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Losing ground: Repression of Montagnards in Vietnam's Central Highlands

Losing ground: Repression of Montagnards in Vietnam's Central Highlands

In a new report, Human Rights Watch provides the most detailed account to date

of the unrest that erupted in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in early 2001 and

offers a rare glimpse into the mechanisms of Vietnamese political repression.

Jarai women watch police and soldiers who entered Plei Lao village in Vietnam's Gia Lai province March 10, 2001, to break up an all-night prayer meeting. In the confrontation that ensued security forces killed one villager, then burned down the village church.

In February 2001 mass protests took place in Vietnam that were among the largest

since the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. Several thousand members of indigenous

minorities from the country's Central Highlands-often collectively known as Montagnards-held

a series of peaceful demonstrations calling for independence, return of ancestral

lands, and religious freedom.

Vietnamese authorities, who had long been closely monitoring political developments

in the region, responded with a massive show of force. Announcing that they had "battle

plans" ready, authorities brought in thousands of police and soldiers to disperse

the protesters.

In the weeks and months following the demonstrations, authorities arrested hundreds

of highlanders, sometimes using torture to elicit confessions and public statements

of remorse by protest organizers. Local religious and political leaders were sentenced

to prison terms ranging up to 12 years.

In one incident in the ethnic Jarai village of Plei Lao village in Gia Lai province

in March 2001, security forces fired into a crowd killing one villager after raiding

the village to break up an all-night prayer meeting. The police then burned down

the village church.

"First the police ordered some Vietnamese civilians to ransack and destroy the

church with axes," said an eyewitness. "They used a cable tied to a vehicle

to topple it and the soldiers used their gun butts."

The police forced the Jarai to pour five liters of gasoline and ten liters of machine

oil on the church. When the villagers were unable get it to burn, the police took

over and set fire to the church.

"Everyone was crying - for the dead and wounded, and for the church," said

an eyewitness. "Afterwards the police put fresh earth over the ashes and smoothed

it so outsiders couldn't tell there had ever been a church there."

The police arrested dozens of villagers from Plei Lao and the surrounding hamlets,

one of whom was subsequently tried and sentenced in September 2001 to 11 years in

prison for "disrupting security."


Rights violations

Today, more than one year after the unrest broke out in the highlands, Human Rights

Watch (HRW) has found government surveillance of highlander villages has increased,

security measures have tightened, and repression of minority Christians has intensified.

The Vietnamese government violated fundamental human rights in the course of suppressing

the protests, HRW found, and these violations were continuing as of March 2002. Rights

abuses include:

  • Arbitrary arrest, detention or interrogation of hundreds of highlanders suspected

    of participating in, or helping to organize, the February 2001 demonstrations.


  • Police torture of people in detention or during interrogation, including beating,

    kicking, and shocking with electric batons.


  • Violations of the right to freedom of religion including destruction and closure

    of ethnic minority Protestant churches and official pressure on Christians to abandon

    their religion under threat of legal action or imprisonment.


  • Excessive use of force by security forces during a confrontation with ethnic

    Jarai villagers in Plei Lao, Gia Lai in March 2001.


  • Bans on public gatherings in violation of the right to freedom of assembly.


  • Restrictions on travel. In some areas authorities have required written permission

    to be secured in advance of any temporary absence from the village, making it difficult

    for farmers to go to work in their fields.


  • Arrest and mistreatment of highlanders who fled to Cambodia and were then forcibly

    returned to Vietnam.

In a report released this week, "Repression of Montagnards: Conflicts over

Land and Religion in Vietnam's Central Highlands," HRW called on Vietnam to

cease its persecution of the Montagnards and for Cambodia to continue to offer sanctuary

to those fleeing across the border.

Simmering discontent

The February, 2001 unrest in the Central Highlands represented the convergence

of multiple grievances among the highlanders: religious repression, ethnic persecution,

among the highest poverty and illiteracy rates in Vietnam, and most importantly,

the struggle over increasingly scarce land.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of the Central Highlands

provinces of Dak Lak, Gia Lai, Lam Dong and Kontum was around 240,000, the vast majority

of whom were indigenous ethnic minorities. The current population is now estimated

at roughly 4 million, of whom only one-quarter are indigenous minorities such as

Pnong, Jarai, Stieng, Ede (Rhade), and Koho. Among the highlanders, between 229-400,000

are thought to follow evangelical Protestantism.

