- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

BANLUNG — Villagers near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam have been risking arrest by helping hundreds of Christian highlanders fleeing repression in the communist country.

More than 250 Vietnamese refugees known as Montagnards have staggered out from the jungles of northeastern Ratanakiri province since last month, when the Cambodian government finally permitted the United Nations’ refugee agency into this remote area.

The Montagnards — at least 30 of whom are believed to be still hiding in this malaria-infested zone — had been on the run since April, when Vietnamese authorities brutally suppressed their massive anti-government protests.

Human rights groups have said hundreds of people were wounded and at least 10 were killed in the central highlands region by security forces and civilians acting on their behalf, but Vietnam puts the toll at two.

Despite fear of Cambodian police who warned against helping the asylum seekers, villagers have reached out to them, furtively providing food and medicine, hiding them from police and leading them to U.N. workers.

“I am very afraid of being arrested by the police, but still I want to help because I remember my past, trying to escape from Pol Pot and Vietnamese soldiers during the late 1970s,” motorbike taxi driver Hok Sophal, 39, said. “I remember how happy I was to receive a package of rice from villagers at that time.”

Pol Pot’s brutal 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime oversaw the deaths of up to 2 million Cambodians and led to an exodus of refugees seeking international assistance.

Cambodia beefed up security along its border with Vietnam in the wake of the latest crackdown and blocked access to the region by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR).

The government at first insisted the Montagnards would be considered illegal immigrants, but bowed to international pressure last month and let UNHCR assess their asylum claims.

Local reports say police continue to arrest and deport Montagnards, while warning villagers against providing aid.

Many Cambodians assisting the Montagnards say they are members of the same ethnic Jarai group, whose villages dot the mountainous region.

A report by Adhoc said two villages helping Montagnards were warned by Cambodian police to stop their aid. Such warnings forced Noun Vuthy, a 44-year-old traditional healer from Banlung, to sign an agreement with police to stop helping the asylum seekers.

“Now I dare not help those Montagnards anymore. I am afraid for my own security,” he said.

For many years the Montagnards have complained of confiscation of their ancestral lands and repression of their mainly Christian religious beliefs.

An even larger exodus of the refugees into Cambodia occurred in February 2001, when 20,000 Montagnards staged a mass protest that was also quashed.

After a voluntary repatriation effort failed, about 1,000 Montagnards were resettled in the United States in 2002. A furious Vietnam accused U.S.-based advocacy groups of fanning the protests.

Since then, a steady stream of Montagnards has trickled into Cambodia. About 300 are being cared for at U.N. safe houses in Phnom Penh, the capital, while their resettlement to third countries is finalized.

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