PERSECUTION OF THE MONTAGNARDS, EVANGELICAL PROTESTANTISM, HUMAN RIGHTS AND TRIBAL INSURGENCIES IN THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS OF VIETNAM

PERSECUTION OF THE MONTAGNARDS

A Vietnamese human rights group issued a report that said that ethnic minorities in Vietnam "are suffering from a deliberate and systematic policy of discrimination which includes expropriation of ancestral lands, religious persecution, arbitrary arrest, disappearances, and the forced sterilization of women." Ethnic groups in the Central Highlands have demonstrated over land rights and religious freedom. The government has seized land from the minorities which was converted into coffee plantations.

The Montagnards seek the return of some of its ancestral lands in the Central Highlands. They have traditionally opposed the Communist government and receive support from overseas Vietnamese, particularly the United States-based Montagnard Foundation. Alan Rappeport wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune, "After the Vietnam War, the Communist government took large chunks of Montagnard land in the Central Highlands that is now used for growing coffee and rubber. Many village churches were shut down or bulldozed, allowing for only government-sanctioned churches in cities. Those who practice Dega Christianity - the Montagnard equivalent of evangelicalism - were forced to renounce or face arrest. The restrictions on religious practices left many upset and some in an uproar.[Source: Alan Rappeport, Salt Lake Tribune, April 1, 2005 ***]

The United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (known by French acronym FULRO), a tribal group that fought on the side of the United States in the Vietnam War, continued fighting from their stronghold in the Central Highlands and Laos at least until the 1990s. FULRO was made up of members of the Central Highland’s four largest tribes. The ethnic insurgent leader Nguyen Huu Chanh is one of the most wanted men in Vietnam. He has been charged with being involved in a number of different bombings in Hanoi and Saigon. Some ethnic insurgencies reportedly receive financial aid from Montagnards who live in the United States and elsewhere abroad.

The Vietnamese government has accused FULRO of fomenting trouble in the Central Highlands. The current Montagnard leader of United States-based Montagnard Foundation—and allegedly FULRO too— is a man named Kok Ksor, who escaped to the United States in the 1980s and lives in Spartanburg, S.C., where he runs the Montagnard Foundation. Kok Ksor is a founding member of the United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races (FULRO), a Montagnard independence movement that has drawn ire for speaking out against the government.

Montagnards Face Religious, Political Persecution

Montagnards claim their tribal lands have been taken to grow cash crops and that they face constant harassment from the police. According to the 2006 Human Rights Watch report "No Sanctuary: Ongoing Threats to Indigenous Montagnards in Vietnam's Central Highlands": "Vietnamese authorities have detained, interrogated, and even tortured Montagnard refugees and asylum seekers who have returned to Vietnam from U.N. High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) camps in Cambodia. The government is violating an agreement with UNHCR, which is supposed to monitor returning refugees and ensure they are safe. "The Vietnamese government continues to persecute Montagnards once they are out of the sight of international observers," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The international community should oppose their forced return to the Central Highlands as long as the authorities continue to persecute them." [Source: Human Rights Watch News, June 14, 2006 >><<]

Vietnamese officials continue to force Montagnard Christians to sign pledges renouncing their religion, despite passage of new regulations in 2005 banning such practices. Authorities in some areas restrict freedom of movement between villages— in particular for religious purposes not authorized by the government— and ban Christian gatherings in many areas unless they are presided over by officially recognized pastors. More worrisome, the Vietnamese government persists in criminalizing peaceful dissent, unsanctioned religious activity and efforts to seek sanctuary in Cambodia, by arresting and imprisoning Montagnards who engage in those activities. The most harshly treated are evangelical Christians who belong to independent or unregistered house churches and supporters of a non-violent movement for the protection of, and greater control over, ancestral lands. >><<

The report includes disturbing testimonies from Montagnards who returned to Vietnam in 2005 from U.N. refugee camps in Cambodia, but then "doubled back" to Cambodia after undergoing harsh treatment in Vietnam. They describe in detail being detained, interrogated and even tortured upon return to Vietnam. They also tell of being pressured to recant their religion and threatened not to report any abuses to international delegations and U.N. monitors. Despite this, UNHCR has made repeated public statements that returnees are under "no particular threat or duress," and that it has "no serious concerns" about the government's treatment of them.

Returnees interviewed by Human Rights Watch gave precise accounts of serious threats and intimidation by Vietnamese authorities prior to visits by UNHCR monitors, who have often been accompanied by Vietnamese government officials and police, and are unable to meet privately with returnees. Returnees were warned by authorities not to say anything negative to UNHCR officials. One returnee, who had been beaten and pressured to renounce his religion in police custody, told Human Rights Watch, "The UN ? asked about any mistreatment, but I was too afraid to answer. I told them I had not been hit or threatened. I didn't dare tell them I'd been sent to prison; if I told, [the police] would have beaten me." >><<

Religious Repression Against Tribal Protestant Groups in the Central Highlands

According to Amnesty International: The large number of Protestant converts among Viet Nam's ethnic minorities has caused concern among Vietnamese the authorities. According to Vietnamese government statistics the numbers of Protestants ("evangelists") in Dak Lak Province (one of the provinces comprising the Central Highlands) has increased from almost 12,000 in 1975 to nearly 100,000 in 1999. In particular, the activities of the non-State sanctioned Dega Protestant Church of Vietnam have been criticized in a vitriolic recent attack in the Vietnamese army newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan. The article accused the Dega Protestant Church in Vietnam as "being not merely a religious organization as it does not care for the spiritual life of believers but is a political organization, disguised as religion to take advantage of people's beliefs to achieve its political plot. Its aim is to sabotage unity among ethnic groups in the Central Highlands and sow division within the Protestant Church in the Country. It also serves as a bridge for hostile forces to cause political instability in Vietnam, and in the Central Highlands in particular." [Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002 <*>]

