The twentieth century in the Central Highlands was a period of increasing migration of ethnic Vietnamese, or Kinh, into highland areas. The political situation in the region today has been decisively shaped by that demographic trend.
Today, the population of the Central Highlands provinces of Dak Lak, Gia Lai, Lam Dong and Kontum, is approximately four million, of whom approximately one-quarter are indigenous highlanders.4 Among the highlanders, between 229,000 to 400,000 are thought to follow evangelical Protestantism. Indigenous minority groups in both the central and northern highlands are often generically referred to as Montagnards, a French term meaning "mountain dwellers."5 The indigenous minorities of the Central Highlands comprise more than half a dozen different ethnic groups, primarily from two language families: the Jarai (320,000), Ede (or Rhade, 258,000), Bahnar (181,000), Stieng (66,000), Koho (122,000), and Mnong (Bnong, or Pnong, 89,000).6 Many of the politicized highlanders in the Central Highlands and refugees from there in the U.S. today increasingly refer to themselves as Dega. For them, Dega is a term not only of cultural pride but one that connotes the particular type of evangelical Christianity they practice and the name of the independent homeland they seek. The term "Dega" is also used by Vietnamese governmental authorities in a derogatory sense, as a synonym for rebels.
Most highlanders are farmers who traditionally practiced a form of shifting cultivation called rotational swiddening, in which new fields are cleared, cultivated for several years and then allowed to lie fallow for ten to twenty years before being brought back into cultivation.7 As a general rule under the traditional farming systems, for each hectare of farmland currently under cultivation, another five (for relatively rich soils) to fifteen hectares must be kept fallow and held in reserve.8 Despite appearances, these forest fallows are not vacant wasteland available for others to use, but an integral part of the swidden farming system, with former fallows put back into cultivation after their fertility has been restored. While pejoratively referred to as "slash and burn" agriculture, shifting cultivation can be a sustainable farming system in areas with relatively low population densities.9
Often referred to as nomads, very few highlanders are in fact even quasi-nomadic. While they may rotate their swidden plots every three to five years within prescribed village boundaries, the settlements themselves rarely move unless forced to do so by warfare, disease, or political developments. Instead most highlanders have traditionally lived in fixed village sites, rotating their swidden plots within an area that is often clearly defined by village elders.11
The Dega People-An Oral History
Resistance to Vietnamese central authority is not new among ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands. Highland ethnic groups sought and obtained pledges of autonomy not only from the French colonial government but also from both the North and the South Vietnamese governments during the Second Indochina War. While the various promises that these governments made to create such a zone were largely token gestures to gain the loyalty of the Montagnards, the idea garnered enthusiastic support among indigenous inhabitants of the highlands, who long felt persecuted, exploited, and alienated from the central government.
Much of the current debate over the highlanders' struggle for independence centers around the question of the legitimacy of Vietnam's sovereignty over the Central Highlands. This raises two questions-prior to French colonial rule, did Vietnam maintain political and administrative control over the Central Highlands, or did the highland groups exist as an independent state or states? Anthropologist Oscar Salemink argues that in pre-colonial times, the indigenous groups of the Central Highlands had little political organization beyond the village
Present-day claims by highlanders in Vietnam and abroad that both the French colonial administration and Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai granted autonomous status to the Montagnards of the Central Highlands appear to be largely based on two documents. The first is a Federal Ordinance enacted in 1946 by the French colonial government in Vietnam, which created a special administrative commissariat for the highland populations (les populations Montagnardes) of South Indochina, separate from the Republic for South Annam.17 This took place at a time of deteriorating relations between France and Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh. In what some observers perceive was a cynical move to undermine the authority of Ho Chi Minh over all of Vietnam, the ordinance was enacted on May 27, 1946, three days before Ho Chi Minh left Vietnam for negotiations with the French in Paris.18
In July 1950, the French government issued an order establishing the Central Highlands as the Pays Montagnard du Sud (PMS) under the authority of Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, who the French had installed as nominal chief of state in 1949 as an alternative to Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam.19 Terry Rambo notes:
The second document often cited by Montagnard autonomy advocates is a 1951 edict signed by Emperor Bao Dai establishing special status for the indigenous minorities of the Central Highlands (referred to as "des Populations des Pays Montagnards du Sud," or PMS). Known as the statut particulier, the edict guaranteed the highlanders all the rights of Vietnamese citizens as well as the right to "free evolution of these populations in the respect of their traditions and of their customs." Highland chiefs, whether hereditary or selected by native populations, would retain their titles and decision-making powers and customary tribal law would be retained. Article 7 guaranteed that "The rights acquired by the natives over landed property are guaranteed them in entirety."21
The French were not the only ones to promise special status to the highlanders. With the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh in 1954, several thousand highlanders sympathetic to the Viet Minh went to North Vietnam as part of the Geneva agreements. Many of them attended the Southern Ethnic Minorities school at Gia Lam, near Hanoi.22 In January 1955 Ho Chi Minh announced plans for several autonomous zones to be set up in the Northern Highlands.
