PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Eight hill tribe ‘Montagnards’ have emerged from hiding in a remote Cambodian border area where they crossed from Vietnam to flee persecution, the United Nations Refugee Agency said Saturday.
The group sought refuge in the jungle in Cambodia’s northeastern Rattanakiri province for more than seven weeks.
Fears had mounted for their health in the malaria-ridden jungle area where they remained hidden — but in contact with rights groups and the UN – fearing arrest and deportation by Cambodian authorities.
A UN official and a local rights activist told AFP that eight Montagnards, including a woman, emerged from their hiding and were met by a UN team early Saturday.
“We are transporting them out of the jungle,” the UN official told AFP by telephone.
Rights activists said another group of five remained in the jungle and were considering contacting the UN soon.
“Montagnards” is a French term referring to the patchwork of mainly Christian ethnic minority groups that live in Vietnam’s mountainous Central Highlands region.
Many Montagnard groups practise forms of evangelical Protestantism, which puts them at odds with Vietnam’s communist rulers who tightly control religion.
Khieu Sopheak, a Cambodian interior ministry spokesman, accused the UN of violating the kingdom’s sovereignty by rescuing the asylum-seekers without Cambodian authorities.
“They can bring them to Phnom Penh, but whether or not they are considered as refugees will be decided by the host country,” he told AFP.
The UN has said local Cambodian authorities had denied UN access to help the Montagnards, who were from the Jarai ethnic minority group and reportedly suffering from various physical ailments including dengue fever and malaria.
“Now, they are happy because they met with the UN directly,” said Chhay Thi, Rattanakiri coordinator for the Cambodian rights group Adhoc.
“They hope they will not be arrested and deported,” he told AFP.
In 2001 Vietnamese troops crushed protests in the Central Highlands, prompting an exodus of Montagnards.
Vietnam routinely asks Cambodia to return Montagnard people who flee.
In May 2011 thousands of Hmong people — one of the Montagnard groups — gathered in Vietnam’s remote northwest apparently awaiting the arrival of a “messiah”.
The gathering was broken up by authorities in circumstances which remain unclear.
Dozens of people have been jailed over the incident, which Vietnam has cast as a separatist plot to overthrow its communist government.