Given this language it seems likely that the Vietnamese authorities are using several of the many religious decrees to justify their actions. For example, Article 5 of Decree NO.69/HDBT prohibits: "any activity using religion to sabotage national independence, oppose the State, sabotage the policy of uniting the whole people, undermine the healthy culture of our nation or prevent the faithful from carrying out their civic duties." There are numerous loosely worded and 'catch-all' provisions in these decrees which, according to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance are "vague and imprecise and therefore liable to permit interference by the authorities, by granting them excessive discretionary powers, in religious matters, including arrest, detention and imprisonment for religious activities that are in full conformity with international law." <*>

Concerns over the Vietnamese Government's recent treatment of Protestants among the ethnic minority communities are not new. The 1999 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance on Viet Nam states: "The situation with regard to the Protestant denominations of ethnic minorities seems to be even more disturbing, as, in addition to the measures applied to the EBUV [Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam] and the unofficial Khmer Krom, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao organizations, there have been cases of destruction of places or workshop and ill-treatment aimed at forcing these minorities to give up their newly adopted faith. The authorities are, it seems, dropping their attitude of de facto recognition and laissez-faire and gradually prohibiting those minorities which are experiencing a large number of conversions from exercising any religious activity and hence any manifestation of freedom of religion. What is more, in their opposition to these minorities' newly adopted faith, the authorities appear to be interfering with the deepest feelings of the faithful. Such interference may definitely be regarded as a violation of freedom of religion as such." <*>

There have been numerous recent reports from the Central Highlands of the forced closure of unauthorized churches and the arrest of pastors, especially from Evangelist Protestant denominations, people obliged to sign documents indicating that they would give up their religion and ceasing their evangelising activities. In July 2003, members of the "Dega Protestantism" Christian sect were sent to prison on charges of taking action against the state. The group was charged with trying to set up an independent state called Dega.

In July 2007, after the arrest of several Montagnard Christians, Stefan J. Bos of BosNewsLife wrote: "United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) officials say the situation of Degar Montagnards has improved in some areas. It claims that the Vietnamese government "assured both Cambodian officials and UNHCR that the returning Montagnards will be well treated well and not be the subject of reprisals or discriminatory treatment." MFI has said however that at least 350 Degar Montagnards, mainly Christians, have been detained in prisons across Vietnam. The crackdown has been linked to both their activities as Christians and Degar Montagnards' support for US forces during the Vietnam War. [Source: Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife, July 16, 2007 ^^^]

Intimidation and Repression of Montagnards in Vietnam

Phil Zabriskie wrote in Time Asia Magazine, "The Highlands have abundant coffee fields, pepper farms and rubber trees, but much of that recent prosperity has bypassed the Montagnards In the Cu Mgar district of Dak Lak province, a middle-aged woman waves as a reporter walks past, forms an X with her two index fingers in front of her mouth, then clenches her fists and holds her wrists together, as if handcuffed. Other Montagnards grant furtive interviews but are too scared to be identified by name. "Please don't say we spoke to you, or we will be arrested," implores one. Another says tearfully: "The police told us you were coming and that we should not speak to you. They'll come to me again, but I don't care. We need help." [Source: Phil Zabriskie, Time Asia Magazine, July 18, 2004]

Reporting from Kon Tum in the Central Highlands,Alan Rappeport wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune, "Once a month, Vietnamese police bang on the door of Nay Thit's small wooden village house and force him to sign a declaration of happiness. The declaration asserts that Nay Thit has no problems with the government and that he will not try to flee the country or encourage others to do so. If he does not comply, he could find himself in prison, for the fourth time. Nay Thit is a Montagnard. Like many Montagnards, he worked and fought alongside Americans during the Vietnam War. Nearly 30 years later, Montagnards say their struggle continues, with religion a key point of friction. The Vietnamese government has made public gestures to show a new tone of religious tolerance, but life in the Central Highlands remains tense with potential for conflict. [Source: Alan Rappeport, Salt Lake Tribune, April 1, 2005 ***]

"The conflict between the Vietnamese and the Montagnards is rooted in resentment over the war, land ownership rights and religious repression.''Everything is unfair between the Vietnamese and the Montagnards,'' Nay Thit said in a hushed voice. ''We want to have our own government. We want autonomy. It is very difficult.'' Nay Thit is Catholic and has been arrested three times in the past for resisting the government and fleeing to Cambodia. ''They arrest us and take us back,'' said Nay Thit, who worked as an interpreter for Americans during the war and last served prison time in 1993. ''Vietnam pays Cambodia to give us back.'' ***

"Despite the government's claims of attempted appeasement, the situation seems to worsen for the Montagnards each year. On Easter 2004, peaceful protests in the streets of Pleiku, a town just south of Kon Tum, drew a violent response from police who used tear gas and barbed wire to corral the crowds. More than 100 Montagnards were arrested and 10 were killed, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. While the most severe restrictions have been imposed on Protestants and Jarai villagers in the Central Highlands - who are seen as having the strongest historical connections with the United States - most Christians in the area feel the strain on their religious rights. ''It is very difficult for the Christians here,'' said John Ho, a Vietnamese Bible teacher at an orphanage in Kon Tum. ''There are many limitations by the government.'' ***

"Police stopped Catholics who live in the surrounding villages from coming to pray at the Montagnard church last Christmas, Ho said. All churches must be registered with the government and have a Vietnamese priest. Getting a permit to build a new church in the Central Highlands is considered a miracle. ''The last time someone tried to build a church without a permit, the government bulldozed four churches as punishment,'' Ho, 55, said. ''The Communist government is atheist. They don't like the religion.''

