The discontent in the Central Highlands arises not only out of the encroachment on Montagnard traditional lands but official harassment and discrimination against ethnic minorities who are evangelical Christians. For many of the highlanders who participated in the February 2001 protests, both issues-land and religion-are linked to their aspirations for independence.
In April 2001, the Bureau of Religious Affairs recognized the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) in the south.145 One observer described this as a "modest concession after years of repression."146 While the decision theoretically extends to all the southern provinces of Vietnam, including the Central Highlands, it is doubtful that it will legalize the unregistered Protestant "house churches" in minority areas or any churches deemed to be Tin Lanh Dega (Dega Protestants).147 Religious freedom advocates have expressed concerns that the decision is another effort by the government to bring more Protestants under state control, and perhaps to bar minority Protestants from gathering to worship in house churches.148
In March 1999, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Religious Intolerance issued a highly critical report on religious freedom in Vietnam, based on his October 1998 visit to the country.150 The Vietnamese government subsequently repudiated the findings and announced it would no longer allow independent human rights monitors to visit Vietnam. The Vietnamese government reacted equally defensively to testimony in February 2001 by critics alleging religious repression in Vietnam before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which later concluded that "the Vietnamese government continues to suppress organized religious activities forcefully and to monitor and control religious communities."151
Christianity in the Highlands
Protestantism is said to be the fastest growing religion in Vietnam, particularly among ethnic minorities in the Northern and Central Highlands. The largest concentration of Protestants in Vietnam is in the latter.152
Source: Government Committee for Religious Affairs, VCP Webpage, September 2001.
In the past, Montagnard traditional animist religious practices and rituals were discouraged by the government for being "superstitious" activities, or removed from the village context and commodified: costumed minority dancers were put up on stage to perform for visiting officials from the lowlands or foreign tourists.156 Ironically, in recent years highlanders who have converted to Christianity have complained about local officials forcing them to reinstall traditional ancestral altars in their homes and take down the sign of the cross. The "goat's blood ceremonies" employed in Dak Lak to secure pledges from highlanders not to continue any political activity consisted of a crude approximation of an animist ceremony (See Case Study XVI, "The Goat's Blood Oath Ceremonies in Ea H'leo," p. 163.)
Part of the appeal of Christianity during its resurgence was that it served as an underground, alternative outlet for Montagnard political aspirations and an avenue for protest in a context where all other forms of dissent were prohibited. Anthropologist Oscar Salemink noted: "Nowadays, the most conspicuous act of covert resistance is in the field of religion. With their traditional religious practices branded as superstition and outlawed, many Montagnards have turned to Christianity as an act of protest."158
Government restrictions on churches and organizations not recognized by the state means that despite the large numbers of Christians, there are few churches in the highlands. Most minority Protestants worship quietly in small groups in their homes. However, prior to the February 2001 demonstrations, it was not uncommon for minority church leaders to occasionally organize large religious gatherings in forests or farm fields, attended by as many as 200 people. Police would often break up the ceremonies and impose fines or other penalties on the participants, such as forced labor clearing fields, cutting grass or working on state coffee plantations.
The house church movement began to gain popularity in 1989, when several congregations left the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (South) after four popular pastors were expelled or left. It is now estimated that house churches make up one-fourth of Vietnam's evangelical Protestants.165
Although officials in some lowland towns and cities have turned a blind eye to some ethnic Vietnamese house churches, most in the Central Highlands are closely monitored. As mentioned above, the government's recognition of the Evangelical Church of the South in February 2001 does not appear to apply to ethnic minority house churches.166
Particularly since the emergence of an activist Montagnard movement in early 2000, the practice of Tin Lanh Dega, or "Dega Christianity", combines aspirations for independence and the particular type of evangelical Christianity many highlanders practice. Montagnard preachers often use Biblical stories of the lost tribes of Israel and the promised land to illustrate the political struggle for independence, and prayer meetings are often followed by political discussions. While many minority Christians in the Central Highlands would reject the label of "Dega Christians," others use the term with pride. A Jarai village Bible teacher offered this explanation of the Tin Lanh Dega:
The Ede woman church leader from Dak Lak summed up "Dega Christianity" this way: "We want our own religion. It's our culture-if you kill it, our soul will still live."168
Not all Montagnard Protestants support "Dega Christianity," which is seen as mixing religion and politics. Two Montagnard pastors who spoke to a government-sponsored press tour to Pleiku in February 2002 expressed criticism of Protestants who had joined the pro-independence protests a year earlier. "Many of the protesters were very young and had not learned the true message of Protestantism," Montagnard pastor Siu Pek told reporters. "Some people mistakenly associated Protestantism with politics."
Protestant prayer and worship services provide a space for Montagnard expression not controlled by the authorities. In part for this very reason, the government has become increasingly suspicious of Protestants in the region, fueling a vicious cycle. To minority Christians, the fact that the government seeks to monitor and suppress house church services is proof that the government is not serious about respecting rights to freedom of religion. To government officials, the fact that highlanders attending house services sometimes speak about political matters is proof that the religion is a conduit for political subversion.
