IV. GOVERNMENT POLICIES TOWARD ETHNIC MINORITIES
The Vietnamese national ethnic community may constitute, as one Kinh ethnologist has written, a garden in which a hundred flowers of different colors and perfume bloom, but the overall plan for the garden is exclusively determined by the head gardener (i.e., the state).
-A. Terry Rambo, East-West Center, Honolulu, 1995
There is a significant gap between rhetoric and reality in Vietnamese government policies towards ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands. On the one hand, the government is proud of its policies toward ethnic minorities and of constitutional provisions guaranteeing them 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 the affiliation of some of them with the U.S. war effort and their longstanding desire for independence.
Historically, Vietnamese government policy toward the country's national minorities has been one that extols the rich diversity of Vietnam's fifty-four officially recognized ethnic groups and proclaims them the progenitor of the Vietnamese Communist Party, while stressing the overarching aim that all ethnic groups work together toward the common goals of national unity, defense, and building the nation.
Vietnam's long-fought struggle for national unity is proudly and rigorously defended, with the "crime of undermining the policy of national unity" bringing prison sentences of up to fifteen years under the 1999 Penal Code.55 A 1993 government publication notes:
The unity of the Vietnamese nation has been strengthened by the constant threat of invasion from feudalist or imperialist powers. In view of geographical position and natural resources, Vietnam has throughout its history been a focus of more powerful forces. Once settled in Vietnam, the ethnic groups realized the necessity of unity in order to safeguard the country and their own existence.56
According to Vietnamese folklore, Vietnam's many different nationalities were hatched out of a hundred eggs from one set of parents, Lac Long Quan and Au Co. Half followed their mother to the mountains and the rest went with their father to the sea. They joined hands to build one nation stretching from the high peaks of Lung Cu in the north, to the hamlet of Rach Tau in the south, and from the Truong Son range in the west to the Truong Sa archipelago in the east.57
The 1992 Constitution affirms the rights of ethnic minorities. Article 5 states that the government forbids all acts of ethnic discrimination and guarantees the rights of ethnic groups to use their own language and writing systems, preserve their ethnic identity, and promote their own traditions and culture. Articles 36 and 39 authorize preferential treatment for national minorities in education and health care. Article 94 mandates the establishment of the Nationalities Council of the National Assembly to "supervise and control" the implementation of policies and programs in regard to ethnic minorities. 58
Government institutions overseeing minority affairs include the Office of Mountainous Areas and Ethnic Minorities, established in 1990 and then upgraded to ministerial status as the state Committee for Ethnic Minorities and Mountainous Areas (CEMMA) in 1992. In addition, policy is formulated and coordinated by the National Assembly's Council of Nationalities and the Institute of Ethnology under the National Center for Social Sciences.. Ethnic minorities currently hold seventy-eight seats, or 17 percent, of the 450-seat National Assembly, slightly higher than their proportion in the overall population (15 percent).59
"Mutual Respect, Participation, and Equal Rights"
Vietnam has been a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) since 1982. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in its General Recommendation XXIII on Indigenous Peoples, calls on states parties to:
(a) Recognize and respect indigenous distinct culture, history, language and way of life as an enrichment of the State's cultural identity and to promote its preservation;
(b) Ensure that members of indigenous peoples are free and 6equal in dignity and rights and free from any discrimination, in particular that based on indigenous origin or identity;
(c) Provide indigenous peoples with conditions allowing for a sustainable economic and social development compatible with their cultural characteristics;
(d) Ensure that members of indigenous peoples have equal rights in respect of effective participation in public life and that no decisions directly relating to their rights and interests are taken without their informed consent;
(e) Ensure that indigenous communities can exercise their rights to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs and to preserve and to practice their languages.
A report submitted by the government of Vietnam in 2000 as part of its reporting duties as a state party to CERD stated:
For the Vietnamese people, racial discrimination is unfamiliar and does not exist in the country. In Viet Nam, all ethnic groups have, from time immemorial, coexisted peacefully without racial conflicts and discrimination. All ethnic groups in Viet Nam, regardless of their size, language, culture, history and level of development, have enjoyed the same rights in all aspects of life.60
In theory, official government strategy for ethnic minority development is based on the following elements, as outlined in a 1995 SRV policy document: a) targeting the poor, since ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented amongst those living in poverty; b) active participation of ethnic people in their own development; c) capacity building within ethnic minority communities; d) sustainable development; and e) mutual respect and responsibility between the parties involved:
The overall goal is to integrate ethnic minorities into wider society, and to create the conditions for all citizens, irrespective of ethnic origin to enjoy equal rights in political economic, cultural and social domains.61
In practice, Vietnamese government policy has wavered from benevolent paternalism to repressive implementation of programs that clash with indigenous religious practices and customary approaches to agriculture and land use.62 In some cases, the problem is poor implementation of national policies at the local level due to corruption, lack of resources, or poor communication of official procedures by the central government to the provincial, district, and commune authorities.
Fixed Fields, Fixed Settlements
Since the late 1960s, the official approach towards ethnic minorities in Vietnam has largely centered around having highlanders settle in permanent settlements and move from shifting or swidden cultivation, to paddy rice cultivation and cash crops.
The government has attempted to carry out these objectives through a number of programs that ostensibly bring new expertise and new population groups to the highlands. These have included the Fixed Cultivation and Permanent Settlement Program (FCPS, or dinh canh dinh cu in Vietnamese) and the New Economic Zones (NEZ) Program, which organized the migration of lowlanders to state-run agricultural farms, cooperatives and production collectives in the highlands.63
Launched in 1968, the FCPS, or "sedentarization," program sought to address environmental degradation allegedly caused by swidden cultivation by relocating "nomadic" highlanders to permanent settlements. The program sought to address twin goals of protecting watershed forests allegedly at risk of being destroyed by the highlanders while improving national defense by relocating ethnic minorities from isolated and sensitive border areas to regions under government control.64
In the early 1980s the government initiated transmigration programs to encourage lowland Vietnamese to resettle in New Economic Zones in the Central Highlands to address landlessness, overpopulation and high unemployment rates in others parts of the country, particularly the coastal areas. The programs also aimed to create a labor force to work on state agricultural farms and tree plantations (under Decree 82/CP) and to establish cooperatives and production collectives (under Decree 95/CP).65
These programs supported the aim of making Vietnam truly uniform, by having ethnic Vietnamese dispersed throughout the country, including the remote highlands. Migration of ethnic Vietnamese to restive border regions was seen to support both national defense and economic development goals. In theory, the underlying approach of the transmigration programs has been to try to take advantage of some of Vietnam's assets: an abundant labor force throughout Vietnam and the Central Highlands' "untapped land potential." Under these schemes, the labor force would be rationally redistributed according to land availability, relocating people from overpopulated areas to those with fewer people and more uncultivated land. The Director of the Department for Resettlement and Development of New Economic Zones at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development outlined the official view of "rural to rural" migration at a 1998 conference:
The legacy of history is an uneven distribution of the population from one area and region to another. While population density tops 1000 people/km2 in some provinces of the Red River Delta, it is only slightly more than 30 people/ km2 in parts of the northern uplands and Central Highlands....The Red River Delta has 21 percent of the country's population but only 14 percent of its arable land, while the Mekong Delta has less than 20 percent of the population but 30 percent of the farmland....
