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Stuck in the middle

Stuck in the middle

Caught between Vietnamese oppression and Cambodian indifference, Montagnards wait for intervention

In a new report, Human Rights Watch describes new and disturbing information about recent, large-scale arrests of Montagnard Christians living in Vietnam's Central Highlands. The report gives graphic accounts of the torture of Montagnard activists, house-church leaders, and individuals who have been deported or have voluntarily returned from Cambodia. Excerpts from the report are published below.

"The police sat me in a chair and forced me to hold my hands up in the air for almost seven hours. Policemen on either side of me twisted pens between my fingers and beat my feet with a wooden stick. At the same time they jabbed me in the ribs with their hands. The worst part was that they forced my three-year-old son to sit on my lap the entire time, even though he was crying uncontrollably."

- A Jarai refugee, describing his treatment in police custody in Vietnam before fleeing to Cambodia.

Cambodia's recent decision to close its northeastern border with Vietnam to halt the flow of Montagnard asylum seekers comes amidst alarming new reports of mass arrests, torture, and increasing persecution of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam's Central Highlands, according to a report by Human Rights Watch released on January 10.

In December 2004, Cambodian officials told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to close its temporary refugee camp near the border in Ratanakiri province, announced they were tightening border controls to reduce the inflow of Montagnards, and threatened to begin deporting Montagnard refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR protection who refuse to be resettled in third countries.

Meanwhile, more than 60 Montagnard asylum seekers who crossed the border to Ratanakiri province in recent weeks remain in dire straits. In early January, truckloads of Cambodian police and gendarmerie scoured the forests where the asylum seekers are thought to be hiding.

The Easter protests
Unrest has rocked the Central Highlands since February 2001, when thousands of Montagnards took to the streets to call for religious freedom and return of ancestral lands.

In April 2004, protests erupted again during Easter weekend as tens of thousands of Montagnards - including women, children, and elderly - marched or rode on farm tractors to local commune centers and district towns in three different provinces of the highlands. They chanted slogans and held banners calling for return of their land, religious freedom, freedom of movement, and release of Montagnard political prisoners.

Clashes began when police, as well as Vietnamese civilians and employees of private companies working on behalf of the police, attacked the protesters at roadblocks using metal bars, clubs with nails attached to them, and shovels. Some of the protestors fought back, using their hands or throwing rocks picked up along the road.

Official Vietnamese government accounts state that two Montagnards were killed during the protests. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least 10 Montagnards were killed, and possibly more, though it is impossible to obtain independent verification at this time.

Lock down

Vietnamese authorities responded to the Easter 2004 protests by deploying hundreds of additional police and military to the region, billeting them in the villages and even in suspected activists' homes.

Authorities arrested dozens of Montagnards suspected of organizing the protests or hiding activists on the run, sometimes using torture to elicit the names of other activists or to force public statements of remorse by protest organizers.

Hundreds of Montagnards fled their villages and went into hiding in Vietnam, or attempted to make the risky trip across the border to Cambodia.

Since April, many Montagnards have been living in a "lock-down" situation. In many areas, they cannot travel freely - even to farm their fields - without written authorization from village officials.

As part of the intensifying crackdown, in November and December 2004 Vietnamese security forces rounded up and arrested more than 200 Montagnards. They apparently feared that Christmas gatherings would be used as a pretext for political organizing or that discontent would coalesce in gatherings of large numbers of Montagnards.

Many of those arrested were said to have been Montagnard house-church leaders who were organizing simple Christmas gatherings in the villages.

Others targeted for detention included the wives and even young children of men who had fled to Cambodia to seek asylum. Police also arrested dozens of Montagnards suspected of being in contact with U.S.-based groups supporting demands for the return of ancestral land and religious freedom.

The Vietnamese government has largely blamed the unrest in the Central Highlands on "hostile foreign forces," deceiving and inciting the local people to agitate for religious freedom, land rights and a separate state.

However, Vietnamese authorities have begun to admit that one source of the instability in the region is the lack of farmland available to the indigenous ethnic groups who have traditionally inhabited the highlands.

