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Human Rights Watch research revealed widespread perceptions among highlanders that Vietnamese government agencies discriminate against them in education, health, and the provision of other social services. Highlanders interviewed by Human Rights Watch claimed they were treated worse than lowland Vietnamese by government officials and ethnic Vietnamese civilians in all aspects of their lives-not only access to land, but education, medical care, government services, and even allocation of trading stalls in the markets. Christians, they asserted, face additional discrimination: they are often not considered for government jobs because their loyalty to the state is questioned, and local officials often impose arbitrary fines and forced labor on them in an effort to pressure them to renounce their religion. Many are asked to renounce their Christian beliefs in order to have their children advance in school.190 Some of the claims-such as widespread allegations of forced sterilization of Montagnard women in government family planning programs-are difficult to substantiate. Other complaints are commonly heard elsewhere in Vietnam. The fact that ethnic minority people have to pay in advance for medical care or cover their children's school fees, for example, are the same for ethnic Vietnamese people in other parts of the country.191 "Their isolation, and mistrust of the government, makes them think many of the policies that make them unhappy apply only to them," said a Western development worker with experience in the Central Highlands.192

There is substantial evidence, however, to support some of the highlanders' claims of unequal treatment.193 At a minimum, the highlanders' perceptions of being discriminated against, combined with their massive mistrust of state authorities, is a major issue the government must face in its efforts to address the unrest in the Central Highlands.


The annual gross domestic product in Vietnam is approximately U.S. $400,194 making Vietnam one of the poorest countries in the world. The Central Highlands is considered to be one of the most impoverished regions in Vietnam. While the national economy has grown over the last decade, with the number of poor households decreasing nationwide, 40 percent of the minority population in the Central Highlands continues to live below the poverty line.195 In a June 2001 report, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said that as many as 45 percent of ethnic minority children in the Central Highlands suffer from malnutrition.196 A 1989 study found that the life expectancy of ethnic Jarai in the Central Highlands was on average fifty-four years, as opposed to sixty-eight years for ethnic Vietnamese.197

Most highlanders support themselves by farming, with many households holding less than half a hectare of agricultural land. Much of the farmland is not irrigated and the yield per hectare is low (estimated at less than one ton of rice per hectare). Many families suffer a food shortage for three to five months every year.198 While the government has policies and programs directed at alleviating poverty in the Central Highlands, setting ambitious targets from the national and provincial levels, implementation is poor.199 A national initiative known as Program 135 targets Vietnam's 1,700 lowest-income communes nationwide, particularly minority communities in the highlands.200 In 1999 the Vietnamese press began to carry reports of corruption within CEMMA's administration of Program 135, particularly in the Northern Highlands, which led to reprimands for CEMMA's director in December 2000 and the dismissal of several provincial officials.201

A study conducted in Ea Sol commune of Ea H'leo district of Dak Lak in 1999 found that families' average monthly income ranged between 200,000 to 500,000 dong (U.S. $15-$38) per month, with the first group considered "poor" and the second group considered "better off." That annual income is derived from farming, animal husbandry, collecting forest products, or working as laborers.202 The ability to grow rice is often critical, as rice is often used as a means of exchange in ethnic minority areas. Ethnic minority people earn 15,000-20,000 dong (about U.S. $1) a day for casual labor working on plantations or clearing fields. The women sometimes sell vegetables in the market, although they are sometimes chased off by ethnic Vietnamese vendors.

"If we have fresh vegetables we want to sell in the market, individual Vietnamese often smash our produce or overturn our baskets and don't let us sell," said an Ede woman from Dak Lak. Even on a good day a woman might make 5,000 to 10,000 dong (less than a U.S. dollar) in the market.

Poverty combined with political vulnerability has made highlanders particularly susceptible to extortion and petty corruption. Highlanders interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that when they complain, authorities have proven unwilling or unable to stop such practices.

The constant levying of fines adds to the financial burden. Highlanders claim that they are often fined for violating the local market law when they bring their vegetables in to sell, or are asked by police to show their residency cards, which many people do not have. One relatively educated and articulate Ede man told Human Rights Watch that it took him two years and 600,000 dong (U.S. $43) in bribes to obtain his residency card, which is required for every Vietnamese citizen by law.203

Highlanders interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that often they are stopped by police and fined right before lunchtime. "Are you ready to denounce your religion?" they are asked. If not, it's a 50,000 dong fine-enough for the policeman's lunch. One informant from Lam Dong was constantly fined, to the effect of 1.5 million dong (U.S. $104) a year, equivalent to the cost of keeping three children in elementary school.204

Teenage highlanders said they no longer dared to leave their villages after dark because often the police stop them, ask them what they are doing and charge them with violating the law. Their choice is to pay a 50,000 dong (U.S. $3.50) fine the next day at the police station, or 10,000 dong (U.S. $0.69) on the spot. "We have to bow to the policeman as we hand over the money," one Ede youth said.205

Such practices can be devastating for Montagnard families, who must be extremely careful to avoid being fined by the police or incurring extra medical or school fees, if they want to make ends meet. Most families can just about survive on the poverty level, said a foreign relief worker-unless there are any mishaps. "That means, however, that often there's only one meal a day," he said. "If there are two or three children who are school age and the family needs to pay school fees, it's very difficult. Either the children don't go to school, or there's less to eat. On top of that, any other fines or fees or forced labor days or travel bans that take a farmer away from his fields or casual labor job can be catastrophic. You can see why the loss of a family's rice field-even if it's less than half a hectare-can be devastating."206


The ethnic minorities of the Central Highlands have among the highest rates of illiteracy in Vietnam. Illiteracy among the Bahnar and Jarai is estimated at 70 to 72 percent of males and 88 percent of females.207 The government has sought to address the problem by establishing special ethnic minority boarding schools. Theoretically ethnic minority students are entitled to full or partial exemption from school fees, according to state education policies and the Law on Education.208 In practice, school fees are imposed.

The set fees to attend school in Vietnam are 300,000 to 500,000 dong (U.S. $23-33) per year per child for elementary school, 1 million dong (U.S. $66) per child per year for lower school, and 1.5 million dong (U.S. $100) per child per year for high school. School supplies such as books, pens and paper are not included, which can add another 50,000 to 100,000 dong per year. With annual incomes often considerably less than U.S. $200 a year, such costs make school attendance prohibitively expensive for many highlanders. As a result, very few Montagnard children attend school past seventh grade. A Montagnard woman explained why so many minority children drop out of school before graduating from twelfth grade:

When a student gets to eighth or ninth grade, there's always difficulty trying to get to a higher level of education. When you're a member of a different religion, or have a different background, or your father was a member of FULRO, you're not allowed to go to a higher level of education because they don't want you to know anything. If you're in a religion that's not accepted, like Protestantism, it's really difficult. They line the kids up and ask them what religion they are. They'll find a way to drop the kid-either by taxing them more or making them pay more money. The families are already very very poor, so the kids have to drop out.209

Many schools in the highlands typically close at noon, which means that in order to get a good education, highlanders would need to pay for extra classes provided after hours by school teachers, who take on extra jobs offering tutoring or special classes for extra fees. Tutoring one child individually can cost 20,000 to 25,000 dong (about U.S. $2) per hour or 30,000 to 35,000 per hour (or about U.S. $2.50 per student) for a group of five students. For a child attending seventh grade, those figures suggest that a family could easily spend three to five million dong (U.S. $200-$380) a year to see that the child gets a reasonable education. If a family had three or four school-age children, the costs are prohibitive for all but the wealthiest Montagnard families.

The government is aware of the burden of school costs and has made some efforts to help alleviate them for minority students-particularly since the February unrest-but those efforts have not gone nearly far enough.

Despite provisions in the Vietnamese Constitution for instruction in minority languages (Article 5), the vast majority of primary schools in the Central Highlands conduct their classes in Vietnamese.

Montagnard Christians claim that their children are often discriminated against in school, particularly if it is known that their family supports the independence movement or formerly supported FULRO. One young Ede girl was able to make it to the tenth grade because she spoke good Vietnamese, but she was told she was no longer welcome at school after she attended the February 2001 demonstration in Buon Ma Thuot.210

Other people interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that even those who are able to graduate from high school find that government jobs are unavailable to them because of ethnic discrimination as well as suspicions that "Dega Protestants," or families of former FULRO members, would not be loyal to the government.

"Even if we study to grade twelve, we can't work as doctors or government workers because they say we are following a `U.S. religion' and not real Christianity," an Ede woman told Human Rights Watch.211

Human Rights Watch has also received reports of highlanders being pressured to abandon Christianity in order to obtain government jobs. In one document obtained from Ea H'leo district, a Jarai woman who had undergone teacher training in Dak Lak was required to sign a pledge that she would not oppose party policies in order to be considered for employment at an elementary school. Nonetheless the local People's Committee decided against approving her hire by the school, stating in an official memorandum: "If she undertakes in writing to abandon Protestantism, then the Commune Committee will permit the school to hire her."212

Pressure to Limit Family Size

Highlanders interviewed by Human Rights Watch claimed that government family planning programs were particularly coercive in the highlands, but the evidence is unclear. Vietnam's official family planning policy aims to limit families to no more than two children. The U.S. State Department describes the policy as one that "emphasizes exhortation rather than coercion," in which penalties such as fines or denial of promotions to government employees are rarely imposed.213

While "exhortation rather than coercion" may be the rule for most of Vietnam, fines appear to be common for highlanders who have more than two children. Out of twenty Ede and Mnong women interviewed by Human Rights Watch specifically about this issue, those who had had more than two children had either had their most recent births at home and not in the hospital to avoid detection, or were forced to pay 600,000 dong (about U.S. $46) when the third child was born, with fines rising for the fourth and fifth.214

A Mnong woman from Dak Mil said: "They tell us not to have too many children. They say the ethnic minorities should only have two. They pressure us to have an operation, or if we have too many children, they don't get medical treatment." Her third child, which she delivered despite pressure not to from local health workers, became ill after being born. She blames the fact that the child is now partially blind and appears to be developmentally disabled to the fact that local health workers refused to give her and the baby any postnatal medical treatment.215

"I had my third baby at home because I was afraid the authorities would fine me," another Ede woman told Human Rights Watch. "I had a friend help me. She's not a midwife, and we did not have any medicine. I was afraid. There was only God to help me."216

Distrust of authorities is so pronounced that many highlanders are convinced that government family planning programs are designed to reduce the numbers of highlanders so that ethnic Vietnamese have more land to occupy. A petition submitted to provincial authorities by villagers from a hamlet in Dak Lak in December 2000 included the following complaint in regard to birth control programs:

Child birth issues: The Hanoi government has used false propaganda in talking about birth control with the Dega. They strongly encouraged our people to participate in birth control plans so that they can destroy the life of the baby and also to exterminate the whole Dega population. By doing this, they hope that they can have more land to occupy. As a result, those who participated in birth control program have suffered too much pain and dizziness. Their bodies no longer functioned normally as they used to function, and the government did not pay any attention at all to their health.217

Many highlanders in the refugee camps in Cambodia, as well as Montagnard advocacy groups in the United States, have alleged that the government engages in forced sterilization.218 Human Rights Watch, which is unable to conduct investigations in Vietnam, has no evidence to support that allegation.219

Out of dozens of highlanders interviewed by Human Rights Watch, none had been sterilized against their will; most said they were fined, pressured to join family planning programs, or warned that they would not be eligible for family medical care if they had more than two children.

A woman from a hamlet near Buon Ma Thuot said that when her younger sister became pregnant in December 2000, the doctors pressured her to have an abortion. She did not agree. "When the child was born, the doctor did not give it proper care. They wanted her to do an operation, but she refused."220

"When we refuse to have the [sterilization] operation, the medical workers say if we get sick later, they won't treat us in the hospital," said an Ede woman from Buon Dha Prong in Dak Lak. "They call us hard headed troublemakers."

Another woman was fined when she went to the hospital to deliver her third baby. "They wanted to operate on me so I couldn't have more children, but I didn't agree," she said.221

Western observers with long experience in Vietnam said they find it highly unlikely that any forced sterilization programs are going on in Vietnam, and especially not any that are targeted specifically at the Central Highlands. "Since the 1980s there's been mass birth control programs throughout Vietnam, and even forced abortion and forced birth control programs, but not forced sterilization," said one Hanoi-based diplomat. "Vietnam isn't sophisticated enough to enact a sterilization program-plus it lacks the facilities."222 However, the Vietnamese government's refusal to allow independent investigations by human rights organizations or the U.N. makes assessment of any allegations difficult.

The government has, however, set national sterilization target figures as part of its family planning program that may account for the pressure, although Human Rights Watch has no data to suggest the campaign is being directed more against minority women than against ethnic Vietnamese. As part of the program, the government has hired "birth control promoters," who receive commissions (about U.S. $3 a piece) for each individual they recruit to the program. In addition, village volunteers, officially called "collaborators," monitor married couples to ensure they do not have more than two children.223

In Vietnam, voluntary national sterilization programs such as tubal ligation procedures and the use of a controversial drug called quinacrine, have been employed since at least 1993.224 Between 1993 and 1999 Vietnam accelerated the use of sterilization, increasing the numbers of women who had tubal ligations to approximately 750,000 within that time period. In addition, an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 women were sterilized through the use of quinacrine.225 The use of quinacrine was discontinued from the national program, in part because of bad side effects in 1990.226 The national program now relies more on the use of condoms and contraceptive pills, as well as intrauterine devices (IUDs).

Having more than two children can lead to other forms of harassment. An Ede man who was summoned to district police headquarters in Dak Lak after participating in the February 2001 demonstrations said that part of his interrogation revolved around the size of his family:

They called me to the district in July. At that time they asked me how many children I had. I said four. They asked "Why so many?" I answered that the Bible doesn't forbid us from having many. The policeman said if I have so many children it makes it difficult for me to make a living and difficult for my wife. "The reason you have difficulties in your life is your own fault [not the government's]," he said. "That's the reason you have organized and joined the demonstrations."227

190 Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Vietnam ratified in 1982, provides: All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

191 Since doi moi, or the "renovation" policy launched in the late 1980s, the government has stopped full subsidy of social services. This means that citizens throughout Vietnam now have to pay some of the costs of educational and medical services. National policies granting preferential treatment for ethnic minority communities are not always implemented in practice.

192 Human Rights Watch interview, July 16, 2001.

193 Lack of sufficient food, medical care, and the prevalence of diseases such as malaria, dysentery, and cholera in the Central Highlands-as well as fees for medical care-may all be factors in the relatively low life expectancy of the indigenous minorities of the Central Highlands and the fact that infant and child mortality there is the highest in the country. UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.

194 UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.

195 Some international development organizations define poverty based on the "hunger-poverty line," in which a family is defined as poor if their monthly per capita income is not enough to provide a daily calorie intake of 2,100 calories per person. The Vietnamese government considers households in mountainous areas to be poor if they have less than thirteen kilograms of rice per person per month (which corresponds to about 1,500 calories per person per day). This does not address other necessary expenditures such as education, clothing, transportation, and health care. The World Bank uses the "2,100 calorie plus poverty line," which not only evaluates whether people have enough food or income to avoid starvation but enough income to meet other essential non-food expenses, including education, health care, culture and travel. See Decision N. 59/DOLISA of November 6, 1998, cited in Tran Ngoc Thanh, "A Study of the Rural Poverty in Dak Lak Province-Vietnam; Constraints and Opportunities for Alleviation," Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the MSc in Rural Resources and Environmental Policy, Wye College, University of London, 1999. See also: United Nations Development Program, "Fact Sheet on Ethnic Minority Groups," December 2000,

196 Reuters, "Vietnam's population growing by a million a year," July 12, 2001.

197 Study cited in a report by the UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.

198 Tran Ngoc Thanh, "A Study of the Rural Poverty in Dak Lak Province - Vietnam; Constraints and Opportunities for Alleviation," Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the MSc in Rural Resources and Environmental Policy, Wye College, University of London, 1999.

199 According to the official Viet Nam News Agency (VNA), in 2002 Gia Lai province will spend 64 billion dong (or U.S. $5 million) in an effort to reduce its poverty rate from 22 percent to 20 percent during the year through hunger eradication and poverty alleviation programs. These will include 20 billion dong spent on sedentary farming and resettlement programs in NEZs and 30 billion dong for construction of schools, irrigation projects, water and electricity supply facilities, and medical stations. The remainder will be granted as soft loans to poor households to develop agricultural production and traditional handicrafts. "Vietnam's Central Region Aims to Reduce Poverty Rate in 2002," Asia Pulse, January 21, 2002.

200 UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.

201 Vietnamese press sources from 1999-2001 (Viet Nam News, Dai Doan Ket, Thanh Nien, Lao Dong, and Tuoi Tre), and The Nation, February 7, 2001, cited in UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.