In the early 1990s, many Montagnards became attracted to a particular type of Christianity

practiced in the highlands called Tin Lanh Dega, or "Dega Protestantism,"

which brings together aspirations for independence, cultural pride and evangelism.

The Vietnamese government does not allow the existence of independent associations

or non-governmental organizations, including church groups. For Dega Protestants,

prayer and worship services have provided space for Montagnard beliefs and worship

not controlled by government authorities.

Government-organized resettlement schemes as well as spontaneous migration has quadrupled

the population density of ethnic Vietnamese and other migrants in parts of the highlands

since 1975, creating intense pressure on land and natural resources. Lacking official

land use certificates, the highlanders have been increasingly squeezed off their


At the same time, the economic base of the highlands, pushed towards coffee production

over the last decade, has been dealt a strong blow by the global plummet in coffee

prices over the two years preceding the outbreak of unrest. In the past, many highlanders

supported themselves on at least several hectares of land per family, on which they

practiced swidden agriculture. As lowlanders or ethnic minorities from other parts

of Vietnam began to encroach on their land, or as state plantations displaced them,

such practices became untenable.

"My grandfather had more than five hectares of land," an ethnic Ede man

said. "The government took the land and gave only part of it to me - less than

a hectare. In the past we did shifting agriculture, moving our farm plots around.

The fallow land was part of our land. Now we just farm in one place. I have just

enough land to feed my family, but nothing left over."

Today, most highlanders eke out a living by farming rice and perhaps a small home

garden of coffee and peppers on less than a hectare of land, making ends meet by

trading in the market or working as laborers for the growing population of ethnic

Vietnamese in the region. Any disruption of the household economy - be it a fine

imposed for attending a church service or confiscation of a portion of a rice field

- can have disastrous consequences on a family's economic survival.

Over the past ten years, local authorities have acquired vast swathes of agricultural

land for commercial development, sometimes forcing farmers to sell or buying from

indebted peasants at prices far below market value. Farmers' loss of livelihood,

inadequate payment for land, and confiscation of property by local authorities has

fueled intense anger by indigenous highlanders, particularly in the last decade.

In interviews and in complaint petitions to government departments obtained by HRW,

highlanders described how local authorities - often the provincial education department

- have confiscated their small one hectare coffee fields, ostensibly to construct

schools or other government buildings, without providing advance notice or paying

any compensation.

The highlanders' resentment over the loss of land has been compounded by the fact

that they are finding themselves losing out to the new migrants in education, employment,

and other economic opportunities.

Promises of autonomy

Desires for independence are not new among ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.

Montagnard groups sought and obtained promises of autonomy from the French colonial

government in the 1940s, as well as the governments of both North and South Vietnam

during the American war.

While the various promises to create such an autonomous zone were largely token gestures

to gain the loyalty of the Montagnards, the idea has garnered enthusiastic support

from indigenous inhabitants of the highlands, who have long felt persecuted, exploited,

and alienated from the central government.

The government's perception that religious and political organizing by the Montagnards

poses a threat to national unity has been fueled by the link between some advocates

of independence in the highlands and former members of a pro-US Montagnard resistance

army that effectively died out in 1992. That army was known as FULRO (Front Unifié

de Lutte des Race Opprimées, or the United Struggle Front for the Oppressed

Races). Some former FULRO members, led by a US-based Jarai-American named Kok Ksor,

have been among those accused by the Vietnamese Communist Party of organizing the

February 2001 demonstrations.

Although it appears that groups based in the United States may have encouraged Montagnard

protests in the Central Highlands, these groups have not advocated violence. With

or without external support, the Central Highlands was a powder keg ready to explode

by the end of the 1990s. Organizers advocating for greater land rights, religious

freedom, and even independence found an extremely receptive audience among the Montagnards.

Many of the participants in the demonstrations saw the advocacy of independence as

equivalent to "getting our land back" in both the immediate sense of recovering

family homesteads and land lost in recent decades to government plantations, and

the more historical sense of recovering an area, if not a nation, that had belonged

to their ancestors.

Hearts and minds

In the year following the turmoil in the highlands, the Vietnamese government

has made numerous attempts to placate the highlanders, at least on the surface. These

public efforts have ranged from pledges of assistance by the Vietnamese Red Cross

for disadvantaged minority families, to provision of free medical check-ups for highlanders,

to promises of increased educational opportunities for minorities.

As part of a stepped-up propaganda campaign in the highlands, the government increased

its minority-language radio and television broadcasts and allocated 300 million dong

(US$20,700) to each province in the Central Highlands to cover the printing and distribution

of pictures of Ho Chi Minh as well as books and audiotapes extolling the virtues

of the Vietnamese Communist Party and its policies toward ethnic minorities.

On the one hand, such efforts appear to acknowledge the party's awareness that some

of its policies have failed in the highlands and that genuine grievances exist. On

the other, as leaked party documents make clear, the government's official interpretation

of the unrest is that it has been caused by "enemies" of the party who

have used religion as their instrument.

In June 2001, the Vietnamese Communist Party issued an internal advisory, specifically

directing party cadres how to interpret and respond to the ethnic unrest in the Central


The 22-page document, a copy of which was obtained by Human Rights Watch, shows that

the party links the highlanders' escalating demands for land rights, religious freedom,

and independence with the growing popularity of evangelical Protestantism.

The growing dissent in the highlands is attributed to a broader conspiracy by outside

agitators and a handful of "evil minded" local leaders, who allegedly are

trying to use the concepts of democracy, land and religion to stir up trouble.

Specifically, the 2001 party directive alleges that enemies of the party have targeted

minorities in the Central Highlands, taking advantage of evangelical Christianity

and "the concepts of freedom and democracy" in order to create "artificial"

demands for land and the right to freedom of religion.

The directive concludes frankly, "They have made the people lose their confidence

in the party and the authorities."

These documents, together with recent citizen complaint petitions and police citations

from the highlands obtained by HRW, are corroborated by previously released confidential

government directives from 1999 in regard to ethnic minority Christians.

The documents show that the government has launched a national campaign to monitor

and suppress minority Christians in the highlands and other groups deemed to be fueling

anti-government sentiment. More ominously, the 2001 documents show the government's

renewed commitment to repressive policies in the wake of the protests.

The Vietnamese government's crackdown on the unrest in the highlands did not end

with the first wave of arrests carried out in the spring of 2001. HRW has received

reports of rights violations well into 2002.

During the third week of December 2001, dozens of minority "house church"

leaders were rounded up and detained throughout the Central Highlands to prevent

them from conducting Christmas services. Authorities disrupted dozens of church services

in all four provinces of the Central Highlands.

More than 160 highlanders attempting to flee to Cambodia at that time were arrested

and deported back to Vietnam. While many of the women subsequently returned to their

villages, the whereabouts of some of the men was still unknown as of late March 2002.

As February 2002 and the first anniversary of the protests approached, extra benefits

were given out in the highlands to commemorate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Cambodian

and Vietnamese officials allowed some highlanders to freely cross the border to visit

their relatives in the refugee camps.

Despite these gestures, highlanders interviewed by HRW and Western reporters in February,

2002 reported that the actual situation had not improved. They cited ongoing abuses

including harassment of Christians, mistreatment of returnees from Cambodia, and

a repressive police presence in the villages.

Harsh homecoming

A Jarai man attempted to "self-repatriate" from Cambodia to Vietnam

on February 14, 2002, together with his wife and four children, acting on his own,

not under UN auspices. On his return to Vietnam, however, he found such repression

in his village in Gia Lai that he immediately turned around and fled back to Cambodia.

"There were police and soldiers all over the place, and my relatives told me

they had been there the whole past year," he told HRW after reaching Cambodia


The church in his village, which had been used every Sunday since 1995, had been

closed. Villagers told him Christians suffered much more repression than before the

demonstrations, with many people regularly fined or called by police to do forced

labor making fences or cutting grass at the commune center. Christians who had held

positions in the government had been fired, he was told, and many Christians had

been cut out of government rice distribution programs.

"All of these were new developments since the demonstrations," the man

said. "My relatives warned me to flee immediately. They said the police had

been looking for me ever since I first left."

A Montagnard church leader summed up the atmosphere in a note smuggled out of the

Central Highlands at the end of February 2002: "Now the authorities have sent

soldiers to various villages. They forbid Christians to meet for worship, or to read

the Bible, or to pray before eating, or sing Christian songs. They forbid anything

to do with Christianity. They are sowing confusion, suspicion and fear among the


Most of the first wave of highlanders to flee from Vietnam fled because of fear of

arrest or other reprisals because of their participation in the February demonstrations.

Beginning in June 2001, newly arriving refugees included people who had not attended

the demonstrations but fled because of the government's harsh crackdown or long-standing

grievances about land, religious repression, or political pressure.

In the case of Buon Ea Sup, an ethnic Jarai village in Dak Lak province, residents

joined the February, 2001 demonstrations for similar reasons to villagers throughout

the highlands: encroachment and arbitrary confiscation of their ancestral lands and

religious persecution.

"The numbers of Vietnamese started getting bigger in 1990," an Ede man

from Dak Lak said. "During the last year they came day by day, month by month.

There could be 100 new arrivals in a month, 500 in a month. We can't say how many

have come to our area since 1979- perhaps 10,000 people. They come with their families,

borrow money from the government, and try to buy some land from the minorities. They

control the village committee. There's only one Ede on the committee now."

The government's response in Buon Ea Sup duplicated the response in scores of other

hamlets. Police were dispatched to the village to identify suspected organizers of

the protests, in some cases using photographs of marchers taken during the demonstrations.

At midnight on February 6, 2001, 60 police and soldiers stormed Buon Ea Sup to carry

out a first wave of arrests. They fired into the air and threw tear gas canisters

in an apparent effort to intimidate the general population from involvement in any

future protests. They surrounded the homes of people suspected of leading others

to the demonstrations, dragging them out of their homes in their underwear and arresting


After the arrests, additional police were posted in the village. They launched daily

interrogation sessions at the commune police headquarters for weeks with villagers

suspected of attending the demonstrations.

"They asked us questions about [our religion], why we had gone to the demonstration,

why we wanted to make an independent state, and so on," said one man who was

summoned. "They told us not to make any more demonstrations, and said that it

was prohibited to follow our religion."

Participants in the demonstrations were pressured to sign written statements promising

to end all contact with "foreign organizations" and to abandon Christianity.

Some people-particularly those suspected of being organizers-were beaten and tortured

during their "working sessions" with the police.

"Two or three police interrogated me in a room," said one villager. "They

asked me whether I had documents from Kok Ksor and I said no. Then they beat me.

They used an electric truncheon near my eyes [he has a small scar there still]. I

don't know how many times they shocked me; I lost consciousness. When I came to,

I realized my back and my stomach hurt badly and that I had probably been kicked

many times.

"They brought me to the police station for such sessions-beating and interrogation-15

times over the next 15 days. In some of the sessions the policeman pinched my ears

and twisted my eyelids, and slammed his elbow into my ribs.

"They still continued to pressure me about religion and tried to get me to sign

a document renouncing Christianity. I said I couldn't write. The policeman took my

hand in his and forced my hand. They did this every time, every day, until March

9 when I escaped."

It was not long before the first group of villagers from Ea Sup prepared to flee.

The trigger came in early March, 2001, when villagers heard that arrests were to

be carried out on March 18. Several villagers had already fled to their farm fields

or the forest to evade the police sessions. Over a period of days others slipped

out of the village. By the third week in March, 19 men had gathered at one spot near

the border where they crossed over to Cambodia on March 21, 2001.

