Montagnards, or Degars as they're also known, are the indigenous people of Vietnam's central highlands. It's estimated that around a million Montagnards live in this mountainous region, which borders Laos and Cambodia. Most of them reside in undeveloped farming communities and have little in the way of education or contact from the outside world. Yet regardless of how harmless they sound, Vietnam's Communist Party considers Montagnards a serious threat.
For decades these communities have sought autonomy from the ruling Vietnamese majority. During the Vietnam War, US strategists exploited this conflict and trained Montagnards to fight the Communist North—then the South fell in 1975 and thousands of highlanders left the country for fear of retribution.
Today these tensions remain, along with older quarrels over religion (most Montagnards practice Dega Christianity), language; cultural pride, and the ongoing appeal for Montagnard independence. As such, indigenous Vietnamese suffer routine harassment by the police and continue to flee across the border into Cambodia. It's estimated that more than 40 were arrested by the Cambodian authorities and brought home last year alone. But despite the risks, many continue to make the trek.
Having worked as a freelance journalist in Cambodia for some time, I wanted to see the situation for myself. There's an area of Cambodia, not far from the border, which is a known passage for incoming asylum seekers and there I managed to meet a group of Montagnards hiding in the forest. They were filthy, battle-worn, and they jumped every time I rustled the undergrowth, but they seemed happy to talk.
"It's hard to hide here," the eldest of the group told me. "We came here because the trees gave us more cover. Now it is better but we are still scared every day." The group, aged between 17 and 32, told me they'd spent four months hiding but had already moved five times to avoid detection. One of them was sick. The temperature during the day could reach the upper 30s (in Celsius), but dipped to around 15 at night. With pre-monsoonal rains approaching, they wouldn't be able to stay long.
"We didn't tell our family we were going," one told me of their January 2 border crossing. "It was too dangerous for anyone to know because the local police would arrest them." Their destination was the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a few hundred kilometers away in Phnom Penh. They hoped they'd be able to receive assistance or some sort of official representation, even though they weren't sure what that might be.
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Looking at them crouched, wild-eyed among the trees, I wanted to know what had driven this sort of desperation. "We were told we couldn't build our church," the oldest explained. And every time we tried cultivating our fields we were followed by the police."
He went on to explain that this constant persecution had landed most of their community in jail at one time or another, and all seemed to have had a personal experience. One of them explained he was imprisoned for three days in a cell with a toilet but no water. "And I refused to eat because I knew their rice was sometimes poisoned by the prison guards," he explained. "That's why I can't go back to Vietnam. Next time I'm arrested it'll be 15 years, not three days."
For the past four months they'd been relying on the help of two locals who gave them rice and water, although they said there wasn't enough. "The most difficult part is the lack of water; we cannot wash and we are thirsty," said the older one. "We are scared all the time but we try to not lose hope. It is hard not to talk loud or even cry sometimes. No one is supposed to hear us."
The Cambodian and the Vietnamese police work hand in hand when it comes to tracking down Montagnard refugees. The OHCHR are aware of the situation and have tried to help, and subsequently the Cambodian authorities have barred them from visiting at least three times since October.
When Australia announced last year that it would resettle its detained refugees in Cambodia, the country's treatment of Montagnards was cited as an example of why the scheme was a such bad idea. As Phil Robertson, deputy director in Asia for Human Rights Watch, told The Age, Cambodia's treatment of Montagnards showed "just how little refugee rights and protection mean in Cambodia and no amount of public relations spin to the contrary from Canberra will convince anyone otherwise."
I talked to one of the Cambodian villagers who'd been helping passing Montagnards for over ten years. He explained that not only has the situation evolved, but also seems to have become harder for everyone involved. "Today it is hardly endurable," he said. "The police come to our village looking for Montagnards and they question the youth and women to find out where they're hiding. As long as the organizations can't help, I will continue to feed them but I barely have enough to feed my own family."
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