In order to develop the country's potential and achieve rational utilization of its resources, the government has formulated a strategy to redistribute population and labor. Such a reallocation of the forces of production will allow these resources to be tapped and lead to equal development among different regions. Rural-rural migration in Vietnam is truly the will of the party and the people alike.66
Regreening the Barren Hills
In the 1990s, in part to address massive deforestation, the government instituted several new policies in regard to ethnic minorities and upland development. These included the 1992 Program 327 (known as the "Regreening of the Barren Hills Program"), which aimed to reforest barren areas, protect and exploit forests and unused land, and resettle ethnic minority swidden farmers. The 1998 "Five Million Hectare Reforestation Program" (Decree 661/QD-TTg), similarly aimed to induce families to reforest areas in exchange for certain user rights.67 Both programs aimed to reforest "barren" land by resettling lowland farmers into the highlands while relocating highland shifting cultivators to permanent sites to practice fixed cultivation.68
In the mid-1990s a number of Vietnamese academics and researchers, such as those at Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies (CRES) at Vietnam National University in Hanoi, gained the support of progressive local officials and funding from the East-West Center and the Ford Foundation as they began to explore ways to promote sustainable natural resource management among highland communities. Several pilot projects were launched in the Northern Highlands that advanced a decentralized approach to sustainable forest use and protection, customary resource use, and community-based natural resource management.69
Despite innovative initiatives such as these, the overall approach by national and provincial authorities continues to call for sedentarization of the highlanders and an end to shifting agriculture and "nomadic lifestyles."70
55 Article 87, Penal Code of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, cited in A Selection of Fundamental Laws of Vietnam, the Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2001.
56 Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam, The Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 1993.
57 Associate Professor Hoang Nam, "The Vietnamese Homeland in the Vietnamese Nation," published in Vietnam News Agency, "Vietnam Image of the Community of 54 Ethnic Groups," The Ethnic Cultures Publishing House, Hanoi, 1996.
58 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam 1992, A Selection of Fundamental Laws of Vietnam, the Gioi Publishers, Hanoi, 2001.
59 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. United Nations Development Program, "Fact Sheet on Ethnic Minority Groups," December 2000, http://www.UNDP.org.Vietnam
60 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.
61 Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, Committee for Ethnic Minorities and Mountainous Areas, UNDP, "Framework for External Assistance to Ethnic Minority Development," Hanoi, November 1995.
62 A. Terry Rambo writes: "Granting of the constitutional right to minorities to preserve their cultures should not be mistaken for a genuine acceptance of cultural relativism.... Thus, the relationship between the Vietnamese state and its ethnic minorities remains a paternalistic one in which the ultimate authority to make decisions about appropriate directions for cultural change remains in the hands of the central government, not in those of the minorities themselves." A. Terry Rambo et al, eds., "The Challenges of Highland Development in Vietnam," East West Center, Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, October 1995.
63 Oscar Salemink, "Customary Law, Land Rights and Internal Migration," Vietnam Social Sciences, February, 2000, page 67.
64 See Salemink, "The King of Fire and Vietnamese Ethnic Policy in the Central Highlands," p. 513.
65 Huynh Thi Xuan, Vice-Chairwoman, Dak Lak Provincial People's Committee, "The Impact of Rural-Rural Migration to Resettlement Areas in Dak Lak Province," in International Seminar on Internal Migration: Implications for Migration Policy in Vietnam, Population Council, Vietnam, May 1998.
66 Hoang Dong "Rural-rural Migration and Redistribution of Labor and Population in Accordance with Planning for Socio-Economic Development in Vietnam," in International Seminar on Internal Migration: Implications for Migration Policy in Vietnam, Population Council, Vietnam, May 1998.
67 See Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, Committee for Ethnic Minorities and Mountainous Areas, UNDP, "Framework for External Assistance to Ethnic Minority Development," Hanoi, November 1995.
68 Thomas Sikor, "Decree 327 and the Restoration of Barren Land in the Vietnamese Highlands," in A. Terry Rambo et al, eds., "The Challenges of Highland Development in Vietnam," East West Center, Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, October 1995, p. 143.
69 See: Jamieson, Neil, Le Trong Cuc and A. Terry Rambo, "The Development Crisis in Vietnam's Mountains," East-West Center Special Reports No. 6, 1998, and A. Terry Rambo et al, eds., "The Challenges of Highland Development in Vietnam," East-West Center, Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, October 1995. UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.
70 As the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development did in May 2001, and as President Tran Duc Luong did during his January 2002 visit to Kontum. Viet Nam News, May 5, 2001. "President Luong urges Kon Tum to reduce poverty," Vietnam News Agency (VNA), January 2002.