Cambodia deports 36 Vietnamese asylum seekers: Activists

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodia has deported 36 Vietnamese Montagnards after they were arrested while trying to seek asylum, in the latest expulsion of a hill tribe group fleeing persecution, activists said Monday.

Scores of Montagnards, mainly Christian ethnic minorities in Vietnam's mountainous Central Highlands, have crossed the border to Cambodia in recent years to escape discrimination - with an uptick in cases over the last few months.

The latest group were arrested and deported early Thursday after they were caught in vans bound for the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh in search of help from the United Nations, Chhay Thi, an activist from local rights group Adhoc, told AFP.

The Cambodian authorities routinely deport Montagnards that have entered the country but, with the assistance of the UN refugee agency, some have managed to apply for asylum.

"The 36 Montagnards were sent back to Vietnam," Thi said, adding that sources told him some of the group were beaten by the Vietnamese authorities on their return.

Following in the footsteps of dozens of other asylum seekers in recent weeks, the group had been hiding in a remote jungle in Cambodia's north-eastern Rattanakiri province after crossing the border earlier this year.

A Cambodian Jarai villager in contact with the Montagnards he helped out of the jungle also said the asylum seekers had faced abuse on their return to Vietnam.

They were "questioned and beaten", he told AFP.

According to the two activists at least three Montagnards and a Cambodian Jarai villager who assisted the group have been missing since last week's deportation.

Cambodian officials declined to comment.

Many Montagnards practise forms of evangelical Protestantism, putting them at odds with Vietnam's communist rulers who tightly control religion.

In 2001, Vietnamese troops crushed hill tribe protests in the Central Highlands, prompting an exodus of Montagnards. Hanoi routinely asks Cambodia to return those who flee.

Last month, a family of Montagnard refugees was sent back to Vietnam after they were caught in the Cambodian jungle.

At least 13 Montagnards are still camped there as they await UN assistance, according to Thi.