As the search continues for a second group of Montagnard asylum seekers thought to be hiding in the forests surrounding Ratanakkiri province’s Lom village, residents of the sleepy rural community say their lives have been upturned by the intense scrutiny from police.
On Thursday and Friday, police raided the village and the nearby forests in search of at least five ethnic Jarai Montagnards suspected of hiding there.
The village’s own ethnic Jarai community was left shaken as armed officers stormed into their homes and confiscated their belongings. They were accused of harbouring the asylum seekers and threatened with arrest. Police dogs could be heard barking in the distance, searching for people in the sprawling woodland.
Yesterday, villagers filed a formal complaint against the action with local rights group Adhoc to be forwarded onto both the Ministry of Interior and the National Assembly.
They are demanding a public apology.
“Police flew into our homes, some were deployed with rifles around our houses, and [they] grabbed a camera from us,” their letter says.
The Christian Montagnards – indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – arrived in the province early this month, fleeing alleged persecution.
Their arrival came hot on the heels of a group of 13 Montagnards who spent more than five weeks in hiding before being given safe passage to register their asylum claims in Phnom Penh last month. Observers have predicted that more will follow.
Rong Nay, executive director of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, said by email that over 300 Montagnards are imprisoned in Hanoi for "up to 17 years because they are Christians, because they are Montagnards". He said that some "cannot live" and have "no choice, they have to leave their villages and flee to Cambodia for asylum”.
He added that "the Vietnamese always called us Moi, meaning savages" and that they "hate us more than animals.”
But the Montagnards’ search for asylum has left Lom village’s Jarai community under attack.
“We never used to see a lot of police like this; it’s making villagers feel scared and unsafe. Our village used to be quiet. This is all because of the Montagnards,” said 50-year-old villager Romas Chhvat.
On Friday, Chhvat said, “about 40 district and provincial police officers and border police scared all the villagers by raiding the whole village”.
“They stepped on our blankets and mats, and mosquito nets.… We have never seen a lot of police like this before.”
A villager, who asked not to be named, said he feared for his safety, “especially when I go anywhere alone”.
The villager, who has been helping Montagnard asylum seekers since 2011, said he is being hunted by police.
“Police are suspicious that I am hiding the Montagnards.… If they find me, they will arrest me right away,” he said.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said it was the villagers’ right to help asylum seekers, but authorities were treating them as if they were aiding and abetting criminals. But local authorities maintained yesterday that they had done nothing wrong.
Ngoy Dorn, O’Yadav district deputy police chief, said he was not part of the raid, but he supported the action.
“Some illegal immigrants have crossed the border, and we are suspicious that they are hiding there. Therefore, police launched the raid with a warrant from the court,” he said.
“As for stepping on their beds, I do not know,” he said, when questioned further about the raids. Despite police sweeps of the area, the Montagnards remained safe yesterday evening, according to villagers.
Both the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees did not respond to requests for comment.