Background Briefing

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I. Introduction

This briefing paper describes new and disturbing information about recent large-scale arrests of Montagnard Christians living in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and the torture of Montagnard activists, house church leaders, and others, including individuals who have been deported or have voluntarily returned from Cambodia.1  It offers new evidence of rights violations during the 2004 Easter crackdown.  It also highlights dangerous new policies in Cambodia aimed at stopping asylum seekers from reaching Cambodian soil or summarily returning Montagnards to Vietnam without making any attempt to determine if they are bona fide refugees, as required by international law.2

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.3  Despite the fact that peaceful protest is protected by international and Vietnamese law, during December 2004 Vietnamese security forces rounded up and arrested dozens of Montagnard Christians, without arrest warrants or formal charges, and detained them at district police stations and district and provincial prisons and jails.  Authorities 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.

On December 27, the Vietnamese government announced it had arrested seven Montagnards in Gia Lai province and foiled alleged plans for Christmas Eve protests in forty-nine villages by “persuading” those involved to “abandon unlawful acts.” 

Pledges by top Vietnamese officials at the end of December to respect religious freedom in the highlands quickly evaporated as authorities banned or imposed tight controls over Christmas gatherings organized by Montagnard Christians.  The region’s many Catholics, whose religion is not linked by the government to suspected political activity, were apparently able to freely celebrate the holiday.

Many of those arrested were 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.

At the same time as the crackdown in the Central Highlands has intensified, Cambodia has made it more difficult for asylum seekers to cross its border in search of refuge.  In December, Cambodian officials told 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 to deport Montagnard refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR protection who refuse to be resettled in third countries.

Setting an ominous note for the new year, on January 1 Cambodian National Police Chief Hok Lundy ordered authorities in Ratanakiri to increase the number of border police in order to prevent Montagnard asylum seekers from entering.  “The authorities have to convince the local people to be our spies in order to report how many Montagnards [enter Cambodia] to arrest them and send them back to Vietnam,” he said in an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the Cambodia Daily.  “We cannot allow them [to] stay in Cambodia because it is illegal.”

This combination of repression by Vietnam and border closure by Cambodia puts increasing numbers of Montagnards at risk of serious harm.  UNHCR and key governments must make it clear to the Cambodian government that it should honor its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and Montagnards must not be arrested and summarily returned to Vietnam.  At the same time, the international community should insist that instead of punishing those who flee for safety, the Vietnamese government must begin to deal with the causes of discontent, which are religious repression and widespread confiscation of the agricultural land on which the indigenous minority people depend for their livelihood.

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Since 2001, authorities have continuously arrested and detained Montagnard church leaders, suspected Dega church activists,4 and villagers suspected of providing food to people in hiding.  Many people are released after being interrogated and made to pay a fine through in-kind labor, such as cutting the grass around the police station.  However, Human Rights Watch has recorded the names of 188 Montagnards who have received harsh prison sentences of up to thirteen years since 2001 for their religious activities, participation in the protests, or for attempting to flee to Cambodia.5

In the wake of April 2004 protests by Montagnards (see section IV), authorities dispatched additional police and military to the region, billeting them in the villages and even in suspected activists’ homes.  Since that time, strict restrictions have been placed on travel by Montagnards within the highlands, on public gatherings in minority villages, and on communication with the outside world.

Many Montagnards continue to live in a “lock-down” situation.  In many areas, they cannot travel freely––even to farm their fields––without written authorization from village officials.  Meeting in groups of more than two can spur a summons to the local police station for questioning about whether religion or politics were being discussed.  Communication with friends or family abroad is extremely difficult, as well as risky.  Authorities have arrested many Montagnard activists who were using hand phones to relay information about arrests and other abuses to Montagnard leaders in the United States.  In December, international telephone connections via land lines were for the most part not functioning.

This repressive atmosphere is not apparent from casual tours through the Central Highlands on the main highways, which pass through commercial centers in the district towns dominated by Kinh (lowland Vietnamese) migrants.  According to tourists, diplomats, and journalists who have traveled to the Central Highlands, strangers who turn up un-escorted and un-announced on the side roads leading to Montagnard villages are quickly turned back by local authorities, unless they are designated tourist spots.  Signs announcing that a village is “closed” to outsiders are posted on the roads leading to some villages. 

The 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.  In December 2004, an article in the state media attributed the instability to “government policies using large areas of fertile forestland in the region for industrial crops and [allowing] massive immigration into the region of the Kinh [lowland Vietnamese] majority people from the North.” 

In response to international pressure about the crisis in the Central Highlands, Prime Minister Pham Van Khai issued a decision in July 2004, in which the government pledged to provide each low-income minority household in the Central Highlands from 0.15 to 0.5 hectares of farm land or at least 200 square meters of housing land.  An earlier decision issued in 2002 directs provincial officials to conduct surveys to allot land to those who are short of land.  In August 2004, the government announced that it would immediately suspend government-sponsored migration of lowlanders to the Central Highlands and put an end to unplanned, “spontaneous” migration to the region by 2010.

Two deputy prime ministers toured the Central Highlands in the week before Christmas, pledging to respect religious freedom and restore indigenous minority people’s access to farm land.  In Kon Tum province on December 14, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem urged provincial officials to stabilize the region by investing in irrigation and agro-forestry projects, helping ethnic minority people reclaim land for production, and improving their access to educational opportunities.

In Gia Lai on December 19, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung pressed local authorities in Dak Doa district to “go to all lengths” to ensure that Christians in the area enjoyed a peaceful and joyful Christmas.  The next day, however, police carried out a series of arrests not only in Dak Doa but other parts of the Central Highlands as well.

[1] “Montagnard” is a term used to refer collectively to the different indigenous ethnic groups in the Central Highlands. These indigenous groups include the Jarai, Bahnar, Ede (or Rhadé), Mnong (or Bunong), Koho and Stieng.

[2] The information in this report is based on interviews and written and electronic communication with credible sources in Vietnam, Cambodia, and the United States. Interviews were conducted in private and facts were corroborated by several different informants interviewed at different times and in different places. This was supplemented by news stories, official Vietnamese sources, academic articles, and reports by the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and diplomatic sources on human rights conditions in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and refugee policy in Cambodia. The names of people interviewed by Human Rights Watch, as well as any other identifying details, have been withheld to protect the security of sources. 

[3] Since 1975 the numbers of lowland Vietnamese emigrating to the Central Highlands has skyrocketed, resulting in many Montagnards losing their ancestral lands to the newcomers or having their fields confiscated to make way for state coffee and rubber plantations.[3] The combined population of the different Montagnard ethnic groups now comprises only one-quarter of the highlands’ estimated population of four million. Loss of land, together with official suppression of the type of Evangelical Christianity followed by many Montagnards, has fueled the unrest. Between 1940 and 1989, the numbers of Kinh, or lowland Vietnamese, in the Central Highlands rose from 5 percent to 66 person of the area’s population. In Dak Lak province, for example, the population has more than quadrupled over the last thirty years, as the province has absorbed more than 623,000 new settlers. The population explosion has necessitated not only the formation of new districts and administrative groupings within the province, but creation of an entire new province, Dak Nong, out of the southwestern portion of Dak Lak in 2004. See Human Rights Watch, Repression of Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 2002.

[4] Tin Lanh Dega, or Dega Protestantism, is an unsanctioned form of Christianity that combines evangelical Protestantism with elements of ethnic pride and aspirations for self-rule. The Vietnamese government, which bans Tin Lanh Dega, charges that it is not a religion, but a separatist political movement, controlled by “hostile forces” overseas who aim to undermine Vietnam’s policy of state unity.

[5] For a partial listing of Montagnard political prisoners, see “New Assault on Rights in Vietnam’s Central Highlands: Crackdown on Indigenous Minorities Intensifies,” Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, January 2003. An updated list of Montagnard political prisoners will be posted in January 2005 on Human Rights Watch’s website,

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