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After Montagnards, threats

Montagnard men sit next to a camp kitchen in a forest in Ratanakkiri province
Montagnard men sit next to a camp kitchen in a forest in Ratanakkiri province last month after fleeing persecution in Vietnam. ADHOC

After Montagnards, threats

After blocking a UN team from meeting with a group of Montagnard asylum seekers and threatening to arrest and deport those refugees last month, a Ratanakkiri official ended his year by threatening villagers.

The Lumphat district security guard boasted this week that he would see two ethnic minority villagers arrested for allegedly harbouring illegal Vietnamese immigrants, according to villagers’ accounts.

The security guard, Lea Leang, appeared at a Jarai villager’s home on Tuesday and demanded to take photos of Rochom Luong, 42 and Thorng Yuon, 42. The guard told the pair that the pictures would be sent to police, who wanted them arrested for previously helping a group of Montagnard asylum seekers hide in the forest, away from the local officials who vowed to forcibly repatriate them to Vietnam.

“He accused me of illegally hiding Vietnamese immigrants and said he would call the police,” said Luong.

Yesterday morning, the guard recanted, however. Appearing at Luong’s house once again, the guard allegedly claimed he was drunk at the time.

Leang agreed to pay the villagers $125 to shut them up about the threats, according to the villager. Leang could not be reached yesterday to confirm the account.

In spite of the bribe offer, the Jarai villagers reported the case to rights group Adhoc.

“There have been no measures taken since that village guard already knew his mistake and apologised,” said Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator at Adhoc.

But the villagers' ongoing fears about the guard may not be without merit, as Thy also pointed out the irate official had successfully barred the UN from meeting with the asylum seekers on multiple occasions.

The 13 Montagnards, members of a mostly Protestant ethnic minority from Vietnam’s highlands, had fled to Cambodia in October, allegedly to avoid religious persecution.

With the assistance of Ratanakkiri villagers, the group spent more than seven weeks concealed in the jungle, where they fell prey to dengue fever and malaria.

Representatives from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) attempted to meet with the asylum seekers but were repeatedly impeded by the guard and uncooperative local authorities.

But eventually, without warning, the guard stopped sabotaging the UN team, who took the Montagnards to Phnom Penh, where they are currently in the process of applying for asylum.

“We do not know why the local authorities stopped trying to block the joint mission from meeting with the Montagnards any more than we know why they blocked access to begin with,” said Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the OHCHR.

Government authorities also claimed not to know why the security guard had taken it upon himself to block the UN team, though the provincial governor had also collaborated in the efforts.

Soy Thay, the Lumphat district police chief, could not account yesterday for the guard’s actions and denied that there was any sanctioned plan to arrest the villagers who helped the asylum-seeking Montagnards.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LAIGNEE BARRON

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