Background Briefing

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

IV. The 2004 Easter Crackdown

Human Rights Watch has received new information about the harsh crackdown on Montagnard protests in April 2004.  Thousands of men, women and children marched or rode in farm tractors to local commune centers in Gia Lai and Dak Nong provinces, and to Buon Ma Thuot city in Dak Lak province.  They chanted slogans and held banners calling for return of their land, religious freedom, freedom of movement, and release of Montagnard political prisoners.10

Dozens of marches took place simultaneously in numerous localities.  In Dak Lak, protesters from districts surrounding the provincial town attempted to march to government offices in Buon Ma Thuot City.  In Gia Lai and Dak Nong, the protests were more localized, as whole villages marched towards their local commune or district center.  In all three provinces, government security forces were armed and prepared, blocking key intersections and bridges with trucks and barbed wire barricades.

Clashes erupted when police, as well as Vietnamese civilians and employees of private companies working on behalf of the police, attacked the protesters with crude weapons at roadblocks leading into local administrative centers.  Some of the protestors fought back, using their hands or throwing rocks picked up along the roadway.

Most demonstrators interviewed by Human Rights Watch insist that the marches were intended to be nonviolent and peaceful, and that’s why they brought along their children and even grandmothers.  “We didn’t expect to fight, and came with nothing in our hands,” said a Montagnard who marched in Dak Doa district of Gia Lai.  “We only went to demonstrate to make our demands.  When the police started beating people, we fought back.”

At Phan Cu Trinh Road, a key route leading into Buon Ma Thuot, a Montagnard who was in the march told Human Rights Watch that hundreds of demonstrators were beaten bloody and unconscious by police and Vietnamese civilians wielding iron bars, shovels, and clubs with nails.  In an interview with Human Rights Watch in December 2004, an ethnic Vietnamese man who watched the events from his second-story apartment on Phan Cu Trinh Road described what happened:

It was like a war.  The police were mad and really beat the protesters.  Some local Vietnamese joined in––they were mad too.  The Montagnards only had stones and sticks to defend themselves.

Some Montagnards from Dak Nong stated that while they carried no weapons with them to the march in their province, they did stick small batteries in the front pockets of their shirts, to buffer their bodies from shocks from electric batons.  Others admitted to carrying slingshots in their back pockets to be used in self defense.  According to a Jarai man who joined the protests in Cu Se district, Gia Lai:

The police hit us first.  We reacted.  They beat everyone: young and old, women.  If the demonstrators had used knives, maybe the police would have shot and killed us immediately.  Instead they fired over our heads… There was no problem until we got near the commune office, where police and bo doi [soldiers] used trucks to block the road.  The marchers stopped there.  The police threw tear gas, and when the people were blinded the police moved in to beat and arrest people.  The marchers in front fell down but the people in back were able to surge forward.  They fought with the police with their bare hands. The police called for reinforcements from the army and from company workers. The bo doi fired their guns into the air.

In several areas in Gia Lai, protesters reported that the government security forces parked trucks filled with stones and wooden clubs near the blockades, which were used by Vietnamese civilians––some who spontaneously joined the fray––as well as company workers hired by the authorities to attack the protesters.  In Cu Se district, Montagnard protesters interviewed by Human Rights Watch in June 2004 said that uniformed workers from Hoang Anh Gia Lai Company, which makes furniture, were hired by authorities to attack demonstrators in several different communes.

In Cu A commune in Pleiku city, an army truck blocked the way to the commune center, according to a Jarai man in the march:

We went on anyway, so the police hit us with batons.  Four people had broken heads, many people were hurt.  We hit back and overturned the police car.  Then we continued to the commune center.  The police stopped us again and there was fighting.  We had nothing in our hands.  But when the police hit us with their batons we took the batons and hit them back.

In Ayun Pah, police in riot gear with dogs blocked the road. “There was one truckload of wooden clubs,” one of the demonstrators told Human Rights Watch.  “When the police saw us coming to demonstrate, they dumped the clubs on the ground for the Vietnamese to use.”

Most protesters returned to their villages by late afternoon, but soon fled when truckloads of police entered the villages, ransacking houses of suspected activists and destroying homes used for prayer meetings.  A man from Cu Se described what happened:

After the demonstration, the police went to the villages and beat every person they met.  They also destroyed many houses.  Then they went house by house and hunted for people.  Everyone fled.

After the protests, Montagnards interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported seeing tanks parked near commune centers in Cu Se, Duc Co, and Ayun Pah districts of Gia Lai as well as on one of the highways leading into Buon Ma Thuot in Dak Lak.

“The people in the villages were afraid,” said a Jarai man from Cu Se.  “Many soldiers came to camp in the villages.”  The tanks were later removed from view.  Meanwhile, hundreds of Montagnards from Dak Lak, Gia Lai and Dak Nong provinces fled their villages and attempted to seek safety across the border in Cambodia.

Official government accounts state that two Montagnards were killed during the protests, one by a stone thrown by other demonstrators and another who was run over by a tractor driven by Montagnards.  Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least ten Montagnards were killed, and possibly more, though it is impossible to obtain independent verification at this time.

A credible source in Gia Lai province whose work takes him to several districts around Pleiku said that ten Montagnards were killed in Gia Lai during the protest.  On the night of April 10,2004, he said he saw two of the dead in Pleiku hospital: one had been killed by a gunshot to the forehead and the other had been beaten to death.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch in June 2004, an Ede man who participated in the march to Buon Ma Thuot city said that after the clash with police at Phan Cu Trinh Road, he saw thirty to forty Montagnard protesters who had been severely beaten, lying unconscious on the roadway.  That afternoon he went to the city hospital, where he estimated that at least 250 wounded Montagnards and forty Kinh had been admitted.  An ethnic Vietnamese resident of Buon Ma Thuot estimated that at least twenty to twenty-five Montagnards were killed during the protest, as well as several police officers.  None of this was reported on state television, he said.  A Christian pastor who was in Buon Ma Thuot during the protests also estimated that at least twenty protesters were killed as they tried to enter the city.

[10] See “Vietnam: Montagnards Beaten, Killed during Easter Week Protests,” Human Rights Watch press release, April 14, 2004; “Vietnam: Open Central Highlands to International Observers,” Human Rights Watch press release, April 22, 2004; “Vietnam: Montagnards under Lockdown,” Human Rights Watch press release, May 28, 2004; and “Vietnam: Independent Investigation of Easter Week Atrocities Needed Now,” Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, May 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005