In the early 1960s the NLF sent agents to the Central Highlands to conduct propaganda and recruit highlanders. Minority-language broadcasts from Hanoi carried pledges of autonomy. During the mid-1960s minority leaders from the Central Highlands were regularly sent to visit autonomous zones in North Vietnam, with promises that autonomy would be granted to highlanders in the south when the country was liberated.25
In 1955 the Central Highlands became part of the Republic of Vietnam, (South Vietnam). Trouble began to brew after President Ngô Dinh Diêm launched programs in 1956 to resettle ethnic Vietnamese to "land development centers" in the Central Highlands and assimilate the highlanders into mainstream Vietnamese society. In addition, thousands of ethnic minority refugees from the north were resettled in the Central Highlands as well.26
The Second Indochina War: 1960-1975
In the early 1960s, U.S. forces recruited highlanders for village defense units and reconnaissance teams to gather intelligence about North Vietnamese infiltration into the highlands and conduct propaganda in support of the Diêm regime.34
In 1961 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established the "Village Defense" programs in Darlac (the former name of Dak Lak), followed by the "Mountain Scout" program (often called the Commando program). Highlanders were also trained by U.S. Special Forces Detachment A-35 to conduct paramilitary operations.35 Given the earlier Bajaraka uprising, the Diêm government was uneasy about the U.S. arming highlanders, particularly under the CIA's Village Defense Program, in which 18,000 Montagnards were eventually armed.36
After the overthrow of Diêm in a coup in November 1963, the government of Nguyen Khanh released some Bajaraka leaders from prison (including Y Bham Enuol in February 1964) and upgraded the Bureau of Highland Affairs to a Directorate of Highland Affairs under the Ministry of Defense.
FULRO first made a name for itself as a militant group in September 1964 when it organized a rebellion among 3,000 Montagnard combatants in five U.S. special forces camps in the Central Highlands: Buon Sar Pa, Bu Prang, Ban Don, Buon Mi Ga and Buon Brieng.38 Leaflets were distributed in Buon Ma Thuot on the first day of the rebellion, declaring that the Central Highlands had been invaded by "expansionist Vietnamese" following a "systematic genocidal policy." A number of Vietnamese special forces troops were killed and others taken hostage. After several days of negotiations between U.S. military advisors and the FULRO militants, and the deployment of Vietnamese military units near the camps, the rebels surrendered. Y Bham Enuol and approximately 2,000 FULRO followers fled across the border to Cambodia, where they established their headquarters near Camp Le Rolland (present-day Dak Dam) in Mondolkiri. Y Bham Enuol was to remain in Cambodia for most of the next decade.
Relations between FULRO and the South Vietnamese government appeared to improve for a while under the government of Nguyen Cao Ky, who replaced Khanh after the 1965 coup. The government established a Directorate-General for Development of Ethnic Minorities, appointed Paul Nur, an ethnic Bahnar, as a cabinet member, and approved legislation entitling highlanders to own land.41 Six highlanders, including a FULRO member, were elected to the National Assembly. FULRO forces in Cambodia began negotiations with the government about their return to Vietnam.
