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From Nguyễn Văn Đài’s April 5, 2018 Trial – What Constitutes “Overthrowing the People’s Government” in Vietnam?

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April 5, 2018 | Nguyễn Văn Đài – probably one of the most prominent dissidents in Vietnam for almost two decades – received one of the harshest sentences for political dissent in recent years.

A court in Hanoi, Vietnam sentenced Nguyễn Văn Đài to 15 years imprisonment and 5 years probation under house arrest. His colleagues tried and convicted in the same case, also received equally harsh sentences. Nguyễn Trung Tôn, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Trương Minh Đức, 12 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, 11 years imprisonment and 3 years probation; Lê Thu Hà, 9 years imprisonment and 2 years probation; Phạm Văn Trội, 7 years imprisonment and 1 year probation.

The 48-year old former attorney was among the first group of Vietnamese lawyers who took up political cases in the early 2000’s and defended dissidents, as well as those who were persecuted for exercising religious freedom.

Đài was the type of lawyer who would defend those accused of the very same crime he is facing today: “conducting activities to overthrow the people’s government.”

This crime is infamously known among international human rights groups and foreign embassies as the Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code 1999.

While carrying capital punishment as the maximum sentence, Article 79 however, utterly lacks a clear, well-defined description of conducts which would constitute a person’s criminal liability, and as such, making it impossible for people to cry out mea culpa.

The law only states that “a person conducting activities to form or participate in any organization to overthrow the people’s government shall be punished as follows,” and then immediately dwells into specifying the sentencing guidelines from twelve years, twenty years, life imprisonment, up to the death sentence for the main perpetrator, and five to fifteen years for those who act as accomplices.

Because of this ambiguity per se in its language, Article 79 had faced strong criticism from the international community over the years, especially during the last Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in January 2014.

Critics continue pointing out, that along with Articles 88 and 258 of the Penal Code, the government has used these criminal provisions almost exclusively against political dissidents and pro-democracy activists, taking advantage of the vague language of these codes to criminalize peaceful protests and suppress political dissent.

Facing such international pressure during the 2014 UPR, Vietnam agreed to amend Article 79, and they did, in 2015.

However, except for some minor, cosmetic changes such as the number of the code section from 79 to 109, and adding a category for those who are “preparing to commit the crime” with the punishment ranging from one to five years imprisonment, the remaining of the “new” Article 109 is taken verbatim from Article 79.

In short, we still have to look to actual cases to define which conducts would constitute the crime of “overthrowing the people’s government” in Vietnam, and in Đài’s case today, such conducts would be:

“Opening an office, having a website to operate, developing a ‘shortening manifesto’, having a structured organization, having internal and external affairs strategy, operating to increase membership, capacity, …; abusing the right to promote ‘democracy, human rights,’ ‘civil society’ to conceal the objectives of the Brotherhood for Democracy … waiting for the appropriate timing to openly operate in opposition of the government through changing the political structure in Vietnam, developing ‘pluralism with multiple parties’ and a government with ‘separation of powers’ to overthrow the people’s government while using a private sector economy as its basis.”

The above paragraph was an excerpt taken from the Conclusion section at page 10 of the 16-page long indictment issued on December 31, 2017 against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his five colleagues, Lê Thu Hà (who was arrested together with Đài on December 16, 2015), Nguyễn Bắc Truyển, Nguyễn Trung Tôn, Trương Minh Đức, and Phạm Văn Trội.

The new Penal Code of Vietnam was not taken effective until January 1, 2018. Thus, Đài and his colleagues were charged with Article 79 of the old code.

Nguyễn Văn Đài has never shied away from his political ambitions and his outspoken criticism of the current regime, especially regarding the political monopoly the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) has over the country.

In 2006, Đài openly called for the establishment of other political parties and forming political opposition to challenge the VPC’s ruling. According to a research on Vietnam’s democratization advocates conducted by the Australian scholar, Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, Nguyễn Văn Đài would fall under the category of those who chose to confront the regime head-on.

He holds a firm personal belief that every Vietnamese people do have the intellectual capacity and enough knowledge to participate in a pluralistic form of governance with multiple parties.

He previously wrote that Vietnam had had other political parties in the past, during the 1930’s and the early independent days from 1945-1946. Notably, in the South of Vietnam – before the fall of Saigon – political parties were very active. Moreover, Đài always believes that the current Constitution supports the formation of other political parties besides the VPC.

His direct challenge to the ruling party’s power resulted in a conviction for “propaganda against the state” under Article 88 in 2007, where he served four years in prison and was released in 2011.

Coincidentally, 2011, the year in which Đài was released, also marked the beginning of an unprecedented rise of the young pro-democracy and pro-human rights movement in Vietnam.

Starting in the summer of 2011, Vietnamese people – especially youths – swarmed the streets of major cities such as Hanoi and Saigon, protesting against China’s aggression due to the incident involving the cutting of Vietnam’s Binh Minh vessel’s cable cab in the South China Sea.

People organized protests through Facebook’s pages, and statuses, calling for massive turnouts all over the country like never seen before, at least not anything like that had happened since after the Vietnam War was over in 1975.

