BETWEEN 250 and 300 Montagnards are currently hiding in the remote jungles near the
Cambodian/Vietnamese border since fleeing Vietnam's coffee-producing central highlands
after violent unrest erupted in April, human rights workers said.
Documents listing names, dates and the Montagnard villages were shown to the Post
as a team from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) arrived
yesterday, July 15, in the northeast provinces of Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri to assess
their claims for asylum.
"What matters is how this situation will evolve and whether the Cambodian government
will cooperate and provide unfettered access to the UNHCR and fulfill its mandate,"
one human rights worker said. "They should get a fair shot at assessing the
More Montagnards are believed to be hiding in Vietnam amid protests rooted in religion,
land and the global coffee market, and authorities in both Cambodia and Vietnam have
resisted calls to allow to international and independent observers into the area.
Coffee cultivation was introduced to Vietnam's mountainous regions by French colonialists
and plantations subsequently nationalized when the county was reunified in 1975.
Demand for coffee-growing land surged, beginning in the 1980s, when private small-scale
cultivation was first permitted.
Since then the Montagnards have been displaced by an enormous migration of ethnic
Vietnamese from the lowlands into the once sparsely populated highland provinces.
With market prices on the rise internationally in the early 1990s the government
strongly encouraged these settlers to plant as much coffee as possible.
Over-planting made Vietnam one of the world's top coffee producers by the late 1990s
and a heavy contributor to a glut on the international marked that sent prices plummeting.
Hanoi's response was to grow more coffee to make up for the cash shortfall - resulting
in a further land-squeeze in Montagnard territory.
"It's very frustrating," a Vietnamese Embassy official once quipped at
a diplomatic function. "We can provide them with education, land and facilities,
but many just don't want to budge."
The hill tribes of central Vietnam and their cousins in Cambodia share similar traditions
to natives elsewhere in the world where a strong bond with the land is pivotal to
And their struggle with modern day authoritarianism is not unlike the clash of cultures
experienced after the arrival of Europeans in Australia, Canada and the United States.
Some Montagnards - a broad term applied to a variety of ethnic hill tribes - have
in recent years taken to Christianity and a hybrid form of worship has evolved that
ties aspects of the protestant faith with traditional environmental values.
In communist Vietnam only officially sanctioned religions can be practiced, and the
Montagnards' style of worship is not one of them.
But the basic tenets of their creed have led to an assertion of religious and land-based
cultural rights pitting the Montagnards against a hardline regime that has no interest
in seeing a retention of the hill tribes' lifestyle.
According to Human Rights Watch, the April 10 crackdown on thousands of Montagnard
protestors in Buon Ma Thuot, the provincial capital of Dak Lak, was a violation of
UN Basic Principles.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions were also a violation of the International Covenant
on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is a party.
Montagnards who returned home after the demonstrations claimed their villages were
full of police, and they were effectively held under house arrest, prohibited from
leaving their homes, even for food shopping in the local markets or farming their
"Humanitarian assistance must go hand-in-hand with international protection.
They must have a safe place while their claims are being assessed in accordance with
the UNHCR mandate," the human rights worker said.