Montagnard Refugees Face 2nd Danger, in Cambodia

Government Says It Fears a Separatist Movement

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia, JULY 11, 2004 ( A group of Christian Montagnards who fled repression in Vietnam are now facing a hostile backlash on Cambodian soil.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is considering sending troops into his country’s forested northeast to root out more than 200 Montagnards who fled Vietnam’s central highlands after a police crackdown on protesters last April. The protesters were seeking land and religious rights.

The refugees have been living off tubers and rainwater in Cambodia’s malaria-ridden jungles for months. Local hill tribe sources have told the Cambodia Daily that up to 250 Montagnards may be hiding in the border region and that several have fallen seriously ill.

Groups of the Montagnards have been photographed and interviewed by reporters from the English-language newspaper. The Hun government has alternately denied their existence, called them illegal immigrants or accused them of plotting a separatist movement, AsiaNews reported.

«We must examine if they are illegal immigrants or if they want to form an autonomous zone,» Hun said. «If they have hidden campsites to form an autonomous zone, we will use force to break them.»

The prime minister said the government would allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to open an office in the northeast, so long as it was not used as a refugee camp.

In the meantime, the UNCHR has been restricted to operating in Phnom Penh and forbidden from opening an office where the refugees could be interviewed and given asylum.

Hun Sen’s comments follow recent appeals from King Norodom Sihanouk, who is in self-exile in North Korea, that the refugees receive humanitarian assistance.

A team of palace officials who made a four-hour tour of the vast border region said they could not find any refugees to whom to distribute the rice and medicine ordered by the king.

«The villagers are afraid of us. They hide information,» said Um Em, undersecretary of state at the palace after returning from the tour. «We need to have a network to show us where the Montagnards are located, but right now we can’t find the network.»

Local and international human rights groups have criticized the Cambodian government’s handling of the Montagnards. Only the Cambodian Red Cross, headed by Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, says that aiding the refugees falls outside its mandate of helping natural disaster victims.

The Vietnamese government has denied the existence of Montagnard refugees and barred international agencies and reporters from entering the central highlands at the time of the protests.

Hundreds of Montagnards who fled Vietnamese oppression to Cambodia in 2001 were eventually granted refugee status and asylum in the United States.

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