Vietnam, Cambodia and UN refugee agency reach tentative agreement on Montagnards

Vietnam, Cambodia and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday reached a tentative agreement to help resettle more than 700 Vietnamese hilltribe people who fled to Cambodia last year during a crackdown on the minority group.

The tribespeople, collectively called Montagnards, will be given the option of returning to Vietnam or being resettled in a third country, as they cannot remain in Cambodia, said Jennifer Pagonis, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva.

The 700 Montagnards, who are are mostly Protestant, fled from their homes in the Central Highlands to Cambodia during a crackdown last year following a protest against the confiscation of their lands by the government and restrictions on religious freedom. Vietnam in mostly Buddhist.

International rights groups have said at least 10 protesters were killed in the Easter weekend clashes with police, but Hanoi said only two were killed by rocks thrown by other protesters. The area was sealed off to international media and foreign diplomats following the incident.

A similar demonstration occurred in 2001, after which about 1,000 members of ethnic minority groups fled to Cambodia. They were eventually resettled in the United States.

It wasn't clear whether the United States or any other country would accept the latest group of refugees.

Pagonis said the case became complicated after a majority of the refugees said they did not want to resettle in a third country, hoping that the UNHCR would help them get their land back.

"We were concerned that people were exposing themselves or making themselves very vulnerable because they thought the UNHCR could come back and help them solve their land disputes," Pagonis said.

Pagonis said other refugees had expressed a desire to stay in Cambodia, but that was not made part of the deal.

Vietnam, meanwhile, agreed not to prosecute or discriminate against those who returned and said it would also allow UNHCR representatives to travel to the Central Highlands to follow up with Montagnards who return to their homeland, she said. The agency had previously been banned from entering the area.

Vietnam has made recent efforts to address the land rights issue. The government says that it only punishes lawbreakers and that nobody is jailed for their religious beliefs.