The February 2001 protests-involving thousands of people from dozens of villages in three provinces marching for miles to the provincial towns-were not spontaneous outbursts of peasant dissatisfaction. They appear to have been planned long in advance by a network of organizers who built popular support for a peaceful movement to demand minority lands back from Vietnamese control. The government's security forces apparently became aware of the movement as much as six months before the protests, when they began to call in suspected members for questioning.
By the late 1990s, the Central Highlands region was a powder keg ready to explode. Longstanding Montagnard grievances over land and unmet political aspirations dating back to the first and second Indochina wars were fueled by increasing repression of Protestant churches and confiscation and encroachment on Montagnard lands by new settlers. Tensions increased in January 2001 with reports that as many as 100,000 more people, mostly ethnic minorities from the North, could be resettled in Gia Lai and Dak Lak to make way for the Son La hydropower project. Endemic poverty in the region was worsened by the plummet in the price of coffee, which had made up much of the economic base of the highlands.
In early 2000, members of the Montagnard Foundation, Inc. (MFI), an indigenous rights organization based in the U.S. state of South Carolina led by Jarai-American Kok Ksor, began to recruit supporters in the Central Highlands to spread the word about a movement to gain independence. They found a receptive audience in many parts of the highlands.
"I'd known Kok Ksor since 1978, but he was in the U.S. and I was in the forest," said one former FULRO member who was recruited in Ia Grai district of Gia Lai in early 2000. "We had renewed relations with him since 2000."229 Starting in the Pleiku area with a meeting in March 2000, a local network was set up, which then extended to Chu Se and Cheo Reo, and on to Ea H'leo in northern Dak Lak. Further south, organizers living in hamlets near Buon Ma Thuot began to spread the word to outlying districts such as Ban Don, Dak Mil and Ea Sup, and further south to Lam Dong province. Meanwhile the Pleiku activists began to quietly recruit supporters in neighboring Kontum, to the north.
In Chu Se district, Gia Lai, villagers said they became aware about the movement for independence-or as they put it, "the struggle to get our lands back" -in early 2000 when local organizers and church leaders began to talk about it.
"I heard about it in church," said one villager from Chu Se district. "Ama X told us we have a new leader, named Kok Ksor, the leader of us all. "According to Ama X, we would ask for approval to ask for our land back. Many people in the village supported that idea."230
In some areas organizers distributed copies of Ede-language documents on Montagnard history, the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and audio cassette recordings of Kok Ksor.232
Contacts were made with supportive church leaders in Lam Dong province in August 2000 as well.234 In September and October, organizers from Chu Se district of Gia Lai began contacting villages in neighboring Cheo Reo district, further to the east.235 Plans were soon underway to conduct a peaceful mass demonstration, with target dates set for September or December 2000.
Months before the February 2001 protests it appears that Vietnamese government authorities had been able to obtain intelligence about the movement, most likely through intercepted faxes and telephone calls, as well as possible infiltration of the group. Beginning in August 2000, local police began to summon dozens of the suspected members to police stations for interrogation. In early October, more than twenty-seven MFI members from many districts in Gia Lai were summoned for questioning by police in Pleiku.236
The police surveillance caused the organizers to postpone plans for a late-2000 demonstration for the time being.
In early January 2001 Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and VCP Secretary General Le Kha Phieu both made strong statements attacking "hostile forces" who they alleged were attempting to destabilize the country and sabotage the regime by taking advantage of "hot spots" and "complicated issues such as religious and ethnic issues to cause disturbances." They did not give any details.242
While much of the impetus for the demonstrations may have come from abroad, it is clear that by early 2001, the pressures that had built up in the Central Highlands-over land, livelihoods, and religious freedom-had become intense. Even without external support and encouragement from outside, the situation had become explosive, with conflicts over religious practices and land occurring in many parts of the highlands on a daily basis.
