Tentative Agreement Reached for Montagnard Asylum-Seekers

Vietnam, Cambodia and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Tuesday reached a tentative agreement to help resettle more than 700 mostly Christian Vietnamese hill tribe people who fled to Cambodia after last year’s Easter crackdown on the minority group.

According to the Associated Press, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva said the tribes people—collectively called Montagnards—will be given the option of returning to Vietnam or being resettled in a third country, as they cannot remain in Cambodia.

The some 700 Christian Montagnards—often dubbed "America's forgotten allies" for siding with the U.S. in the war—say they fled to Cambodia last April after Vietnamese security forces put down Easter Day demonstrations against religious repression and land confiscation in the Central Highlands.

The demonstrations, which drew an estimated 10,000 people to the streets in Daklak, Dak Nong and Gia Lai provinces, turned violent as Vietnam’s police and security forces clashed with demonstrators.

Sources say civilians and Vietnamese security forces dressed in civilian clothes attacked the demonstrators with weapons, killing an unknown number of Montagnards and injuring hundreds more. Many were reported as missing, after having been arrested or having fled.

While international human rights groups claimed that at least 10 protesters were killed in clashes with police, Hanoi said only two died after being pelted with rocks thrown by other protesters.

The clashes were the first large-scale demonstrations in the Central Highlands since February 2001, when security forces forcibly broke up protests by about 20,000 Montagnards, triggering a mass exodus into Cambodia. About 1,000 who fled to Cambodia following the 2001 crackdown were eventually resettled in the United States.

The UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva, Jennifer Pagonis, said Tuesday that the recent case became complicated after a majority of the refugees said they did not want to resettle in a third country, hoping that the UNHCR would help them get their land back.

"We were concerned that people were exposing themselves or making themselves very vulnerable because they thought the UNHCR could come back and help them solve their land disputes," Pagonis said.

She added that other refugees had expressed a desire to stay in Cambodia, but that was not made part of the deal.

Meanwhile, Vietnam agreed not to prosecute or discriminate against those who returned and said it would also allow UNHCR representatives to travel to the Central Highlands to follow up with Montagnards who return to their homeland. UNHCR, which in August had been accused by Hanoi of inciting Montagnards to cross the border into Cambodia, had previously been banned from entering the area.

Also, AP reports that Vietnam has made recent efforts to address the land rights issue and claims that it only punishes lawbreakers and that nobody is jailed for their religious beliefs. Other groups, however, maintain that government officials, in the fear that Protestantism would undermine communism through peaceful revolution, continually apply strict regulations to stunt the growth of evangelical Christianity.