More than 200 Montagnards have been detained over the last two years for participating in peaceful protests that took place in February 2001, with thirty people arrested during the last two months alone. At least seventy people are currently serving lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in the demonstrations or for attempting to seek asylum in Cambodia.
"It's been almost two years since the demonstrations happened, but the Vietnamese government's crackdown against the Montagnards is as harsh as ever," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "People are being interrogated, arrested, beaten and jailed -- simply because they are Christians or are suspected of supporting the popular movement for land rights and religious freedom."
An October 2002 internal directive from the Vietnamese Communist Party, obtained by Human Rights Watch, outlines the government's campaign to "eliminate" "Dega Protestantism," a type of evangelical Christianity followed by many Montagnards in the Central Highlands. Dega Protestantism is regarded with suspicion by the government as an organizing and rallying mechanism for an independent homeland for Montagnards.
Videotapes of state television broadcasts, obtained by Human Rights Watch, show public ceremonies in which highlanders are forced to line up before provincial officials to renounce Christianity and pledge not to gather in groups or participate in demonstrations.
Unprecedented letters of complaint about the repression of minority Christians in the highlands, submitted to the Vietnamese government by the officially recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam South -- also obtained by Human Rights Watch -- appear to have had little effect.
Many people have been in prison for more than six months without trial. When trials do take place they are quick, one-day affairs, closed to the international press corps and the public. Defendants do not have access to independent legal counsel. Harsh prison sentences of as much as twelve years have been issued on charges of crimes against "national security" or "illegal migration" to Cambodia.
The latest round of arrests reached a peak in December 2002, as authorities detained dozens of highlanders and banned Christmas church services in order to prevent minority Christians from gathering together during the holiday season. Authorities arrested six people during the third week in December in Krong Ana district, Dak Lak during Christmas prayer services and another eight as they were attempting to cross the border to Cambodia.
On December 25 the Dak Lak Provincial People's Court handed down lengthy prison sentences to eight highlanders who had been forcibly deported from Cambodia a year before after attempting to reach a refugee camp there.
The arrests have continued into January, with five highlanders reportedly detained in Chu Pah district of Gia Lai between January 11 and 16.
Human Rights Watch called on Vietnam to release all Montagnards who have been imprisoned for peaceful expression of their religious and political views, or for attempting to seek political asylum abroad.
Human Rights Watch also urged Cambodia's international donors, who will gather in Phnom Penh on January 28 at a meeting convened by the World Bank, to insist that Cambodia re-open provincial refugee camps for Vietnamese asylum seekers, which have been closed since March 2002, when Cambodia announced it would no longer accept asylum seekers from the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
"Hundreds of refugees have been turned back at Cambodia's borders in recent months," Jendrzejczyk said. "It is unconscionable for Cambodia to disregard its international obligations and refuse refugees at least temporary asylum. The international community should not sit idly by as Vietnam's repression in the Central Highlands, including the forced deportation of asylum seekers from Cambodia, continues to mount."
Human Rights Watch's findings are published in a sixteen-page briefing paper released today, "New Assault on Rights in Vietnam's Central Highlands: Persecution and Lengthy Jail Terms for Indigenous Montagnards." The briefing paper and a listing of Montagnards currently imprisoned for their religious or political beliefs is available online at http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/asia/vietnam/vietrights.pdf