On January 29, 2001 Rahlan Pon and Rahlan Djan, two highlanders from Cu Prong district in Gia Lai were arrested. In an official statement released on February 8, the Vietnamese government said that the two men had violated the law by "instigating some ethnic tribes to use violence against the local governments and national unity."246
In the plaza in front of the Pleiku People's Committee office, several highlander leaders spoke over hand-held microphones and bullhorns, outlining the demands for independence and religious freedom. As the crowd swelled, a number of government officials came out of the building to address the crowd. According to Voice of Vietnam radio, the officials explained government policy in regard to land and listed their "achievements in consolidating the national unity bloc and boosting socioeconomic development in not only the province but also the entire Central Highlands regions."250
After signing affidavits admitting their wrongdoings, Rahlan Pon and Rahlan Djan were released during the demonstration; as of late February 2002, they were thought to be back in their village.
A businessman in Pleiku described the demonstrations in a telephone interview with Agence France-Presse: "On Friday and again throughout the weekend, lines of protesters stretching as far as the eye could see marched along the roads leading into Pleiku...The mood of the demonstration was strikingly peaceful." He added that some of his staff had even asked for time off work to take part.251
Security forces were well prepared for the February 3 demonstration in Buon Ma Thuot. On February 2, as protesters were marching on Pleiku, Dak Lak authorities summoned several prominent Protestant pastors in Buon Ma Thuot to "help solve a problem" because of their influence with the population.253 That night, police officers surrounded the homes of key MFI organizers in a hamlet near Dak Lak, escorting them to the district police station the next morning as a warning for others not to join the protests.254
Another participant, traveling from Buon Kdun, a hamlet four kilometers southwest of Buon Ma Thuot, gave this description:
Despite these impediments, several thousand people, from at least half a dozen districts, were able to make it to the town center of Buon Ma Thuot. A prominent Ede pastor, one of the Montagnard church leaders who had been called in by provincial authorities the night before, spoke to the crowd over a bullhorn, urging the demonstrators to disperse. An eyewitness described the scene:
As in Pleiku, a group of protesters was able to meet briefly with local officials and hand over documents requesting a solution to highlander land and religion problems and an independent state.258
The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C. acknowledged in a public statement on February 8 that social unrest continued from February 3-6 in Buon Ma Thuot and other parts of Dak Lak:
Some press accounts reported that police clashed with protesters and that not only demonstrators, but also some police officers were injured.260 Highlanders who attended the protests told Human Rights Watch that their intent was to conduct peaceful demonstrations, although some admitted they fought with police. A protester from a hamlet near Buon Ma Thuot said that people from his village attacked six police cars and some people threw stones:
Film footage on state television in Vietnam showed glimpses of protesters in Buon Ma Thuot using slingshots and featured an interview with one protester who confessed he had destroyed vehicles of the city's security forces. Had the protesters used serious violence or weapons, or caused serious injury to police or officials, the television coverage-carefully produced and edited for national broadcast more than a month later-would likely have shown this.262
Two days after the demonstrations in Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot, several smaller protests were held in Ea H'leo district in Dak Lak after a number of local Jarai leaders in Ea H'leo received summonses to report to the police station. On February 5, approximately one thousand people gathered at the district police station and People's Committee headquarters.264 There are conflicting accounts about this demonstration. Foreign reporters, who were not on the scene but filed wire services reports based on telephone interviews with witnesses, reported clashes between police and demonstrators. According to these accounts, some protesters seized truncheons from the police and waved them in the air; they also reportedly stripped and tied up one of the policemen until security forces regained control.265
Western wire services carried additional reports of demonstrations in Ea Sup district of Dak Lak, Cu Prong district of Gia Lai, and Kontum provincial town during the ten days following the main protests in Gia Lai and Buon Ma Thuot.271