When the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, Y Bham Enuol and other FULRO leaders living in Phnom Penh sought refuge in the French Embassy. They were all taken out by the Khmer Rouge and executed. Many of Enuol's most ardent followers, guerilla soldiers in the forests of Mondolkiri, were not to learn of his death for seventeen years.
With the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, Viet Minh pledges of autonomy never materialized. Instead, government officials launched programs to settle ethnic Vietnamese in New Economic Zones in the highlands while aiming to relocate highlanders to the valleys to grow rice and industrial crops, rather than continuing their "unstable nomadic life" in the highlands.48 Those who had worked with U.S. Special Forces or FULRO were sent to re-education camps. Hickey described the post-war situation:
It was not long before FULRO forces, many of whom fled to the forests after the final defeat of South Vietnam, began to resurrect their guerilla movement. This time FULRO's resistance was directed against Hanoi. The re-emergence of the group was evident as early as the first session of the National Assembly in 1976, in which a parliamentarian referred to the use of "lackeys" by "imperialist" forces to conduct counter-revolutionary activities.50
In 1986 several hundred FULRO soldiers and their families, who had escaped overland through Cambodia to Thailand, were relocated to the United States as refugees. The remnants of the army in Cambodia fell on especially hard time in the early 1990s. In 1992, demoralized and lacking food, ammunition and supplies, the remaining 400 FULRO combatants and their families in Mondolkiri surrendered to troops of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). A major element in the combatants' decision to give up their struggle at that time was that when they asked for help contacting Y Bham Enuol, they learned he had been executed in 1975. The group received asylum in the United States and was resettled in North Carolina in late 1992.54
During the 1990s, land conflicts and religious repression escalated in the Central Highlands, as described in chapters below. In general, however, expression of dissent-either through peaceful means or guerilla movements such as FULRO-was virtually nonexistent until early 2001, when earlier demands exploded into view again.
4 The Central Highlands, which border Cambodia and Laos, are bracketed on the west by the plains of eastern Cambodia, on the north by the Annamite mountain range, and on the south and east by the Mekong Delta and Vietnam's coastal lowlands. See map.
5 In the Republic of Vietnam (better known as South Vietnam) from 1955-1975, highlanders were officially referred to as dông bào thuong (highland compatriots); since 1975 there has been no specific term to refer to the indigenous minorities of the Central Highlands, who are commonly referred to by the same label as Vietnam's other minority groups (of which there are officially fifty-four) as dân tôc thiêu sô, or "ethnic minorities," in distinction to the "Kinh," or ethnic Vietnamese majority. Less officially they are referred to as nguoi thuong, or uplanders. In an effort to move away from the pejorative Vietnamese term for highlanders, moi, or savage, the French adopted the word Montagnard, which means mountain dweller. The use of the word Montagnard to refer to present-day indigenous communities has been criticized by some academics, who charge that it is a French colonial term and one taken over by U.S. Special Forces during the American War, who often called those highlanders who were militarily allied with the U.S. and not the Viet Minh, "Yards." Despite this-or perhaps because of their former affiliation with U.S. forces-some highlanders in Vietnam and the U.S. refer to themselves as Montagnards. The term "Dega" (also spelled Degar) has also increasingly been embraced as a collective term for Central Highland ethnic minorities, with both negative and positive connotations. For the purposes of this report Human Rights Watch uses the English-language terms "highlander," or "indigenous minorities" as well as the more commonly used term, Montagnard. See UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002, p.7; available on the Internet at http://www.unhcr.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/rsd?search=coi&source=WRITENET
6 The Jarai and Ede are Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) speakers and the Bahnar, Mnong, Stieng and Koho are Mon Khmer, belonging to the Austro-Asiatic language family. Population figures are from the U.N. Development Program's Vietnam website, http://www.undp.org.vn/projects/vie96010/cemma/vie96010/populations.htm
7 A. Terry Rambo et al, eds., The Challenges of Highland Development in Vietnam, East West Center, Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, October 1995, p. xvii.
8 A. Terry Rambo et al, eds., The Challenges of Highland Development in Vietnam, East West Center, Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, October 1995, p. xvii. Sara Colm, "Land Rights: The Challenge for Ratanakiri's Indigenous Communities," Watershed: People's Forum on Ecology, Vol. 3, No. 1, Bangkok: Terra, July 1997.
9 The population density of the Central Highlands is currently estimated at forty-seven people per square kilometer, while the threshold for sustainable shifting cultivation is often put at thirty people per square kilometer. "Country comparisons on Highland Peoples development issues-Vietnam," Highland Peoples Programme Management Team, UNDP Bangkok, March 1997.
10 Oscar Salemink, "Customary Law, Land Rights and Internal Migration," Vietnam Social Sciences, February, 2000.
11 A. Terry Rambo et al, eds., "The Challenges of Highland Development in Vietnam," East West Center, Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, October 1995, page xvii; Sara Colm, "Land Rights: The Challenge for Ratanakiri's Indigenous Communities," Watershed: People's Forum on Ecology, Vol. 3, No. 1, Bangkok: Terra, July 1997.
12 Gerald Cannon Hickey. Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954-1976. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982, p. 36.
13 Oscar Salemink, "The King of Fire and Vietnamese Ethnic Policy in the Central Highlands," published in Don McCaskill and K. Kampe, eds., Development or Domestication? Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1997, p. 512.
14 Greg Booth, "RRA Report of Two Communes in the Se San Watershed," Regional Environmental Technical Assistance 5771-Poverty Reduction & Environmental Management in Remote Greater Mekong Subregion Watersheds Project (Phase I), Helsinki, 1999. Sara Colm, "Options for Land Security Among Indigenous Communities, Ratanakiri, Cambodia," Banlung: Non-Timber Forest Products Project, May 1997.
15 Oscar Salemink, "Mois and Maquis: The Invention and Appropriation of Vietnam's Montagnards from Sabatier to the CIA," in George W. Stocking, Jr. (ed.), Colonial Situations: Essays in Ethnographic Contextualization (History of Anthropology, Vol. 7), Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991, p. 244.
16 Oscar Salemink, "Mois and Maquis," p. 244.
17 Ordonnance fédérale du 27 Mai 1946 portant création d'un Commissariat du Gouvernement Fédéral pour les Populations Montagnardes du Sud Indochinois, signed by Thierry d'Argenlieu, Saigon, May 27, 1946. Article 1 provided that the provinces of the Central Highlands would cease to be under the jurisdiction of the Commissariat of the Republic for South Annam, but would form a special administrative division called the "Commissariat of the Federal Government for the Highland Populations of South Indochina," with its seat established at Buon Ma Thuot.
18 The French were attempting to circumvent an independent and united Vietnam under the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which had been declared an independent state by Ho Chi Minh in September 1945. Instead, the French preferred a separate Indochina federation consisting not only of the Vietnamese states of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina but also including Cambodia and Laos. In 1946 the French government provided Cambodia and Laos with limited autonomy under the Indo-Chinese Federation, with France maintaining control over the military, the economy, and the government. See Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1967, p. 388 and p. 391.
19 Bao Dai abdicated in 1945 when Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. D.J. Sagar, Major Political Events in Indo-China, 1945-1990, Oxford, Facts on File, 1991.
20 A. Terry Rambo et al, eds., "The Challenges of Highland Development in Vietnam," East West Center, Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, October 1995, page xxii.
21 Edict No. 16/QT/TD, known as the statut particulier, signed by His Majesty Bao Dai, Chief of State, Dalat, May 21, 1951.
22 Salemink states that many of the ethnic minorities currently within the provincial administrations in the Central Highlands are "Vietnamized" minority cadre who went North with the Viet Minh in 1954, after the Geneva Agreements. Salemink, "The King of Fire and Vietnamese Ethnic Policy in the Central Highlands," p. 499.
23 Cited in Gerald Cannon Hickey. Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954-1976. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. p. 66.
24 Viet Chung, "National Minorities and Nationality Policy in the D.R.V.," Vietnamese Studies, no 15 (1968), cited in Grant Evans, Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands of Vietnam," Sojourn, volume 7, Number 2, 1992.
