A third group of Montagnards, including three children, reportedly crossed into Ratanakkiri province on Saturday, while a local NGO worker who has been assisting the asylum seekers claimed to have received death threats from a senior provincial official.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an ethnic Jarai villager told the Post that “nine newcomers arrived on Saturday including [three children], two girls and one boy, aged 5 and above”.
The latest arrivals bring the number of Christian Montagnards – indigenous people from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – allegedly hiding in the province’s forests to 14. A smaller group of five came earlier this month.
Thirteen other Montagnards, who spent more than five weeks in hiding there, were given safe passage to Phnom Penh in December to process asylum claims.
Local villagers assisting the Montagnards gave few details yesterday of the group’s whereabouts or how they crossed into the Kingdom, out of fear that it would lead to their capture and deportation.
Since Montagnards began descending on the area, ethnic Jarais in the province’s Lom village have been threatened with arrest, had their houses searched, and their belongings confiscated.
Authorities have claimed that they are not asylum seekers but illegal immigrants.
“I am so worried because if they are captured, they will be deported to Vietnam. They were persecuted in Vietnam, that’s why they came here to get help.… They are Montagnards; we, the ethnic villagers, do not lie,” the villager said.
Rong Nay, executive director of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, explained that “Montagnards and Vietnamese are not one people but two people, [with] different languages, culture and way of life”.
“Since 1975 up to today, religious persecution and human rights violations towards the Montagnard indigenous peoples has continued and never ends,” he said.
Villagers assisting the Montagnards told the Post yesterday that the new arrivals had put increased strain on them.
They said authorities had heightened their presence in the area in an effort to prevent them from reaching the groups with crucial supplies of water, food and medicine.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said he had “informed the UN” about the new arrivals.
But Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that efforts to help the asylum seekers had met resistance.
“It has not been possible to have a solution-oriented discussion with the Ratanakkiri Governor, who although obliged to abide by the Refugee Convention continues to demand authorisation to engage with the United Nations. OHCHR continues to address the situation with the Ministry of Interior,” she said by email.
As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Cambodia is obligated to assess asylum seekers’ claims to refugee status without penalty.
Lee said reports that the latest group includes young children “adds to the urgency” of finding a solution.
Vivian Tan, regional press officer for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said she was “not aware of new arrivals and will have to check if the authorities have any information”.
”UNHCR hopes that the authorities can ensure that anyone wishing to seek refuge in Cambodia will be able to access the national asylum system,” she added.
Nguon Keurn, Ratanakkiri provincial police chief, said he was not aware of the latest group.
As the Montagnards crossed the border on Saturday, Thy of Adhoc sent reports to his NGO’s headquarters and the United Nations of intimidation and threats made against him because of his efforts to help the asylum seekers.
According to Thy, a senior official, whom he did not name, has threatened to kill him and his family.
Thy said the threats have been made over the phone and via a Facebook account called “Lum Phatsrok”, meaning Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district.
The account posted a message to Thy, which reads: “Wish Chhay Thy and his children to be deaf and mute and his whole family to die in a traffic accident”.
While it is unclear who runs the account, Thy claims that the threats are the same as ones made over the phone by a senior official.
“I told the UN about this and an investigation will be launched. I know the person who threatened me by phone; the Facebook account, Lum Phatsrok, has many friends who are provincial officials and from government too,” he said.
Kong Srun, Lumphat district governor, said he would “investigate this case”.
Provincial Governor Thorng Savun declined to comment yesterday.
Lee, of the UN human rights agency, said she was “deeply concerned about the threats reportedly made against an NGO worker in the area, as well as continued threats by local officials to arrest and deport the Montagnards before they are given the chance to indicate whether they seek asylum”.