UN Heads to Ratanakkiri to Meet With Montagnards

The U.N. on Wednesday sent a delegation to meet a group of 13 Montagnard asylum seekers hiding in Ratanakkiri province, despite the Interior Ministry insisting that the organization first obtain permission from the government, which has yet to be granted.

Local police have been searching for the Montagnards—who have been camped out in the forest since fleeing from Vietnam over the past five weeks—but have so far failed to locate them. In interviews with reporters last week, members of the group, which includes 12 men and one woman, said they would be severely punished if they were returned to their homeland and called on the U.N. to rescue them.

Wan-Hea Lee, head of the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said representatives of her office and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were en route to meet the Montagnards Wednesday.

“They have departed and that is as much as I can say. The team has gone and the government has been informed and are still invited to join,” Ms. Lee said.

“I can’t talk about the program but they are going there to assess the situation.”

Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the UNHCR, also confirmed that the trip was underway.

“UNHCR and OHCHR are traveling today to meet and talk to the group in Ratanakkiri. I have not received any updates from the team and have no details on what their plans are,” Ms. Tan said in an email.

The asylum seekers, who are all ethnic Jarai and are currently camped in three separate groups in Lumphat district, say they faced violent repression in Vietnam. Local Jarai villagers have been providing the groups with shelter, food and water.

But authorities have shown no sympathy toward the group, with Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak dismissing them as “illegal immigrants” earlier this week. Multiple requests sent by the U.N. to the ministry to meet with the Montagnards have gone unanswered since the first one was submitted on Friday.

Ratanakkiri provincial governor Thorng Savun said Wednesday that the U.N. representatives would not be permitted to meet the Montagnards without the permission of local authorities.

“How can they meet them if we don’t allow them to go into the forest?” he said, adding that he had no plans to receive the delegation.

“It is not on my schedule to meet them because they do not have a permission letter from the Interior Ministry stating that they can undertake a mission on my province’s land,” he said.

Echoing General Sopheak, Mr. Savun said the group had entered the country illegally and would be deported if caught.

“We are searching for those people, to send them back to their country because they are not Montagnard or Jarai but foreigners crossing a border illegally,” he said.

Vietnam’s Montagnards, also known as Degar, have long been persecuted for supporting U.S. and French forces during the First and Second Indochina wars. The majority of them observe a form of Protestantism that has been outlawed by the Vietnamese government, which led to a violent crackdown on Montagnard churches between 2001 and 2011.

Thousands sought asylum in Cambodia during that period. More than 1,000 were eventually granted asylum and resettled in the U.S. while hundreds were detained and deported. Many of those sent back to Vietnam were reportedly jailed and tortured.

Pham Thu Hang, deputy spokesman for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Hanoi was monitoring the events playing out in Ratanakkiri.

“We are verifying the information,” he said in an email.

“It should be noted that citizens of all countries shall abide by their national law as well as regulations on immigration in accordance with international law and practices.”

(Additional reporting by Chris Mueller)

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