Montagnards Flee to Cambodia After Protests in 2001

In February 2001, thousands of people from indigenous minorities, collectively known as Montagnards, held protests in the Vietnamese Central Highlands focusing on a number of grievances, including anger at government confiscation of their ancestral forest homelands, an influx of lowland Vietnamese settlers taking their agricultural land, lack of freedom of worship for the many who are members of unauthorised evangelical Protestant churches, and denial of basic rights including education in native languages. Some protestors were also calling for independence for the Central Highlands region. The authorities quickly closed off the area and prevented journalists and diplomats from travelling to the provinces to assess the situation. The Vietnamese authorities accused US-based opposition groups of fomenting the unrest. During this period there were dozens of arrests and reports of torture and ill treatment in the Central Highlands in a harsh crackdown against those involved in the protests. [Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002 <*>]

Kevin Doyle wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "More than 1,000 of the predominantly Protestant Montagnards had trekked over the Cambodian frontier when they first protested in 2001. As those bedraggled, sick and hungry asylum seekers had emerged from their forest hiding places under United Nations protection, they told of massive Vietnamese police and military repression following the demonstrations. They claimed that their Christian faith and their combat allegiance to the United States during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, had left them despised by the authorities in Hanoi. And the spread of coffee and rubber plantations had left them bereft of the forests where they once tended jungle farms, they said. [Source: Kevin Doyle, International Herald Tribune, July 15, 2004]

In the weeks and months following the unrest, at least 1500 Montagnards crossed the border to Cambodia, seeking asylum. Those fleeing Vietnam were initially housed in the north eastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri in two camps administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which were established in May 2001.[Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002 <*>]

In July 2001, talks between the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments and UNHCR for the voluntary repatriation of the asylum-seekers foundered when the Vietnamese authorities refused to grant UNHCR unfettered access to the Central Highlands to facilitate safe return. A tripartite agreement on the voluntary repatriation for Montagnards in the two camps was eventually signed between Viet Nam, Cambodia and UNHCR in January 2002. However, one month later, the governments of Cambodia and Viet Nam agreed to repatriate Montagnard asylum seekers in a process that fell short of usual UNHCR facilitated repatriation practices and procedures.. <*>

Phil Zabriskie wrote in Time Asia Magazine, "Following the 2001 demonstrations, about 1,000 Montagnards were resettled in North Carolina, many of them in the city of Greensboro. (The U.S. special forces, whom the Montagnards fought alongside in Vietnam, are based there.) In some ways, these exiles could be viewed as the lucky ones. But of the eight men sitting in a modest Greensboro apartment one morning, seven still have wives in the Highlands and five have relatives in hiding there or in jail. All carry folders of papers listing the names, ages and villages of people they've been told are injured or missing. H., a 37-year-old refugee, has just got off the phone with a Highlands contact, and his eyes are red and puffy. He knows he's fortunate with his new life in North Carolina: the factory job and the cramped, two-bedroom apartment. But that doesn't help him forget the relatives he left behind. "Sometimes during breaks at work," he says, "the manager asks me what I'm doing. I tell him that I'm thinking about home. My family and my neighbors in Vietnam are afraid or in prison. How can I be happy?"[Source: Phil Zabriskie, Time Asia Magazine, July 18, 2004]

Montagnards Refugees in Cambodia Sent Back to Vietnam

In March 2002, the Cambodian authorities gave permission to a 400-strong delegation of Vietnamese officials and relatives of the asylum-seekers to visit the Mondulkiri site. Cambodian police allowed officials to go from hut to hut seeking out individual asylum-seekers many of whom had taken refuge inside. Threats were also made towards UNHCR staff in the camp. As a result of this intimidation, UNHCR withdrew from the tripartite agreement the following day. [Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002 <*>]

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in a letter to the Foreign Ministers of Viet Nam and Cambodia stated that :"Mindful that UNHCR cannot be part of a process that no longer conforms to its mandate or principles governing voluntary repatriation, I regret to inform you that UNHCR is left with no choice but to disassociate itself from the repatriation agreement. I do not believe that the overall situation is conducive for repatriation in line with international standards and all returns should therefore be suspended". <*>

On 31 March 2002, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that the two sites would be closed and newcomers would no longer be accepted. The United States of America agreed to resettle over 900 Montagnard asylum-seekers who remained in Cambodia at that time. The US has been the only country to accept Montagnards for resettlement since the first asylum-seekers crossed from Viet Nam in 2001. <*>

Montagnard asylum-seekers have continued to flee Viet Nam to neighbouring Cambodia and there have been numerous reports of the forcible repatriation or refoulement of most of these new arrivals. Since the collapse of the tripartite agreement, UNHCR has been denied access to border areas in north east Cambodia where there have been credible reports of Montagnards hiding in malaria-ridden forests that straddle the border. Many hundreds are reported to have been forcibly deported. According to many accounts, Cambodia is permitting Vietnamese military/police to cross the border and 'hunt-down' Montagnards hiding on the Cambodian side. Those detained by Cambodian authorities in the border areas are handed over to the Vietnamese. Allegations have been made that 'bounties' have been paid by the Vietnamese authorities for those handed over. Reports of asylum seekers fleeing to Cambodia and facing similar problems continue to be received. <*>

Reports in 2001 and 2002 suggest that targeted repression continues in the Vietnamese Central Highlands region aimed at those accused of organizing the 2001 events, those alleged to have links with expatriate Montagnard groups advocating independence and influential figures in the growing unofficial Protestant church. The Vietnamese news agency reported in October 2002 that more than 600 "fast-deployment teams" from the armed forces had be set up in the Central Highlands ready "to help locals whenever they receive calls for help from them." <*>