At first, the government allowed the protests, but when faced with thousands of youths on the streets, they quickly decided to change course and started cracking down on peaceful protesters. Yet this very conduct of the government had opened doors to another era of civil disobedience in Vietnam: the birth of the independent civil society organizations (CSO) movement inside the country. Many of the protesters on those streets in Vietnam six years ago are now the prominent faces of the pro-democracy movement.

The undeterred Nguyễn Văn Đài quickly caught on to this phenomenon and organized his own CSO – the Brotherhood for Democracy (which got named in the indictment) – continuing pushing for political changes through challenging the one-party rule. A person with charisma, Đài again rose to the occasion, becoming the familiar face during those meetings with foreign officials and diplomats from many embassies in Hanoi.

And that was documented in his December 2017 indictment as well, where it detailed how he was able to connect with foreign institutions and individuals to secure funding for his CSO – activities that are normal for any non-governmental organization around the world. The indictment even named diplomats from the U.S. and Germany as people who acted as his references.

It also worths noting that almost two years ago, Vietnam’s National Assembly attempted to pass a law on association with restrictions on receiving “foreign funds.” However, such efforts failed when faced with stern opposition from NGOs and CSOs from Vietnam, both registered and non-registered.

Thus, except for the indictment in Đài’s case making it out to be a crime, Vietnam’s laws have yet to prohibit NGOs to receive foreign financial aids.

But the reality remains, that as of right now, Vietnam still only has one political party – the Communist Party – and Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues’ latest trial and conviction demonstrate that any efforts aiming at forming a political opposition would constitute conduct punishable by very long and harsh sentences.

In December 2008, many people gasped as China sentenced Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, to 11 years for “suspicion of subversion against the state.”

Now almost ten years later, in April 2018, using an eerily similar charge against Nguyễn Văn Đài and his colleagues, Vietnam has demonstrated that it too, does not yield to international pressure and would even go the extra miles in sending political dissents to prisons for even longer terms than its communist big brother.

Human Rights

Montagnards: Persecuted in Vietnam, Living in Limbo in Thailand

Over the past two decades since it first began, Hanoi’s persecution of the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands is still raging on.

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Four among at least 500 Montagnards people living in limbo in Thailand. Photo: Thinh Nguyen.

Tran Duy – Ha Anh

On the morning of April 19, 2008, indigenous villagers of Ia Piar – more than 80 km away from the Gia Lai provincial capital in Pleiku – were heading to their commune people’s committee with well prepared posters and banners calling for religious freedom and the protection of land ownership. They had their own “battle plan” ready, but so did the authorities.

Soon after the protest began, the villagers, who are Protestants, ran into a group of strangers carrying wooden sticks in their hands. For no reason, the protesters were severely threatened and beaten by these people. To save their lives, the villagers ran off in different directions, except for Nay Them, who was arrested despite not having joined the protest.

Nay Them recalls how the meeting room of the district police, where he was first interrogated,  soon turned into a “slaughterhouse”. The police tied him to a chair with electric wires. He was tied so tightly he could barely move, not even a centimeter.

As if in a Hollywood movie, policemen kept walking around Nay while his whole body was shaking violently after being kicked, slapped, and beaten with batons that directly struck his head. Being shaken up after falling down from the chair, he was beaten over and over again. The people who hit him no longer considered him as one of their compatriots.

There was no attempt to talk to him nicely or to reason with him. Or maybe it was simply because this tactic is not used for ethnic Jrai people such as Nay. He had no rights at all, not even the right to talk, or to even open his mouth.

The police insisted that Nay knew exactly where the protestors were hiding. They kept beating him over and again with their hands and a baton. “ Soldiers, plainclothes policemen, mobile policemen and even traffic policemen were enjoying beating me up”, said Nay. “One of them walked around me and finally hit my face with a baton”. Blood splattered from his swollen nose and eyes  until Nay fainted.

The next day, Nay woke up at a detention center with wounds all over his body. “I was in so much pain my eyes were swollen”, he recalls. “I could sit but could not open my eyes. I could not eat for five days”.

Ia Piar Commune is almost 80 km away from Pleiku, the provincial capital, and about 17 km away from the district police department.

Meanwhile, Nay’s brother-in-law, Siu Wiu, the person in charge of the protest, was hiding far away deep in the forest. Siu was a small, muscular Jrai, a typical example of the dark-skinned Montagnards in the Central Highlands. His eyes were as sharp as a cat’s.

Every policeman in this district knew Siu Wiu. He had been sent to a re-education camp in 2004 under the charge of leading a demonstration. At the camp, Siu met 180 other Jrai people who were exploited while being held prisoner. They worked as sugar cane porters or builders from early morning until evening . “Everyone was beaten by hoe handles no matter who they were – young or senior citizens,” Nay said.

“We were arrested not for burglary, but for fighting for land protection and religious freedom”, he said. “Do you know if treating us like this is right or wrong?” Siu recalled asking one officer at the camp. 

