Two weeks after a group of 13 Montagnard asylum seekers arrived in Phnom Penh to apply for refugee status, police said Sunday that they were searching for another five members of the Vietnamese indigenous group who crossed into Ratanakkiri province on Saturday.
O’yadaw district police chief Choup Vannarak said local farmers reported that a group of five Montagnards was hiding in the forest, and that he had tasked his officers with locating them.
“We are not sure if they are really Montagnards, but we deployed some police to search for those people,” Mr. Vannarak said.
More than 30 officers were deployed to the district on Saturday but did not begin searching for the group until Sunday afternoon, said Romash Leut, an ethnic Jarai —one of some 30 hill tribes that make up the Montagnards—living in Paknhai commune.
“Police asked me if I was hiding the Montagnards,” Mr. Leut said. “I answered, ‘No.’”
Another ethnic Jarai villager, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said the five Montagnards arrived in Ratanakkiri on Saturday.
“The five Montagnard people told us that they fled from Vietnam to Cambodia because their authorities treated them badly for being Christian,” the villager said.
“We assigned two villagers to look after the five, who are staying in a safe area of the forest,” he said.
The villager was part of a group of Jarai who provided shelter and food to the first group of 13, whose members also claimed to be fleeing persecution.
After two months in hiding, the group was reached by a U.N. delegation and transferred to Phnom Penh, where the Interior Ministry’s immigration department will determine whether they meet the criteria for refugee status.
Vivian Tan, the regional press officer for the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, said by email Sunday that her office would investigate reports of the new group of Montagnards.
“I’m afraid we don’t have first hand information at this point and will be looking into this report with our UN partners,” Ms. Tan said.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, which has worked to protect Montagnard asylum seekers in the past, said he was informed about the latest group of Montagnards by Cambodian Jarai villagers.
“We have no plans to meet those Montagnard people, but I already informed the U.N. and asked for intervention,” Mr. Thy said.
The Montagnards are concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and have long been persecuted by the Vietnamese government for supporting French and U.S. forces during the First and Second Indochina Wars.
They also mainly follow a form of Protestantism outlawed by Hanoi and used as a pretense to raid Montagnard churches and make arrests after land and religious rights protests broke out in 2001.
The raids prompted thousands of Montagnards to flee to Cambodia between 2001 and 2011 to seek refugee status. Although about 2,000 were eventually resettled in the U.S., many were sent back to Vietnam, where they were reportedly jailed and tortured.
Also on Saturday, the National Police posted to its website a photograph of two men identified as Vietnamese Jarai who were detained on Friday after crossing into Ratanakkiri through the O’yadaw border checkpoint.
Long Roukha, the immigration police chief at the checkpoint, confirmed that his officers stopped two Vietnamese nationals from Gia Lai province, but said they were not trying to cross the official checkpoint, but were detained nearby as they crossed the border illegally. He said the men had wandered into Cambodian territory by mistake.
“We detained two people for questioning and they told us that they were spraying pesticides on their farm, which is located along the border,” Mr. Roukha said.
Provincial police chief Nguon Koeun said the men were not Montagnards and were sent back to Vietnam later on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)