Easter Protests by Montagnards in 2004

Phil Zabriskie wrote in Time Asia Magazine, On Easter weekend in April 2004 " several thousand Montagnards gathered in Dak Lak, Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces and clashed with waiting security forces. It was the largest show of protest in Vietnam since 2001, when similar demonstrations occurred in the same region. On this, both sides agree. On every other point, bitter disputes rage. The Communist Party of Vietnam insists that only two people died during the April clashes; Human Rights Watch, the New York City-based NGO, has recorded 10 deaths, while Amnesty International counts eight and says it "fears the final death toll is considerably higher." [Source: Phil Zabriskie, Time Asia Magazine, July 18, 2004 <<<<]

"What exactly happened on Easter weekend in the Highlands? Hanoi says bands of organized "terrorists" armed with sticks, stones, knives and slingshots tried to converge on the provincial capitals from several different directions and attacked security forces. Dozens of protesters were injured and the government claims two were killed by rocks thrown by their own gangs. The authorities claim the clashes were organized from afar by Kok Ksor, a 60-year-old exile from the Jarai tribe who lives in South Carolina and runs the Montagnard Foundation, which tries to publicize the plight of the Montagnards. His goal, according to Hanoi, is an independent state. It says Ksor and confederates are also reconstituting F.U.L.R.O., a separatist guerrilla force disbanded in 1992. Ksor allegedly persuaded poor farmers to take part. Says Vu Quang Khuyen, police chief of Ayun Pa district in Gia Lai: "They are uneducated, lazy and easily deceived." <<<<

"As evidence, the government cites confessions, separatist banners allegedly carried in the marches, and the fact that Ksor announced prior to Easter that the protests would take place. Several Montagnards, including Ksor's uncle and mother, have denounced him in the state-controlled media. Dak Lak officials screened for TIME four minutes of edited video footage in which some protesters indeed advance on riot police and militiamen, but it's impossible to tell from the fragment who started the clashes, and the rest of the tape wasn't made available. Gia Lai Governor Pham The Dung even goes so far as to compare the protesters to Iraqi insurgents. "Terrorism does not mean they have to use explosives," he says. "They could even use martial arts." Scores of people have been arrested in the Highlands, the government says. Those who then performed public self-criticisms were released, while an unknown number await trial. <<<<

"In interviews arranged by local officials, government representatives and some Montagnards echoed the official accounts. But these were not supported by anyone interviewed away from oversight. Photographs obtained from a Jarai demonstrator now in Cambodia show marchers in Gia Lai carrying banners calling for land and religious rights and the removal of soldiers from villages—not for an independent state. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International assert that the security forces initiated the fighting and incited civilians to attack the marchers, injuring hundreds. A doctor who was on duty that weekend in Dak Lak's main hospital told TIME that "many" people came in with head wounds, while other people with injuries avoided hospitals for fear of arrest. A group of 17 farmers encountered in Gia Lai and two others interviewed separately claim that a protester from their village died after being shot in the head, not by getting hit "with a very big rock," as governor Dung says. A man from the Jarai tribe says he saw the corpse of the other fatality acknowledged by the government. He says the victim appeared to have been beaten to death. The man, whose work takes him to several districts, claims knowledge of 10 deaths in Gia Lai alone. <<<<

Crackdown Following Easter Protests by Montagnards in 2004

Phil Zabriskie wrote in Time Asia Magazine, "Since Easter, security has been ratcheted up in the Highlands. Relatives of people who have fled their towns, either for the border with Cambodia or for closer hideouts, are regularly questioned by police and local officials. Some are made to take loyalty oaths, which one district leader in Dak Nong province refers to as "brotherhood ceremonies." Farmers are followed to their fields, their shopping is monitored lest they buy food for those in hiding, and security personnel are billeted in people's homes, particularly those with relatives who earlier fled to the U.S. (Highlands officials say government representatives live and labor with poor families to help them with their work.) A Jarai woman says more than 20 people from her village have been arrested since Easter for joining the demonstrations. [Source: Phil Zabriskie, Time Asia Magazine, July 18, 2004 <<<<]

"H'ble Ksor, Kok Ksor's mother, lives in a ramshackle stilt house in Ayun Pa district. Sounding exhausted and heartbroken, she wants to speak not of the son who went to America in 1974 and whom the government blames for all the trouble—"I barely know his face," she says—but of two other sons who have been missing since Easter. "I am very worried," she says softly. "Do you know where they are?" <<<<

"As for Kok Ksor, the alleged terrorist mastermind, he is easy to find. Sitting in a Red Lobster seafood restaurant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in early June, he hardly appears fearsome. (American authorities aren't worried about him: "Neither the Montagnard Foundation nor Mr. Ksor are included on any official U.S. government list of terrorists," says a U.S. embassy spokesman in Hanoi.) Ksor, who fought with the Americans during the Vietnam War, knows of the allegations back home and realizes that relatives in the Highlands have denounced him (under duress, he says). He admits to having been in contact with highlanders but says the organizers informed him that they planned to demonstrate nonviolently and rejected his counsel to wait till the fall. Ksor says he also suggested they call it a prayer vigil, not a protest. International attention, not an independent state, Ksor adds, was the goal. However, he didn't help his cause by claiming later that 400 people were "massacred" over the Easter weekend. This wild estimate was a gambit, he says, to force Hanoi to open the region to external observers. <<<

Montagnards Flee to Cambodia in 2004 Following Crackdown on Easter Protests

In July 2003, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave protection to 42 members of a Vietnamese minority that had been hiding in the jungles of northeastern Cambodia. In April, May and June 2004, hundreds of tribal people from Vietnam fled into Cambodia after clashes with troops and hid in the Cambodia jungles. The crack down came after 10,000 Montagnards, many of them Christians, demonstrated for religion freedom over the Easter holiday in April. In May 2004, Amnesty International condemned the Cambodia government for forcing some of the Vietnamese minority member to go back to Vietnam. The Vietnamese government boosted its security presence in the region.