Two years later, he was set free, the re-education camp having failed to change Siu’s thinking about the government.The camp gave him 160,000 dong, which was just enough to buy a bus ticket home, leaving him without any money to buy anything to eat on his way back to his village.

Meanwhile, Siu’s family members – all Protestants – continued to be targeted  because they had taken part in the protests. Some had been detained, arrested or imprisoned.

Siu Wiu was under house arrest while his father, Nay Bro, was imprisoned. “I was not allowed to do anything, and our land was also taken by the government,” Siu said. He added that the government had take three-quarters of his land, leaving just a little than 250 square meter left for farming. 

Facing such difficulties, he called for a protest in front of the people’s committee of the Ia Piar commune. Other villagers joined Siu in the protest.

“In order to convince the villagers to join this protest, I talked about the truth. They also lost their land so they followed me”, said Siu. “Their beliefs were threatened by the government. Their family members had been sent to prison for religious reasons. The government said that we were free to exchange information, free to communicate. But in fact, we would be arrested whenever we raised our voices.”

Protests such as this were not uncommon in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. From 2001 to 2008, demonstrations have taken place frequently in the area and thousands of people have fled to Cambodia to escape the government’s revenge.

One month hiding in the forest was too much for Siu Wiu. He decided to go home to look for more food, but he was detained immediately. “I was arrested at around 4 pm and severely tortured,” he said. “They tied my legs to the chair with a  hammock string and started to beat me until my mouth was swollen, my eyes could not open properly, and my ears were full of blood”.

Siu was sentenced to 10 years in prison at the end of December 2008.

Nay Them, who was released right after they caught Siu, never forgot what the policeman told him: “I understand that you don’t know about the protest, but as I was afraid that you would hide some information, I had to beat you first”.

The experiences of Nay Them, Nay Bro and Siu Wiu show how the Central Highlands of Vietnam is like a large prison for ethnic people who fight for their religious freedom and land rights. The more remote their villages are, the more controlling the local governments are. No law exists in these far-flung regions. 

No lawyers dared to defend them. In addition to being a warning to villagers of the high cost of joining protests, the mobile trials were also a government ruse to make it appear that those charged had been given a fair trial. The trials were a sham. And even when left prison after serving their time, they’d still never be free people.

Nay Bro had been sentenced to seven years in prison for sabotaging the great unity policy after being accused of organizing protests in 2005. At the detention center, he was imprisoned with 62 other Jrai, Ede and Bana people for their work on behalf of  land rights and religious freedom.

After being released from prison, the local police kept an eye on him as he remained a suspect in the  plotting of protests.

“On August 25, 2015, the police came to arrest me again,” said Nay Bro. “They came to my house while I was looking for bamboo shoots in the forest. When I headed back home, my wife informed me that there were 5-6 policemen visiting my house. They asked her to keep me in my house as they wanted to see me the next day. I would rather die in the forest than be put under communist surveillance”.

Nay Bro took his personal belongings and informed his daughter that he and his wife would be away for a few days to take care of some friends in the hospital. Nay and his wife hid in the forest for more than 11 days.

Stateless in Thailand

As a highlander, Nay Bro didn’t believe what lowlanders often said: “If you didn’t do anything wrong, the police would set you free.” From his own experience, he knew that “once  I was imprisoned for the first time, I would have no chance to go home after the second time I was imprisoned”. 

In September 2015, Nay Them helped his parents-in-law travel to Saigon, where they then followed a stranger travelling by bus to Thailand. Crossing the border was the only way to avoid being arrested by the government and sent back to a reform camp or prison. Thailand was the favorite place for Montagnard refugees seeking to escape Vietnam.

Siu Wiu (right) and his father, Nay Bro, standing in front of their house above a river in Thailand. Nay Bro has been waiting for resettlement for almost 4 years in Bangkok, not knowing what will happen next. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

The word Montagnard was first used by the French when they ruled Vietnam to refer to the more than 20 different ethnic groups indigenous to the Central Highlands. These indigenous peoples lived in the Central Highlands before the Kinh, or Vietnamese, people arrived. The E-de, Jrai and Bana people have a larger population than other ethnic groups, such as the  K’ho, Sedang, Stieng, and Ma.

Today, the word Montagnard has disappeared from official state usage,. They are now generally known as “ethnic minority people”.

Them was arrested in November 2016 after the police discovered  that he was involved in helping his parents-in-law escape across the border to Thailand. He was in a dilemma between asking his in-laws to return  to Vietnam and being prosecuted on the charge of  “forcing others to flee or stay abroad illegally”, which carried a punishment of at least two years in prison.

Once again, crossing the border was the only way that Nay Them could think of to get out of his predicament. He took his wife, two children and his wife’s younger brother to Thailand with him after having been temporarily released. The arrest warrant was issued immediately after they left.

In the middle of July 2019, I met Nay Them and his wife’s other eight family members at a refugee camp in a suburb of Bangkok. They lived not far from the WestGate Shopping Mall, in the Bang Dai District, Nonthaburi Province. Siu Wiu came to Bangkok in 2018 after finishing his 10-year prison term.