The growth in Protestantism in the highlands, particularly during the last decade, is viewed with intense suspicion by the VCP and seen as a major challenge to the party's authority. The government's actions to suppress expression of independent political and religious ideas has not been subtle: it has banned churches in many villages, barred ministers from preaching, monitored private worship services, required that applicants abandon their faith as a condition of obtaining government jobs, and otherwise trampled on ethnic minority religious freedom.
Confidential government directives issued between 1999 and 2001 show a centrally directed national campaign and special bureaucratic infrastructure to target and suppress Christians in ethnic minority areas in the Northern and Western Highlands.
In response, authorities closed churches and banned religious activities in some areas; fining, detaining or imprisoning those who persisted. Committee 184 documents described its successful effort to contain Protestantism:
Committee 184's guidelines stated that Protestant religious activities in the south were neither officially banned nor recognized. In some areas a more lenient approach was possible: followers were able to practice their religion unhindered, allowing the importing of Bibles and rebuilding of churches.175
Program 184B ends with exhortations to "completely stop all the negative manifestations [of religion], and fight against the bad elements which are causing unrest..." Finally, in order to "reduce the damage that comes from abroad and handle in a timely manner any complications that may come up," the army, security police, government departments and mass party organizations are to identify cadres to be on alert, should intervention be needed.179
Program 184B details the perceived threat to the regime posed by Protestantism and mirrors what many minority Protestant have been told by local authorities in the villages:
This and other internal VCP documents show that Vietnam's leadership is aware of minority grievances in the Central Highlands but will allow no organized expression thereof. Given the government's extremely heavy-handed response to the February 2001 demonstrations, it is ironic that the documents indicate a certain awareness by some in the party that too much repression can be counterproductive, attracting people to the forbidden religion:
Pressure on House Churches
An Ede church leader from a hamlet near Buon Ma Thuot town said that after being arrested and imprisoned in a dark cell for a year in 1985 for FULRO activities, she left the armed group and turned towards Christianity. The official harassment continued:
The Ede church leader described how penalties increase with each infraction committed by evangelical pastors. For the first offense police impose fines of 1 million dong (about U.S. $77) and confiscate all documents and Bibles. The second time, they call the pastor to the commune or provincial police station and put the pastor on probation, often accompanied by forced labor cutting grass or clearing fields. After that, a jail sentence is a definite possibility, she said. She herself was put on probation and detained at the commune police station for fifteen days in 1987 and again in 1994, when four truckloads of armed police broke up a Christmas celebration she was leading. "Every Christmas they would come," she said. "We would hide the books and hymnals. They'd ask us why we continued to worship and ask us if we wanted to go back to jail."186
In addition to fines, many Montagnard Christians have been subjected to forced labor as penalties for organizing or attending religious gatherings or refusing to denounce Christianity. "Many of the known prominent Christians have experienced this in Kontum and Gia Lai," said an aid worker.187 While the work is relatively mild-having to use a scythe to cut the grass around provincial buildings or clearing scrubland by hand-the number of days can be significant, reducing farmers' time in their fields, and therefore their ability to make a living.
This particular man's case appeared to be unusual. While others who have converted to Protestantism since 1995 told Human Rights Watch that they have been exposed to forced labor, most had been forced to work much less, with many estimating they had worked eight to ten penalty days a year. The Ede woman church leader, however, described another severe case of forced labor penalties in Dak Lak:
141 Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Vietnam is a state party, provides:
142 Decree No. 26/1999/ND-CP, "Decree of the Government Concerning Religious Activities" (translation on file at Human Rights Watch), articles 8 and 18-26.
143 Decree No. 26/1999/ND-CP, articles 5 and 7. Article 5 states: "All activities which threaten freedom of religious belief, all activities using religious belief in order to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, to prevent the believers from carrying out their civic responsibilities, to sabotage the union of all the people, to go against the healthy culture of our nation, as well as superstitious activities, will be punished in conformity with the law."
144 See Human Rights Watch, "Vietnam: Repression of Dissent," vol. 12, no. 1 (C), May 2000.
145 Decision No. 15 QD/TGCP, "Concerning the approval of legal recognition of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (south)," Government Bureau of Religious Affairs, Hanoi, March 16, 2001 (translation on file at Human Rights Watch).
146 Vietnam Observer, "Opportunity and Danger: Prospects for Vietnam's Protestants in 2001," March 26, 2001.
147 Nguyen Minh Quang, "Evangelism," Religious Problems in Vietnam, The Gioi Publishers, 2001. Freedom House, Center for Religious Freedom, "Correct Thinking in Vietnam: New Official Vietnam Documents Revealing Policy to Repress Tribal Christians," July 2001.
