Land Grabbing, Church Destruction, and Police Abuse in the Central Highlands
April 24, 2002
The Montagnards have been repressed by Vietnam for decades. This has got to stop. Vietnam should open up the Central Highlands to human rights monitors, journalists, and diplomats, and begin to seriously address the underlying grievances fuelling the unrest
Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch

(New York) Vietnam should cease its persecution of indigenous Montagnards in the Central Highlands, and Cambodia should continue to offer sanctuary to those fleeing across the border, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 200-page report, Repression of Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion in Vietnam's Central Highlands, 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.

"The Montagnards have been repressed by Vietnam for decades. This has got to stop," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Vietnam should open up the Central Highlands to human rights monitors, journalists, and diplomats, and begin to seriously address the underlying grievances fuelling the unrest."

In February 2001, several thousand members of indigenous minorities, commonly known as Montagnards, held a series of demonstrations calling for independence, return of ancestral land, and religious freedom.

Human Rights Watch provides an in-depth analysis of the grievances that gave rise to the protests, and an analysis of the human rights violations that took place in response to them. It found that the Vietnamese government violated fundamental human rights in the course of suppressing the protests, and that those violations-which range from government infringement of religious freedom to torture by police-were continuing as of March 2002.

Vietnamese authorities responded to the demonstrations with a massive show of force, deploying 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. They also targeted religious gatherings and arrested religious leaders, equating the evangelical Protestantism followed by many of the highlanders with anti-government organizing. Some of those arrested in connection with the protests were tried and given heavy prison sentences. More than 1,000 highlanders fled to Cambodia, where they were sheltered in two refugee camps operated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Since the February 2001 protests, news from the troubled region has been difficult to obtain. The Vietnamese government has banned western news media, foreign diplomats, and U.N. officials from traveling to the area, other than on strictly controlled government tours.

In March 2002, Cambodia authorized the processing for resettlement in the United States of more than 900 Montagnard asylum seekers who fled to Cambodia over the last year. Cambodia has now closed down its refugee camps, sealed its borders with Vietnam, and announced that any new arrivals will be immediately deported.

"Cambodia is violating its international obligations to provide temporary asylum," Jendrzejczyk said. "But the turmoil in the highlands-and the refugee flow to Cambodia-is likely to continue until Hanoi takes effective action to end the mistreatment of Montagnards."

Loyalty Oaths, Church Burning, Police Torture

The report includes detailed case studies on repressive tactics employed by the Vietnamese government to stem free expression and the right to freedom of religion. For example, authorities have systematically conducted "goat's blood ceremonies," in dozens of villages in the highlands starting in June 2001. Villagers who had participated in the February 2001 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.

"They asked us to drink goat's blood, but we never saw any goat," one traumatized young villager told Human Rights Watch. "We wondered where the blood was from. If we didn't drink it, they would beat us. We didn't know if it was from a chicken or a dog or what. I am afraid I will have health problems in the future."

Human Rights Watch also described the excessive use of force by security forces in Plei Lao, Gia Lai province in March 2001, when several hundred troops surrounded and entered the village late at night to break up an all-night prayer meeting. In a confrontation with villagers, security forces fired into the crowd, killing one villager. They then burned down the village church. One villager described what happened:

"First the police ordered some Vietnamese civilians to ransack and destroy the church with axes. They used a cable tied to a vehicle to topple it and the soldiers used their gun butts. Then they forced the ethnic Jarai to burn it," he said. "Everyone was crying-for the dead and wounded, and for the church."

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the fate of more than 500 Montagnard asylum seekers who have been forcibly deported from Cambodia to Vietnam over the last twelve months. In an incident in March 2001, nineteen Jarai men were tortured and imprisoned after being deported from Cambodia, as described by one eyewitness:

"They beat us over our whole body, including our heads," he said. "They beat our fingers, hands, arms, and necks-everywhere. There was no blood because they used a rubber truncheon. After beating us they took our photographs again."

Internal government documents obtained by Human Rights Watch-previously unavailable to an international audience-support much of the witness testimony. Citizen petitions from Montagnards detail long-standing land conflicts, arbitrary confiscation of ancestral lands, disruption of Protestant church services, employment discrimination against minority Christians, and the lack of government response to citizen complaints.

A twenty-two page confidential directive issued by the Vietnamese Communist Party in June 2001 specifically directs party cadres how to interpret and respond to the ethnic unrest in the Central Highlands. The directive shows that the party links the highlanders' escalating demands for land rights, religious freedom, and even independence with the growing popularity of evangelical Protestantism.

The party directive also alleges that enemies of the party have targeted 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.

Human Rights Watch provides detailed policy recommendations for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Royal Government of Cambodia, and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Human Rights Watch also urges the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Vietnam's donors to press Hanoi to respect the rights of indigenous minorities.