April 20, 2005|4:52 am

Refugee Vietnamese Montagnards in Cambodia, who are a mostly Christian ethnic minority, are facing pressure to be forcibly returned to Vietnam if they do not agree to resettle abroad in a third country.

The situation faced by the Motagnards is a result of a January 25 agreement between the two governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Many of the Montagnards under UNHCR protection have refused resettlement to a third country outside their region.

Some fear that if they go, they may not see their families or children again. Others want to wait until the religious and political persecution matters they faced in the Central Highlands of Vietnam are settled so they can return home safely, according to a report from Human Rights Watch, a New York based humanitarian aid organization.

According to the report, the Vietnamese government has promised not to punish Montagnards for having fled the Central Highlands of Vietnam which are located about 150 miles north of Ho Chi Minh city. However, there are no guarantees about protection from political and religious persecution once they return.

Many fear for their safety because the Vietnamese government does not allow UNHCR or independent monitors into the Central Highlands to ensure their safe return. The January agreement says only that the government will “consult and cooperate” with the UNHCR “at an appropriate time” regarding visits to returnees. This has not yet resulted in access to Montagnards, according to the report.

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Last year, Montaganards staged Easter weekend protests condemning widespread confiscation of their ancestral lands and religious repression. This resulted in bloody crackdowns that left at least 10 Montagnards dead. The region has been in a state of unrest since protests began in 2001.

Presently, about 180 Montagnards have been imprisoned since 2001 with sentences of up to 13 years for their political and religious activities, or for attempting to flee to Cambodia, according to the report.