Near o’ya-daw district, Ratanakkiri province – Sometime in December last year, six Montagnard asylum seekers from Vietnam stumbled upon Romas Boeun’s remote plantation, about 5 km inside the Cambodian border.
The woman and five men had driven motorbikes from their homes in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province, abandoned them in the woods and traversed the hilly, densely vegetated terrain on foot into Cambodia.
“They told me they were oppressed and mistreated in Vietnam and wanted to live in Cambodia,” Romas Boeun, a 59-year-old gray-haired member of Cambodia’s hill tribes, recalled this week at a small hut on his plantation.
Despite warnings from police in Phum Lum village, Romas Boeun gave his fellow ethnic Jarai minority members food and allowed them sleep for two nights in a small hut about 100 meters from his own hut. He told them it wasn’t safe to stay longer, and, heeding his warning, they again fled into the woods.
The following day, about 15 armed police and soldiers showed up at the hut, looking for Montagnard refugees.
It was no surprise. Romas Boeun and the other 750 or so villagers of Phum Lum, about a 5-km walk from his plantation, had been warned several times through mass village meetings not to help Montagnards.
“Police told us ‘Don’t hide the refugees. Don’t give them food. Don’t bring them anywhere. If anyone helps the refugees, police will arrest them as well as the refugees,’” Romas Boeun
Through word of mouth, he heard that the six Montagnards who stayed on his plantation had been arrested by border police soon after.
Around the same time, the inhabitants of Padal village in Pak Nhai commune, about 20 km from Phum Lum, saw six bodies—those of five men and a woman—floating down the Se San River, which flows from Vietnam into Cambodia. The corpses lay face down in the water, with their hands tied behind their backs, said monitors from the human rights group Adhoc and villagers in O’Ya-daw.
Though it’s impossible to tell if the two incidents were related since the bodies floated away and were never found by police, they contribute to what ethnic minority villagers along the border say has been an iron fist campaign to prevent Montagnard asylum seekers entering Cambodia.
The search and deport campaign has escalated since the UN High Commissioner for Refugees closed two refugee camps, in Ratanakkiri and neighboring Mondulkiri province, in April 2002.
The increasing number of policemen in villages, incidents of mass intimidation, Vietnamese spies and reports of asylum seekers hiding in the jungle have caused villagers to fear arrest for even traveling to the border or talking to reporters.
“In 2001, the refugees ran into Cambodia before the border checkpoints were set up,” said My Sivuthoeun, chief of the Sam Rainsy Party in O’Ya-daw.
“It was not strict. Indigenous people did not need border passes. But after the refugee camp closed, the authorities cracked down on these people. Vietnam does not trust the Jarai. Now they need permission from border authorities to travel.”
The police and military presence in the region is palpable.
Police and soldiers frequently ride motorbikes up and down National Road 19, the washed-out road that links the provincial capital Banlung with Vietnam, and communes are recruiting more police.
Visitors to villages in the region are expected to sign in with police upon their arrival. In Phum Lum, five security officials, including soldiers, police and military police, started living in the village about one year ago specifically to monitor Montagnards, villagers said.
About two months ago, provincial police summoned all seven commune chiefs in O’Ya-daw and some commune chiefs in Andong Meas, another border district, to a meeting in nearby Barkeo district, said Puoy Loy, the Sam Rainsy Party chief of O’Ya-daw’s Som Thom commune.
“In the meeting, provincial police told us that Montagnards were escaping from Vietnam so they could go to the US and train in Hawaii to fight against Cambodia and Vietnam,” Puoy Loy, the first opposition commune chief in the province, said this week.
“The officials said we must tell our people that if they find a refugee, the refugee must be arrested and deported. But I told my commune a different thing. I told them, ‘If anyone sees refugees, please give them food, hide them and tell them to be careful when they hide in the jungle because police will arrest and deport them.’”
Information about the Easter weekend Montagnard protests in Vietnam’s Central Highlands comes mostly from hand-held radios blasting Radio Free Asia and Voice of America after night falls. The only sign that widespread unrest has been brewing recently across the border was the order on April 12 for border police to stay on patrol during the Khmer New Year.
