This report provides the most detailed account to date of unrest that erupted in the Central Highlandsof Vietnam in early 2001 and offers a rare glimpse into Vietnamese political repression.
In February 2001, several thousand members of indigenous minorities, often known as Montagnards, held a series of demonstrations calling for independence, return of ancestral land, and religious freedom.
This report, based on eyewitness testimony, case studies, public andinternal Vietnamese government documents, and petitions from villagers in the Central Highlands that are published here for the first time, includes both detailed background information on the grievances that gave rise to the protests, and an analysis of the human rights violations that took place in response to them.
Those violations range from government infringement ofreligious freedom to torture by police. It is important, however, to understand three factors that help explain the sequence of events, although they do not justify the Vietnamese government's response.
The first is the degree to which highlanders have steadily lost land through the migration of hundreds of thousands of lowland Vietnamese, or Kinh, to the region. Some of the settlers came on their own initiative, but many came through state-sponsored transmigration programs that had both economic development and national security goals. Highlanders' resentment over the loss of land was compounded by the fact that they found themselves losing out to the migrants in education, employment, and other economic opportunities.
The second factor is the intertwining of politics and religion in the Central Highlands. In the early 1990s, many Montagnards became attracted to a particular type of Christianity practiced in the highlands called Tin Lanh Dega, or "Dega Protestantism," which brings together aspirations for independence, cultural pride and evangelism.1 For Dega Protestants, prayer and worship services provide space for Montagnard expression not controlled by government authorities. Sometimes this expression involves praying for an independent homeland, or participating in political discussions, often conducted by the same individuals who lead the religious gatherings.
An independent homeland had been one of the goals of the Montagnard resistance army known as FULRO (Front Unifié de Lutte des Race Opprimées, or the United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races), which fought on the side of the United States and South Vietnam during the 1960-1975 war. Though its numbers steadily dwindled and any real fighting capacity evaporated after the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, FULRO survived as a guerilla organization into the early 1990s. Many Montagnards converted to Christianity in the early 1990s when they abandoned armed struggle.2
The third factor is the size and nature of the demonstrations in February 2001. Thousands of people converged on town centers in Pleiku, Buon Ma Thuot, and Kontum, a potential public order concern even if the demonstrations had been entirely peaceful. Some of the arrests that followed, however, were linked to alleged acts of violence. The government would have been justified in arresting and charging with appropriate criminal offenses any demonstrators responsible for vandalism of public buildings, for example, as the police claimed, or who had used rocks in slingshots against individuals or police cars, regardless of the provocation.
The heaviest sentences meted out, however, were against organizers of the protests for the crime of "undermining national security," ostensibly because of the demands of the leaders of the protests for an independent state. Human Rights Watch takes no position on requests by any group for an independent state, but it supports the right of all individuals, including those advocating autonomy or independence, to express their political views peacefully without fear of arrest or other forms of reprisal.
An Independent Homeland
When the U.S.-based Montagnard Foundation, Inc. (MFI), led by Jarai-American Kok Ksor, launched a renewed effort to build support for an independent "Dega" homeland in 2000, it found an extremely receptive audience. While many MFI members, and highlanders in general, are former FULRO supporters, there is no indication that there was any armed component to MFI's efforts and, to Human Right Watch's knowledge, MFI has never advocated the use of violence as a means of achieving independence.
According to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch and interviews conducted with MFI members, the political platform propagated by a handful of MFI organizers in the Central Highlands in 2000 and 2001 was threefold: independence, non-violence, and redress of longstanding grievances. MFI sought the return through peaceful struggle of "their country," currently under Vietnamese control, with Kok Ksor as the leader. They also sought attention to land issues, the lack of religious freedom, ethnic discrimination, pressure to join family planning programs, and lack of educational opportunities.
The Government Response
Vietnamese authorities had reasons to foresee an explosive situation developing in the Central Highlands: demands for independence from remnants of the FULRO movement; the growing popularity of evangelical Christianity; and escalating highlander grievances. The ruling Vietnamese Communist Party has reacted harshly when religion and politics have been mixed, particularly if the religion appears to be drawing a large mass following, and is one whose adherents include former resistance supporters.
Vietnam's Penal Code lists numerous "crimes against national security," some of which blatantly violate international human rights law. Article 87, "Undermining the unity policy," criminalizes "sowing divisions" between the people and the government or the military, between religious and non-religious people, and between religious followers and the government. Offenders are to be sentenced to between two and fifteen years of imprisonment. This criminalization of dissent contradicts the basic right to free expression found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, acceded to by Vietnam in 1982.
