When Rlan Lap was 25 years old, he ran into the jungle. For the next two years, he lived mostly in hiding in the thick green of the trees.
A Montagnard – a member of the mostly Christian ethnic minority groups who dwell in Vietnam’s Central Highlands – Lap had participated in a protest advocating religious freedom in 2001. His dissent marked him out to police.
Lap mostly foraged for vegetables and drank from a nearby waterfall. But when he ran out of food, he would sneak back to his home village and scavenge rice. Once, police followed him back into the jungle.
“They shot me – right in the chest,” he said, but with a synthetic or rubber bullet. It stung, but it didn’t wound him badly.
He spent more than three years in jail – where he was beaten into unconsciousness – but once he was released, the harassment didn’t stop.
“They summoned me to the police station. They beat my head on the table until my head and teeth bled,” he said.
Lap, now 40, walked for four days through the jungle to cross into Cambodia. He arrived on September 28, 2015. After two years’ reprieve, he now dreads going back.
“I am very scared, I am very nervous. I know when they take me back to Vietnam, they are not going to treat me well.”
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Lap is one of 29 Montagnards who, according to the United Nations, all have well-founded refugee claims and face documented risks if they are forced to return to Vietnam. Their applications for refugee status have been rejected by the Cambodian government, and they now face deportation within the week.
When fellow asylum seeker Y Huin, 42, was in jail, he prayed. He didn’t have a Bible, but he remembered the verses and wrote them down.
He already spent more than six years in a Vietnamese prison cell but can’t remember now many of the words that brought him comfort in captivity.
“I forgot most of it. They beat me up so bad that I lost some of my hearing and my memory,” Huin said.
“If they send me back to Vietnam, I will die or I will go to prison for a long time. I think they’re going to poison me – they will kill me, or I will disappear.”
“They will do anything to prove their point,” he said, referring to a document he was forced to sign renouncing his Degar Christian faith.
Huin, an ethnic Jarai man, and other Montagnards who streamed over the Cambodian border two years ago fleeing persecution at the hands of Vietnamese authorities, had to put their trust in other powers and cling to other sacred texts for their deliverance.
Y Rin Kpa, 47, gingerly unfolds two pieces of paper. One is enclosed in a loose sheath of plastic. The other – the size of his palm – is beginning to tear at the crease. Both, he believed, showed proof of persecution and would convince Cambodian authorities that he needed refugee status.
The larger document, dated 2010, notes that he is being discharged from jail a year shy of his 10-year conviction for participating in a protest for religious freedom. The smaller is a summons from April 2015 to the police office where Kpa said he and others were routinely beaten, or sometimes held for a week and forced to cut the grass with a machete. Kpa fled his home three months later.
But the third document Kpa produces shows their trust was misplaced. Emblazoned with a shiny gold Buddhist icon, a letter from the Cambodian government tells Kpa that after a “thorough assessment of your refugee claim . . . [the government] has determined you are not eligible for international refugee protection”.
For refugee status, an asylum seeker must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership to a particular social group or political opinion.
“In our view, you do not meet these criteria because the harm you suffered or fear you have is not related to any of the five [Refugee] Convention grounds . . . [and] the events you described to us during your interview do not demonstrate that you have faced or will face treatment as severe as to amount to persecution,” the decision reads.
Kpa rubs his head, remembering where he was struck with handcuffs, drawing blood. He is soft-spoken and sits with his hands splayed on his knees.
A recent report on Vietnam’s prisons – which was posted by the Vietnamese government, possibly by accident – showed a high rate of executions, deaths in custody and forced labour, indicating the Montagnards’ fears are not exaggerated.
From August 2013 to June 2016, some 429 prisoners were executed, meaning, according to Amnesty International, that Vietnam had the third-highest rate of executions in the world. The ashes or other remains of 2,812 prisoners were also reported as approved for collection by family members.
The culture of violence is tolerated, advocates told reporters, because the prison system silences dissidents.
Kpa said he witnessed five inmates die in his nine years in prison. He and other inmates were only allowed to bury one. The other four were buried by the authorities.
“Sometimes they allowed other prisoners to attack each other. I don’t know why they do that – whether they want to kill them or for punishment,” he said.
“Some died from torture, and some have inside suffering.”
There was also not enough food – mostly morning glory and rice, but the rice was stretched out by sand, he said.
“Before I didn’t think I could survive the prison, but I sometimes prayed to God to help me.”
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By Un, 40, arrived in Cambodia on August 25, 2015, in the same cohort as Kpa’s wife. He was a church leader, and his story echoes those of other Montagnards.
“I urged the people to protest for freedom of religion, ownership over the land, and to demand authorities to allow us to build a church,” Un said.
For his efforts, he was attacked each day for 45 days as he was interrogated, he said.
“Sometimes very seriously . . . I fell unconscious three times,” he said. “And they never told my family.” He has six children, one son and five daughters, in Vietnam.
Sometimes they would beat him with a wooden stick, sometimes they would use electricity. He implored the UN and other international NGOs to intervene before his imminent deportation.
“If they do not allow us to stay [in Cambodia], please take us somewhere else – not to Vietnam,” he said.
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Siu Loih, 60, participated in a protest in Gia Lai province after he was allegedly made homeless by government land grabs and, like Lap, fled into the jungle. He was pursued by police and swiftly arrested. He spent more than four years in prison.
“I can’t remember the name of the person, because there were many . . . but [the police] hit me in the chest and the head,” he said. His chest and ribs still ache, he says.
He spent the next three years on a kind of probation. If he wanted to work far from home, he had to get paperwork approved by police.
“I was really scared so I ran away,” he said. He arrived in Cambodia on September 28, 2015, the same day as Lap.
“Because every year the government made me [sign] a promissory note that I would not worship God, that I would not continue to be a Christian.”
All Montagnards interviewed made heartfelt appeals to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, to help them avoid what they anticipate will be a life of oppression and persecution in their homeland.
“UNHCR has written from its highest level to the highest level in the Government reiterating its hope to be allowed to take all 36 individuals out,” UNHCR Assistant Regional Representative Alistair Boulton said via email yesterday, referring to the 29 rejected and seven accepted refugees.
The government’s Refugee Department director, Tan Sovichea, yesterday said he had “no idea” if the government would backpedal on its plan to deport the 29 within the week.
“The supervisors are the ones who make the decision on this,” Sovichea said.
Sister Denise Coghlan, of the Jesuit Refugee Service, appealed to the Cambodian government “to allow UNHCR to take the people out”.
“It seems to me that this is the most humanitarian thing to do, and the most effective and the least costly for them,” she said.
But, Coghlan said, there was also a glimmer of hope in new life. “The nicest thing that’s happened this week is the birth of the beautiful little Montagnard girl,” she said, bringing the total number of Montagnard asylum seekers in Phnom Penh to 39.
Born on Friday in Phnom Penh, the newborn is the daughter of a Montagnard asylum seeker couple who were briefly detained by Cambodian Immigration Police in April, following the flight of their family members to Thailand along with 50 Montagnards who feared their asylum appeals would be rejected by Cambodia.
One of the seven Montagnards who was recognised as a refugee, and who asked to remain anonymous as they feared the decision could be overturned, shared their history of jail and abuse at the hands of the Vietnamese authorities, which paralleled those of the rejected refugees.
At the risk of revealing their identity, The Post has chosen not to disclose most of the details about their past.
However, what their case shows is that the Montagnards due to be deported will likely return to harm. This particular Montagnard said they fled their home once before, were captured on the Cambodian side, and handed over to the Vietnamese authorities. They then spent the next several months in prison.
Their lived experience adds weight, and a sting of dread, to the other asylum seekers’ fears.
“I passed the interview, so I am okay, but I would like to speak up for others who failed and could be returned to Vietnam,” the refugee said, explaining that the 29, if returned to Vietnam, would likely face the same fate.
“It’s like we are a bird in their hands – they can kill us at any time.”