ASIA/VIETNAM - Mountain peoples continue to flee Vietnam, but the Office of the UN High Commission for refugees in Cambodia which provided assistance has had to close

Friday, 16 April 2004

Ho Chi Minh City (Fides Service) - Mountain people known as Montagnards in central Vietnam, many of whom are Christians, continue to flee for safety to Cambodia to escape repression which was especially fierce over the Easter Festivities. However at the request of the Cambodian government the UN High Commission for Refugees UNHCR has closed its Office in the north-east province of Ratanakiri. This makes the conditions of the refugees increasingly difficult.
According to US based Human Rights Watch on 10 April some 150,000 Montagnards staged a peaceful prayer rally in Buon Ma Thuot, capital of Daklak province, to protest against government repression and confiscation of their land. The police used violence to break up the rally and many were killed, injured and arrested.
The area was immediately isolated, no foreigners are allowed to enter, airports are closed, roads are blocked. Many demonstrators fled to forests for safety or across the border to Cambodia. Over the last month 40 Montagnards managed to escape to Cambodia reaching Phnom Penh, where there is a Centre for them under the protection of the United Nations.
Now the UNHCR office at Ratanakiri has been closed at the request of the Cambodian government, assistance for these people will be more difficult. UNHCR opened its office in 2001 to assist hundreds of Montagnards coming from the central area of Vietnam: at least 900 persons arrived in a few months.
Since the refugees continue to arrive UNHCR decided to keep its office in Ratanakiri. The office was accused of operating in secret to bring more refugees into Cambodia. The UNHCR rejected the accusation. In the meantime Montagnards requesting UN help are sent to the UNHCR in Phnom Penh. The UNHCR says it has always acted according to an agreement stipulated with Cambodian government and in keeping with its proper mandate and the principles of the 1951 Convention on Refugees signed also by Cambodia. In a recent statement UNHCR said: “Our work in Cambodia has always been marked by transparency, cooperation and it will continue”.
Many of the Montagnards are Protestants and for years they have suffered persecution and confiscation of their land. For the government they are “state enemies” because during the Vietnam war they sided with the United States.
During the 60th session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission session taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, a representative of the Montagnards Mr Kok Ksor said “for about thirty years the government has been forcing these native peoples to leave their ancestral homeland, violating their fundamental rights, reducing them to conditions of extreme poverty, ignoring the recommendations issued by the United Nations”. (PA) (Agenzia Fides 16/4/2004 lines 48 words 520)