As Cambodia prepares to welcome the first group of refugees under its controversial deal with Australia, it is going to extreme lengths to keep asylum seekers from Vietnam out of the Kingdom, interviews with soldiers stationed along the border revealed yesterday.
Last week, almost 1,000 troops were deployed along the Vietnamese border in this remote province, with officials claiming that the action was taken to prevent a range of cross-border crimes, including “illegal immigration”.
But soldiers, who were ordered to move away from their families and into the province’s sprawling jungle, said yesterday that the main objective was clear: to catch Montagnards.
Since October, more than 100 Christian Montagnards – an indigenous group from Vietnam’s Central Highlands – have risked their lives by crossing the border into Cambodia to flee alleged religious and political persecution.
Many have spent weeks in the forest battling hunger and illness, while attempting to evade authorities seeking their capture.
Dozens have been arrested and deported back to Vietnam, while others have reached the relative safety of Phnom Penh.
So far, just 13 have been granted refugee status. Forty are in limbo in the capital, waiting for the Refugee Department to register their claims. Others still remain in hiding in Ratanakkiri, hoping that the United Nations will come and rescue them.
But the outlook for the asylum seekers is darkening as the government’s efforts to stop the influx has militarised once-peaceful border areas.
Next to the dirt roads that meander through the border forests, temporary shelters can be seen – constructed out of wood and tarpaulin – where soldiers are stationed.
Forty-eight-year-old Reaksmey* said he has been living in the forest for one week.
Stationed just a few kilometres away from Vietnam with three other soldiers, the group’s camp already looks as though it has been lived in for months.
Camouflaged sleeping bags are stacked in piles; used bottles of water stuffed into carrier bags; clothes strewn over beams of wood.
Reaksmey said that he had been told that the group’s most important mission is “stopping Montagnards from crossing [into Cambodia]”.
Other offences, he said, are “the next focus”.
The group said that they had been told to coordinate with local police if Montagnards are spotted crossing at a different location.
While a rifle was hung over a nail behind him, dangling above a box of bullets, Reaksmey insisted that the soldiers would not use violence.
“We are not hunting for [Montagnards], but if we see them, we will arrest them and send them to the provincial authority,” he said.
However, like other soldiers the Post spoke to, Reaksmey seemed far from enthusiastic about his mission, which he claimed was the result of a request from the Vietnamese government.
He explained that he is there under strict orders, though he would rather be preparing his crops for the planting season. And he is finding life in the camp a struggle.
“The tents are not strong enough when it rains,” he said, adding that the group was asking for materials to make a sturdier roof and for a generator.
A separate group, stationed a farther few kilometres away, said supplies were already running thin.
“We don’t get any more money in addition to our salary [to be here]. Our base commander just offers us canned fish, some water, and other foods to eat,” said 50-year-old Oudom*, adding that if supplies are late the troops have no choice but to spend their own money.
But, he said, they have found a way to make up the extra cash; by extorting money from timber traders.
“If they are transporting timber for local use, it is OK to get 5,000 riel [about $1.25] or 10,000 riel from them,” he explained.
All the soldiers interviewed yesterday said they had been told that they would remain at their posts for at least three months.
Chhin Saron, a border guard in Ratanakkiri’s Lom village, said the soldiers are merely “an additional force to guard and patrol the forest”.
But residents of Lom village said the troops’ real mission was clear.
“First, they are here to stop Montagnards from crossing into Cambodia anymore. Second, they are looking for people helping the Montagnards,” said an ethnic Jarai villager, who has been assisting the asylum seekers in recent months and requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The villager, who continues to help Montagnards still hiding in the province, said it was wrong for authorities to seek their deportation.
“The Montagnards are mistreated in Vietnam, and if they are arrested and deported, they will be persecuted more and more.”
David Manne, director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre in Melbourne, said any move by Cambodia “to block people from accessing protection from persecution which results in them being forced back into harm’s way would involve a fundamental violation” of the Refugee Convention.
“Fortress-like policies constructed to block and repel people seeking protection as refugees are contrary to the spirit, intent and duties underpinning” the convention, he added.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the action would also raise questions about Cambodian law.
“Contracting states to the Refugee Convention are obliged to allow any person seeking asylum access to their asylum procedure; a detailed procedure is set out in national law,” she explained. So, “if Cambodian soldiers in Ratanakkiri were in fact instructed to stop any Montagnards from crossing the border who indicate that they wish to apply for asylum, Cambodia’s implementation of not only the Refugee Convention but also the applicable national law would fall into question”.
Officials at the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not be reached yesterday.
Meanwhile, those helping the Montagnards have been left questioning the apparent hypocrisy of welcoming Australia’s refugees while rejecting asylum seekers from Vietnam.
“It is very unfair and discriminatory if the migrants from Australia are accepted, but not the Montagnards,” one villager said. “There is no justice.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity