outside sen monorom town, Mondolkiri province – There was a knock at the front door at 11:34 am Wednesday.
The house fell silent. Through the floorboards, three men upstairs heard a neighbor, who they believed to be a spy, ask after the owner of the house.
They heard the man’s wife answer that the 30-year-old was out.
Two other men, one aged 29, and the other 22, crept into a separate room, stepping softly to avoid making the floorboards creak.
“He’s not a policeman. He’s a villager here who buys cows,” the 30-year-old said 15 minutes later, after the visitor had left. “He came to investigate,” he added. “Even the villagers here are spies for the police.”
The three men claim police are watching them because they have been helping 15 Montagnard asylum seekers who arrived from Vietnam’s Dak Lak province Aug 20 and are hiding in the jungle nearby.
Authorities have threatened to arrest anyone helping Montagnards who cross the border from Vietnam seeking asylum, the men claim.
In four joint missions with the government this year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says it has collected nearly 200 asylum seekers from neighboring Ratanakkiri province. But it is harder for the UNHCR to get permission to visit Mondolkiri.
Cambodian officials have denied periodic reports that police from Cambodia and Vietnam have forcibly repatriated Montagnards before they can reach the UNHCR. But according to the three men, this is what happened on Sept 1.
At 10 am, three Vietnamese-speaking men and an unknown number of uniformed Cambodian police officials armed with AK-47s surprised 27 Phnong and Ede ethnic minority Montagnards at their hiding place in the forest two to three km from their village, the men said.
Eleven were arrested, 15 ran away and one has disappeared, the men alleged. “The people who were arrested were sleeping because they were tired. They had no rice,” the 29-year-old said.
The police burned a tent at the site before marching the 11 down a 20 km logging trail to a neighboring village where they were allowed to rest and eat for an hour, the men claimed.
The Montagnards told their story to villagers before setting out on foot for the Vietnamese border 26 km away, the 29-year-old said.
The remaining 15 asylum seekers have now split into a group of three men and another of 12 men, women and children, according to the 30-year-old man. He said three appear to be suffering from malaria.
The 29-year-old said the new hiding place was the fourth the group had settled in since reaching Cambodia. “This place is the last place I can hide them,” he said. “If they find this place, they are finished.”
In a June report, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that since 2001, 355 people in Vietnam’s Central Highlands had been imprisoned for their political or religious activities.
“Of the total currently serving prison sentences, more than 60 were imprisoned after Vietnamese or Cambodian border guards arrested them in Cambodia or near the border areas when they attempted to flee to Cambodia to seek asylum,” the report said.
“They were sentenced to prison, the majority on charges of ‘fleeing abroad or defecting to stay overseas with a view to opposing the people’s administration,’” Human Rights Watch added.
The expulsion of asylum seekers violates Cambodia’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the report said.
Sam Sarin, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said more than 100 Montagnards have been forcibly repatriated from Mondolkiri to Vietnam since 2001.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment on Sunday. However, in June he denied that Cambodian police were deporting Montagnards.
“I reject these accusations and I can say that these accusations have been made from time to time. I am not surprised by these accusations,” he said at the time.
Deputy Provincial Police Chief Nhem Vanny also denied Sunday that police had been intimidating villagers suspected of helping Montagnards, or deporting asylum seekers.
But a provincial official who declined to be named confirmed the Sept 1 arrests.
“The people from Vietnam were arrested and sent back to their country last week because they came illegally into Cambodia,” he said. “We don’t know who they are but we know that they are Vietnamese. We don’t know whether they are Montagnards or hunters.”
The UNHCR began requesting permission to travel to Mondolkiri to collect Montagnards on Aug 28, but has not been granted permission to do so, said UNHCR spokeswoman Deborah Backus.
In a statement last week, the agency said that once permission was granted, it would investigate claims that Montagnards had been forced back to Vietnam.
According to the 30-year-old man, the authorities’ attitude to the Montagnards is quite clear.
“The commune chief came to my village and then announced to the village that anyone who helped the Montagnards or who passed information would be arrested,” he said, referring to a note in his diary dated June 30.
At least once a month, men from Vietnam arrive and pay between $30 and $50 for information about the Montagnards’ whereabouts, said the 29-year-old man.
“Sometimes they come here and give the money to the police, and sometimes they give the money directly to the villagers,” the 30-year-old added.
The man said by telephone Sunday that he believed he was under investigation and that he had been followed by police in recent days.
On Sunday morning, police briefly detained a 16-year-old boy who they believed was on his way to the Montagnards’ hiding place, but who was in fact going fishing, he said.
Nhem Vanny and the provincial official who spoke anonymously both said there had been no intimidation of villagers helping Montagnards.
Nhem Vanny denied that Cambodian officials accept money from Vietnamese agents. “Vietnam has no money to pay us. This a rumor,” he said.
An official at the Vietnamese Embassy said Sunday he was not sufficiently informed about the Montagnards in Mondolkiri to comment.
Long Visalo, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declined to speak to a reporter.