Vietnamese authorities have asked Cambodian police to arrest and deport 16 Montagnards who recently crossed into Ratanakkiri province, according to the provincial police chief, who said his officers intended to comply with the request.
Thirteen members of the indigenous minority, concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, are currently hiding in the northern province’s Lumphat district, having fled across the border over the past month.
Provincial police chief Nguon Koeun said Sunday he received a report “recently” from Vietnam, via the Interior Ministry, that includes a list of 16 names.
“Vietnamese authorities provided us with a list of 16 people who fled from their homes. They asked our authorities to find them and send them back home because they are Montagnards,” Brigadier General Koeun said.
“We will arrest those people and send them back to Vietnamese authorities,” he added.
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. Most Montagnards observe a form of Protestantism that Vietnamese authorities have outlawed, which led to a violent crackdown on Montagnard churches between 2001 and 2011.
Thousands sought asylum in Cambodia during that period; a handful escaped to the U.S., but most were forcibly repatriated. Many of those sent back to Vietnam were reportedly jailed and tortured.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be reached for comment.
Ethnic Jarai villagers in O’yadaw district’s Yatung commune said that local authorities arrested two middle-aged Montagnard men in the commune on Thursday.
“I saw at least 10 security guards from Tean village…arrest two,” said Poy Yang, 51, whose tribe is one of the more than 30 that make up the Montagnards.
“We are now trying to find out where [authorities] are keeping them,” said Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, who said he was alerted to the alleged arrests by several residents of the area.
Brig. Gen. Koeun, the provincial police chief, denied that village security guards had arrested any Montagnards.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said Sunday that the refugee agency would continue to work with the Cambodian government to determine whether the Montagnards hiding in Ratanakkiri qualify for refugee status.
“Until the government has a chance to hear their claims, we won’t know for sure,” Ms. Tan said. “But we’ve been advocating that people who are in danger should not be sent back.”
Sok Phal, head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said Sunday that the government alone would determine whether the Montagnards are legitimate refugees, and if not, they should be returned to Vietnam.
“The issue of whether they are refugees is dependent on Cambodian authorities,” General Phal said. “It is not dependent on the UNHCR, because they transferred this duty to our Khmer government.”
“But if we find they are not refugees, we will send them back to Vietnam,” he added.
In an interview in Ratanakkiri on Wednesday, one of the Montagnards said he fled to Cambodia because police had threatened him with arrest for supporting the U.S.-based Degar Foundation, which advocates for Montagnard rights. Another said he was arrested in Vietnam because he had a Degar Foundation emblem displayed on his Facebook page.
Kok Ksor, 70, the head of the Degar Foundation, said Sunday that he has repeatedly told Vietnam’s Montagnards not to cross into Cambodia.
“I’ve told them not to go because the Cambodian government is controlled by Vietnam,” Mr. Ksor said by telephone from North Carolina, where he has lived since 1974.
“But they believe the United Nations, or someone else, will help them.”
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