Temporary identification cards issued for asylum seekers Nay Them and his family. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

That day, Nay Them looked exhausted and frustrated. With a big paper board hanging in front of his chest, he and his two year old daughter, who was born in Thailand, wandered around different NGO offices, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), begging for help for his wife, who had been detained for over a year.

Sen Nhiang, a Jrai person who took me to the camp from the MRT station, said “Although living in poor conditions here, I can follow my Protestantism freely. In the worst case, even if I’m arrested, I would not be beaten as the Vietnamese police did to me”.

Together with his wife and three other children, Sen lived in a 20 square meter room. There were no chairs or tables. A thin mattress lay in a corner, and the only other objects were an  electric fan, clothes, books, a gas cooker, and an empty fridge; a Christian crucifix was placed solemnly in another corner of the room. His three children spoke Jrai and Thai much better than Vietnamese. His wife was sitting in front of their house weaving a towel for overseas Vietnamese who donated rice for her community. For almost a year, Sen had no job, as was the case with other refugees living here. His 14-year old daughter had just broken her arm and he was looking for support to continue her treatment. 

Talking about the status of the Montagnards in Thailand, Grace Bui, a retired US attorney, said that this area is now home to over 500 Montagnards, with approximately 120 children. “Thailand did not sign the United Nations Convention in 1951 on the status of refugees, so Montagnards, despite being recognized as refugees by the UNHCR, are still illegal residents,” she said. “They are not allowed to work, and police can arrest and punish them very harshly.” ”

Grace has been voluntarily working in the camp over the last four years. She works with overseas Vietnamese to obtain rice donations. Grace asks the INGOs, UNHCR for support for the most needy cases, especially when someone is arrested. 

Y Rin Kpa, an Ede ethnic man from the Central Highlands, who had been in prison for 10 years for  taking part in protests, messaged me via Facebook from a refugee camp in Cambodia. He told me that he was in a camp in Phnom Penh with 27 other Montagnards, including seven children under 14.

He reported that Cambodian police were strictly surveilling these people. They lived with very limited subsidies and supplies funded by the UNHCR every month. However, their biggest fear wasn’t living under such a demanding situation, but of being deported back to Vietnam, where they could face imprisonment and other abuses. A family of three was forced to go back to Vietnam in June 2019. 

Evan Jones, a coordinator for Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, a non-governmental organization that advocates for refugees in the Asia Pacific region, explained why these people don’t want to return to Vietnam.

“Vietnam is well-known for punishing returnees with prison sentences, harassment, physical abuse and intimidation,” she said. “It has been particularly difficult to keep in contact with Montagnards who have been forcibly returned in the past. This may suggest that they have faced reprisals from the Vietnamese authorities after their return.”

The Criminal Law issued in 2015 includes four articles for  prosecuting people for illegal border crossings. The shortest prison sentence is one year  (Article 349) if charged with organizing or brokering illegal emigration. The law stipulates up to 20 years in prison for particularly serious cases as stated in Article 121, which covers illegal emigration for the purpose of opposing the people’s administration.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asian Division for Human Rights Watch, has been observing the human rights situation in the Central Highlands for nearly 20 years. He is not optimistic about the situation of Montagnard refugees.

“Vietnam continues to press hard to persuade the Thai government to force Montagnards to go back.  In Bangkok and nearby provinces, Montagnards live in difficult situations, doing low paying work in the informal sector, and facing problems with access to health and education services for themselves and their children. Most importantly, they don’t know what the future will hold for them, and whether they will ever be safe,” he said. “In Cambodia, Vietnam’s influence is even greater [than in Thailand], so seeking protection is even harder. UNHCR officials and diplomats based in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, who represent governments that resettle refugees, should redouble their efforts to protect the Montagnards, and strongly resist Vietnam’s efforts to force the Montagnards to go back.”

Despite pressure from the Vietnamese government, the number of Montagnards crossing the border into Thailand is still increasing. “The total number of Montagnards [crossing the border] has increased,” said Sen Nhiang.. “Last month, there were 20 more people coming from Dak Lak. We don’t have enough rice to give them”.

Sen Nhiang and his wife, sitting in their small studio apartment in Bangkok, recall what made them escape Vietnam to become stateless in Thailand. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

Vietnamese embassies in both Thailand and Cambodia refused to speak with Luat Khoa about the situation of the Montagnards. In Thailand, the embassy didn’t respond to our emails, faxes or phone calls. In Cambodia, a staff member named Ngoc informed us that he had no information about the status of the Montagnards in Phnom Penh, while the Politburo officer said Ngoc was the only one who could answer our questions. 

The Montagnard refugees don’t speak English or Thai and very little Vietnamese. As a result, it takes them much longer to go through UNHCR procedures to obtain refugee status; after that, they have to wait for approval from a third country to be re-settled. The chance of resettling is uncertain, and nobody is sure what the future will be like.

Jennifer Harrison, UNHCR spokeswoman in Bangkok, said she could not reveal the total number of Montagnards who are applying for refugee status at UNHCR. She said UNHCR is doing its best to help refugees.