Returnees face police intimidation
First-hand accounts from Montagnards who have voluntarily returned to Vietnam since 2001 indicate that Vietnamese authorities treat returnees with intense suspicion. Some are placed under police surveillance and even house arrest upon return, or regularly summoned to the police station for questioning about their activities.

In one case, a young Ede man voluntarily returned to Vietnam from a refugee camp in Cambodia, along with 45 other refugees, on March 15, 2002. He had been told that his father, who had been sentenced to eight years in prison because of his involvement in the 2001 demonstrations, would be released from prison if he returned. That never happened.

He was able to visit his father in prison only once - for 15 minutes - before he was moved to a remote prison in the north. His father's body was swollen, the young man said, either from illness or from beating.

"I met him in the visitor section of the prison, with a wire grill separating us. He asked me why I came back. I told him I came to get him released. He said I should know the way things operate. He said I was ignorant. He told me to be very careful, and protect myself, or they would imprison me too."

The situation in his home village was very different from when the young man first left, he said.

"The repression was more harsh," he said. Police were stationed in the village and even in his house. "Not all houses had police living there, like mine ... those suspected of doing political work and returnees from Cambodia, had police."

The young man was summoned to the commune for interrogation three times. The first time was after he went to visit a friend who was also a returnee from the refugee camp. He was held for four hours by the police, who asked him why he was meeting with others.

"They threatened me when I didn't respond. They grabbed my shirt and yelled at me: 'Your father is in jail. Do you want to go, too?' I was afraid. My mother and brother didn't know where I was. They didn't know I had been arrested. The police had me sign a pledge acknowledging that if there was a problem in the future, the authorities would arrest me and put me in prison. After I signed, they took the document away. Then I was allowed to go home."

A month later, the young man's mother was arrested and detained for 15 days. Then three months later, security forces arrested all of the church elders in his village.

Warned by a friend who worked for the commune authorities and had seen his name on a list of 12 people slated for imminent arrest, the young man fled a second time for Cambodia.

Deportees from Cambodia tortured
Since 2001, Human Rights Watch has collected numerous first-hand accounts of mistreatment and even inprisonment of Montagnard asylum seekers by Vietnamese authorities after they have been forcibly deported from Cambodia.

On January 13, for example, the Vietnamese state media announced that Ksor Krok, who was arrested and deported from Ratanakkiri in July 2004, had been sentenced to seven years in prison

Hundreds of potential asylum seekers are arrested and deported from Cambodia each year before they are able to reach UNHCR protection.

New evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch suggests that such mistreatment has been ongoing. In a letter smuggled out of Vietnam in November, a Christian pastor in the Central Highlands wrote that the situation in Duc Co district of Gia Lai, which borders Cambodia, was getting worse. "I am very concerned about the lives of the Jarai people living in this area," he wrote.

Hundreds of Montagnards had attempted to flee to Cambodia, he said, and those who were intercepted were "savagely beaten." In mid-November, eight people were arrested in Cu Se district of Gia Lai as they tried to flee.

"Two of the eight were so badly beaten we didn't know if they would live or not," the pastor wrote.

A Jarai man from Ayun Pah province said that he was arrested in April 2002 after being deported with 56 other Montagnards from Cambodia.

"The Khmer police sent us back in two trucks and two jeeps," he said.

He was detained in a Gia Lai prison for one month. During interrogation sessions by the police, they jabbed him in the forehead with the nose of a pistol more than 15 times.

"The blood would gush out, and they'd hit me again. They did this from early morning until noon. After they hit me, they interrogated me many times and forced me to sign documents pledging not to follow [U.S.-based Montagnard activist] Kok Ksor any more."

Another refugee who fled to Cambodia in 2003 had unsuccessfully tried to seek asylum there previously. In December 2002, he was arrested and forcibly returned to Vietnam by Cambodian and Vietnamese border police, along with more 165 other asylum seekers.

