Vietnam and Cambodia reached an agreement Monday to work together in stopping the predominantly Christian hill tribe people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands from fleeing into Cambodia.
State-controlled media reported Tuesday that leaders from the two countries’ 22 border provinces met Monday in Ho Chi Minh City after more than 200 members of ethnic minority groups, collectively called Montagnards, escaped into Cambodia following Easter weekend protests.
A local newspaper reported that Cambodia and Vietnam “agreed to coordinate closely in preventing and handling the issue of people crossing the borders illegally ... in fighting crimes and groups which are involved in terrorist activities along the borders” according to the joint statement.
The countries also agreed to increase cooperation among provincial government officials and security forces.
Since July, scores of Montagnards have trickled out from the deeply forested region saying that they were forced to flee persecution following Easter protests over religious and land rights earlier in April 2004. Although news of the exodus has been known for several months, it was only after Phnom Penh allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to reopen its office in Banlung in July that the scale of the exodus became apparent.
Sources say that weekend thousands of Montagnards had joined in protests against the confiscation of tribal lands and the severe repression of the Christian faith that many of them profess. According to Compass News, police and soldiers—many disguised as local farmers—were sent in to break up the demonstrations, resulting in deaths and injuries among the Montagnards.
While organizations such as Human Rights Watch, for example, initially reported only 10 deaths, Christian leaders in Vietnam close to the situation believe the number of deaths almost certainly exceeds the estimates given by some human rights organizations. Some sources had even initially reported the number of deaths as reaching up to 400 deaths. However, due to a ‘press blackout’ and suspected measures taken by the government to cover up events of the clash, the full extent of what happened that Easter weekend and in the days immediately following have yet to have been confirmed.
Experts say their plight is reminiscent of 2001, when around 1,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia after another crackdown on thousands of indigenous highlanders who demonstrated in favor of land rights and religious freedom. They eventually won asylum in the United States.