Strife of Montagnard Christians Continues, Dozens More Emerge from Cambodian Jungle

Montagnard Christians who fled Vietnam after a crackdown in the highlands in April, are continuing to emerge from the Cambodian jungle
( [email protected] ) Aug 17, 2004 05:04 PM EDT

Dozens more Montagnard Christians, many of them sick and exhausted, have emerged from the Cambodian jungle in recent days after fleeing neighboring Vietnam, refugee groups said on Monday. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 12 men walked out of the dense jungle in the northeast border province of Ratankiri.

“They spent days walking in the jungle and were short of food. Their legs are swollen and others got malaria. It has been raining hard for weeks in the area,” said Pen Bunna of the rights group Adhoc.

The newest wave of emerging Montagnards, according to Reuters, comes following the 46 asylum seekers, including 11 women and children who came out of hiding over the weekend after fleeing ancestral homes in Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Last month around 200 Montagnards reportedly emerged 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.

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. 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.

Christian leaders in Vietnam close to the situation believe the number of deaths almost certainly exceeds the estimates given by some human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch, for example, initially reported only 10 deaths. Meanwhile, some sources initially reported up to 400 deaths.

According to Vietnamese Christians familiar with the situation in the highlands, authorities have singled out Christianity as the scapegoats for serious social problems there. Reportedly, the greatest problem is the illegal seizure of tribal lands for use by ethnic Vietnamese. Sources say the government appropriates land for the newcomers apparently to alleviate land shortages elsewhere in Vietnam. But in the Central Highlands they say the land grab is largely driven by the allure of lucrative cash crops.

Montagnard Christians who object to the loss of their lands are accused of supporting the Dega Protestant movement, which has sometimes promoted self-determination. In reality, the vast majority of Montagnards, both Christian and others, simply want equal access to development opportunities and the return of their tribal homes and lands.

The government has also refused to grant official status to many of the highland churches it has tried to disband in recent years. In Gia Lai province, for example, only 15,000 of the estimated 80,000 local Christians belong to the 11 government-sanctioned churches. Other churches remain unregistered and their members are still subjected to constant harassment to renounce their faith.

Montagnard sources told Compass that the people of the highlands desperately want their side of the story to be heard; they have provided several lists totaling 123 names of people affected by the crackdown. The lists include dozens of highlanders sentenced to long prison terms. Others are in hiding, and still others have disappeared without a trace.

In the meantime, the Montagnard crisis caught international attention again in July, when 198 Montagnard refugees were reportedly airlifted from the Cambodian border province of Ratanakiri to the capital, Phnom Penh. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had initially allowed forced repatriation of refugees to Vietnam. However, he relented before international pressure to allow the UNHCR to rescue refugees from the malaria-infested jungles near the border and airlift them to Phnom Penh.

According to an August 9 report by Agence France Presse, Cambodia has authorized a second such rescue mission. In addition, 91 Montagnard refugees have found their way to UNHCR safe houses in Phnom Penh.

One Vietnamese source told Compass that he believed the successful rescue of Montagnards from the border region could encourage others to flee Vietnam.

“It’s hard to describe the desperation people are feeling,” he said. “Some of it comes from the lack of concern and action from the international community. Vietnamese authorities tell everyone that the highlands are a place of peace, happiness and ethnic equality, but in reality they make it a hell for the Montagnards.”

More than 1,000 won asylum in the United States after fleeing to Cambodia from the Central Highlands coffee belt in the wake of demonstrations in 2001 similar to the April demonstrations.