She said: “UNHCR consistently advocates that refugees and asylum seekers – having been confirmed or claimed to be in need of international protection – cannot be returned to their countries of origin according to the principle of non-refoulement, which prevents states from expelling or returning persons to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened.”

Losing all in Vietnam

For hundreds of years the Montagnards have  depended upon the forests to earn their living and to survive. It’s said that the Montagnards preserved the forests of the Central Highlands to serve the never-ending needs of the Kinh people – the majority of Vietnam’s population. The beds the Kinh people lie on and the chairs they sit on likely come from forests in the Central Highlands.

The Montagnards sacrificed their own fertilized lands to welcome immigrants from the north when the country was divided into two regions in 1954. And they did this again when the lowlanders moved to the new economic zones on  the order of the government in a move to deal with population growth and unemployment in cities after 1975.

The Montagnards I met in Thailand said that they had been under surveillance by the Vietnamese government back in the villages in the Central Highlands. First they were not allowed to follow their Protestant beliefs and then they lost their lands.

The Central Highlands has become the most religiously sensitive areas in Vietnam following a long period of persecution since 1975. Photo: East West Center.

The Central Highlands is no longer a mysterious land when native customs and customary laws continue to be abolished by the government. 

“When I was a child, I heard from teachers and the commune people’s committee that praying for rain, buffalo stabbing and other traditional practices were considered backward customs and superstition”, said Nay Them. “They asked the village elders to abandon these ancient customs”.

People eliminated costly rituals and men stopped smoking and drinking once they started to follow Protestantism. And so it was strange in the early 2000s when the government asked the people to restore their traditional customs. Between 2000 and  2004, the government wanted to limit the number of Protestants and so sought to restore these old customs, which were anathema to their religious beliefs. 

“They said that these were the original customs of the Central Highlands, and that following Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were following French and American customs,” said Nay Them. He had witnessed the police take away Bibles away from people  and beat them, but he did not understand why they did it.

Under strict controls by the local authorities, Nay asked his community to focus on praying at the beginning of the month, but it was also very difficult.  At the beginning of the month, the villagers secretly prayed together at the leader’s house. Every Sunday, the police would come and check all the houses. If they found people praying, they would force them to go to the police station. Police said that this religion was not allowed, especially when the people gathered and prayed at the same place.

“I went to the public church but what I got was contemptuousness,” said Nay Them. “They also discriminated against me for advocating against the government”.

Pastor Than Van Truong, who helped some Montagnard families cross the border to Thailand, said that in the 2000s the number of house Protestant groups in the Central Highlands increased sharply. These groups paid much interest to human rights as the local government had been discriminating against them regarding administrative procedures and land disputes. The people  depended on their religious affiliations to share their concerns about such issues.

There are many Protestants like Nay in the Central Highlands who also need to pray at home.The number of Protestants in the Central Highlands increased by 432% from 1975 to 1999, to a total of 228,618 followers.

The Protestants in the Central Highlands have long been regarded as a threat to the Communist regime. In 1999, former Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, along with Nguyen Tan Dung, one of the deputy ministers responsible for  the Central Highlands, established the  184 Steering Committee  (the Committee for the Guidance of Correct Thought) to suppress Protestants in the Central Highlands and the northwest.

“When we pursued and drove away FULRO (the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) and the rebellious groups, evangelical churches in some places had to be closed….”, according to a committee statement describing its successful effort to control Protestantism in the Central Highlands. “After a few years of taking measures against Protestantism, such as suspending religious activities of Protestantism, dismissing the governing board of deacons, re-educating the clergy in detention camps, closing churches, dealing forcefully with unauthorized religious activities and agitating for the masses to defect from their own religions in fact, Protestant activities have been narrowed and prevented from operating in a normal way”

FULRO was an armed movement fighting for independence for indigenous people in Vietnam. They fought against both the regime of the Republic of Vietnam and the Viet Cong.  After hiding themselves in the forests in Cambodia, FULRO was disbanded and its members were resettled in the United States at the end of 1992.

Neil L. Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc, and A. Terry Rambo – three researchers – predicted in a special report published in 1998 that there might be some crisis in the area, and this prediction became true between  2001 and 2008. 

“Many upland people began to see themselves as poor and backward. They felt inferior to lowlanders, to foreigners, and even to some other minority groups”, the researchers wrote in their report. “Lacking money, food, access to natural resources and public services [education, health care, information], they were  on the edge of losing their most precious resources of all: self-confidence and self-respect. It was not just that they lacked money and access to daily necessities. After all, the uplands have always been economically worse off than the lowlands. The problem is that the people gradually became self-conscious about their economic status.”

In early 2001, thousands of Montagnards paraded from their villages to the government center in the region for a protest. The government then issued a curfew order, cut off the telephone lines, mobilized tanks and mobilized army forces to eliminate the massive protest.

In order to alleviate the situation, author Nguyen Ngoc suggested former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was in charge of the Central Highlands, to revise land ownership policies, but he refused to do this. Dung sent the protesters work as forced laborers in re-education camps and  prisons.

