UN Link to Montagnard Incident Disputed

A top official in Ratanakkiri disputed the government’s allegation that the UN High Commis­sioner for Refugees brought 63 Mon­tagnards from Vietnam into Cam­bodia, saying the UNHCR had “nothing” to do with transporting the Vietnamese hill tribe members into the country.

The official, who declined to be identified, works closely with the Cambodian authorities and police who deported the 63 Mon­tagnards from Ratanakkiri to the Central Highlands in Vietnam on Saturday.

“The UN did not bring the Montagnards over—they came here themselves,” the official said Thursday. “When they came to Cambodia, the police took them and brought them to the Viet­nam­ese border checkpoint.”

The official’s comments contradict a statement made Wednes­day by Sieng Lapresse, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Citing Interior Ministry reports, Sieng Lapresse told reporters at a hastily organized news conference that officials from the UNHCR brought the Mon­tagnards across the Vietnamese-Cambodian border without in­forming the Cambodian government about the transfer.

According to the Ratanakkiri official, however, the 63 Mon­tagnards came to Cambodia voluntarily and without assistance from the UN or any other international organization. The Ratanak­kiri officials deported them to Vietnam because they were unaware that the Mon­tagnards were seeking asylum, the official said.

“[The 63 Montagnards] did not talk about going to a camp. We thought they were illegal workers and that they came to Cambodia to catch animals,” the official said.

The UNHCR and human rights officials strongly criticized the deportation of the Montagnards, saying it broke the 1951 Convention of Refugees that spells out certain obligations country’s have for refugees.

A representative from Human Rights Watch expressed strong concern at what appears to be a major shift by Cambodia to not uphold its obligation to provide protection to asylum seekers who have not had their refugee status clarified by the UNHCR.

Observers say the deportations have further damaged already failing efforts to repatriate the more than 1,000 Montagnards currently under UNHCR protection in Cambodia.

On Thursday UNHCR officials again dismissed the government’s accusations as “absurd.”

“We were surprised that the government would make this statement, but I stand by my previous statement that the UN did not bring the Montagnards over from Vietnam,” said Nikola Mihajlovic, the UNHCR chief in Phnom Penh

He said he hoped the accusations would not affect the March 12 talks between the UNHCR, Vietnam and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary of State Long Visalo in Saigon.

The three parties will discuss the Jan 21 agreement to repatriate the Montagnards to Vietnam. The meeting was scheduled before the Cambodians deported the 63 Montagnards, Mihajlovic said.

An official with the US Embassy on Thursday also discredited the government’s claim that the UN acted illegally by bringing the Montagnards to Cambodia.

The official, who did not want to be named, said, “the UN understands better than anyone the issues involved in the case.”

According to the official, the US will meet with all three parties individually to discuss the Montagnard situation.

More than 1,000 Montagnards began fleeing Vietnam’s Central Highlands last year after the Vietnamese government cracked down on protests there. The Montagnards are living in two separate camps in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri.


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