148 David Brunnstrom, "Hanoi recognizes southern Protestant church branch," Reuters, April 3, 2001. See also Vietnam Observer, "Analysis of Decision No 15," March 30, 2001. Confidential religious policy guidelines issued by the VCP in 1999 cautioned against linking ethnic minority Protestant churches in the Northern and Central Highlands with ethnic Vietnamese Protestant churches in the lowlands: "Local-level conferences of the Evangelical Church are to be conducted only in the churches which are in a state of normal and stable operation among the Vietnamese ethnic group in the lowland areas. These conferences cannot be extended to the areas inhabited by minority tribes in Western Highlands, Southern Truong Son Mountains [i.e. Central Highlands] as well as where there are the new converts to the religion...It is not yet our policy to allow evangelical church organizations in tribal and mountainous areas to be related with evangelical denominations in provinces and cities in the lowland plains areas." Steering Committee 184, "Top Secret; Program 184A: Development of Policy on Protestantism in some Provinces and Cities," Hanoi, March 5, 1999. Published by the Center for Religious Liberty of Freedom House in November 2000 under the title "Directions for Stopping Religion."
149 David Brunnstrom, "Pastors say some curbs eased in Vietnam highlands," Reuters, February 18, 2002.
150 Commission on Human Rights, "Civil and Political Rights, Including the Question of Religious Intolerance; Addendum: Visit to Vietnam," Report submitted by Abdelfattah Amor, December 12, 1998.
151 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, "Congress Should Demand Religious-Freedom Improvements As it Considers Bilateral Trade Agreement With Vietnam," September 12, 2001.
152 Vietnam Observer, "Dimensions of the Protestant Movement in Vietnam and Religious Freedom Restrictions and Abuses They Suffer," October 15, 2001.
153 For additional information on animist religious practices of indigenous highlanders in Cambodia and Vietnam, see: Gerald Cannon Hickey, Shattered World: Adaptation and Survival among Vietnam's Highland People's during the Vietnam War, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Georges Condominas, We Have Eaten the Forest: The Story of a Montagnard Village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, New York: Kodansga International, 1994. Joanna White, "The Indigenous Highlanders of the Northeast: An Uncertain Future," Center for Advanced Study, 1996. Sara Colm, "Sacred Balance: Conserving the Ancestral Lands of Cambodia's Indigenous Communities," Indigenous Affairs, International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs, No. 4, October-December 2000.
155 Vietnam Observer, "Opportunity and Danger: Prospects for Vietnam's Protestants in 2001," March 26, 2001.
156 Salemink refers to this as the "folklorization of culture." Salemink, "The King of Fire and Vietnamese Ethnic Policy in the Central Highlands," p. 498.
157 Human Rights Watch interview with Mnong man, July 17, 2001.
158 Salemink, "The King of Fire," p. 521-522.
159 Human Rights Watch interview with Mnong people from Dak Mil district, Dak Lak, July 13, 2001.
160 Commission on Human Rights, "Civil and Political Rights, Including the Question of Religious Intolerance; Addendum: Visit to Vietnam," Report submitted by Abdelfattah Amor, December 12, 1998.
161 Human Rights Watch interviews with Mnong people from Dak Song district, Dak Lak, October 29, 2001.
162 In addition, at least four ethnic Mnong and Stieng churches in Binh Phuoc (former Song Be) province, which is south of Dak Lak, were reportedly demolished in 1999. International Christian Concern, Vietnam Country Report, October 2001.
163 Human Rights Watch interview with Mnong church leader from Dak Lak, July 16, 2001.
164 Human Rights Watch Interview with Ede woman church leader from Dak Lak, April 22, 2001.
165 Vietnam Observer, "Dimensions of the Protestant Movement in Vietnam and Religious Freedom Restrictions and Abuses They Suffer," October 15, 2001.
166 David Brunnstrom, "Hanoi recognizes southern Protestant church branch," Reuters, April 3, 2001.
167 Human Rights Watch interview with a Jarai Bible teacher from Gia Lai, June 28, 2001.
168 Human Rights Watch interview with Ede woman church leader from Dak Lak, April 22, 2001.
169 David Brunnstrom, "Pastors say some curbs eased in Vietnam highlands," Reuters, February 18, 2002.
170 Hong Thanh, "Aspirations for family reunion," Nhan Dan (The People), March 5, 2002.
171 Amy Kazmin, "Tensions rise over Vietnam's highland refugees," Financial Times, March 12, 2002.
172 Salemink, "The King of Fire," p. 523.
173 Steering Committee 184, "Top Secret; Program 184B: Developing the Economy and Culture, Normalizing Society and Building Political Infrastructure in the Mountainous Regions where the Minority Peoples are Christian Believers," Hanoi, May 3, 1999. Published by the Center for Religious Liberty of Freedom House in November 2000 under the title "Directions for Stopping Religion."
182 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai and Bahnar residents of Sa Thay district, Kontum, October 16, 2001.
183 Human Rights Watch interview with Ede man from Dak Lak, April 22, 2001.
184 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Ea H'leo, Dak Lak, March 2001.
185 Human Rights Watch Interview with Ede woman church leader from Dak Lak, April 22, 2001.
187 Human Rights Watch interview with international aid worker, November 2, 2001.
188 In 1997 he was summoned by police five times and worked as forced labor for thirty days, in 1998 he was summoned seven times and worked thirty-six days, in 1999 he was summoned seven times and worked thirty days, in 2000 he was summoned four times and worked seventeen days, and in 2001 he was summoned seven times and worked twenty-four days.
189 Human Rights Watch Interview with Ede woman church leader from Dak Lak, April 22, 2001.