Before he took his own life at a guesthouse in Phnom Penh in April, asylum seeker Kpa Thanh told his fellow ethnic Montagnards, stranded in limbo after fleeing to Cambodia last year, that he felt hopeless.
“[He said] it was better to die in Cambodia, than to die in Vietnam,” said Phak Hunh, one of four Montagnards who met with the Post yesterday.
“He did not want to go back to jail.”
Thanh was among a few hundred Montagnards who last year fled across the border from Vietnam to seek asylum, and with new Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang set to touch down in Cambodia today, rumours have circulated of an impending forced deportation of the almost 200 who remain – rumours officials denied yesterday.
However, one source, who said they had been passed insider information about a possible operation, said they feared the group would be removed before their asylum claims were properly assessed.
Earlier yesterday, at about 11:30am, several officers from the refugee department visited Phnom Penh’s Por Sen Chey district to photograph and take names of some of those residing at a guesthouse where about 100 Montagnards have been staying with support from the UN refugee agency.
Hul Sarith, one of the officers, said he did not know anything of a forced deportation. He said they were collecting the information as part of the group’s asylum claim, adding that about 80 per cent had registered.
Most of the Montagnards – a predominantly Christian ethnic group from Vietnam’s central highlands – have registered as asylum seekers with the Ministry of Immigration’s refugee department, and say they face political and religious persecution at the hands of Vietnamese Authorities.
The four Montagnards interviewed by the Post through a translator fled to Cambodia last year and have spent a combined total of almost 30 years in prison in Vietnam, according to documents they carried with them.
Each of the men, who hail from Gia Lai province, alleged they had been subjected to beatings while behind bars, and fled to Cambodia after receiving further summonses from police following their release.
“I was beaten for the first three days,” said Hunh, who said he spent six years in jail between 2007 and 2013 and pointed to his ribs, ears and chin to signify where the blows landed.
Three of the group – Hunh, Y Byun and Kya Yum – say they were charged over involvement in several protests calling for freedom to practice their localised form of Christianity, Da Ga.
“We are not allowed to gather to pray with more than three people or we will be summonsed or arrested,” said Byun, a father of six who says he spent almost nine years in prison.
Byun, a preacher in his faith, said he had fled into the forest after a 2001 protest but was caught in 2004. Yum, a 40-year-old father of eight, said that he spent seven years in prison after being arrested in 2008.
“They questioned me for seven days and beat me for seven days to force me to confess that I gathered the protesters.”
A fourth, 28-year-old Siu Quan, says he was arrested in 2005 and spent seven years in prison for helping fellow Montagnards who were hiding in the forest to evade arrest, supplying them with food.
“I was clearing grass at my home when they came to arrest me,” he said. “There were four policemen, they didn’t have guns but electric sticks. They asked if I know anything about the ones who escaped in the forest; I said no. They beat me and used the electric sticks.”
Each of the group agreed to have their names published because Cambodian authorities had already allowed Vietnamese police to meet with them last week in a bid to persuade them to return to their villages.
The contingent of officers – which included police from some of the asylum seekers’ villages – gave assurances of safe passage and that none of the returnees would face repercussions upon returning home.
They brought baby products for two young children born while in Cambodia, and promised to help repatriate Thanh’s ashes and those of another Montagnard who died recently due to high blood pressure.
But the group said Thanh, a farmer who had also attended religious rights protests, had been given a similar pledge in 2007 before he decided to return voluntarily after fleeing to Cambodia the year before.
“They promised not to mistreat him. When he got back, he was jailed,” said Byun.
On the day of his death, Thanh, who also suffered from severe stomach and intestinal problems, had attended an interview with the Interior Ministry.
According to Byun, he was told if he was found to be a refugee he may be able to settle in a third country, but if he was not eligible, he would have to go back to Vietnam.
“He was hopeless,” he said.
Regional representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Vivian Tan, who last week called the surprise visit by Vietnamese authorities to the Montagnards “concerning”, on Monday said the body was not aware of any current plans to remove the refugees.
“We cannot speculate on what could happen but would urge Cambodia to respect its commitment to not send anyone back to a place where his or her life and freedoms could be at risk,” Tan said, via email.
Yesterday both the head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, Kerm Sarin, and his subordinate, Tan Sokvichea, head of the refugee department, said they too had no information about any deportation.
“We have not heard this information,” Sarin said.
Yesterday afternoon, a man who answered the phone at the Vietnamese Embassy said the relevant officials able to discuss the case were not available.
However, despite the promises of the contingent of Vietnamese officials who visited them last week, the group of four yesterday said they did not believe any assurances from Vietnam, showing reporters two hand-written ledgers of almost 90 names of Montagnards they said were still held in prison in Vietnam. The Post was unable to verify the list.
The pledge of no repercussions “is just a lie from the Vietnamese authorities”, Byun said.