Some of the Montagnards were released immediately, while others - including him - were beaten and detained for a week. In an interview with Human Rights Watch in March 2004, he described what happened to him:

"We were tortured. They took the nails off some people's hands. For me, they used pincers and twisted my fingers. I was released after a week - they thought I was going to die - they saw blood coming out of my mouth. I was bleeding a lot so they let me out. About 10 of us were released after a week, including little children."

As of March 2004, two of his cousins, who were arrested at the same time as him, remained in prison. A third cousin, who was released in early 2004, returned to the village with two broken ribs.

An ethnic Jarai man was deported from Ratanakiri with a large group of asylum seekers on the night of May 15, 2001. On the Vietnamese side of the border, district police arrested about 20 members of his group, beating them with sticks, shoes, and electric shock batons during interrogation.

"They slapped my eyes, the side of my face and kicked me in the groin with their boot," the man told Human Rights Watch in an interview in 2004.

He was placed in a dark, two-square-meter cell with the other 20 prisoners for 18 days, during which time he was beaten five more times.

"There were no windows and no electric light," he said. "We had no clothes and had to defecate and sleep in there. We were only given rice to eat; no salt."

After his release, he was forced to appear on television, admitting his "guilt", denouncing the Montagnard church movement, and urging others not to follow his "bad example".

"I had to say that I had repented and quit the movement," he said. "They threatened and forced me to do this. They said if I did not go on television they would beat me and put me in jail."

Torture of activists

Torture of suspected activists is regularly used by police in order to elicit names of others in the movement and pledges to cease all activities.

For example, on April 10, 2004, police in Dak Nong province arrested a 25-year-old Mnong man they suspected of being one of the organizers of the Easter protests. During the demonstration, he was beaten and kicked by police officers.

"I was bleeding on my head and lip, and [was] kicked in my right side until I passed out," he told Human Rights Watch in October 2004. The police then tied him up, loaded him in a van and sent him to the district prison.

During three days at the district, police officers tried to get him to confess that he was one of the leaders of the Easter demonstration.

As they interrogated him, they pulled out one of his toe nails, beat him repeatedly on his thighs with a rubber baton and punched him in the face, knocking out one of his front teeth. They brandished an AK-47 rifle and threatened him.

"They asked me if I knew that weapon, and said they would let me taste it. They had a pile of electrical wire in front of me to threaten to shock me, but they didn't do it. They frequently use that method in Dak Mil - they soak people in water and then shock the person to unconsciousness."

He was then transferred to the provincial prison, where he was put into solitary confinement in a grimy dark cell with only a small slot near the ceiling for ventilation.

During interrogation sessions at the provincial prison he was severely beaten several times by police officers trying to extract names of other activists from him.

"They asked me who the leader was. I said no one was the leader, but because we suffer from prevention of our religion, travel restrictions, and land grabbing, that's why we demonstrated.

"They beat my head and used two hands to box my ears more than 30 times, until my face was bright red and my ears were bleeding. They kicked me in the chest with their boots. They wanted to squeeze out the information about the demonstrations. At that time I thought I would soon die. My knees had swollen up and my whole body ached and felt stiff. It was difficult for me to move."

After five months detention he was released from prison. As soon as he could, the young man fled to Cambodia.

Guides on "underground railway" persecuted
For several years an informal "underground railroad" of Montagnard villagers in Vietnam has been assisting Montagnards hiding in the forest in Vietnam, as well as those fleeing to Cambodia.

If discovered, many of the guides and helpers face arrest, interrogation, torture, and imprisonment for as many as eight years on charges of "organizing illegal migration" under article 91 of Vietnam's Penal Code.

A Mnong man from Dak Nong helped his father, a prominent Montagnard church activist, hide in the forest and then escape to Cambodia in early 2004.

In April 2004, he was arrested by six police officers as he was returning home from his farm. He was handcuffed and sent by jeep to the district jail. He was not served an official warrant but police accused him of taking people across the border to Cambodia. He says:

"More than 20 people were arrested the same day as me. There were four Montagnards in my cell who were beaten badly and injured. One, a 55-year-old man the same age as my father, had his ribs broken when police kicked him in the side. Another man was hit in the face and kicked in the chest and beaten badly. Afterwards, he was urinating blood. Another man was kicked in the stomach and might have suffered a ruptured spleen. Afterwards he couldn't eat because his throat was swollen. The fourth man was beaten around the ears and lost his hearing in both ears; he had also been helping people cross the border."