After only a few days in Koh Nhek district in northern Mondolkiri, local Cambodian

police spotted the group. They were sent to the commune headquarters for a night

and then escorted on foot by 13 Cambodian police and soldiers to Koh Nhek district

town. The police confiscated the men's watches, money and other belongings and then

handcuffed each man and put them in a pickup truck.

Documents obtained by HRW show that on March 25, the First Deputy Police Commissioner

of Mondolkiri province, accompanied by the commander of the provincial gendarmerie,

transported the 19 men from Koh Nhek district to the Bou Praing border crossing,

where the group was sent back to Vietnam in the early morning hours of March 26.

At the border checkpoint, Vietnamese police photographed, interrogated and beat the


"They asked us why we were so hard headed and stubborn," one of the 19

Jarai said later. "They said we had lied to the authorities and opposed the

government. 'You've signed the pledges already,' they told us, 'but your attitude

is the same'."

Torture and detention

At the Vietnam border the group was transferred to a windowless police van and

transported to Buon Ma Thuot, the provincial capital of Dak Lak.

"There wasn't any water at all in the van," said one of the group. "We

couldn't tell if it was day or night."

In Buon Ma Thuot the group was beaten even more severely than at the border post.

"They used a rubber truncheon to beat us over our whole body, including our

heads," said one of the Jarai. "They pried open our eyes and pinched and

twisted our eyelids and ears. They asked different people different questions. They

accused me of being stubborn and hard-headed and of being the leader of the group;

the one who prepared the escape plan."

The beating went on for three or four hours, until the detainees were handcuffed,

put into a police van and transported to the main prison in Ho Chi Minh City.

"We were not sure what place we had been taken to," said one of the men.

"They stuck us in dark cells there; two people each in tiny cement rooms. There

were no windows, only a small slot for air near the ceiling. There were many mosquitoes."

The men spent seven days in the prison, during which time they were not released

from the cells other than for regular interrogation sessions. All water for drinking

and bathing was inside the cell, as was a bucket for their excrement.

"They pressured us to agree to abandon politics and religion," said one

of the Jarai. "We agreed verbally, but not in our hearts. We agreed because

we were afraid of being killed. The Vietnamese police wrote up a report about our

agreement, which they asked us to read into a tape recorder. The ideas were from

the Vietnamese police, not us. They forced us to read it."

The forced confessions stated that the men had accepted their wrongdoings, that they

would abandon politics and religion, and that they agreed that ethnic minorities

should be one together with the Vietnamese and not oppose the government.

After seven days in prison in Ho Chi Minh City, the police handcuffed the group and

sent them by bus to Dak Lak. They spent two nights in the provincial prison, where

police again interrogated them and made them sign confessions: "They wrote it

up and forced us with two hands to sign it," said one of the Jarai.

Afterwards, all but four of the 19 Jarai were released, on condition that their families

vouch for them in writing. Once back in the village, members of the group were not

allowed to leave the village to work in their fields without advance permission,

and they were prohibited from gathering in groups of more than three people.

Religious repression increased throughout the area, with authorities confiscating

guitars and electric organs used in church services, as well as Bibles and hymnals.

The police presence in the village continued to be strong. In August 2001 the police

issued official "letters of invitation" to 40 villagers suspected of participating

in the demonstrations to attend a mandatory "goat's blood ceremony."

These were ceremonies systematically conducted by local and provincial officials

in dozens of villages in the highlands starting in June, 2001. Villagers who had

participated in the February demonstrations were forced to stand up in front of their

entire village and local authorities to admit their wrongdoing, pledge to cease any

contacts with outside groups, and renounce their religion. To seal their loyalty,

they were forced to drink rice wine mixed with goat's blood.

To evade further repression, small groups of men from Ea Sup began to slip out of

the village again. On August 24, 2001, 78 men from several districts in Dak Lak gathered

at a spot near the Cambodian border, where they hid in the forest for more than a

week without food.

On September 1, the group was finally able to cross the border and reach the UNHCR

facility in Mondolkiri. They were exhausted, frightened, and close to starvation.

But at least they were safe - for the present.


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