Kevin Doyle wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "Most of the asylum seekers fled the neighboring Vietnamese province of Gia Lai in the aftermath of demonstrations there on April 10 and 11, when thousands of hill tribes people in the Central Highlands took up banners and marched to demand that the government return their ancestral lands and allow them to worship in freedom. Those who are in flight speak of an even more vicious backlash in the Central Highlands by the Vietnamese authorities since the April demonstrations. [Source: Kevin Doyle, International Herald Tribune, July 15, 2004 |+|]

" The U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch has reported scores of incidents of arbitrary arrests of Montagnard activists and church leaders. Vietnam has constantly denied those charges of repression and claims that the Central Highlands are quiet and peaceful. Vietnamese officials blame the Montagnard demonstrations on overseas saboteurs, who they say are trying to foment unrest to destroy the country's tranquillity. The Vietnamese government dismisses reports of Montagnards' fleeing as "fabrications." According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung, "There is no reason for ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands to leave their homelands." |+|

Cambodia’s Response to the Flow of Montagnard Refugees

Phil Zabriskie wrote in Time Asia Magazine, "...The presence of the Montagnards is causing controversy in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said they are not refugees but "illegal immigrants," and might be a rebel movement set on establishing an independent state in the Central Highlands. Cambodia's King Sihanouk, in contrast, has strongly supported the asylum seekers. "The Montagnards are deprived of their ancestral lands, their forests, their houses, their cattle," he wrote in a letter of support last week.[Source: Phil Zabriskie, Time Asia Magazine, July 18, 2004]

Doyle wrote: Hun Sen "denied the existence of new asylum seekers in country. If there were any Montagnards in Cambodia, he said, they were probably separatists plotting to establish an independent state in the highlands along the border. Hun Sen warned that he would send troops to crush those who were setting up bases in the jungle. District-level officials in Ratanakiri Province, where the largest groups of Montagnards are hiding, have also warned villagers that they face arrest if they are found to be helping the asylum seekers, and that they must cut off the lifeline that Ksor and others have been providing to those in hiding. The Cambodian government forced the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to close its office in Ratanakiri Province in April, and since then only those Montagnards who have been able to slip in to the UN agency's office in Phnom Penh, the capital, have been granted asylum. More than 80 are housed there now, awaiting resettlement overseas. But Thamrongsak Meechubot, the UN refugee agency's acting representative in Cambodia, said that the government had assured him of free access to provide humanitarian assistance to the asylum seekers in Ratanakiri. |+|

In January 2005, Cambodia closed its northeastern border with Vietnam to halt the flow of Montagnard asylum seekers. On January 1, Cambodian National Police Chief Hok Lundy ordered authorities in the border province of Ratanakiri to increase the number of border police in order to prevent Montagnard asylum seekers from entering. "The authorities have to convince the local people to be our spies in order to report how many Montagnards [enter Cambodia], to arrest them and send them back to Vietnam," he said.

Human Rights Watch reported: "Cambodia’s decision to close its northeastern border with Vietnam to halt the flow of Montagnard asylum seekers comes amidst alarming new reports of mass arrests, torture, and increasing persecution of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam's Central Highlands. "The Vietnamese government's mistreatment of Montagnards continues unabated," said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. [Source: Human Rights Watch, January 8, 2005 ==]

"Montagnard asylum seekers who crossed the border to Cambodia's Ratanakiri province right before Christmas remain in dire straits. During the last week truckloads of Cambodian police and gendarmerie have been scouring the forests where the asylum seekers are thought to be hiding. "It is absolutely imperative that the Cambodian government immediately grants UNHCR access to these people, or turns them over to UNHCR if government security forces apprehend them," said Adams. "UNHCR and key governments must make it clear in no uncertain terms to the Cambodian government that asylum seekers must not be arrested and summarily returned to Vietnam."

In July 2005, nearly 100 Vietnamese hill-tribe people seeking asylum in neighboring Cambodia were told they will be deported back to their home country, U.N. refugee officials said. Nearly 700 Montagnards have been living under U.N. protection in the Cambodian capital since they fled Vietnam's Central Highlands in 2004 during a government crackdown prompted by mass protests against land confiscation and restrictions on religious freedom. [Source: Miranda Leitsinger, Associated Press, July 19, 2005]

Montagnards Hiding in the Jungles of Cambodia

Phil Zabriskie wrote in Time Asia Magazine, "A 40-year-old man from Gia Lai who took part in the Easter demonstrations left the Highlands, He recalls: "Police, soldiers and Vietnamese people came to our village and kicked in our doors and attacked us." Now, having trekked for days, he is hiding in Ratanakiri—some 600 kilometers from Phnom Penh and the nearest office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He lives beneath a small sheet of plastic with five other men in dense jungle, where torrential rainstorms are daily occurrences. In another group elsewhere in the province, an eight-year-old girl has built a miniature house out of twigs in a clearing of jungle beside the plastic sheet where she is camped with her family. She says it reminds her of home. "I am happier here," she says, "because there are no soldiers." But her father confesses, "I don't know how long we can live like this." [Source: Phil Zabriskie, Time Asia Magazine, July 18, 2004]

