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US Critical Of Vietnam's Treatment of Montagnards - 2002-03-22

The United States is expressing "grave concern" over the reported use of strong-arm tactics by Vietnamese trying to persuade Montagnard refugees in Cambodia to return to their homes in Vietnam's central highlands. U.S. officials have protested to both Vietnamese and Cambodian governments.

The State Department is accusing Vietnam of sending some 400 people into a U.N. refugee camp in eastern Cambodia in an effort to coerce Montagnard refugees to return to their homes in the Vietnamese central highlights.

In a written statement, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the incident which occurred Thursday in Cambodia's remote Mondolkiri province, was a matter of "grave concern" to the United States and the issue was being raised with both Vietnam and Cambodia.

About 1,000 Montagnards, a mainly-Christian ethnic group from the central highlands, fled the region for Cambodia early last year after Vietnam sent in military units to quell demonstrations by Montagnards demanding religious freedom and the return of confiscated land.

A U.N.-supervised program for their voluntary repatriation has been halted by a dispute between Hanoi and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees over U.N. access to the refugees' home villages in the highlands.

According to spokesman Reeker, 12 busloads of what he termed "Vietnamese individuals" arrived at the camp and were admitted by Cambodian officials over the objections of U.N. personnel.

He said according to reports from the camp, the Vietnamese engaged in "aggressive and unruly" behavior in the effort to persuade the refugees to go home.

Despite the "intimidating" tactics, he said only five of the Montagnards chose to return to home. He said according to U.N. officials, they signed statements that they were returning voluntarily.

Mr. Reeker said the United States continues to support repatriation "as one choice" for the refugees provided it occurs voluntarily and includes "credible" and "meaningful" post-return inspections and counseling by the U.N. refugee agency.

He accused both Vietnam and Cambodia of disregarding the United Nations' role to ensure that repatriations are not the result of coercion and intimidation, and said the United States expects them to adhere to their international obligations regarding the refugees' treatment.

The private group Human Rights Watch says there have been several incidents of forced returns of the refugees by Cambodian authorities, and other documented cases of their abuse and imprisonment after their arrival back in Vietnam.

The United States has admitted some of refugees and there have been expressions of concern in the U.S. Congress about the treatment of the Montagnards, many of whom supported the United States and the former South Vietnamese government in the Vietnam war.