Vietnam refugees protest in Cambodian capital
PHNOM PENH - Ethnic minority asylum seekers protested in the Cambodian capital on Friday against the forced return of their friends and relatives to neighbouring Vietnam.
Around 60 Montagnards, the mainly Christian tribespeople from Vietnam's Central Highlands, stormed out of their refugee camp in Phnom Penh to stage the demonstration triggered by the repatriation of 28 refugees.
The four-hour protest ended when 40 riot police armed with automatic rifles, batons and shields arrived on the scene and threatened to break up the rally.
"We do not want to go back to Vietnam because they will imprison us. Some of our friends are dying in Vietnam's jails," Kosal Xuan, 21, told Reuters.
The group, including children and woman carrying babies, shouted "freedom, freedom!". One of their banners said: "Demonstration! We have the right to ask for freedom and justice."
Vietnam's government, accused of rights abuses against the Montagnards who sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War, has given assurances that returnees will not face discrimination. Some 450 Montagnards are in United Nations holding centres in Phnom Penh while their refugee claims are being processed. A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said 28 had been repatriated to Vietnam early on Friday.
"They are upset that their friends have to go back to Vietnam," UNHCR spokesman Toshi Kawauchi said at the scene of the protest.
The Montagnards fled to Cambodia in 2001 following anti-Vietnamese government demonstrations in the Central Highlands over their ancestral lands and religious freedoms.
By Ek Madra - Reuters - July 18, 2008