At midnight on his first day of detention he was called out of his cell for questioning by nine police officers until 2 a.m.

"They asked, 'Where did you hide your father?' I said my father just told me to take him far away and after that I went back home. I didn't know where he was going. They slapped me in the ears and asked, 'What did your father do?' I said I didn't know. Then they hit me in the face, slapped me, and pushed me onto the floor. They stepped on my throat and kicked me with their boots three times. Before they returned me to my cell they said, 'Think hard and report everything you did.'"

Although never brought before a judge or formally charged, he was told that he would be sent to prison for eight years. He was able to escape after one month on a day when the guards got drunk. He crossed the border to Cambodia in August 2004.

Many Montagnard refugees have reported that members of their families have recently been arrested and detained by Vietnamese security personnel.

A Jarai church leader from Gia Lai, who fled to Cambodia in August 2004, told Human Rights Watch that his wife and four children were arrested in November.  After three days of interrogation at the commune police station, they were sent to the district headquarters, where they were detained for several more weeks."

"They threatened my wife.  They said, 'Your husband is a traitor because he crossed the border to Cambodia.  You still work on the church committee and practice your religion. That's why we are detaining you.'"

Another man said his wife, six-month-old baby, and three nieces were arrested just before Christmas in Cu Pah district, Gia Lai.  

These experiences illustrate the government's long-held strategy of detaining or imprisoning family members of dissidents or rebels in hiding as a way to punish the rebels or pressure them to return home.

Religious Oppression
Human Rights Watch continues to receive new reports of arrests of Montagnard Christian leaders and followers.

In addition, Vietnamese officials continue to force Montagnard villagers to renounce Christianity and cease all political or religious activities in public self-criticism sessions or by signing written pledges.

Other than 10 officially registered Christian churches in Dak Lak and Gia Lai (for as many as 220,000 Christians in the two provinces), the government bans most Montagnard gatherings for Christian worship.

A complicating factor in the Central Highlands is that many Montagnard Christians distrust the government-controlled Evangelical Church of Vietnam and seek to manage their own religious activities.

Many follow Dega Christianity, a religion that combines evangelical Christianity with elements of ethnic pride and aspirations for self-rule. It is banned by the government.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch in October 2004, a church elder from Cu Jut district, Dak Nong, described his arrest and detention in an airless, dark cell for four days at the district jail. He was interrogated several times.

"I told them directly that we joined the demonstrations not on behalf of [U.S.-based Montagnard activist] Kok Ksor or because he told us to do them, but because you, the authorities, mistreat us and prevent us from practicing our religion. I told them that when the dikes flood, they burst."

He was released in March 2003 after being warned not to participate in any political activities or continue to gather people to worship.

After his release from jail, he was summoned to join a one-month traveling "information campaign" along with seven other Montagnard church leaders from four districts surrounding Buon Ma Thuot. They were transported from village to village and forced to stand in front of meetings assembled by the authorities.

"I was used as an example of someone who formerly had practiced Christianity but was now renouncing it. The officials said that the government had pardoned us because we recognized our guilt and had become good people. I was not allowed to say what I wanted to say, but what they forced me to say."

New refugee flow raises tough questions
Vietnam's ongoing crackdown on Montagnards in the Central Highlands has generated a steady flow of refugees into Cambodia since 2001. While Cambodian authorities have taken some action to assist refugees when pressured, political considerations regularly prevail over refugee rights.

A fresh wave of asylum seekers crossed the border to Ratanakiri province in the months following the April 2004 demonstrations.

For months the Cambodian government refused to grant UNHCR officers access to the asylum seekers. Hundreds of Montagnards, including children, hid in makeshift shelters in the forest, suffering from lack of food, malaria and dysentery.

Domestic and international media coverage finally forced the Cambodian government to address the humanitarian issues posed by the flow of refugees, as well as its obligations under the Refugee Convention.

