Far away from home, with little food and their health deteriorating, a group of Montagnards hiding in the forests of Ratanakkiri province are prepared to die rather than return to Vietnam.
A 40-year-old ethnic Jarai villager, one of three helping the 13 Montagnards survive, yesterday told the Post on condition of anonymity of the desperate conditions to which the group’s escape from religious persecution has led them.
“They are in a bad situation. They are running out of food and living in the forest to avoid capture. We can feed them once a day … [but] we have no money to help them,” he said.
The group, some of whom arrived in Cambodia in late October and the others last week, have regularly moved locations to avoid capture by the hoards of police and security guards seeking their arrest.
Divided into smaller groups, their living quarters consist only of hammocks and blankets, empty plates, pots and spoons, but little food.
“They have become skinnier and skinnier, and one of them has got a stomach and intestine disease,” the villager told the Post.
He added that recent visits from journalists and rights workers, attracting more attention from the watching authorities, have heightened the group’s fear of deportation.
But the Montagnards, indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, are determined to stay.
“In Vietnam, if they pray, they will be arrested. They are willing to die here, since if they return to Vietnam, they will die as well,” the villager said, explaining that one of the group, a 40-year-old man, has sustained rib injuries following a beating by the Vietnamese authorities.
He added that they would only leave the forest with the UN’s assistance.
Vivian Tan, press officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok, said that UNHCR has been “advocating with the central and local authorities not to send the group back to Vietnam. Discussions are ongoing to try and move the group from their current location so that they can access the asylum process.”
The government drew widespread criticism in 2011 when it shuttered a UN safe house for Montagnard asylum seekers in Phnom Penh.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY