PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Fourteen Vietnamese hill tribe Montagnards are hiding in a remote Cambodian jungle after crossing the border to flee persecution and seek asylum, rights activists said Tuesday.
They follow in the footsteps of 13 other members of the ethnic minority group who applied for asylum in Cambodia in December, with assistance from the United Nations, after spending nearly two months camped in jungles in northeastern Rattanakiri province.
Scores of Montagnards, a French term referring to the mainly Christian ethnic minority groups in Vietnam’s mountainous Central Highlands region, have crossed the border to Cambodia in recent years to escape discrimination.
Many Montagnard groups practise forms of evangelical Protestantism, which puts them at odds with Vietnam’s communist rulers who tightly control religion.
Chhay Thi, an activist from local rights group Adhoc, told AFP that five adult Montagnards arrived in Cambodia on January 3, while nine others, including three children, crossed the border on Saturday.
“They are hiding in the jungle to avoid arrest by Cambodian authorities. They want the UN to help them,” said Thi from Rattanakiri.
“They said they are fleeing Vietnam because the Vietnamese government stifles their freedom and religious practice,”
Thi added that his organisation has informed the United Nations refugee agency about the group who are facing difficult conditions in the forest as they try and evade arrest.
In 2001 Vietnamese troops crushed protests in the Central Highlands, prompting an exodus of Montagnards, and Hanoi routinely asks Cambodia to return those who flee.
In Phnom Penh on Tuesday Cambodian interior ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak branded the hiding group as “illegal immigrants”.