A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper
Human Rights Watch has received credible first-hand reports of an escalation of repression by Vietnamese authorities against the ethnic minorities known as Montagnards in Vietnam's Central Highlands.1 Human rights violations have continued unabated since protests for land rights and religious freedom began in February 2001.
In addition, dozens and perhaps hundreds of Montagnards have tried and failed to obtain protection and asylum from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cambodia. Since the beginning of this year, more than 100 Montagnards have been forcibly returned from Cambodia to Vietnam.
According to investigations by Human Rights Watch and official Vietnamese sources, more than seventy Montagnards have been sentenced to prison in Vietnam for participating in protests or trying to flee to Cambodia since February 2001.2 The Cambodian government announced in early April that it will close the refugee transit center operated by UNHCR in Phnom Penh as soon as the final forty-two refugees are resettled. With the two provincial refugee camps operated by UNHCR closed since April 2002, this seriously undermines UNHCR's ability to protect and screen new Montagnard asylum seekers.
This briefing paper provides an overview of events through March 2003, specific recommendations to Vietnamese, Cambodian, and U.N. officials involved with the issue, and, in an attached appendix, English translations of previously unavailable documents: six hand-written Montagnard testimonies on the crackdown and two Vietnamese government directives, the contents of which are summarized below.
New Government Directives
This latest initiative is consistent with other efforts by Vietnamese government and party officials over the last two years to rein in the "restive" highlanders--whether it be by force (arrests and detention) or coercive ceremonies that require Montagnards to renounce Christianity and swear allegiance to the government and the party. The "swearing brotherhood" ceremonies appear to be an effort to implement the decision of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in January 2003 to "better manage religion" and achieve the goal of "great national unity"--perceived as the solution to the problems of land, religion, and ethnicity highlighted at the January party congress.
Human Rights Watch has received reports that loyalty/religious renunciation ceremonies have taken place since the beginning of 2003 in many parts of the Central Highlands, including Ea H'leo (January), Ea Sup (February), and Dak Song (February) districts of Dak Lak. One government document obtained by Human Rights Watch lists twenty-two villages in four communes in Dak Song District, Dak Lak where the ceremony is to take place and provides instructions for how the official program is to be organized.
Continued Repression in the Central Highlands
Among the arrests carried out in February in Gia Lai province, Vietnam were fifteen people in Cu Se district, four people in Chu Pah district and two people in Ia Grai district.4 In Kontum and Gia Lai, leaders of the Mennonite Evangelical Church of the Central Highlands have been beaten and detained.5 Authorities have closed down church services, ransacked church leaders' homes, and confiscated Bibles and church workers' belongings. Officials have withheld or threatened to confiscate family registration documents from Christians and demanded that they cease holding religious services in their homes.
Nine letters written by Mnong church leaders in Dak Lak detail ongoing human rights violations up to the end of February 2003. The violations described in these letters include beatings of church leaders by police and other officials, destruction of churches, official prohibitions on nighttime gatherings and travel outside of villages unless written permission is obtained, and widespread confiscation of villagers' farm land by authorities.
In one letter a Mnong church leader describes being ordered numerous times for interrogation by commune and district police about church activities. On January 22, he was punched in the head three times during interrogation by a police captain, who threatened that the man would be killed if church members continued meeting together. The next day he was summoned to the police station again until 10 p.m. The police officers confiscated his Bible and hymnal and pointed a gun at his head, again threatening him with death if church gatherings did not cease.
On February 9, a district policeman came to his house and pointed a gun at him. "All my family was afraid and crying," the church leader wrote. "The policeman ransacked the church and ordered me to forsake the faith. I said it would be better if he shot me dead in my house."6
Human Rights Watch has collected forty-nine reports from ethnic Ede churches in Dak Lak from December 2002 and January 2003 detailing ongoing persecution of minority Christians and the disbanding of Christian churches in Dak N'Drung, Bu Dak, Dak Gan, Drai Hling, Dak Rla, Buon Rvah, Bu Dop, Bu Bong Leng, Buon Ea Rok, Buon Ca Do Hruc, Bu Prang, Dak R'Lap, Dak Sak, Bu N'Drung, Dak Mleh Buon Kwang, Buon Ea Sup, Buon Poc, and Buon Trun.
Human Rights Watch has also received original copies of dozens of official summonses by police and district officials for prominent Mnong and Ede Christian leaders. One packet includes twelve police summonses for a prominent Mnong pastor, calling him to answer for his religious activities from 1992 to the present. Another packet of documents includes seven summonses for another Mnong pastor from 1992 to the present, as well as an official order to demolish a Christian chapel.
Other incidents detailed in documents smuggled out of the Central Highlands in February and March 2003, translated by Human Rights Watch, include:
Failure of Cambodia and UNHCR to Offer Protection to Fleeing Refugees
On February 6, ten Montagnards were arrested near the border of Mondolkiri and Kratie provinces in Cambodia, apparently attempting to make their way to Phnom Penh. They were forcibly returned to Vietnam by Cambodian security officials. This followed the arrest and forcible return to Vietnam of two groups of Montagnards, totaling approximately eighty people, in January.
Human Rights Watch has documented the fact that upon return, many Montagnard asylum seekers are beaten, detained, or sentenced to lengthy prison terms. At least seventeen Montagnards are currently serving prison sentences of up to ten years after being forcibly returned from Cambodia to Vietnam, or for attempting to flee to Cambodia.10
Meanwhile, border patrols have been reinforced on both sides of the international boundary. Additional security forces have been posted in minority villages in Vietnam, where officials are systematically pressuring Montagnards to renounce Christianity and pledge not to gather in groups or participate in demonstrations. On the Cambodian side of the border, subdecree 124, implemented in March, calls for the deployment of an additional 600 police officers along the border.
In March, Human Rights Watch received a handwritten list of the names of 439 ethnic Mnong Christian families (1,206 people) from Dak Song district, Dak Lak province, Vietnam who are requesting international protection in Cambodia. This request was made on thirty-four signed and thumbprinted sheets of paper, which were smuggled across the border to Cambodia in March 2003. "Please have pity for us and rescue the Christian believers and help us receive back our ancestral lands," one of the petitions states. "Only those who have been persecuted have agreed to give their fingerprints below."
Human Rights Watch has also obtained a list of the names of twenty-five Montagnards who have been hiding in the forest in Cambodia since December 2002. "We lack food and medicine," the letter, dated March 22, states. "If you have the heart to help us, please help us otherwise we will die."
1. Insist that the Vietnamese government immediately cease the persistent human rights violations and persecution of Montagnards in the Central Highlands.
Translations of some of the Vietnamese government documents and Mnong, Jarai and Ede accounts are attached.