A Cambodian national who was allegedly arrested on Thursday alongside dozens of Montagnard asylum seekers remained missing yesterday, while those sent back to Vietnam were reportedly abused by authorities for their attempted escape.
Forty-two-year-old Dy Heun, an ethnic Jarai from Ratanakkiri province, was officially reported missing yesterday to local rights group Adhoc.
Heun, who has been assisting groups of Montagnards – indigenous people from Vietnam’s central highlands – seeking refuge in Cambodia in recent months, arranged transport to Phnom Penh on Wednesday for 36 of the asylum seekers in the hope that the UN would be able to help them when they reached the capital.
But the group was blocked by Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities in Konmom district at around 3am on Thursday, according to the district’s deputy police chief, Ren Muth, who assisted in the arrests.
Ahead of the arrests, Muth said he was ordered by provincial police to rally 10 armed police officers, but was not told why.
According to Muth, joint forces including Vietnamese and border police hid in an area in Chres commune awaiting the group.
Authorities had been informed of the asylum seekers’ whereabouts by a network of spies that included the drivers transporting them to the capital, he added.
When the group arrived “they were blocked and surrounded outright”.
The “van doors were opened and the Montagnards were ordered to put their hands up, and pushed into other vans. They were stunned; pale with sad expressions on their faces”.
Muth said he was not sure why the Montagnards were arrested. “Maybe there is a problem [with them being here], otherwise the Vietnamese police would not hunt them from Vietnam to Cambodian territory.”
While he confirmed the arrest and deportation of the asylum seekers, Muth said he was unsure what had happened to Heun.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said deportees had reported that Heun was arrested at the scene and driven away in a separate van.
His family, who reported him missing, have not heard from him since Wednesday.
“Even if Heun was a murderer and arrested, police should have told his family. It violates human rights,” Thy said.
Heun’s wife, Sam Kanhar, said her husband left home at around 1pm on Wednesday.
“He told me he was going out but didn’t tell me where he was going. I don’t know where he is or what happened. We are contacting the deportees in Vietnam to ask about him,” she said.
Central government and provincial officials yesterday denied any knowledge of Heun’s whereabouts or of the Montagnards’ deportation.
Wan-Hea Lee, country director for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said OHCHR has so far been “unable” to discuss the deportations with government officials.
She added that OHCHR was not aware of Heun’s arrest.
While concerns over Heun’s safety increased yesterday, Thy said the deportees had reported varying degrees of abuse back in Vietnam.
Most of “the deportees were just slapped before being allowed to go home. But before putting him in prison, the ringleader was hit in the eye and mouth, breaking his teeth, for leading them to Cambodia,” he said.
Twenty-three other Montagnards are currently in Phnom Penh applying for asylum. But the Interior Ministry said last month that if they are recognised as refugees but rejected from third countries, they will be deported.
David Manne, executive director of the Australia-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, said there “can be no more serious and flagrant breach of obligations under the Refugee Convention than to expel people seeking asylum back to the seat of feared persecution without a fair and proper assessment of their claims for protection”.
The treatment of the Montagnards, he said, is particularly concerning in light of the $35-million refugee resettlement deal that Cambodia signed with Australia last year.
“It underscores fundamental concerns that Cambodia is not willing or able to protect refugees and is not a suitable country to send refugees for resettlement.”