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Since God gave birth to the world we ethnic minorities have always been in the same place. Since antiquity, our ancestors have always told us that this is our land. The Vietnamese never lived here. What we learned from our grandparents is that Vietnam started invading our land in 1930 ... Especially since 1975, the Montagnards and the Vietnamese have not been happy together...The life of Vietnamese and Montagnards together is like dogs biting each other; never easy.

-Mnong man from Dak Lak province, Vietnam

In February 2001 mass protests took place in Vietnam that were among the largest since the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. Several thousand members of indigenous minorities from the country's Central Highlands-often collectively known as Montagnards-held a series of peaceful demonstrations calling for independence, return of ancestral lands, and religious freedom.

Vietnamese authorities, who had long been closely monitoring political developments in the region, responded aggressively. Announcing that they had "battle plans" ready, authorities brought in thousands of police and soldiers to disperse the protesters. In the weeks and months following the demonstrations, authorities arrested hundreds of highlanders, sometimes using torture to elicit confessions and public statements of remorse by protest organizers. Local religious and political leaders were sentenced to prison terms ranging up to twelve years.

A number of key historical, demographic and political factors contributed to a climate of intense frustration that had been building for years: longstanding hopes of independence among the highlanders; the steadily increasing presence of ethnic Vietnamese in what used to be almost exclusively the home of minority highlanders, and resulting disputes over land; the recent upsurge in adherence to Protestant evangelical Christianity among minority highlanders; and the Vietnamese government's stance that the highlanders' desire to differentiate themselves politically and religiously from the majority population represented a threat to national unity.

That perception of a threat to national unity has been fueled by the link between some advocates of independence in the highlands and former members of a pro-United States (U.S.) Montagnard resistance army that effectively died out in 1992. That army was known as FULRO (Front Unifié de Lutte des Race Opprimées, or the United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races). Former FULRO members, led by U.S.-based Jarai-American Kok Ksor, have been among those accused by the Vietnamese Communist Party of organizing the February 2001 demonstrations. Although it appears that groups based in the United States may have encouraged Montagnard protests in the Central Highlands, there is no evidence that they advocated violence. With or without external support, the Central Highlands was a powder keg ready to explode by the end of the 1990s.

The February 2001 eruption in the Central Highlands represented the convergence of multiple grievances among the highlanders: religious repression, ethnic persecution, among the highest poverty and illiteracy rates in Vietnam, and most importantly, the struggle over increasingly scarce land. Government-organized resettlement schemes as well as spontaneous migration had quadrupled the population density of ethnic Vietnamese and other migrants in parts of the highlands since 1975, creating intense pressure on land and natural resources. Lacking official land use certificates, the highlanders were increasingly squeezed off their land. At the same time, the economic base of the highlands, centered on coffee production, was dealt a strong blow by the global plummet in coffee prices over the two years preceding the outbreak of unrest.

In this report, Human Rights Watch analyzes the antecedents to the February 2001 demonstrations, the protests themselves, and their aftermath. It finds that the government violated fundamental human rights in the course of suppressing the protests, and that those violations were continuing as of February 2002. Major violations included:

· Arbitrary arrest, detention or interrogation of hundreds of highlanders suspected of participating in, or helping to organize, the February 2001 demonstrations.

· Police torture of people in detention or during interrogation, including beating, kicking, and shocking with electric batons.

· Violations of the right to freedom of religion including destruction and closure of ethnic minority Protestant churches, and official pressure on Christians to abandon their religion under threat of legal action or imprisonment.

· Excessive use of force by security forces during a confrontation with ethnic Jarai villagers in Plei Lao, Gia Lai on March 10.

· Bans on public gatherings in violation of the right to freedom of assembly.

· Restrictions on travel. In some areas authorities were requiring written permission to be secured in advance of any temporary absence from the village, making it difficult for farmers to go to work in their fields.

· Arrest and mistreatment of highlanders who fled to Cambodia and were then forcibly returned to Vietnam.

The report is based on research conducted between February 2001 and February 2002. That research involved detailed interviews with more than one

hundred eyewitnesses to the events in the Central Highlands before and after February 2001, documents obtained from sources in Gia Lai and Dak Lak, press accounts from Vietnamese state media and foreign wire services, and interviews with Montagnard refugees in Cambodia and the U.S., as well as diplomats, researchers, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) officials based in Vietnam. The scope of this report is limited by the fact that access to the Central Highlands is tightly restricted by the government of Vietnam, making it difficult for independent observers such as human rights monitors and journalists to verify data on conditions in the Central Highlands.

In its research, Human Rights Watch encountered a widespread perception among highlanders that Vietnamese government agencies discriminate against them in education, health, and provision of other social services. Official confiscation of their land without adequate compensation or prior notice is another key grievance of the highlanders. Because the Vietnamese Communist Party prohibits open expression of political dissent, however, there have been few outlets for the resulting discontent.

There is an international component to the turmoil as well. As of March 2002, more than 1,000 highlanders who fled the Vietnamese government crackdown remained in political limbo across the border in Cambodia. While plans were drawn up in January 2002 by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), together with the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments to start a program of repatriation of refugees back to Vietnam, it was clear that until the situation in the Central Highlands improved, ethnic minority people from that region would continue to flee across the border to Cambodia, and many of those already in refugee camps would resist repatriation.


To the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

· Unconditionally release all persons in the Central Highlands who are being held for the peaceful expression of their political or religious beliefs-including Protestant Church leaders, land rights activists, and supporters of the highlander independence movement. Publish in a central register the names of all highlanders held in pre-trial detention in police stations or prisons, as well as any charges against them, and make public the names of those who have been convicted and sentenced.

· Ensure that all persons charged in connection with the protests in the Central Highlands receive trials that meet the standards set forth in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Vietnam is a party. The trials should be public, and those accused should have access to legal counsel of their choosing and the free assistance of an interpreter, as mandated by both the ICCPR and Vietnam's Constitution.

· End the arbitrary detention of highlanders who have returned from Cambodia to Vietnam either voluntarily or against their will.

· Respect the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, and amend provisions of Vietnam's Criminal Code that restrict such rights, particularly the provisions on national security. Permit the right to hold and express political opinions that run counter to state policy, including peaceful advocacy of autonomy and independence. The ban in some parts of the Central Highlands on gatherings of more than four people should be ended.

· Repeal the 1997 Administrative Detention Directive 31/CP, which authorizes detention without trial for up to two years for individuals deemed to have violated national security laws.

· Cease the repression of ethnic minority Protestants, including bans on religious gatherings and other meetings, pressure to renounce one's faith, mandatory participation in non-Christian rituals, destruction of churches by local authorities and security officials, and abusive police surveillance of religious leaders. Uphold Article 27 of the ICCPR, which stipulates that "ethnic...minorities...shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture [and] to profess and practice their own religion."

· Invite the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which visited Vietnam in 1994, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, who visited Vietnam in 1998, for follow-up visits, with unrestricted access to the Central Highlands.

· Remove restrictions on access to the Central Highlands by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), journalists, diplomats, and other independent observers.

· Improve implementation of Vietnam's 1993 Land Law, especially articles stipulating that prior to state appropriation of land, the land user shall be notified of the reasons why the land is to be recovered, the timeframe, the plan for transfer, and the methods of compensation. Provincial and district officials should be directed to promptly investigate and resolve complaints by highlanders about discriminatory and uncompensated confiscation of land.

· Streamline the process of land allocation and issuing of land use certificates for highlander families in order to guarantee that they are able on a non-discriminatory basis to apply for and obtain certificates that can establish long-term land usage rights. To help ensure land security for highlanders, launch participatory land use planning and land allocation programs in all four provinces of the Central Highlands.

· Support development programs for independent NGOs working in the Central Highlands.

· Take steps to end all forms of discrimination against indigenous minorities of the Central Highlands, including discrimination in education and employment, and by developing channels for dialogue and participatory decision-making processes involving Montagnard leaders and local communities.

To the Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia

· Continue to offer temporary asylum and protection to Montagnard refugees and asylum seekers from Vietnam, in accordance with Cambodia's obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

· Provide protection to Montagnard refugees inside Cambodia and upon arrival at the border. Pushbacks of Montagnards highlanders at the border violate the fundamental principle of non-refoulement-the obligation of states parties to the Refugee Convention, and as a matter of international customary law, not to return any person to a country where his or her life or freedom may be threatened on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

· Ensure that officials at all administrative levels are instructed to provide protection to refugees from the Central Highlands, and that those instructions are implemented.

To the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

· Suspend repatriation until conditions are appropriate for voluntary repatriation, and refugees can return in safety and dignity and with assurances that their human rights will be fully respected. In particular, more detailed information should be available to UNHCR and the refugees about the human rights situation in the Central Highlands, and UNHCR should be able to station monitors in the region. UNHCR should insist that its staff be able to conduct home visits throughout the Central Highlands without Vietnamese government monitoring or interference before, during, and after any repatriation.

· Suspend the screening-out or rejection of asylum seekers in Cambodia until more detailed information is available about the situation in the Central Highlands.

· Obtain assurances from the Cambodian government that individual refugees will not be returned to a place where their lives or freedom is under threat.

· Continue to insist that Cambodia uphold its obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and make public and private interventions with the Cambodian government if and when Cambodian security officials expel refugees from Cambodia-either once they are within the territory of Cambodia or at the border-in violation of non-refoulement obligations.

· Obtain assurances in writing from the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments that any repatriation program for refugees is on a voluntary basis and in accordance with international standards, and that the right of individuals to continue to seek asylum in Cambodia is respected.

· For those highlanders for whom repatriation is not an option, UNHCR should continue to protect their right to seek and enjoy asylum in Cambodia, and to seek a durable solution to their plight, including the possibility of third-country resettlement.

To the International Community

· During bilateral discussions with Vietnam, senior government officials, especially those from member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), should express concern about ongoing rights violations in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

· Urge the Vietnamese government to adopt the recommendations made in Part A, above.

· Encourage Vietnam to achieve greater transparency and accountability in its justice and penal systems and press for the establishment of an independent and impartial judiciary. Press for access to trials by international observers and independent monitors.

· Provide technical assistance for legal reform with particular attention to the criminal justice system.

· Fund development programs for independent NGOs in the Central Highlands, particularly programs that ensure full participation of ethnic minorities.

· Urge the Cambodian government to continue to uphold its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and make public and private interventions with the Cambodian government if and when Cambodian security officials forcibly return refugees from Cambodia.

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