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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.

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

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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.

Land Rights

Tensions Mount in Aftermath of Attack on Dong Tam Village

Leader Le Dinh Kinh killed, wife tortured, and 22 others charged, as civil society demands answers from government

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As details and testimonies slowly emerge from Dong Tam after a surprise government raid early the morning of January 9, tensions between officials and civil society activists continue to mount as the two groups fight to clarify events that led to the deaths of 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh and three police officers, as well as the arrest of more than 30 villagers.

Compounding tensions is the fact that Vietnam is a one-party authoritarian state in which all official news, press, and media outlets are controlled by a single communist party. Citizen-journalists make ample use of social media to counter the systemic bias, as the general population struggles to establish the facts.

State media announced yesterday that 22 individuals have been charged: 20 for murder, including two of Kinh’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, as well as 2 others for obstruction of officials. Murder is among the most serious charges of the Vietnamese penal code, with punishment ranging up to and including the death penalty.

The clash in Dong Tam was the culmination of a land dispute that had been simmering for years over private farmland earmarked for a military airport (Mieu Mon). Experts state that land disputes in Vietnam have become increasingly common, at Loc Hung garden in Ho Chi Minh City most recently, due to the ambiguous laws that the ostensibly “communist” country has enacted regarding land ownership.

According to villager testimonies, around 3 AM the morning of January 9, 2020, approximately 3,000 officers from the police, riot, and armed forces carrying clubs, sticks, guns, shields, and tear gas grenades poured into Dong Tam village (My Duc suburban district, Hanoi), targeting village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house.

Collecting eyewitness accounts, citizen-journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang explained: “as violent skirmishes broke out, police used an explosive charge to blow a hole into village leader Kinh’s house, all while firing bullets and tear gas. Other officers tightly sealed off all the paths and alleyways in the village and used German shepherds to hunt down ‘culprits’. The villagers responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Police completely collapsed the roof of Le Dinh Kinh’s house and more than 30 members of his extended family were taken away.”

Trang reports that the Dong Tam area is currently under complete lockdown and no independent journalists have been allowed in, noting state media outlets simultaneously began reporting the same story January 9, citing a single source: Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security. The brief statement from the ministry stated that a number of officers ‘sacrificed themselves’ in the line of duty, while one ‘hostile culprit’ died.

It was not until January 10 that state media identified the “hostile culprit” as village leader Le Dinh Kinh himself, who was accused of leading a mob of villagers to “obstruct officials” who were working on constructing a wall delineating Mieu Mon Airport. Officials did not explain why this work was being done at four in the morning, nor why 3000 officers were present in the village rather than closer to the Mieu Mon work site, a few kilometers away. Officials handed over Kinh’s body to villagers the same day (January 10).

Security footage showing numerous riot police marching through Dong Tam, early on the morning of January 9. Photo: Trinh Ba Tu

Luong Tam Quang, deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security, explained at a press conference January 14 that Kinh was shot because he was “holding a grenade” and posed a threat to security forces. Quang, however, confirmed that the Ministry of Public Security did not have an arrest warrant for anyone when police stormed Kinh’s private residence.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, told land rights activist Trinh Ba Tu that Kinh was shot right in front of her, twice in the head, once in the heart, and once in the left foot. A viral video of Kinh’s body on social media showed a single bullet hole near his heart, and an unexplained long surgical scar down his abdomen.

Kinh’s funeral was held January 13, but the area of Dong Tam remained under high security, with the internet cut. Little to no footage of the funeral is available, and supporters were largely prevented from attending.

Public outpouring of support for Kinh has been swift on social media, with many seeing him as a exemplary moral leader who consistently fought for the weak. In his lifetime, Kinh was a peasant farmer, a revolutionary soldier who had fought against the Americans, a Communist Party member at 20, head of police in his village, and both party secretary and chairman of the village’s Party committee in the 1980s.

That the Vietnamese government has killed a model Party member has intellectuals commenting on the inherent symbolism, stating Kinh’s murder represented the communist regime “digging its own grave”.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, herself suffered harsh mistreatment from the authorities, and in a surreptitiously recorded video that has spread on social media, she details how police slapped and kicked her repeatedly to force her to falsely confess to using grenades and petrol bombs.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, explains how police repeatedly slapped and kicked her to force her to sign a false confession.

Her son Le Dinh Cong, adopted daughter Bui Thi Noi, and her grandchildren Le Dinh Doanh and Le Dinh Quang are also likely victims of forced confessions, as their battered images appeared on state television January 13, stoically confessing to making petrol bombs and other weapons to attack police. They admitted they had broken the law, even implicating prominent activist Nguyen Anh Tuan and blogger Le Dung Vova in encouraging “anti-state” activities.

All four subjects were covered in scrapes, black eyes, bruises, and swellings, and looked down as they spoke during the entire recording, appearing to be reading from statements off-camera.

Forced scripted confessions, particularly those aired on state television, are common in authoritarian regimes, like Vietnam, China, and North Korea.

State media also reported that Le Dinh Chuc, Le Dinh Kinh’s second son, is laying in a hospital; his condition is unknown.

The January 14 press conference further identified the three police officers killed in the raid as: Colonel Nguyen Huy Thinh, Captain Pham Cong Huy, and Lieutenant Duong Duc Hoang Quan.

After days of state media reporting that the villagers attacked and killed the officers by grenades, knives and petrol bombs, deputy head Quang admitted that the three individuals had fallen down a four-meter skylight in Kinh’s residence while pursuing suspects. He alleges that Dong Tam residents, upon seeing the officers in the well, poured gasoline and lit them on fire.

All three officers have been given posthumous awards and the honorary title of “martyr” by President and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their service.

