Vietname continues to jail the faithful, burn churches and force conversions, according to a recent US religious freedom report, with refugee advocates yesterday pointing the finger at Cambodia for often failing the scores of asylum seekers who have fled to safety across the border.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) annual report, published last week, noted modest improvements but also “severe religious freedom violations” in Vietnam, classing Cambodia’s eastern neighbour as a “country of particular concern” worse than Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt.
“There is a disconnect between the central government’s overtures to improve religious freedom conditions and the ongoing actions taken by local officials, public security, and organised thugs to threaten and physically harm religious followers and their houses of worship,” the report reads.
The report comes in the wake of Cambodia’s return of some 25 Montagnards – a predominantly Christian minority in Vietnam’s Central Highlands – after two years in limbo.
“[S]ome [Montagnards] are prevented from holding religious ceremonies, many are summoned to meet with local authorities and pressured to cease practicing their faith, and pastors are harassed or punished,” according to the report. “[A]uthorities reportedly harassed followers of Montagnard Pastor Xiem Ksor, who died on January 14, 2016, after public security physically assaulted him on Christmas Eve 2015.”
“In 2016, USCIRF received a report that in one incident, authorities arrested at least seven Montagnard Christians from the Central Highlands after police reportedly instructed the individuals to stop believing in God.”
The report also cited that Cambodia had returned 16 Montagnards to Vietnam last July, and that aside from a group of 13 Montagnards sent to the Philippines, “no others have been granted refugee status”.
Cambodia’s Refugee Department has since suggested only three others will be classed as refugees, out of some 200 asylum seekers.
It’s from this hostile environment, argues Grace Bui of the Montagnard Assistance Project, that asylum seekers fled, and she said Cambodia’s response to their plight was wanting.
“The 25 people that were sent back . . . the Vietnamese government is watching them really tightly. They are not allowed to leave the house,” she said.
Cambodia “doesn’t want to jeopardise the friendship” with Vietnam, she said, suggesting that politics could taint the outcomes of refugee status interviews, which are conducted by government officials, not the UN.
Refugee officials could not be reached yesterday, but Sos Mousine, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Cult and Religion, said Cambodia merely “followed the law”.
“We don’t encourage those Montagnard people to come to our country,” he said. “We let the authority deal with them case by case and we also respect international law. We keep our relationship with Vietnam.”
Vivian Tan, of the UNHCR, stressed that Cambodia was party to the Refugee Convention and had taken over the processing of asylum claims from the UN since 2009.
“Refugee status determination is a serious undertaking and countries that have taken it on are fully aware of the importance of assessing asylum claims based on the individual merit of each case,” she said.
She said some of the Montagnards seeking asylum in Cambodia had cited religious persecution or restrictions, as well as land confiscation, as reasons for leaving their villages.
The UNHCR has assisted in the repatriation of more than 100 Montagnard asylum seekers from Cambodia since July 2015.
Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said asylum seekers were better off when the UN handled their claims.
“Cambodia’s treatment of refugees is a mish-mash of incompetence and political interference, wrapped up in a defensive assertion of sovereignty and interminable delays designed to sap any hope from asylum seekers,” he said, via email.
He said asylum seekers from both Vietnam and China like a group of Uighurs deported in 2009 had little chance of success in Cambodia, as their home nations began to pressure Phnom Penh.
Additionally, he said, “Vietnam’s compulsory registration of religions and houses of worship has led to greater control of religion by the state.”
Other targeted groups included the independent Cao Dai faith, which has a following in Cambodia. The Cao Dai noted less government repression last year, but feared it could resurface.
The report also mentioned the Khmer Krom, ethnic Khmers living predominantly in southern Vietnam. Khmer Krom Buddhist monk, the Venerable Thach Thuol, remains a prisoner of conscience.
Additional reporting by Kong Meta