While exact numbers of demonstrators at the main protests in Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot are difficult to determine, it is clear that the total, certainly in Pleiku, was in the thousands. Highlanders who attended the demonstrations said that thousands participated, but they may have been referring not only to the protesters who reached the provincial towns but those who tried to attend but were blocked by police along the way, or who arrived too late. Government officials interviewed by Western wire service reporters put the numbers at 4,000 highlanders in Pleiku and several hundred in Buon Ma Thuot. Shopkeepers and local residents interviewed by telephone shortly after the demonstration estimated the numbers in Pleiku at 4,000 and in Buon Ma Thuot at 2,000.274
The Voice of Vietnam radio attributed the protests in Pleiku to "misleading comments and a lack of information concerning the arrest of two locals on 29 January." Other sources, such as the state newspaper Lao Dong (Labor), stated that people had been promised the cost of bus tickets as an incentive to attend the demonstrations; other government newspapers alleged that demonstrators were paid the equivalent of U.S. $5 to join the protests.275
The Army Daily quoted another ethnic minority man with a similar story:
228 Kok Ksor was born in 1944 in Bon Broai village in the present-day province of Gia Lai, Vietnam. According to a self-published biographical statement, Kok Ksor joined the Bajaraka movement in 1958 and FULRO in 1964, when he went to Mondolkiri with Y Bham Enuol. In addition to serving as FULRO representative for the Pleiku-Cheo Reo area, Ksor served with U.S. military units of the Fourth Infantry Division in Pleiku and the Fifth Special Forces group. In 1974, according to Ksor, he was appointed by Y Bham Enuol as his chief of staff. Between 1971 and 1974 Ksor was sent on three occasions by Cambodian Prime Minister Lon Nol to U.S. Intelligence Officers School in Okinawa and to Transportation Officer Training in the United States. Ksor was in the United States when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and executed Y Bham Enuol and other FULRO leaders in Phnom Penh. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he now lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Since 1993 Ksor has advocated on behalf of Montagnard people at various international gatherings, including the U.N. Workshop for Indigenous People in Geneva and the Second Summit Meeting for Indigenous Peoples in Oaxtepec, Mexico. See: Kok Ksor, "Narrative Biography of Ksor Kok," July 19, 1993.
229 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Gia Lai, March 2001.
230 Ama "X"'s name has been changed to protect his security. Human Rights Watch interview with a Jarai man from Chu Se district, Gia Lai, June 27, 2001.
231 Handwritten Vietnamese-language document outlining the activities of MFI in Gia Lai, dated March 12, 2001. Document and translation on file at Human Rights Watch.
232 Vietnamese-language handwritten document outlining the activities of MFI in Ea H'leo, dated March 12, 2001. Document and translation on file at Human Rights Watch.
233 Reuters, "Vietnam district stable after ethnic clash," August 17, 2000. Radio Free Asia, "Ethnic minority attack on Vietnamese settlers in Central Highlands," August 15, 2000.
234 Human Rights Watch interview with Montagnard from Lam Dong, October 30, 2001.
235 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Cheo Reo, Gia Lai, March 2001.
236 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Gia Lai, March 2001.
237 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Gia Lai, March 2001.
238 Human Rights Watch interview with Montagnard from Kontum, October 11, 2001.
239 Human Rights Watch interview with Montagnard from Dak Lak, October 30, 2001.
240 Human Rights Watch interview, April 22, 2001.
241 Human Rights Watch interview with Montagnards from Lam Dong, , October 30, 2001.
242 Reuters, "Vietnam party chief warns of subversion attempts," January 4, 2001; Reuters, "Vietnam PM sees threats in religion, rights issues," January 5, 2001.
243 Human Rights Watch interview with Mnong man from Dak Lak, July 16, 2001.
244 Human Rights Watch interviews with Jarai men from Ea H'leo, March and June 2001.
245 Human Rights Watch interview with Montagnard from Lam Dong, October 30, 2001.
246 Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the United States, "Two Fact Sheets on religious freedom in Vietnam," February 9, 2001. In a press interview in March 2001, Nay Lan, deputy director of the Gia Lai People's Committee, stated that Rahlan Pon and Rahlan Djan had "violated Vietnam's regulations on border areas." Deutsche Presse-Agentur, "Unrest questions unanswered in Vietnam highlands," March 16, 2001.
247 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai men from Gia Lai, March 2001.
248 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Gia Lai, March 2001.
249 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Gia Lai, March 2001.