Reporting from Ratanakiri Province in Cambodia, Kevin Doyle wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "Cambodia Ksor, a member of Cambodia's Jarai minority hill tribe, stepped quietly through what appeared to be an impenetrable barrier of trees, thorns, bushes and creepers in the dense jungle of northeastern Cambodia's border with Vietnam. Twice each day, for weeks now, the 25-year-old Ksor has slipped out of his village at dawn and again under the cover of nightfall and entered the jungle to bring what supplies he can to assist some of the estimated 250 Montagnard asylum seekers— including infants, young children, the sick and elderly—who have fled neighboring Vietnam's Central Highlands and sought refuge in Cambodia. More than 120 of the Montagnards, interviewed at their makeshift jungle lairs over the past five weeks, have appealed for international assistance as they languish in dire conditions in these rain-soaked jungles, fugitives from Vietnam and hunted as illegal immigrants by the Cambodian police and military. "I am frightened. But I dare to come here even at night to help them. I feel so much pity for them," Ksor said after delivering a mound of cold rice wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled cassava plant leaves to a Montagnard family of seven children and two adults on Saturday morning. "They are a different family to me, but they are Jarai. It is like being in the same family," he said. [Source: Kevin Doyle, International Herald Tribune, July 15, 2004 |+|]

"In a tiny clearing in the thick forest canopy, Rahlan Bang, 11 years old, her six siblings and their mother sat under the blue plastic roof of their jungle home, their heads bowed, as their father led them in prayer before they polished off the rations Ksor delivered on Saturday. The flies, the oppressive humidity and the odor of urine and sweat seemed not to bother her six brothers and sisters, aged 1 to 17 years old. But one month of living under a sheet of plastic, existing on a constant diet of rice and plant leaves, has taken a mental and physical toll on the 11-year-old girl. "In my village I never had a problem. But since I have been here, I have been sick," she said, rubbing away tears with the sleeve of her blouse before breaking into sobs. "I don't want to go back. I am afraid of the Vietnamese. I am afraid they will arrest my father," she said, turning her back and retreating to the back of the tent. Her 14-year-old sister moved forward to speak: "I am very worried about our safety here. Our living conditions are terrible. I can't speak about our difficulty." . The children don't have enough to eat and they haven't had a bath in the month since they arrived in Cambodia, said their 40-year-old mother, wrestling with the year-old infant, strapped to her back in a blanket, who fought and cried to be breast-fed. |+|

"They see the river valley," she said, "but we can't take a bath because we are afraid of the police." The families visited in the jungle have not dared to venture out; they are afraid that the Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities hunting them may be watching all the river sources, knowing that they must eventually emerge to collect drinking water and clean themselves. With reports from the local hill tribes that one asylum seeker died late last month from eating poisonous mushrooms, and with aid organizations prevented by the government from distributing humanitarian assistance, it may only be a matter of time before there are more fatalities. The Cambodian Red Cross has said its hands are tied until the government allows them to provide humanitarian assistance.

Aftermath of the 2004 Following Crackdown on Easter Protests

Alan Rappeport wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune, "In January 2005, Vietnam, Cambodia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agreed that 750 Montagnards living in Cambodian refugee camps near the Vietnamese border would be returned because they were rejected or refused settlement in the United States. Vietnam promised that the Montagnards would not be punished for trying to leave. ''There's some real denial on the part of the UNHCR,'' Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch said. ''It's against their mandate to send people back to a place where they are being persecuted. We have documented systematic persecution as well as arrest and torture of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam.'' Some Montagnards who successfully reach Cambodia are given asylum and brought to the United States. More than 4,000 Montagnards currently live in North Carolina. ''A group of Montagnards just left Cambodia for the United States,'' Anne Peters, of Jesuit Refugee Services, in Phnom Penh said. ''One of them was Ksor Ni, the brother of the Montagnard leader.'' [Source: Alan Rappeport, Salt Lake Tribune, April 1, 2005 ***]

"In February, the Vietnamese government offered to allow outlawed Protestant ''house-churches'' to operate if they renounce connections with Kok Ksor, who many feel is orchestrating uprisings in the Central Highlands from the United States. ''There have been problems with the Montagnards trying to flee to Cambodia because Montagnards in the United States are encouraging them,'' said Nguyen Do Huynh, a tour guide who is half Montagnard and half Vietnamese. ''The government has been giving them extra money now to make their lives here easier.'' ***

In January 2006, Associated Press reported: "The U.N. refugee agency has rescued 75 Vietnamese asylum seekers from the Cambodian jungle where they had been hiding for more than a month, officials said. The men, women and children - some as young as 1 year - were found in the jungle of northeastern Cambodia's Ratanakiri province, said Deborah Backus, spokeswoman for the Cambodia office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Backus said the refugees, hill tribe members usually called Montagnards, had begun arriving in November. Ratanakiri province is about 325 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Phnom Penh. [Source: AP, January 16, 2006]

Torture and Ill-Treatment of Montagnards

Human Rights groups reported that after the February 2001 protest the government used torture, church burning and arbitrary arrests to put down and repress ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands. The reports said that large number of ethnic minorities were rounded up and detained without trial and coerced into giving confessions through the use of beatings and electric shock.

