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New Agreement Will Send Montagnard Refugees Back to Vietnam

Cambodia, Vietnam, and the U.N. refugee agency have agreed to resettle or repatriate hundreds of Vietnamese Montagnards living in camps in Cambodia.  The United Nations hopes the pact will protect the refugees when they return to their home country.

Two days of talks this week yielded a memorandum of understanding to move about 750 ethnic Montagnards out of Cambodia and back to Vietnam.

Vietnam pledged that it would not discriminate nor take legal action against Montagnards who had fled into Cambodia.  The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is still negotiating with Vietnamese officials to be allowed to check on those who return to Vietnam's Central Highlands.

The president of the Cambodian rights group Adhoc, Thun Saray, says he worries the agreement could prematurely force the Montagnards back to a hostile country.

"I think if this agreement will be implemented, I think there are a lot of problems for the refugee rights, freedoms for the refugees,” he said.  “Because when they are oppressed by the government in Vietnam, and they cannot move to Cambodia, because Cambodia will turn them back to Vietnam."

Montagnards are a group of mostly Christian hill tribes that supported the United States during the Vietnam War.  They began pouring into Cambodia last April after Vietnamese authorities crushed protests against land confiscation and religious persecution. 

The UNHCR has granted refugee status to more than 100 of them, but denied the claims of several others.  Many refugees are preparing to accept resettlement offers from the United States, Finland or Canada.

Others refuse to move anywhere.  The Cambodian government feels those people have overstayed their welcome.

Cambodian officials have indicated the Montagnards will have one month to decide to return to Vietnam or find another country to go to.

Although Vietnam has agreed to be easy on the returnees, the government has not been lenient with Montagnards.

On Wednesday, Vietnam's state-controlled media reported that a Central Highlands court sentenced three Montagnards to jail for organizing anti-government protests last year.

One man was sentenced to 11 years in prison, while two others received 10 years.

The news reports said officials accused the men of being members of a guerilla group that fought alongside Americans during the Vietnam War.  The reports also said they had received support from an exile group in the United States to encourage Montagnards to flee the country.

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