More than 79 Montagnard Christians emerged from the Cambodian jungle late Tuesday, fleeing what they said was death at the hands of Vietnamese troops and police.
According to Reuters, more than 120 Montagnards who practice a form of Protestant Christianity, have appeared from the jungle, while around 100 more have managed to reach the Cambodian capitol, Phnom Penh, to claim asylum. Human rights groups say at least 200 more are hiding in the region.
The Montagnards--often dubbed "America's forgotten allies" for siding with the U.S. in the war--say they fled persecution at the hands of Vietnamese authorities following Easter Day protests in April over land and religious rights.
"I fled because I'm Christian and I had problems with my land," one asylum-seeker told Reuters.
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 last week that the scale of the exodus became apparent.
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.
News of a continuing crackdown against Vietnam's Central Highland minority has worried Montagnard Christian refugees living in the United States. The mistreatment of these people has been a concern for more than two decades for those with relatives there, and for American veterans who were helped by the Montagnards during the Vietnam War.
In September 2002, Human Rights Watch reported that the government was targeting Protestant church leaders, land-rights advocates and people suspected of guiding asylum-seekers to Cambodia.
"The Montagnards have no right to live, have no land for farming, no place to live and no church to worship God," said Rong Nay, who has testified before Congress on this issue.
Nay, executive director of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, based in North Carolina, said Vietnam's communist government has mistreated the Montagnards because they are viewed as allies of the West. They cannot practice their ethnic traditions or Christian religion, or keep their property.
"We don't know how many Montagnards are dead, missing or in jail," Nay said.
One refugee who lives in Texas said he worried about aunts and uncles who remain in the Central Highlands. He said there have been reports of atrocities. He didn't want his name published for fear that his family would be persecuted.
He said they cannot practice Christianity freely. There are stories of people waking up to work their fields, only to learn that the government has seized their land.
"That is just one story," he said. "We don't have any rights or powers."
Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch had made a statement about the plight of the Montagnards earlier last year saying that "People are being interrogated, arrested, beaten and jailed -- simply because they are Christians or are suspected of supporting the popular movement for land rights and religious freedom."
International Christian Concern reported that Montagnards are a natural target for the Vietnamese government because they fought alongside American troops during the Vietnam War, and also because for the past 10 years, they have been turning to Christianity at a tremendous rate.
Jim Bowman of the Far East Broadcasting Company--that receives dozens of letters each month from persecuted Christians in the Vietnam highlands--stated, "This was seen as a ploy of the U.S. government--that's the way they framed it--a ploy of the U.S. government to undermine the revolution in Vietnam by getting these people to campaign to force the Montagnards to renounce Christianity."
Videotapes of state television broadcasts, obtained by Human Rights Watch, show public ceremonies in which highlanders are forced to line up before provincial officials to renounce Christianity and pledge not to gather in groups or participate in demonstrations. Unprecedented letters of complaint about the repression of minority Christians in the highlands, submitted to the Vietnamese government by the officially recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam South -- also obtained by Human Rights Watch -- appear to have had little effect.
"If I get sent back, I think they will kill me," 30-year-old Ralanpee told Reuters after merging from the Cambodian jungle. "I would be happy to die here rather than go back to Vietnam and die there."
He and his family, on the run since June 28, are the latest in the growing number of ethnic minority hilltribe people coming out of hiding after fleeing ancestral homes in the Central Highlands of neighboring Vietnam.
Those arriving in Banlung told of weeks of hardship deep in the forest, in makeshift camps made of sticks and leaves.
"I miss my family so much," said Kaputhey, 30, who fled Vietnam alone on June 4 because he feared reprisals for being involved in the April 10 protest that led to the crackdown. Since then, he has had to live off wild vegetables and fruit, bamboo and rice given to him occasionally by villagers.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a refugee from Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, refused to take questions after meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart in the town of Siem Reap.
Hun Sen's administration has come in for fierce criticism for branding Montagnards "illegal immigrants" and refusing UNHCR, human rights groups and journalists access to the region.
However, according to Foreign Minnister Hor Namhong, Hun Sen announced at the meeting that the UNHCR would be given one month to process the asylum-seekers and find a third country to accept them.
"If within a month there is no third country to receive them, Cambodia will send them back to Vietnam," Hor Namhong said.
Human Rights Watch's findings on the persecution of the Montagnards were published in a sixteen-page briefing paper released last year, entitled "New Assault on Rights in Vietnam's Central Highlands: Persecution and Lengthy Jail Terms for Indigenous Montagnards."
The report details the persecution of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam, including the following facts:
-- At least 70 Montagnard pastors have been imprisoned since 2001
-- Dozens of churches were reported closed in Dec. 2002 and Jan. 2003
-- Montagnard Christians beaten, their land confiscated and their crops destroyed
-- Montagnard Christians are forbidden to worship in their own homes
The briefing paper is available online at http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/asia/vietnam/vietrights.pdf