Ratanakkiri province – Journalists have been barred from traveling and reporting in several districts in Ratanakkiri province against a backdrop of reported police operations in several areas to track down Montagnard asylum-seekers who have fled to Cambodia from Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Reporters traveling by car between Banlung town and Bokeo district town were stopped on Saturday morning at a police checkpoint and notified that access to other areas beyond the police post were now closed to journalists reporting on the Montagnard flights.
Ratanakkiri Provincial Police Chief Yoeung Baloung said there was no misunderstanding regarding the orders that journalists be prevented from traveling beyond the police checkpoint to Bokeo town, Andong Meas and O’Yadaw district where the police operations have been reported.
“There was no confusion. Police have followed you closely,” Yoeung Baloung said by telephone from Phnom Penh on Sunday.
“You must know yourself what you have been doing. You do not respect the police,” Yoeung Baloung said. “You have done beyond your duty,” he said.
Over the weekend, provincial and Bokeo district officials said they had yet to be notified of the new curbs on reporters working in Ratanakkiri, where 198 Montagnard asylum-seekers emerged from their jungle hiding places last month under the protection of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The UNHCR is currently waiting on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ reply to a request to return to the province and investigate reports received last week by local human rights group Adhoc that another 42 Montagnards are in hiding and requesting UN protection.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, who was outside the country on Sunday, said he could not comment on the new restrictions on reporters working in Ratanakkiri but would look into the matter on his return to Phnom Penh on Monday.
Several ethnic minority sources reported last week that police reinforcements have been sent to areas where the UNHCR was working last month.
Those interviewed said that day and night police patrols have been mounted since news emerged that an additional 42 asylum-seekers were hiding in the jungle. One villager reported that several families in his area have been told to stay in their village, while others reported that villagers are now afraid to travel to their jungle plantations for fear of being implicated in assisting asylum-seekers.
Ratanakkiri officials have denied the reports of an increased police presence.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun could not be contacted on Sunday. Ratanakkiri Deputy Governor Muong Poy said on Sunday that he was unaware of new orders restricting travel for journalists.
Bokeo District Police Chief Moeung Khem, who was summoned to the police checkpoint by radio when the journalists were stopped on Saturday, said reporters would be allowed access only if they were accompanied by the UNHCR.
“I would like to tell you that you are not allowed to go there because we do not see a UNHCR car. So we cannot allow you go,” he said before departing.
A journalist who opted to proceed on foot the last few kilometers to Bokeo town, to seek further clarification from the Bokeo district governor and other authorities regarding the travel ban, was not stopped by officers at the checkpoint who radioed for furthers instructions and were told to allow him pass but to follow him.
Several plainclothes officers on motorcycles took part. Bokeo Governor Khum Sakhon was not at home.
However, Bokeo Deputy Governor Tin Than said he knew nothing of the order. “The district does not know this,” he said. A Military Police officer at the Bokeo Military Police headquarters said he also had not received the order.
Foreign tourists in Bokeo town said they had not been hampered during their travels and overnight stays in ethnic minority villages by police.
However, a second district official said, on condition of anonymity, that a meeting took place last week at which “unhappiness” was expressed at the work of journalists covering the Montagnard asylum-seeker issue.
The official also said that undercover police, posing as forestry and environmental officials, were involved in the operation to track down asylum-seekers and identify their sympathizers.
Over the weekend, The Cambodia Daily obtained from local sources photographs of some of the reported 42 asylum-seekers in hiding.
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