Villagers in Ratanakkiri province discovered yesterday that a corpse previously believed to be a Vietnamese Montagnard was a local man, as they reportedly met with a United Nations official to discuss the fate of asylum seekers still hiding in the area.
A group of ethnic Jarai villagers from O’Yadav district travelled to an area near the Vietnamese border where a local fisherman reported spotting eight corpses floating down the Sesan River on March 31.
Two separate groups that ventured to the area earlier this week reported finding a partially buried body, which they believed – because of its proximity to the Vietnamese border, where dozens of ethnic minority Montagnards have crossed in recent months in a bid to flee alleged religious persecution – to be an asylum seeker.
One of the villagers who visited the grave yesterday said they had confirmed that the man was not a Montagnard after meeting his parents.
“Apart from inspecting the grave, we asked locals [in nearby Ket village] and met the parents of the dead person,” said the villager, who asked not to be named. “They said that the grave is of a man who had mental problems and drowned to death. It does not belong to any immigrant.”
When the group returned home yesterday, the villager said, they met with an official from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to discuss the fate of 23 Montagnards hiding in the province.
A separate villager, who has been helping groups of asylum seekers who have arrived in recent months, said locals at the meeting called on the UN to intervene.
“[I told the UN] they have stayed in the forest for a long time and it is very difficult for both the Montagnards and their supporters [so] please help them as soon as possible,” he said. “He [the UN officer] asked us to be patient since they are trying to help. He helped with some food as well.”
The OHCHR official said he was not authorised to speak to the media. OHCHR country representative Wan-Hea Lee would not confirm the meeting.
“OHCHR officials are in Ratanakkiri to conduct long programmed activities with local prison and law enforcement authorities . . . They will depart from the province in the morning,” she said yesterday.
Nguon Keun, Rattanakiri provincial police chief, said that he was not aware of the UN visit.
“Normally, they need to inform the local authorities about their intention and actions . . . The country has laws and rules, so please comply”, he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY