(New York) – Vietnamese security forces appear to have coordinated with armed men in civilian clothing to savagely attack Montagnard protesters at more than a dozen mass demonstrations during Easter weekend, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The international community must act now and insist that Vietnam allow independent observers into the highlands to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation,” said Dinah PoKempner, General Counsel for Human Rights Watch. “We’ve received alarming reports that scores of protesters were wounded during the demonstrations, and that some protesters were beaten to death.”

Large-scale unrest involving between 10,000 and 30,000 indigenous minority Montagnards occurred in the Central Highland provinces of Dak Lak, Gia Lai, and Dak Nong on April 10 and 11, according to Vietnam’s state media and independent accounts. Montagnard activists in Vietnam and abroad say that their movement seeks to peacefully press for religious freedom and return of ancestral lands in the Central Highlands. The Vietnamese government has charged that “anti-government” and “counter-revolutionary” elements are inciting the Montagnards to seek a separatist state.

Human Rights Watch has received firsthand reports that security forces and men in civilian clothing, armed with metal bars, shovels, clubs with nails attached to them, machetes, and chains, confronted Montagnard protesters at more than a dozen locations leading into Buon Ma Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak province, on the morning of April 10. According to witnesses, the demonstrators were not armed, although some defended themselves when attacked by throwing stones at the police.

In 12 eyewitness accounts obtained by Human Rights Watch, sources from seven different locations in Dak Lak, Gia Lai and Dak Nong provinces described seeing Vietnamese police, and civilians working with the police, beating protesters. Vietnam’s state-controlled media reported that two protesters were killed – one from rocks thrown by other protesters and another who was run over by a tractor driven by Montagnards. While it is impossible to confirm the numbers of casualties because the government is barring outside observers from the region, to date Human Rights Watch has received credible eyewitness accounts that at least 10 Montagnards were killed -- one from a gunshot wound to the head and the others from beatings -- and hundreds were wounded.

Clashes broke out at more than a dozen locations when security forces and ethnic Vietnamese in civilian clothes blocked demonstrators on roadways leading into Buon Ma Thuot, including Phan Chu Trinh Road northwest of the city; at Ea Knir Bridge on the road from Ea Kao commune, which lies east of the city; and at three locations along the road leading to Krong Pak district town, which lies northeast of the city, including the Ea Pak and Krong Ana bridges. Particularly hard hit at Phan Chu Trinh Road were 3,000 protesters from several villages in Cu Mgar district, northwest of Buon Ma Thuot.

“The security forces were well prepared for the protesters,” said PoKempner. “They had set up ambushes at key places such as bridges and the main roads into the city, and assembled people dressed as civilians holding crude weapons to block the roads and attack the protestors.”

Security officials confiscated and burned hundreds of the farm tractors and makeshift trailers that many Montagnards were traveling on, which had been packed with food and supplies in preparation for several days of protests.

In Gia Lai province, Vietnamese state media reported that demonstrators from Ayun Pa, Cu Se, Dak Doa, Duc Co and Chu Prong districts gathered at the provincial administrative offices in Pleiku provincial town on April 10. On April 11, Montagnards gathered to demonstrate in numerous communes in Ayun Pa, Cu Se, and Dak Doa districts of Gia Lai. Human Rights Watch has received reports of clashes in at least 17 locations in Gia Lai, with the fiercest incidents occurring in Ha Bau, A’Dok and Glar communes of Dak Doa district and Ia Tiem commune of Cu Se district.

State media reported that the provincial hospital in Pleiku received 52 injured people. The provincial hospital in Dak Lak reported 40 injured people on the night of April 10. Prior to a government-imposed news blackout on hospital personnel, staff at Pleiku hospital told reporters that they had received scores of wounded people on Sunday night, many with deep gashes and head injuries, and that at least two demonstrators died that night. Many other wounded demonstrators, fearing arrest, have not gone to the hospitals despite being in need of medical attention, Human Rights Watch said.

Witnesses said authorities quickly collected wounded people and dead bodies from the Phan Chu Trinh area, and that within days, the blood on the roadway had been washed away.

Human Rights Watch stressed the urgency of an independent investigation.

“We fear that a huge cover-up operation has likely already taken place,” said PoKempner. “The Vietnamese government needs to account for the large numbers of people who never returned to their villages after the demonstrations and are now feared to be dead or detained at unknown locations.”

Hundreds of Montagnards have fled their villages and gone into hiding, Human Rights Watch said. In violation of Cambodia’s obligations under international law, Cambodian security forces have been instructed to deport any Montagnards who try to cross the border.

Testimony: The Killings on Phan Chu Trinh Road
A 26 year old Ede woman described a deadly incident she witnessed on Saturday morning, April 10, when several thousand Montagnard protesters, some riding on their farm tractors, arrived at Phan Chu Trinh road, an industrial area of machine shops and welding supply stores on the outskirts of Buon Ma Thuot. Police had lined up students and ethnic Vietnamese men in civilian clothing holding metal bars, shovels, and machetes along the roadway, she said.

“They suddenly rushed at the unarmed crowd, beating the demonstrators until many were lying in the streets,” she said. “They chased demonstrators who tried to flee, including children and women.”

She and many other demonstrators fled to the coffee fields behind the shops lining the roadway, chased by security forces. She described what happened:

"A thousand people tried to get away from the slaughter by the police and civilians. They were beating us with metal bars and sticks. People were bleeding from their throats, noses, mouths, and eyes. The villagers were crying as they tried to get away from the slaughter by the police and civilians. We were running helter-skelter. Those who tried to hide in the coffee plantation were caught, beaten and killed on the spot. Police, students, and Vietnamese threw rocks at us. Many of us were bleeding from being hit on our heads with rocks. Many people were injured and bleeding. We didn’t have any first-aid for their wounds. They were bleeding from their throats, noses, mouths, and eyes. A blind woman sitting on the farm tractor was killed on the road by a dozen Vietnamese people, including police. They asked her to get down from the tractor but she could not because she was blind. They rushed at her and beat her until she fell from the tractor and died. The police and Vietnamese civilians smashed and stepped on our food, clothing and blankets we had prepared for a long-term peaceful demonstration asking for freedom and the end to harassment of our religion and our Montagnard life."