Since the 2001protests, the government has claimed that FULRO and its Degar Protestantism, a religious organization that unites the Montagnard Protestants to stand up for their rights, was behind uprisings and activities that were opposed to the government in the Central Highlands. Until now, many Montagnards continue to be persecuted as the government thinks they have links to these organizations.

In the refugee camp in Bangkok , I had tried to find out the connection between the refugees and Degar Protestantism but the people I spoke to claimed to have no idea about it. Pastor Than Van Truong said that he had asked the Montagnard pastors to get more information about Degar Protestantism but again no one knew anything about it. 

Kpă Hung, a 44-year old Bana man, who was arrested for the  third time in 2004, when he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, lost his faith in the government. “On the protest day, I sought a transparent dialog between the government and the people,” he said. “But they neither admitted their faults nor changed their minds”. 

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dung has continued to push harsh policies in the Central Highlands during his two succeeding terms as prime minister.

A former UN staff member in Vietnam told Luat Khoa that the state considered the Central Highlands “very sensitive” in terms of religious and ethnic issues.The United Nations in Vietnam could only intervene in the Central Highlands indirectly through Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) and visits by the UN special rapporteur.

Land issues did not improve after a series of misguided policies in the Central Highlands, such as hydropower projects, which allocated most of the land to agroforestry farms and land in forest areas to Vietnamese  and other migrated minority groups from the north. The Montagnards didn’t received any benefits. The Land Law issued in 2003 and 2013 did not solve the land problem for indigenous highlanders.

An anonymous expert with a decade of experience working on forest lands said that the land issue in the Central Highlands was extremely complicated. He said that land disputes in some areas of the regions accounted for more than 90% of complaints. Land disputes had been taking place among the Montagnards, the government, businesses, the Kinh and other ethnic migrants.

The expert said that the Montagnards continue to face many disadvantages. “For example, they didn’t have sufficient legal evidence to fight for their land”, he said. “And furthermore, the government did not provide  adequate compensation for the indigenous people who lost their land to the government. Their land was not protected by customary laws and the people didn’t even have the right to agree on prices.”

The expert said that those indigenous people who didn’t want to fight, moved closer to natural forests, but they once again had  to confront the government. 

He added that the vicious cycle of land loss, land shortages, land disputes and encroachment was a result of multiple factors. “For instance, forest land for ethnic people to cultivate was worth approximately 15 million dong/ha/year. But if they switched to trading crops, the profit would rise to 80-120 million dong/ha/year,” he said.

The Montagnard families whom I met in Bangkok told me that they had little to no space available for use. They didn’t have enough capital to grow high-value crops so they tried to live day by day.

Children under threat

In an old house above the small canal, I found a group of Jrai women painting scenes of their unforgettable escapes from Vietnam. While there, I met Jen, a 20-year-old Jrai girl who had fled to Bangkok the  year before. She spoke a little English and the Jrai language, and she was working hard as a  translator for an American artist who was coming to the camp every weekend to provide painting therapy to her mom and others in the camp.

Jen’s mother was painting a scene about how she lost her two-year daughter after they passed through the immigration check-point at the border. While she hid herself under the bus she let her daughter go with the guide through the check-point. They reunited two days later in Laos and continued their escape to Thailand.

The paint of Jen’s mother described her escape to Thailand. Photo: Luat Khoa tap chi.

When her mother fled to Thailand, Jen was still a child in the Central Highlands. “My two younger sisters and I had to take care of ourselves. We were very scared  right after our parents had left home….” she said. “We cried so much, but we accepted the reality after two or three months, and we tried to be stronger for the next three years”.

Jen stuttered when describing the time her mother tried to escape from the police after being forced to provide her husband’s contact in Bangkok. “My mother didn’t say that she was about to go to Thailand,” said Jen. “She told me to stay at home and take care of my two younger sisters; then she walked away with my youngest sibling.”

“When I turned 18-years-old they came to my house and asked if my father had called me or if I had contacted my parents,” she said. “I dared not to speak any words. I was afraid that they would arrest me.”

Jen said there were many similar cases in her  village. “the police arrested the family members and beat them at the police station”, she said. “When they came to see us, we gathered at the corner and I tried in fear to protect my sisters with my arms.”

“Once again, the police ordered me to come to their office. They threatened that if I did not call my parents and urge them to return home, I would be put into prison,” she said. “They asked me to give them my parents’ contact information. I answered that I didn’t have any. I was so scared that I only spoke a few words and then burst into tears. They yelled at me. They beat me up. They slapped my face and head. Each night, they sent some people to investigate our house.” 

Jen later decided to give 10 million dong  (about US$430) to the man next door to send her three sisters to Thailand. The money was from her grandmother and her job.

“At 3:00 am that day, the man took the  three of us to Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City”, she said. “At the Mien Dong Bus Station, he told us to wait until someone picked us up. Finally, a man came and forced us to walk quickly. We jumped into a small car with many people, I had no idea what would happen next. We walked through the river and the jungle. After three days, we arrived in Thailand”.