While the Vietnamese authorities in some instances may have been justified in using force during the February 2001 demonstrations, the force employed appears to have been disproportionate to the threat posed by the protesters. In the days and weeks following the demonstrations, moreover, the authorities committed clear-cut violations of fundamental rights, including torture; destruction of church buildings; and intimidation and harassment of members of evangelical Protestant congregations.
Many, if not most, of the people who attended the February 2001 demonstrations were villagers who appeared to have little knowledge of MFI aims but responded positively to MFI's call for demonstrations out of their own frustration with what they saw as unfair land-grabbing by the state, discrimination, and religious repression. Interviews with some of these participants suggested that they saw MFI's advocacy of independence as equivalent to "getting our land back" in both the immediate sense of recovering family homesteads and land lost in recent decades to government plantations, and the more historical sense of recovering an area, if not a nation, that had belonged to their ancestors.
Movements for autonomy or independence can pose legitimate national security concerns, but it is incumbent upon the state to demonstrate that any particular expression of ethnic nationalism or support for independence poses a genuine security risk. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows for restrictions on the right to freedom of expression only as is necessary for the protection of national security and public order and as provided by law. National security restrictions are considered permissible only in serious cases of political or military threat to the entire nation. The Human Rights Committee, the international body that monitors compliance with the Covenant, has been reluctant to permit restrictions on free expression, particularly in the absence of detailed justifications by the state. The 1995 Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, an authoritative but non-binding declaration of principles based on international human rights standards, evolving state practice, and the general principles of law, provide that apart from legitimate state secrets, "expression may be punished as a threat to national security only if a government can demonstrate that: a) the expression is intended to incite imminent violence; b) it is likely to incite such violence; and c) there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence."
Rhetoric and Reality
There is a gulf between rhetoric and reality in Vietnamese government policies in the Central Highlands. On the one hand, Vietnam's Politburo leaders express pride in the party's policies toward ethnic minorities and in constitutional provisions guaranteeing minorities the right to use their own languages, and to preserve and promote local identity and traditions. On the other hand, government policies are based largely on perceptions of highlanders as nomadic, in need of development and stability, and ultimately untrustworthy in the political sense because of their longstanding desire for independence and the affiliation of some of them with the U.S. war effort. Despite the rhetoric, the Vietnamese government has not been able to create real benefits for ethnic minorities, and in fact, continues to implement repressive policies.
At the Ninth Vietnamese Communist Party Congress in April 2001, Nông Dúc Manh, an ethnic Tay, was elected general secretary of the VCP, becoming the first member of an ethnic minority ever named to the nation's most powerful position. While this development was groundbreaking, there has been no let up in the government's repressive policies toward ethnic minorities in the Central
Highlands. In a speech in Buon Ma Thuot in September 2001, the new general secretary emphasized that Vietnam is a "country with many ethnic groups living together in unity."3 That same month, fourteen Montagnard leaders who had reportedly organized the February 2001 protests were sentenced to prison terms of up to twelve years on charges of disrupting security.
In the course of researching this report, Human Rights Watch came into possession of more than ninety pages of previously unavailable government documents and citizen petitions, most of them from 2001 and early 2002. These documents, together with previously released confidential government directives from 1999, show that the Vietnamese government has launched a national campaign to monitor independent Christian groups in the highlands and shut down minority churches and other groups deemed to be "inspiring divisions among the various nationalities" or fueling anti-government sentiment.
The documents, while including some government acknowledgment of policy failures in the highlands, also show that the government perceives growing resistance among the Montagnards to be part of a broader conspiracy by outside agitators and a handful of "evil minded" local leaders and political "reactionaries" who allegedly are trying to use democracy, land, and religion to stir up trouble.
This report also found that the government's crackdown on fundamental freedoms in the Central Highlands in the year following the protests made a difficult situation worse. This in turn incited additional highlanders to flee the country to Cambodia-even some of those who did not participate in the demonstrations. If the government does not address underlying highlander grievances and find a way to replace confrontation with dialogue, even more serious unrest in the Central Highlands and further flows of refugees can be expected in the future.
1 Dega (sometimes spelled Degar), is derived from the Ede-language phrase Anak Ede Gar, which means "sons of the mountains." Politicized highlanders increasingly have adopted the word to refer collectively to the different indigenous ethnic groups who live in the Central Highlands. Not all highlanders are Christians, and not all highland Christians follow Dega Christianity; it is estimated that at least 250,000 highlanders, or one-quarter of the total ethnic minority population in the Central Highlands, are Christians, with Dega Christians a subset of that.
2 While Christianity first became popular in the highlands in the 1950s, its practice waned during the first decade after Vietnam's reunification in 1975.
3 BBC Monitoring Service, Voice of Vietnam Radio, Hanoi, in Vietnamese, "Vietnam party chief asserts "key role" of Highlands chiefs to strengthen unity," September 11, 2001.