sen monorom, Mondolkiri province – Nhi Neung speaks freely about falling in love with a Montagnard refugee who would later become her husband—a “good, gentle” 38-year-old man who last June asked her to help bring food to other asylum seekers hiding in the nearby jungle.
The 20-year-old ethnic Pnong woman is equally candid about why she was detained by police two weeks ago, and about the pressure put on her by local court officials, who she claims are offering her $2,500 to accuse her husband, Y Hung, of raping her.
“If I don’t make the complaint I may be arrested and put in jail again,” she said. But, she said, she will not file any complaint with the courts.
Y Hung is one of five prisoners in Mondolkiri’s jail, a rectangular whitewashed building surrounded by a high barbed wire fence on the outskirts of this dusty provincial capital. He is the only asylum seeker from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees camp here to be arrested and imprisoned.
Y Hung is charged with illegal abduction for taking Nhi Neung into the camp, which backs up to a small stream bordering her family’s farm, Mondolkiri province prison chief An Kim Leng said.
But others see Y Hung’s arrest as a political move ordered by Vietnam. The Vietnamese are opposed to ongoing efforts to resettle the nearly 1,000 Montagnards who fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands for Cambodia and are now under UNHCR protection.
Both the prosecutor and judge handling Y Hung’s case traveled to Vietnam last week, according to a human rights official, and the Vietnamese are reportedly trying to make a case for extraditing Y Hung.
“The Vietnamese say he is a traitor,” Nhi Neung says of Y Hung, who is described by human right workers as one of the three Montagnard asylum seekers in Mondolkiri most wanted by the Vietnamese.
“These three are the people who want to make the separatist movement,” one of the workers explained.
While hundreds of Montagnards have fled alleged religious persecution and land-rights violations in the Central Highlands, an undercurrent of separatism has always run through the UNHCR camps, where many Montagnards have said they want to live in their own state, free of the Hanoi government.
Cambodian police continue to pressure the UNHCR to hand over at least nine people in the camp who they claim are Cambodians and therefore should not have the agency’s protection.
But observers say it is really an attempt to seize the leadership of a group of asylum seekers that has resolutely refused to go back to Vietnam, and has been vocal in its criticism of Hanoi.
The human rights worker says it is “no coincidence” that Y Hung was recently arrested now that resettlement in a third country has become a realistic option for at least some of the Montagnards. Vietnam has tried for months to have Y Hung returned.
Critics of the arrest say the Cambodians have no legal case against Y Hung. An Kim Leng says the fact that Y Hung is now in jail proves he has enough evidence to justify the man’s arrest.
An Kim Leng would not say what that evidence is, nor let journalists look at the court documents. He assured visitors that documents from both judge Lu So Sambath and prosecutor Sak Soan contained the same abduction charge.
But An Kim Lenh is not sure who Y Hung is accused of kidnapping, or who filed the first complaint. Prison guard Yeam Chi also cannot say why Y Hung is in jail. He admits he feels badly for the man, who he says spends his days quietly in jail and is only visited by UNHCR staff.
“Personally, we would be sad to be separated from a wife we loved,” Yeam Chi said.
Nhi Neung says her mother did go to the police, but only asked them to find her daughter, who was in the camp with Y Hung at the time.
Yem Tang is a mother of five. She admits asking the police to help find her oldest surviving daughter. She doesn’t approve of the relationship because she “doesn’t want the government to oppress her.”
But while she did want Nhi Neung to be separated from Y Hung, Yem Tang says she never wanted him charged with a crime and has since tried unsuccessfully to withdraw her complaint.
Nhi Neung says she and Y Hung were found in the camp, where they frequently met even though the camp has been under tight police guard since last September.
She denies every accusation made against Y Hung.
“The authorities accuse him of taking a Cambodian girl into the camp. It’s not true what they say. I was the one who went” into the camp, she said.
She described a simple marriage ceremony last August, where they split one chicken and promised to love one another forever, and never divorce. Both had been married before and divorced—Y Hung to a woman still in Vietnam and Nhi Neung to a man she says she left after he broke her arm during an argument.
“We were happy, but now with this case I am very worried,” Nhi Neung said. She doesn’t want Y Hung to be taken back to Vietnam, though she admits his deportation is a very real possibility.
Both UNHCR and US embassy officials continue to meet with provincial authorities and lobby for Y Hung’s release. One source said Cambodian officials including National Police Director-General Hok Lundy have been brought into these discussions, and that with each day the chances of Y Hung remaining out of Vietnam increase.
But Nhi Neung is prepared for the worst.
“If my husband goes back to Vietnam, I will go with him, even if he is in jail,” she said.