250 "Vietnam radio reports `unrest' in Gia Lai, Dak Lak provinces," Voice of Vietnam radio, Hanoi, in Vietnamese 23:00 gmt 8 Feb 01, BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific - Political, February 9, 2001.
251 Steve Kirby, "Huge protests as ethnic unrest sweeps Vietnam's central highlands," February 7, 2001.
252 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai men from Chu Se, Gia Lai, March 2001.
253 Vietnam Observer, "Opportunity and Danger: Prospects for Vietnam's Protestants in 2001," March 26, 2001.
254 Human Rights Watch interview with Ede man from a hamlet near Buon Ma Thuot, July 16, 2001.
255 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Ea H'leo, Gia Lai, March 2001.
256 Human Rights Watch interview with Ede man from Buon Kdun, Dak Lak, July 13, 2001.
257 Human Rights Watch Interview with Ede woman from Dak Lak, April 22, 2001.
258 Human Rights Watch interview with Ede man from Dak Lak, July 13, 2001.
259 Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the United States, "Security returns to normal in Central Highlands," February 8, 2001.
260 An account in the French-language newspaper Libération, based on interviews with ethnic Vietnamese in Ratanakiri province, described hundreds of highlanders slipping quietly into Pleiku the night before the February 2 demonstration, "armed with sticks, daggers and shovels." No other accounts by eyewitnesses interviewed by journalists or Human Rights Watch confirmed that highlanders carrying sticks, knives or shovels arrived in Pleiku the night before the demonstrations, although on the day of the protests some did have slingshots. Arnaud Dubus, "La révolte des Montagnards au Viet-nam," Libération, April 11, 2001.
261 Human Rights Watch interview with Ede man from Buon Ma Thuot, April 22, 2001.
262 Videotape of Vietnam Television coverage of the demonstrations in Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot, March 27-28, 2001; on file at Human Rights Watch along with a translation of the transcript.
263 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Hanoi-based Western diplomat, May 31, 2001.
264 Human Rights Watch interview with Ea H'leo resident, March 2001.
265 Deutsche Presse-Agentur, "Unrest questions unanswered in Vietnam highlands," March 16, 2001. David Thurber, "Vietnamese officials prevent journalists' access to protesters," Associated Press, March 16, 2001.
266 Viet Nam News Agency, "Seven Sentences for Security Destablisers in Central Highlands Province," September 26, 2001.
267 Viet Nam News Service (VNS), "Stiff jail terms mandated for saboteurs of public security," September 28, 2001.
268 Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, interviews with asylum seekers from Ea H'leo, May 24, 2001. Human Rights Watch interview with Ea H'leo resident, March 2001.
269 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai man from Ea H'leo, March 2000.
270 David Brunnstrom, "Military patrols Vietnam highlands after protests," Reuters, February 8, 2001.
271 Steve Kirby, Agence France-Presse, "Huge protests as ethnic unrest sweeps Vietnam's Central Highlands, February 7, 2001. David Brunnstrom, "Vietnam coffee belt reported calm after unrest," Reuters February 11, 2001.
272 David Brunnstrom, "Officials differ over religion in Vietnam unrest," Reuters, March 16, 2001.
273 Human Rights Watch interview with Jarai and Bahnar men from Kontum, October 11, 2001.
274 See David Brunnstrom "Officials differ over religion in Vietnam unrest," Reuters, March 16 2001. David Thurber, "Vietnamese officials prevent journalists' access to protesters," Associated Press, March 16, 2001. Deutsche Presse-Agentur, "Vietnam blames war-era exiles for preaching bad religion," March 15, 2001.
275 Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper, March 23, 2001, cited in UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research, "Vietnam: Indigenous Minority Groups in the Central Highlands," Writenet Paper No. 05/2001, January 2002.
276 "Vietnam: Army daily cites U.S.'s `active support' of ethnic unrest in highlands," Quan Doi Nhan Dan (Army Daily), Hanoi, in Vietnamese, March 16, 2001, translated by BBC Worldwide Monitoring, March 29, 2001.