To escape the threat of Vietnamese police, children like Jen’s sisters had to go with strangers and travel in dangerous cars with the hope that they would later be able to reunite with their parents. The children faced the danger of  being kidnapped, sold to brothels, or forced to work as slaves.

For the past two decades, only international organizations abroad have been monitoring the situation in the Central Highlands, but they are struggling to get  accurate information due to government restrictions in the area.

Many NGOs remain silent when asked about the situation in the Central Highlands for fear of government retaliation. World Vision Vietnam, a Christian organization that has helped children in Vietnam for 30 years, declined to comment on the situation of children in persecuted Protestant families in the Central Highlands.

 Phil Robertsonbelieves that the Vietnamese government is trying to cover up its human rights violations in the Central Highlands.

“The problem is Vietnam sees its abusive treatment of the Montagnards as an internal matter and does everything it can to keep the international community out of this,” said Robertson. “But in reality, what Vietnam is doing to the Montagnards clearly violates international human rights, and so the international community is quite right to be concerned about this.”

Robertson added that Hanoi severely restricts access to the highlands to keep diplomats and human rights monitors like HRW, UN officials, and international media out of the picture, so it is sometimes difficult to get up-to-date information about what is happening there. 

“By making it difficult to get information from the area,” he said, “Vietnam hopes to make the world forget its blatant discrimination and rights abuses against the Montagnards.” 

“Over the past 20 years, the Montagnard people have gone through hard times, especially during crackdowns by the authorities after protests, but these communities are strong and they continue to persevere in the   face of government repression,” he said.

A Ga, a Protestant from the Montagnard Evangelical Church Of Christ, has resettled with his family in the United States after seeking asylum in Thailand for six years. However, he is still on watch the list of the Ministry of Public Security in Vietnam and so dares not go back home. In July 2019, he was surprisingly chosen to meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House along with other survivors of religious persecution in the world.

A Ga said that his case caught the attention of U.S. government because he was arrested by Thai police in January 2018. He said he believes the Vietnamese government was involved in his arrest. After three months in detention, he and his family were taken to the Philippines and then flown to the United States. Now he has begun a new life in North Carolina – the place where many Montagnards families have resettled in the past.

Meanwhile, in the refugee camps in Thailand and Cambodia, Montagnard refugees continue to  live desperate lives, not knowing what the future holds for them.

While you are reading this article, somewhere on the desolate borders between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, there are likely some frightened Montagnard families making the harrowing trip across the border, running away from the Vietnamese government in the hope of finding a new and better life.

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Human Rights

The 88 Project: Bringing the silent voices of Vietnam to a larger audience

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A screenshot from The 88 Project's database of Vietnamese activists in prison and at risk.

As a Vietnamese overseas student working on her Ph.D. at Indiana University’s School of Law, Huong Nguyen was focused on her academic career but couldn’t stop thinking about the activist community she was involved with in Vietnam.

This explains why she frequently reached out to students and gave presentations around campus, one of which was the student chapter of Amnesty International.

It was there that she met Kaylee Uland, a blonde, blue-eyed undergraduate whose life growing up in Indiana was far removed from Vietnam and the communist government’s litany of human rights violations that she heard from Huong that day.

“This was one of my first exposures to learning about political prisoners, and it gnawed at me learning that some people were in prison solely because of expressing their political or religious beliefs or a blog post,” Kaylee responded in an email.

Fired up by Huong’s talk, Kaylee began to dedicate herself to advocacy efforts alongside Huong, conducting public outreach efforts on campus and letter-writing campaigns. Around the same time, Huong connected with Ella Gancarz, a filmmaker who wanted to create a documentary about human rights in Vietnam. At the junction of these partnerships, The 88 Project was conceived in 2012.

The group takes its name from Article 88, one of the provisions of the 1999 Criminal Code traditionally used to prosecute activists. The 88 Project’s logo is a pair of handcuffs, which also represents the number ‘88’. According to their website, “the slightly open handcuff in our logo symbolizes the fact that not even prison bars can hold back the ideas of hope, human rights, and democracy.”

From left to right: Ella Gancarz, Huong Nguyen and Kaylee Uland, the founders of The 88 Project. Source: the88project.org.

Over the years, the members have volunteered and worked part-time, on top of their full-time jobs, to put together a weekly newsletter reporting and analyzing the news.

“I believe that regardless of how busy we are if we care enough about something, we can make time for it,” Huong responded in an email. “I am grateful that our team members care enough about our mission to dedicate the time for the project despite their busy career and personal life.”

Kaylee, who is now research director, was the driving force behind the recent expansion of their Database of Persecuted Activists in Vietnam, which now has functions that make it easier for users to navigate. The team has also unveiled the Map of Human Rights Violations.

“We wanted to allow users to interact with the data in multiple ways, depending on their needs and learning style,” Kaylee said.

Although Kaylee doesn’t speak Vietnamese, she is proud to be part of a team that provides an up-to-date English-based source of news on human rights issues, political prisoners, and activists at risk in Vietnam.