25 Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 70.
26 Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 17.
27 Y Bham Enuol, born in 1913, studied at the Franco-Rhade School, the CMA Bible School, and the Ecole Nationale d'Agriculture. In the 1950s he worked as a civil servant in the provincial agriculture service in Darlac and Pleiku provinces. Y Thih Eban, born in 1932, was educated at the Franco-Jarai School in Pleiku and the College Sabatier. Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 51.
29 Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 59.
31 UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.
32 Salemink, "Mois and Maquis," p. 270.
35 Hickey. Free in the Forest, p. 78.
36 Ibid, p. 80.
37 The Cham are an ethnic group originating from the former Kingdom of Champa, which was located in present-day central Vietnam. It was absorbed into Vietnam over the course of three centuries, from 1471 until its assimilation by Vietnam in the 1830s. Khmer Krom are ethnic Khmers living primarily in southern Vietnam, in a region many Cambodians refer to as "Kampuchea Krom," or "lower Cambodia."
38 According to Hickey, the revolts were planned by Col. Les Kosem and Col. Um Savuth with the assistance of several Montagnard leaders. Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 99
39 According to a document prepared in 1993 by the U.S.-based Montagnard Foundation, Inc., another armed uprising took place earlier in the year on July 29, 1965 at Buon Brieng. The revolt was reportedly put down by the Saigon government, which arrested 600 FULRO combatants. Montagnard Foundation, Inc., "Human Rights Violations-the People of the Dega Republic; Supplemental Materials for a Presentation Made to the United Nations Workshop on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Geneva," July 19-30, 1993.
40 The FULRO combatants who were executed were Nay Ry, Ksor Bleo, R'Com Re, and Ksor Boh. Montagnard Foundation, Inc., "Human Rights Violations-the People of the Dega Republic; Supplemental Materials for a Presentation Made to the United Nations Workshop on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Geneva, July 19-30, 1993; Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 138. See also the accounts of the FULRO rebellions by First Lieutenant Roy C. Russell, "Their Time Has Come," Typhoon magazine, published by First Field Forces Vietnam of the U.S. Army Vietnam, October 1969.
41 The Directorate-General was upgraded to a Ministry in 1966. Salemink, "Mois and Maquis," p. 272.
42 Roy C. Russell, "Their Time Has Come," Typhoon magazine, published by First Field Forces Vietnam of the U.S. Army Vietnam, October 1969.
43 Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 190.
44 Russell, "Their Time Has Come," Typhoon magazine, October 1969.
45 Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. xx.
46 Until 1975 FULRO was made up of several different factions, some allied with the U.S. and other with the North Vietnamese. Mark Lioi, "The Montagnards-a 70-year saga of betrayal," Phnom Penh Post, June 8-21, 2001.
47 Nate Thayer, "Montagnard Army Seeks U.N. Help," Phnom Penh Post, Sept. 12, 1992; Nate Thayer and Leo Dobbs, "Tribal Fighters Head for Refuge in USA," Phnom Penh Post, October 23, 1992; Oscar Salemink interview with Pierre K'Bruih, April 16, 1990; cited in "Mois and Maquis," p. 273.
48 Reported in FBIS-APA. 18 May 1976; FBIS-APA, 6 July 1976; cited in Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 287 and 289. See also: UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.
49 Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. xxi.
50 FBIS-APA, 6 July 1976; cited in Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 289.
51 Mark Lioi, "The Montagnards-a 70-year saga of betrayal," Phnom Penh Post, June 8 - 21, 2001.
52 Nayan Chanda, "Ieng Sary: Unite for Our Country," Far Eastern Economic Review 104, no. 25, 1979.
53 Nate Thayer, "Montagnard Army Seeks U.N. Help," Phnom Penh Post, Sept. 12, 1992.
54 Human Rights Watch interview with former FULRO combatant, Greensboro, North Carolina, January 1999. For more information on FULRO see Charles Meyer, Derrière Le Sourire Khmer, Paris: Plon, 1971.