202 Tuyet Hoa Nie Kdam, Pham Van Hien, Nay Ky Hiep, "An Assessment of Households' Economic Conditions Participating in Pilot Project of FLA in Ea Sol Commune, Ea H'leo District," MRC/GTZ, October 1999.

203 Human Rights Watch interview with Ede man from Dak Lak, July 16, 2001.

204 Human Rights Watch interviews with Ede, Koho and Jarai men, July 12-17 2001.

205 Human Rights Watch interviews with Ede men from Dak Lak, July 17, 2001.

206 Other costs include government taxes levied on rice harvests, which can run from 70,000 dong (U.S. $5) for one harvest on a 400 m2 soybean field to a flat fee of two million dong (U.S. $154) per harvest for those growing coffee. Human Rights Watch interview with international aid worker based in Vietnam, July 17, 2001, and with an Ede woman from Dak Lak, April 22, 2001.

207 United Nations Development Program, "Fact Sheet on Ethnic Minority Groups," December 2000,

208 Ninth periodic reports of states parties due in 1999, Addendum, Viet Nam, "Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 9 of the Convention," International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, CERD/C/357/Add.2, 17 October 2000.

209 Interview conducted by Scott Johnson and Tim Johnson for film, "America's Forgotten Allies," Scorpion Productions, 2001.

210 Human Rights Watch interview with Ede girl from Buon Ma Thuot, June 16, 2001.

211 Human Rights Watch with Ede woman from Dak Lak, July 14, 2001.

212 "Written Guarantee to Peoples' Committee of [name withheld] village, Ea H'leo, Dak Lak, signed and stamped by the commune People's Committee. Date illegible. Vietnamese-language document and translation on file at Human Rights Watch.

213 "Vietnam," Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2000, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, February 2001.

214 Human Rights Watch interviews with Ede and Mnong women, July 2001.

215 Human Rights Watch interview with a Mnong woman, November 1, 2001.

216 Human Rights Watch interview with group of Ede women, July 14, 2001.

217 "A report of the cruel action against the tribal people in the Highlands," Citizens' petition from [village name withheld], written in December 2000. The Ede-language document, obtained by Human Rights Watch in July 2001, is on file at Human Rights Watch.

218 See "Vietnam Ambassador Admits Sterilizations of Montagnard Hill Tribes," Montagnard Foundation, Inc. Media Release, August 2001.

219 The overall focus of Human Rights Watch research was not specifically on the family planning issue, but on human rights conditions in the Central Highlands more generally.

220 Human Rights Watch interviews with Ede and Mnong women, July 14, 2001.

221 Ibid.

222 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with a Hanoi-based western diplomat and a western relief worker, both with long experience in Vietnam, May and July, 2001.

223 Doctors who perform sterilization procedures also receive commissions (about eight cents per person), while women throughout Vietnam who agree to tubal ligations receive between U.S. $7 and $20 and men receive U.S. $28 for a vasectomy. See Mark McDonald, "Capping Vietnam's Baby Boom: A government drive takes family planning's gospel to a fast-growing nation," San Jose Mercury News, February 11, 1999. See also Margot Cohen, "Trauma Ward," Far Eastern Economic Review, June 29, 2000.

224 Quinicrine, which was banned in India in 1998, is inserted in pellet form into the uterus, where it causes sterilization through a chemical scarring of the fallopian tubes. In addition to Vietnam, it has been used in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, and Chile. See Alix Freedman, "Two Americans Export Chemical Sterilization to the Third World," Wall Street Journal, June 18, 1998; Express News Service (New Delhi), "Gov't Bans Quinacrine," August 17, 1998; Marge Bere, "The Quinacrine Controversy One Year On," Reproductive Health Matters, No. 4, November 1994.

225 Alix Freedman, "Two Americans Export Chemical Sterilization to the Third World," Wall Street Journal, June 18, 1998.

226 Tran Tien Duc, a director of the National Committee for Population Control and Family Planning, told a reporter in 1999: "Some studies now show there were bad side effects. I think it was a mistake to use it on such a large scale." Mark McDonald, "Capping Vietnam's Baby Boom: A government drive takes family planning's gospel to a fast-growing nation," San Jose Mercury News, February 11, 1999.

227 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Ea H'leo district, Dak Lak, October 30, 2001.

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