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Cambodia Eases Restrictions for Montagnard Refugees - 2004-06-11

Cambodia will ease restrictions preventing some Vietnamese refugees from gaining asylum in the kingdom. The decision means the Montagnards cannot be forced out of Cambodia against their will.

The Cambodian government says it is softening its stance and will allow the United Nations to extend refugee status and protection to the Montagnards, a primarily Christian tribal group from Vietnam.

The Montagnards fled to Cambodia after accusing the communist Vietnamese government of religious repression and land confiscation. Last April, Vietnamese security forces cracked down on a Montagnard political demonstration, killing several and forcing hundreds to flee.

Last week, Amnesty International's Somsi Hananuntasuk pressed Cambodia to change its policy toward the Montagnards. "We don't want the Cambodian government to send them back to Vietnam, because they will face this problem with their government," she said. "They should treat them like refugees, at least keep them for the moment in Cambodia."

The Vietnamese government says there is no reason for them to leave the country. Until Friday, Montagnards who reached the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh were considered illegal immigrants and denied any official support.

Under the new agreement, the United Nations can issue international identification cards and relocate the refugees to non-hostile third countries.

Nearly 100 of the tribe's people have sought sanctuary in Cambodia since last year. More than 150 others are thought to be hiding in camps along the Vietnam-Cambodia border.

In the past, the Cambodian government accused the U.N. refugee agency of sneaking the Montagnards out of Vietnam and banned the United Nations from traveling to the remote border zone to help them.

The Montagnards were allies of the United States during the Vietnam War. The United States took in more than 1,000 Montagnard refugees in 2001, after they fled persecution.

More than 50 percent of the Montagnard men were killed during the Vietnam War.