According to Amnesty International: Reports of torture and ill-treatment of those arrested in the Central Highlands since the events of 2001 continue to emerge. Amnesty International is unable to verify individual claims of ill-treatment and torture in detention, but a pattern of credible reports suggest that the treatment of those arrested, particularly by the police, is in violation of both Vietnamese law and obligations under international human rights treaties signed by Viet Nam. These concerns are clearly shared by the UN's Human Rights Committee which reported, in its concluding observations that it "remains concerned at the abundance of information regarding the treatment of the Degar (Montagnard) indicating serious violations of article 7...of the Covenant."(15) ICCPR Article 7: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation. [Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002 <*>]

In 2005, Human Rights Watch reported: "Cambodia’s decision to close its northeastern border with Vietnam to halt the flow of Montagnard asylum seekers comes amidst alarming new reports of mass arrests, torture, and increasing persecution of Montagnard Christians in Vietnam's Central Highlands. "The Vietnamese government's mistreatment of Montagnards continues unabated," said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. [Source: Human Rights Watch, January 8, 2005 ==]

In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2004, police were busy rounding up and arresting dozens of Montagnard Christians and detaining them at district and provincial police stations and prisons throughout the region. In Gia Lai province alone––one of five provinces in the Central Highlands––police arrested 129 people between December 12 and 24. "Christmas was relatively quiet in the highlands," said Adams. "That's because hundreds of Montagnards were rounded up and spent the holiday in police detention." Many of those arrested during the Christmas crackdown were Montagnard house church leaders who were organizing Christmas gatherings in the villages. Others targeted for detention included the wives and even young children of men who had fled to Cambodia to seek asylum. Human Rights Watch said that police also arrested dozens of Montagnards suspected of being protest leaders or making contact with groups in the U.S. supporting demands for the return of ancestral land and religious freedom. The current whereabouts and treatment of most of the detainees is unknown. ==

A Mnong man from Dak Nong province, who was arrested in April 2004, said he was severely beaten several times by police officers trying to obtain the names of other activists. At the district jail, police officers pulled out one of his toe nails, beat him repeatedly on his thighs with a rubber baton, and boxed him in the face, knocking out one of his front teeth. They brandished an AK-47 rifle and threatened to kill him. He was then transferred to the provincial prison, where he was interrogated and beaten again: They beat my head and used two hands to box my ears more than thirty times, until my face was bright red and my ears were bleeding. They kicked me in the chest with their boots. They wanted to squeeze out the information about the demonstrations. ==

First-hand accounts from Montagnards who have voluntarily returned to Vietnam since 2001 indicate that Vietnamese authorities treat returnees with intense suspicion. Some are placed under police surveillance and even house arrest upon return, or are regularly summoned to the police station for questioning about their activities. On December 29, the Vietnamese government publicly accused 13 Montagnards who voluntarily returned to Vietnam last October from a Cambodian refugee camp of being spies that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) "trained to create disturbances and then sent back to Vietnam." "These kinds of statements show a degree of paranoia that leads to persecution," said Adams. "Instead of punishing those who flee for safety, the government in Hanoi must begin to deal with the causes of discontent, which are religious repression and widespread confiscation of the agricultural land on which the indigenous minority people depend for their livelihood." ==

U.N Refugee Agency Rejects Claims of Torture Against Montagnards

In June 2006, the United Nations News Services reported: "The United Nations refugee agency today rejected a recent report from an international non-governmental human rights organization alleging that Vietnamese authorities have been detaining, interrogating and torturing Montagnard asylum seekers who have returned to Viet Nam from Cambodia. The report was issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW). "Frankly, we find the report unbalanced and reject its accusations. The allegations do not tally with our first-hand experience of the Montagnard caseload in Cambodia, nor with our 12 monitoring missions to visit returnees in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam," UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva. "We reject the accusation made in the report that we made public statements praising Viet Nam’s treatment of returnees in order to gain greater access. We have absolutely no reason to do so. Our public statements have reflected the reality we found on the ground. We will continue to report what we find in an objective manner." [Source: United Nations News Services, June 16, 2006 \\//]

"Under the terms of an agreement signed in Hanoi in January 2005 between UNHCR, Viet Nam and Cambodia, Montagnards who had arrived in Cambodia and were recognized as refugees could either be resettled to a third country or return to Viet Nam, which guaranteed they would not be punished, discriminated against or prosecuted for illegal departure. UNHCR said it had now visited more than 64 percent of all returnees, many of them several times, and had also spoken with the two people on whom HRW had relied heavily for their report and Mr. Redmond said the Agency had "found discrepancies between accounts they related to us and to HRW." There have been no similar allegations of mistreatment from any other returnees, who now total 102 voluntary returnees and 94 deportees," he added. A total of 672 Montagnards were resettled from Cambodia in 2004/2005. There are currently 249 in Phnom Penh. In 2005, 82 Montagnards returned home voluntarily, with a further 20 returning in 2006. A total of 94 persons have been deported. \\//

The Vietnam government also rejected allegations of ill-treatment of ethnic minorities. The Vietnam News Agency reported: Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dzung dismissed a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report citing ill-treatment of ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands as a "sheer fabrication." "HRW’s report was built on distorted information to smear the Vietnamese State's policy on ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands," Dzung told reporters. "For ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands, as others, the State has paid attention to, and created all conditions for the improvement of material and spiritual lives, and carried out policies to better people's lives in all fields." In Vietnam, there exists no repression of ethnic minority people nor religious repression; nobody is detained for religious reasons," Dzung stressed. He said further that Vietnam respected and protected freedom of belief and religion of all citizens. [Source: Vietnam News Agency, June 15, 2006 ~~]

Regarding the repatriation of ethnic minority people who illegally crossed the border to Cambodia, Dzung said Vietnam "pursues a consistent policy of neither discrimination nor punishment against the returnees due to their illegal border-crossing." "They were not prosecuted, punished nor ill-treated due to their past actions. Instead, they received assistance from the local authorities in stabilizing their lives." The spokesman also noted that Vietnam has times and again arranged visits for UNHCR officials and foreign diplomats to meet returnees who were allegedly punished, tortured, detained and discriminated against. He said that after the visits, representatives from the UNHCR and foreign embassies agreed that Vietnam had properly fulfilled its commitments in the MoU, and that no one had been punished, tortured, detained or discriminated against. ~~

