the UN office in Phnom Penh.
“This is not like 2001. The police are all along the border and the UN cannot come to the province,” said a source in Mondolkiri familiar with the refugee issue.
In 2002, the US brokered the resettlement to North Carolina of the more than 900 Montagnards who fled to two UN refugee camps after the 2001 demonstrations.
Since the mass US resettlement, the Cambodian government has changed its policy on the asylum seekers and declared that all Montagnards who cross the border must be treated as illegal immigrants.
Currently, some 74 Montagnards are housed at a UNHCR facility in Phnom Penh and a family of six are staying at the UN refugee agency’s office, awaiting government permission to enter the facility.
The six were the first group of asylum seekers to reach the UNHCR office since the April 10 and April 11 demonstrations in Vietnam.
According to sources, the family of Ede minority members fled Dak Lak province and were in hiding on the border for almost a week before securing passage to Phnom Penh. The head of the family was arrested for several months after the 2001 demonstrations and feared arrest following the latest protests that he witnessed and claims to have seen tanks crushing protesters, the source said.
Several phone calls to UNHCR Country Representative Nikola Mihajlovic Thursday went unanswered.
Kem Sokha, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, blasted the government’s policy toward the asylum seekers at a public forum on rights issues held in Sen Monorom on Tuesday.
Also addressing questions at the forum was Mondolkiri Deputy Provincial Police Chief Um Pho, who said that police officers in the province had deported “many” Montagnards as illegal immigrants and were receiving gifts from Vietnam for their efforts.
Kem Sokha said that protection of asylum seekers was enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution.
“They have the right to ask for asylum in our country. As in our country’s history when the Khmer Rouge regime killed Khmers, we ran to Thailand and the UN set up refugee camps for Khmers to stay…and third countries accepted us to live like the US, France, England and Canada,” he said.
“The frightened ones want asylum in our country while waiting on the UN to take them out. So why do we not allow it? What is the reason? Political or technical problem? The government must explain these points clearly,” he said.
“If you are in debt with a country, then it is your problem, but for the nation it is different,” said Kem Sokha, alluding to charges that the ruling CPP’s policy toward Montagnards was to appease the Vietnamese government.
Vietnamese government officials have blamed the upsurge of unrest on “extremists” in the US who are trying to destabilize Vietnam, particularly the outspoken Montagnard Foundation Inc, whose director, Kok Ksor, was a former senior ranking member of FULRO.
The foundation denied such claims and maintains it is working peacefully to highlight the plight of the Montagnards.
The hill tribes have also accused Hanoi of years of persecution and discrimination stemming back to the communist victory over the US-backed Saigon regime in 1975. Many Montagnards villages were aligned with the US special forces and fought against North Vietnam, an act of betrayal that Hanoi has never forgiven, the refugees said.
Resistance to Hanoi in the Central Highlands also continued after the 1975 victory over the south, albeit largely in symbolic form, with the last holdout by the Montagnard guerrilla army, the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races.
FULRO officially disbanded in 1992 when some 400 fighters and their families emerged from the jungles in Mondolkiri province surrendering to Untac soldiers who were then organizing Cambodia’s 1993 general election in the province.
Washington moved quickly to airlift the remnants of the US-trained hill tribe army out of Cambodia for resettlement in North Carolina.