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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Montagnards curdle in a Vietnamese coffee pot

Montagnards curdle in a Vietnamese coffee pot

BETWEEN 250 and 300 Montagnards are currently hiding in the remote jungles near the

Cambodian/Vietnamese border since fleeing Vietnam's coffee-producing central highlands

after violent unrest erupted in April, human rights workers said.

Documents listing names, dates and the Montagnard villages were shown to the Post

as a team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) arrived

yesterday, July 15, in the northeast provinces of Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri to assess

their claims for asylum.

"What matters is how this situation will evolve and whether the Cambodian government

will cooperate and provide unfettered access to the UNHCR and fulfill its mandate,"

one human rights worker said. "They should get a fair shot at assessing the

asylum claims."

More Montagnards are believed to be hiding in Vietnam amid protests rooted in religion,

land and the global coffee market, and authorities in both Cambodia and Vietnam have

resisted calls to allow to international and independent observers into the area.

Coffee cultivation was introduced to Vietnam's mountainous regions by French colonialists

and plantations subsequently nationalized when the county was reunified in 1975.

Demand for coffee-growing land surged, beginning in the 1980s, when private small-scale

cultivation was first permitted.

Since then the Montagnards have been displaced by an enormous migration of ethnic

Vietnamese from the lowlands into the once sparsely populated highland provinces.

With market prices on the rise internationally in the early 1990s the government

strongly encouraged these settlers to plant as much coffee as possible.

Over-planting made Vietnam one of the world's top coffee producers by the late 1990s

and a heavy contributor to a glut on the international marked that sent prices plummeting.

Hanoi's response was to grow more coffee to make up for the cash shortfall - resulting

in a further land-squeeze in Montagnard territory.

"It's very frustrating," a Vietnamese Embassy official once quipped at

a diplomatic function. "We can provide them with education, land and facilities,

but many just don't want to budge."

The hill tribes of central Vietnam and their cousins in Cambodia share similar traditions

to natives elsewhere in the world where a strong bond with the land is pivotal to

cultural survival.

And their struggle with modern day authoritarianism is not unlike the clash of cultures

experienced after the arrival of Europeans in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Some Montagnards - a broad term applied to a variety of ethnic hill tribes - have

in recent years taken to Christianity and a hybrid form of worship has evolved that

ties aspects of the protestant faith with traditional environmental values.

In communist Vietnam only officially sanctioned religions can be practiced, and the

Montagnards' style of worship is not one of them.

But the basic tenets of their creed have led to an assertion of religious and land-based

cultural rights pitting the Montagnards against a hardline regime that has no interest

in seeing a retention of the hill tribes' lifestyle.

According to Human Rights Watch, the April 10 crackdown on thousands of Montagnard

protestors in Buon Ma Thuot, the provincial capital of Dak Lak, was a violation of

UN Basic Principles.

Arbitrary arrests and detentions were also a violation of the International Covenant

on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party.

Montagnards who returned home after the demonstrations claimed their villages were

full of police, and they were effectively held under house arrest, prohibited from

leaving their homes, even for food shopping in the local markets or farming their

fields.

"Humanitarian assistance must go hand-in-hand with international protection.

They must have a safe place while their claims are being assessed in accordance with

the UNHCR mandate," the human rights worker said.

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