Arrest and Imprisonment of Montagnards

According to the 2006 Human Rights Watch report "No Sanctuary: Ongoing Threats to Indigenous Montagnards in Vietnam's Central Highlands": "More than 350 Montagnards have been sentenced to prison since 2001, largely for peaceful political or religious activities. Most have been charged under Vietnam's Penal Code with vaguely worded national security crimes. These include "undermining the unity policy," "disrupting security" and "causing public disorder". More than 60 Montagnards have been imprisoned after being forcibly returned from Cambodia, where they were seeking asylum. [Source: Human Rights Watch News, June 14, 2006 >><<]

"The arrests are ongoing: during 2005 alone, at least 142 people— some of whom had been in pre-trial detention for as much as a year—were sentenced to prison terms of up to 17 years. This is more than double the number imprisoned during the previous year. At least 30 of those sentenced in 2005 had been arrested in Cambodia or near the border areas, whilst trying to seek asylum. They were apprehended by Cambodian police and turned over to Vietnamese authorities without having a chance to make an asylum claim with UNHCR. The report includes an annex listing Central Highland prisoners. "Serious problems persist for Montagnards in the Central Highlands, and the Vietnamese government continues to gloss them over," said Adams. "For those who think the problems are all in the past, they should think again." >><<

In 2002, Amnesty International reported: "According to Vietnamese official news agency reports, 35 Montagnard men have already been tried and given prison sentences ranging from three to 12 years. No outside observers were allowed to be present at these trials and details of the charges have not been made available. In only one case was the legislation under which the defendants were being tried publicly specified. In most cases these trials appear to have lasted a day or less. Amnesty International is particularly concerned that some of those tried were charged with "organizing illegal migrations". During the meetings in July 2002 as part of the UN Human Rights Committee's consideration of Viet Nam, the Vietnamese delegation stated: "The returnees had been welcomed without any punishment or discrimination and provided with material assistance and health care to help in their resettlement." [Source: Amnesty International, December 18, 2002 <*>]

In November 2005, the BBC reported: "A Vietnamese court has sentenced six ethnic minority Montagnards to between seven and 17 years jail for "threatening national security". The men, from the Central Highlands, were found guilty of inciting protests in 2004 to call for religious freedom, the Vietnam News Agency reported. The men face an additional five years' surveillance after their release, the agency said. [Source: BBC News - November 18, 2005]

In September 2009, AFP reported: "Vietnam has jailed three ethnic minority Montagnards for up to 10 years after finding them guilty of "undermining national solidarity", state media said on Monday. A court in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai gave Nhi a sentence of 10 years' imprisonment while Amlinh and Yuh each received eight years, said the Quan Doi Nhan Dan or People's Army newspaper. The paper did not provide either the full names of the accused or an exact date for the trial. [Source: AFP, September 13, 2009]

According to an indictment cited by the newspaper, the three had secretly planned to develop village-level Fulro organizations in March, 2008. "They had instigated ethnic minorities there to join Fulro and prepared for a demonstration planned for August. However, their move was discovered by people and local authorities," the paper said. In April three other Montagnards were jailed for up to 12 years on the same charge of undermining national solidarity, state media said at the time.

Vietnam Jails 13 Montagnard House Church Christians

In July 2007, Stefan J. Bos of BosNewsLife wrote: "Vietnam sentenced 13 Degar Montagnards, a major ethnic group in the country's volatile Central Highlands, to prison terms of up to 15 years for "being House Church Christians" and their involvement in religious rights campaigns, representatives said. Topping the security forces most wanted list were K'Pa Binh, 31, and Kae Pa Cin, 42, who received 15 years imprisonment each last month from a court in Gia Lai province for their involvement in the Montagnard Foundation Incorporated (MFI), which demands more rights for the predominantly Christian Degar Montagnards, and for "possessing mobile phones," MFI officials said. Details of the June sentences only emerged this weekend. [Source: Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife, July 16, 2007 ^^^]

"Binh was detained in September 2006 on an arrest warrant related to his participation in what rights watchers described as "a peaceful [pro-democracy] demonstration of Easter 2004". He has been held at T-20 prison in the central town of Pleiku. On June 1, charges were apparently changed and he received the 15 years prison term. Fellow Christian and rights activist Cin, who was held since November last year in the same prison, received a similar sentence, MFI added. Other house church Christians, most of whom are held since last year in the notorious T-20 prison, include Rmah Ca, 35, from the province's Ploi Tao Ko village, who received nine years for being an active House Church Christian, the group said. He was detained in May last year after fleeing to the jungles in November 2004 to avoid arrest. ^^^

"Siu Blok, 54, a Degar Montagnard Christian from Ploi Breng 1 village of Gia Lai province who was sentenced to eight years imprisonment "for preaching and spreading Christianity," and being active in a House Church, MFI told BosNewsLife. His fellow Christian, Siu Ho, 28, from Ploi Tao Ko village was also sentence to eight years imprisonment. He was detained in November 2006, following last two years of hiding in jungles to avoid arrest on charges of "involvement in a peaceful demonstrations and for being a House Church Christian," MFI said. ^^^

"Puih Alum, 57, and Rcom Wit, who are also from Gia Lai province, were sentenced both to seven years imprisonment "for being a House Church Christian," said MFI, which has close contacts with Christians in the Central Highlands. Two other Degar Montragnard Christians from the province, identified as Ksor Phong, 35, and Puih Hih, 32, were both received six years on charges of "being a House Church Christian", while Hih was also accused of supporting the MFI, the group said. The only known woman among those detained, Nai Hae Ngat, 32, from Kli Kia village, of Gia Lai province was sentenced to six years imprisonment for being a house church Christian and helping refugees, MFI said. The group claimed H'Ngat the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) "forcibly" returned her to Vietnam on July 20, 2005, because she had failed her interview for refugee status. "Subsequently one year later on June 15, 2006 Vietnamese security police arrested her."^^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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