Vietnam to Discuss Montagnard Resettlement

( [email protected] ) Jul 26, 2004 11:05 AM EDT

Vietnam says it is willing to consider the third-country resettlement of Montagnard refugees who fled to neighboring Cambodia after a crackdown in Vietnam's Central Highlands.

"For anyone who volunteers to go to a third country and is accepted, we're willing to discuss the matter with the Cambodian government and UNHCR [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] to settle the matter," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung.

Dung said Vietnam was also prepared to accept any refugees who wanted to return home. Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has made clear that Cambodia does not want to be "to be turned into a refugee camp," he said.

About 100 of the mainly Protestant Montagnards from Vietnam's Central highlands have managed to reach the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Human rights groups say at least 200 more are hiding in the region. Many are ill and all have been subsisting on roots, leaves, and other jungle vegetation.

The Christian Montagnards began fleeing to Cambodia after Vietnamese security forces put down anti-government protests against religious persecution and land confiscation in the Central Highlands in April.

The Cambodian government initially refused to offer help but bowed to international pressure earlier this month and allowed the UNHCR and human rights workers access to the north-eastern border province of Ratanakiri.

Dung quoted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen as saying the Montagnards had fled to Cambodia as a "pretext to cover activities that aim to jeopardize security" in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Cambodian troops have reportedly rounded up some Montagnards and handed them back to Vietnamese border guards, but how many that might be and how many may have already died in the jungle was unclear.

Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong quoted Hun Sen as saying the UNHCR would be given a month to process the asylum seekers and find a third country to accept them--the United States is considered the most likely destination. Failing that, Cambodia would send them back to Vietnam.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said those who decide to return home would be welcomed and 'will never face prosecution, punishment or discrimination for their past activities'.

'They will be granted favorable conditions to return to normal life and reintegrate into the community as soon as possible,' he said.

The current exodus of ethnic hill tribespeople from Vietnam’s Central Highlands began in April following massive demonstrations against religious repression and land confiscation by the Vietnamese government.

According to a New York-based Human Rights Watch, hundreds of Montagnards were wounded and at least 10 were killed in the Central Highlands by security forces and civilians acting on their behalf on April 10-11.

The clashes were the first large-scale demonstrations in the Central Highlands since February 2001, when security forces forcibly broke up protests by about 20,000 Montagnards, triggering a mass exodus into Cambodia.

Those protests, which drew an estimated 10,000 people to the streets in Daklak and Gia Lai provinces, turned violent as Vietnam’s police and security forces clashed with demonstrators.

Human rights groups have said that at least 10 people died and dozens others were injured, while Vietnam maintains only two were killed.

Vietnam has accused the U.S.-based Montagnard Foundation, led by a former guerrilla leader allied with America during the Vietnam War, with organizing what it called an "uprising" to establish an independent state in the impoverished region.