Is Cambodia refusing to protect persecuted Christians?

Deep in the Cambodian jungle, Clothilde Le Coz meets Vietnamese refugees seeking asylum.


Banlung, Cambodia: A 17-year-old Montagnard left his home village in Vietnam with his 29-year-old brother. Both are fleeing Vietnam because of religious persecution. © Clothilde Le Coz

Over 100 ethnic Vietnamese are seeking asylum in Cambodia because of religious persecution. Animist groups, known as the Degar, have been living in the Vietnamese central highlands for thousands of years. Less than a century ago, the French gave them the name ‘Montagnards’, in reference to the mountains of Southeast Asia they were inhabiting.

Although numbers are incomplete, it is estimated that there are fewer than a million living there today.

Dubbed ‘moi’ or ‘savages’ by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s, the Montagnards often had no choice but to abandon their religious beliefs and traditions if they wanted to escape persecution.

In the course of colonization and with the presence of foreign missionaries, the Degar indigenous groups converted to Christianity.

They now practise Dêgar, an unsanctioned form of evangelical Christianity with a political twist – it combines distrust of government-controlled religious organizations with an aspiration for independence. It is known as the ‘evil way’ by the Vietnamese government.

‘We celebrate Christmas, Easter and other Christian holidays. We also get baptized by a priest and we read the Bible,’ a 32-year-old Montagnard says. Along with 4 companions, he is hiding in the remote northeastern Cambodian jungle.

He admits that he felt relieved when he left his homeland. ‘It has become impossible to live in our village because we are Christians and we come from an ethnic minority. We cannot build our church and we are not allowed to pray together. We still gather and we pray in silence. Singing would be too dangerous,’ he adds. He hopes that Cambodia will bring better days and greater freedom.

Back home in Gia Lai province in central Vietnam the five companions are all farmers. They cultivate rice and cassava, but their lands have become barely enough to survive as rubber companies have filled most of the space.

‘Because of our religion, we are followed by the local authorities when we get in the fields. They want to check if we gather [to pray],’ the 29-year-old leader of a prayer group says.

Before he left Vietnam, he had to participate in a TV advertisement to discourage others from fleeing. ‘It was meant to promote the work of the police. In the ad, I had to say how bad it was for us in Cambodia and that nobody should go,’ he reveals.

He had been arrested once before, so his activities were no secret to the police. Yet, despite what he said in the advertisement, this is now the fourth time he has fled Vietnam.

The only hope for these 5 refugees is to reach the offices of the United Nations in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and make their case for asylum there, because UN representatives are regularly barred from entering the areas where refugees are hiding. All 5 are keeping their police summons with them, as proof of persecution at home.

Banlung, Cambodia: the eldest of a group of five Montagnards fleeing Vietnam shows his ID card. At the back, you can read 'Jarai', the ethnic minority the five belong to. They are claiming they are victims of religious persecution.

Clotilde Le Coz

One of them is 17 and left home with his older brother.

‘I was never arrested by the police, but I was afraid I was going to be, because they know my brother,’ he explains. Sitting next to him on the mat they use as a bed, his older brother recounts his own arrest:

‘It lasted 3 days. I was in a cell of 1 meter by 5 and I did not have anything to eat,’ he recalls. ‘They were asking me only about my religion, trying to make sure I would quit. I heard they even give poisoned rice to prisoners who disobey.’ He was released on condition that he no longer practise his religion.

‘We did not tell our mother we were leaving because it would be too dangerous for her to know where we are,’ he continues. ‘But in fact, it is dangerous here, too. If the Cambodian authorities arrest us, we will be sent back to Vietnam.’

Since the beginning of the year, at least 54 Montagnards have been sent back to Vietnam after Cambodia signed an agreement with Vietnam to return Montagnard asylum-seekers.

‘We know most of them went back home – but some are missing,’ a Cambodian villager helping the 5 escaped Degar tells me. In constant touch with Montagnards in Vietnam who are willing to flee their country, he confides:

‘I tell them not to come because the situation is impossible for them in Cambodia. They have to wait forever before the UN manages to help. It takes much longer than in previous years.’ He is one of a very few willing to provide food for the asylum-seekers.

‘There is ample evidence to show that Cambodia should consider these persons as refugees, permit them to stay and protect them,’ says Phil Roberston, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division.

The organization is calling on international donors to Vietnam to put pressure to end this abusive practice:

‘With that kind of bias on display, it’s an open question whether the Montagnards can get a fair hearing – so we think that the UNHCR should assert its refugee protection mandate and conduct refugee status determination interviews, since it’s clear that Cambodia is failing to do so,’ he explains.

So far, the UNHCR has managed to get 13 Montagnards processed for asylum out of 100 still waiting for a country where they can resettle.