“The commander ordered us strictly not to leave, but some left to join for the new year anyway,” said a border soldier in his mid-thirties, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Dressed in army fatigues and sitting back in a hammock, the soldier told about how he and other Cambodian military officials attend monthly “friendship” meetings with Vietnamese soldiers in Gia Lai. At the meetings, Vietnamese officials tell the Cambodian soldiers they must help them fight the Montagnard “rebellion” and arrest “national traitors.”
“Vietnam is better educated and better equipped, so Cambodia just says ‘yes, yes, yes.’ Whatever they ask, Cambodia follows Vietnam,” the border soldier said.
As an incentive for the Cambodians to attend the meetings, he added, Vietnam gives Cambodian soldiers and police two big bags of rice, 1 kg of seasoning, garlic, sugar and two cartons of cigarettes.
Catching a Montagnard is worth a lot more than attending a meeting, however. Vietnam offers Cambodians 500,000 riel, or about $125, if they arrest and deport an asylum seeker, the soldier said.
“It’s serious,” said the soldier, adding that he has let Montagnards go because he supports them and dislikes Vietnam for encroaching on Cambodian land.
“Now we just arrest and deport them back, but we don’t know what happens to them. We heard the regular people would just be detained by Vietnam, but the leaders of the groups would be executed.”
In December, the soldier said, police arrested six Jarai Montagnards who were traveling near Phum Lum village and are currently searching for a woman and her 2-year-old child who they believe are still hiding in the jungle.
Though he did not know what happened to the six Montagnards who were arrested, he said he has heard allegations that Vietnamese soldiers had thrown Montagnards into the Se San River.
Back in October 2001, a report from the human rights group Adhoc shows that villagers in O’Ya-daw reported seeing anywhere from eight to ten bodies floating in the river.
Provincial police launched an investigation after one body
stuck to a tree branch near Padal village. The police report concluded that the man, who it identified as a “Vietnamese citizen,” died from drowning.
The Adhoc report, however, says that villagers believe the bodies floating in the river were those of Vietnamese Jarai villagers.
“Most of the villagers suspect that the bodies did not die by drowning, but maybe by murder carried out against Jarai refugees who had escaped into Cambodia and were arrested by Vietnamese police, who then killed them and pushed them into the river,” said the Adhoc report, written by human rights monitor Meas Klemsa and dated Oct 22, 2001.
Ratanakkiri police chief Yoeung Baloung was unavailable for comment on Wednesday, as he was traveling down to the border region.
Chan Soveth, Adhoc’s chief investigator in Phnom Penh, said on Wednesday that the government should stop arresting Montagnards and follow the advice of King Norodom Sihanouk, UNHCR and a host of human rights groups to open refugee camps along the border.
“The action and policies of the government are not acceptable,” he said. “It violates human rights.”
Hor Ang, Ratanakkiri’s deputy police chief, said Wednesday that police were following an Interior Ministry order to prevent Montagnards from entering the country.
“If there are refugees, then the problem would be complicated,” Hor Ang said. “So preventing it from happening is a better way,” he added.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be contacted by telephone on Wednesday.
Hor Ang confirmed that Vietnam provided rice, salt and food seasoning to Cambodian soldiers and police guarding the border because, he said, Cambodian authorities could not access the region in the rainy season.
“The supply is just in the manner of the relationship of the two countries,” Hor Ang said without explaining why Vietnam still feeds Cambodian soldiers even in the dry season.
Back in Phum Lum, villagers say that Vietnamese and Cambodian police hate them because they joined the Sam Rainsy Party and have converted to Christianity. About 60 percent of the villagers are Christians, Romas Boeun estimated.
“District police come every month or two to threaten people not to join Christianity,” he said. “But the people still talk about the Bible and Jesus Christ’s teachings.”
Two Jarai church leaders in the village, Sol Kheng and Sol Dam, said they were free to worship unhindered until 2001, but that changed when more than 1,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia from land confiscation and religious oppression in Vietnam.
Displaying a Bible printed in the Latinized phonetic form of the Jarai language, as a group of 20 villagers looked on, Sol Kheng said: “The police tell us we cannot help the refugee.”
“But nobody can cut our own flesh and feed it to the dogs,” Sol Kheng said, in reference to the handing over of fellow Jarais to Vietnamese authorities.
“It is our duty to help the refugee,” he said.