Experts on Cambodia’s indigenous peoples met early this month to discuss challenges faced by the community and urged the authorities to address their concerns.
The conference, organized by the Fainting Robin Foundation, in collaboration with the University of North Carolina Wilmington, focused on the Montagnards, an indigenous group that has been persecuted in Vietnam after working with the United States during the Vietnam War.
Peter Maguire, founder of Fainting Robin and author of “Facing Death in Cambodia”, said the conference showed U.S. policymakers the situation for their former allies.
“People talk very glibly about refugees and banning immigration and Muslim ban and what we saw today was a group that really sacrificed for the US military during the Vietnam war and paid a huge price for it,” he said.
“Because they are marked men in their own countries much like the Montagnards were, and on some level, I think we owe them that asylum.”
After the war, some special forces commanders sponsored groups of Montagnards to move to North Carolina.
Larry Crile, one such Green Beret, said “there are casualties, and it’s sad and I’m very saddened by it. I can’t change it and that makes me even sadder.”
More than 15,000 Montagnards live in North Carolina. Many had adapted to their new surroundings, while others have maintained their desire to fight for freedom in their homeland, where some Montagnards continued the guerrilla war up until the 1990s.
Y Duen Buondap joined the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO) in 1976 and fought the new administration in Kon Tum and Plaiku provinces in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. He was evacuated along with 400 other former fighters in 1992.
“We continue to work with the [U.S.] government to ask them to recognize us and ask them to work with the Vietnamese government to recognize our land and stop the genocide against our people and to remove them from our land,” he said. “We need that land given back to us.”
But Y Siu Hlong, another FULRO veteran, is satisfied with his life in the United States.
“I just hope one day the government will change for the better,” he said. “But I don’t have any hope that we can liberate our country or recover our country because no one supplies us and we are also small and we don’t want to go to war with anyone.”
The Montagnards still come under constant harassment from the Vietnamese authorities. Their ancestral land is encroached upon and their religious freedom is limited, according to independent human rights expert Sara Colm.
“A big challenge for Bunong in Vietnam as with all the Montagnard groups in the central highlands is those who feel they need to flee from Vietnam because of persecution, because they’ve been imprisoned and tortured because they can’t practice their religion freely,” she said.
“Despite the conditions in Vietnam those who flee to Cambodia are not recognized as refugees and many were sent back to Vietnam.”
But as Cambodia moves closer to China in its foreign policy, Maguire says much of the leverage the United States once held over Cambodia has faded.
“They really have taken away all the leverage the United States once had,” he said. “I would like to tell you more positive happy things, but honestly I fear for the future for the Montagnards there.”