“One of our largest challenges has always been gathering, verifying, and processing data from inside Vietnam,” she said. With Huong’s network and Vietnamese language skills, the 88 Project has maintained a strong backbone of research integrity through carefully vetting the information that goes into their news, database, and map. The group also takes security precautions to protect their sources, in-country contributors, and data.

Online activity is heavily monitored and independent media does not exist in Vietnam. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam sits at #176 out of 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press, one notch higher than China but one below Sudan.

Despite the challenges facing human rights defenders in Vietnam, the 88 Project finds success in big and small ways, such as when its work is used to advocate for the release of prisoners or when the nonprofit organization is cited in news and journal articles.

“There can be a lot of bad news before you get to hear any good news,” Kaylee said in an audio recording with Memria and the Norwegian Human Rights Fund. “But as a privileged person, as a white, educated, female American, the least I can do is to try to use my voice in some way to bring the very powerful and strong, but unfortunately, silenced voices of human rights defenders working on the front lines to a larger audience.”


Linh Nguyen is a contributor to The Vietnamese. Linh can be reached at linhnguyen1251992@gmail.com and Twitter @LinhVietnam4.

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Freedom of expression

Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party

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Lawyer Vo An Don. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

“I have lost my license to practice law forever, with no apparent recourse available,” Vo An Don, one of Vietnam’s most well-known lawyers in recent years, lamented on Facebook on April 9, 2019. Last week, a high court in Danang ruled that the minister of justice’s decision to affirm his disbarment in 2018 remained effective and final.

The 42-year-old lawyer from Phu Yen province, however, is widely recognized for his fierce advocacy. In the past five years, Don took on cases involving some of the more popular political dissidents, such as blogger Mother Mushroom. But he gained the most public attention when he represented the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu,  a man who died while in custody after being beaten by the police in 2014. Don had demonstrated tireless efforts in bringing those who committed police brutality to justice in Kieu’s case. Yet on November 26, 2017, he was disciplined by his provincial bar association, and his bar license was taken away. In April 2019, the People’s High Court in Danang sided with the disciplinary decision and let the decision stayed.

According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, the reason for the disciplinary action was because of Don’s “abuse of democratic freedoms to write and to give interviews to foreign press and broadcasters to defame lawyers, the prosecutorial bodies, the (Communist) Party and the State of Vietnam with the intent to incite, propagandize, and misrepresent the truth which had negatively affected the reputation of the Party, the State, the prosecutorial bodies, and other Vietnamese lawyers.”

The Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association’s decision to disbar him came only a few days before the appeal trial of Mother Mushroom, which was on November 30, 2017. Don stated at the time in an interview with BBC-Vietnamese that such a decision was probably politically motivated.

It was not the first time, however, that his local bar association had attempted to discipline Vo An Don. In another interview with RFA in 2014, Don already disclosed that the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association had tried, unsuccessfully, to disbar him a few times during his representation of the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu. But Don was unfazed and continued with the case, successfully bringing the offending officers to justice.

The case of Ngo Thanh Kieu was probably the first one in recent years where the court convicted a group of police officers for causing death to a suspect in custody. Public opinion, however, was split about the sentences handed down to the former police. Some people thought that the jail terms were too light as the longest one was only a five-year-imprisonment. At the same time, many people also saw Vo An Don as the lawyer who fought for the people’s rights and stood against what they perceived as a corrupt system.

The unintended popularity could be the root of the troubles that later followed the lawyer, who practiced law in one of the poorest areas in Vietnam. Don is often dubbed the “farmer lawyer” in social media because he still has to continue farming to support his family. Practicing law in an honest way, he said, cost him opportunities to “get rich” because he refused to be part of the widespread corruption in Vietnam’s judiciary. His popularity and his candid words about the profession together made him an unpopular person among his fellow attorneys. His allegation of corruption among lawyers was one of the statements that cost him his bar license, as reported by The Law newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City on May 24, 2018.

After the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association issued its disciplinary decision on November 26, 2017, Vo An Don petitioned the Vietnam Bar Federation in December 2017 for a review.  Over 100 Vietnamese lawyers signed a petition asking the Federation to stand by its member’s freedom of expression and stated that the disciplinary action would be a dangerous precedent for the law profession. The Federation still rejected his petition on May 21, 2018.

Don continued to appeal his case with the Ministry of Justice later last year, but the minister of justice also decided against him.

Finally, in December 2018, Don initiated a lawsuit against the administrative decision to uphold the disciplinary action by the minister of justice. But as stated, the court system also did not side with him and effectively allowed the disbarment to remain in effect. The high court in Danang agreed that the dismissal of Don’s case by a lower court was proper.

Both courts had reasoned that the minister of justice’s decision to uphold the disbarment was done within a professional and social organization – the Vietnam Bar Federation. Such a decision did not fall under the categories of subject matters that could be decided in a lawsuit against an administrative order.

At this time, even Vo An Don does not seem to think that there could be any other recourse for him. In the meantime, Don’s case has raised sufficient concerns about the freedom of expression of lawyers in Vietnam and whether their human rights will continue to be subjected to professional disciplinary actions.

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