In July 2004, the government authorized the UNHCR to travel to northeastern Cambodia to retrieve the asylum seekers and transport them to shelters in Phnom Penh while the UNHCR assessed their asylum claims.

Since that time, the UNHCR has taken into protection more than 700 new Montagnard asylum seekers. So far, the UNHCR has recognized 296 Montagnards as refugees while rejecting the asylum claims of 126 others. The rest of the cases are still pending a decision. To date, all 770 Montagnards remain housed in UNHCR shelters in Phnom Penh.

In an unusual move, a number of the asylum seekers, including some who have been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, have refused the option of third-country resettlement. They state that they want to stay in Cambodia until the international community actively intervenes in the Highlands, so that they can safely return home.

Both the UNHCR and the Cambodian government now face the question of what will happen to Montagnard asylum seekers who refuse to return to Vietnam or resettle in a third country. Under international law, both countries must respect the legal requirement of "non-refoulement" - not forcibly returning a person to a place where his or her life or liberty would be in danger.


History of conflict

A timeline of events in the Montagnards' movement

1893: France assumes official control over the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

1940: Montagnards form majorities in all four Central Highland provinces. Under French concessions, ethnic Vietnamese are prohibited from settling in the Highlands, and tribal Montagnard courts partially replace colonial bureaucracy.

1951: Emperor Bao Dai issues an edict establishing special status in regard to land ownership and systems of governance for the indigenous minorities of the Central Highlands.

1955: The Central Highlands become part of the Republic of Vietnam. The Montagnard Liberation Front makes demands for greater autonomy.

1958: A Montagnard resistance movement known as Bajaraka demands autonomy and international intervention as South Vietnam law and migration schemes replace earlier French concessions. Members are arrested, prompting a 2,000-strong demonstration.

1960: The Vietnamese National Liberation Front is formed in resistance to French rule. Its political platform recognizes the right of autonomy of national minorities. The NLF uses South Vietnamese repression of Bajaraka to increase support among highlanders.

1961: U.S. forces begin to recruit and train highlanders for village defence units and reconnaissance teams.

1964: 40,000 Montagnards are recruited into militia units trained by the American Special Forces and CIA to fight communist guerrillas. FULRO (United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races), formed from elements of Bajaraka and groups within Cambodia, organizes a Montagnard revolt within five of the Special Forces camps. Their demands - including autonomy from Vietnam and the right to a standing army - are quelled by the American military. US forces later convince the Saigon government to institute reforms in favour of the Montagnards, allowing them a degree of cultural autonomy. FULRO leader Y Bham Enuol and approximately 2,000 followers flee across the border to Cambodia and establish a headquarters in the province of Mondolkiri.

1965: Thirty-five Vietnamese are killed in a second FULRO uprising after many of the concessions fail to be realized. Four revolt leaders are executed and 15 imprisoned.

1969: More than 1,300 FULRO soldiers and their families return to Vietnam as negotiations with the South Vietnamese government allow Montagnards to form a political party and fly their own flag. Y Bham Enuol announces the formation of the Ethnic Minorities Solidarity Movement to replace FULRO.

1975: Y Bham Enuol is killed in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge take the city in April. By this stage, the Indochinese conflict has resulted in the displacement of an estimated 85 percent of the Highland population of Vietnam.

1989: Under Vietnamese government immigration schemes, the number of lowland Vietnamese in the Central Highlands rises to 66 percent of the population, from a previous five percent in 1940. This places increasing demand on land and threatens the Montagnards' traditional system of agriculture.

1990s: With the collapse of FULRO during the early 1990s - their numbers decimated by sustained conflict with the Vietnamese - many Montagnards are attracted to the unsanctioned Dega Protestantism. A form of Christianity, the movement is fuelled by sentiments of independence, cultural pride and evangelism, and strives for increasing development and land ownership rights. Dega is seen by the Vietnamese government as encouraging anti-government sentiment and civil unrest.

2001: Tensions over land disputes and religious freedoms spill over into violence during a peaceful Montagnard demonstration. The event sparks outcries of increasing government suppression of the Montagnards.


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