Vietnam has cracked down on those challenging the official narrative, and according to citizen-journalist Pham Doan Trang, the government has arrested people in Can Tho, Quang Ngai, and Dak Nong for posting online about the event. She also notes that land rights activists (and brothers) Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong, who are in direct contact with the Dong Tam villagers and have worked to smuggle information out, are currently at high risk of arrest.

Facebook itself is now complicit in the oppression, activists say , as the government—using a cybersecurity law it passed in 2018—has succeeded in pressuring the company to remove videos and posts regarding the Dong Tam attack; Vietnam’s own online army has succeeded in bringing down some activists’ profiles through coordinated campaigns.

An example of a notification that users in Vietnam see for “banned” content. Photo: Dinh Thao

Vietnamese civil society organizations have responded accordingly, organizing several campaigns to bring awareness to the event, as well as pressure the Vietnamese government to address inconsistencies and unknowns in the government’s “evolving” narrative.

Luat Khoa Magazine, an independent journal that covers legal and political issues in Vietnam, has mailed a letter to To Lam, head of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security with a list of fundamental legal questions for Mr. Lam to answer (English translation here), while a nationwide, weeklong “Pray for Dong Tam” color campaign launched Sunday, Jan 12, calling for calm, mourning, and an objective investigation into what transpired January 9 (English translation here).

Perhaps most significantly, the “Dong Tam Task Force”, an ad hoc organization established by leading Vietnamese activists, launched January 13 to organize, coordinate, and facilitate fact-finding in the Dong Tam attack (English translation here). It also aims to protect the remaining village witnesses from further government harassment and arrest.

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Land Rights

Long-simmering Land Dispute in Hanoi Suburb Explodes in Violence, Killing 4

In scenes resembling a war zone, Dong Tam villagers vow to fight to the death to resist “corrupt” land reclamation

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Amid sounds of explosions, screams, and gunfire, the villagers of Dong Tam, a rural commune 35 km southwest of Hanoi, clashed with Vietnamese police in the early morning hours of January 9, killing three police and one civilian, state-controlled media reported this afternoon.

According to the BBC, at 4 AM, police cordoned off Dong Tam in coordination with local ground forces and forcefully reclaimed 59 hectares of land from villagers who had battened down the hatches in anticipation of the move. The villagers, who were never officially notified but had only heard through unofficial channels, declared in video recorded an hour before the attack that they would “fight to the death”.

In a message to fellow Vietnamese citizens, a villager of Dong Tam states that the government is shooting at them. He declares that the villagers will “fight to the death”. Nguyen Anh Tuan

The land had been earmarked since 1980 to form a part of the Mieu Mon military airfield, but in 2015, the plan was expanded to take up more nearby farming land and generalized to become an airport.

Citizen-blogger social media reports say police burst into the village with tear gas and grenades filled with plastic ball bearings, and descended upon village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house, shooting and killing one individual, who remains unidentified as of this report.

Le Dinh Kinh and his son Le Dinh Cong have served as village representatives during repeated land disputes with the government. Media outlets have been unable to reach Le Dinh Cong for comment, but villagers say Cong’s family is in police custody and his father Kinh had gone into hiding a few days prior to the showdown. Prominent activist Anh Chi says those in custody include at least Cong’s daughter-in-law and two other family members.

Village leaders direct statements to the country and to the world at 3 AM, January 9, an hour before police descend on Dong Tam village, demanding justice and protection against government oppression. Nguyen Anh Tuan

Another witness describes “thousands of police officers rushing into the village” using flash grenades, firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, blocking off all pathways and alleys, and beating villagers indiscriminately, including women and old people. The witness stated that electricity to the village has not been cut, but the internet has.

According to state media, which quotes an official statement from the Ministry of Public Security, it was villagers who attacked police with “grenades, petrol bombs, and knives” as officials tried to erect a wall delineating Mieu Mon airport. The statement accuses villagers of obstructing official duties and “disturbing public order”, a catch-all often used to describe anti-government actions in Vietnam.

Dong Tam previously made international headlines in April 2017 when it held hostage 38 government officials and police officers in another land dispute with Viettel, a military-owned telecommunications company.

According to VNExpress, 46 hectares were granted to Viettel in March of 2015, only for villagers to complain to the government in June of 2016 that the land was being taken away from farming. Villagers were able to successfully fight off land reclamation from late 2016 until February 2017.

The land dispute came to a head in April 2017 when villagers captured more than three dozen officials and police and held them hostage as leverage for government dialogue. All hostages were released by April 22, after the mayor of Hanoi, major-general Nguyen Duc Chung, came to negotiate with villagers personally.

The villagers of Dong Tam, in a past meeting regarding the land dispute. Le Dinh Cong sits in green, first row, farthest right. His father Le Dinh Kinh sits two seats to the left, in peach. BBC Vietnamese

Vietnamese activists and experts believe the central conundrum causing Vietnam’s land disputes lays in the country’s political regime: “how [does one] allocate land in a Communist country that allows quasi-private ownership rights but still considers all land to be state property”?

According to the NYTimes, “[i]n 2013, Vietnam tweaked its land law in ways meant to introduce more transparency into eminent domain [i.e. government land reclamation] cases. […] But experts say land disputes continue, in part, because the 2013 revisions do not allow private ownership or set clear definitions of what qualifies as the public interest in eminent domain cases.”

Mike Ives of the NYTimes reports further: “[l]and disputes are common on the fringes of Vietnamese urban areas, where land values are often high; villagers are typically compensated at prices well below market rates for agricultural land that is later rezoned for other uses. John Gillespie, a professor at Monash University in Australia who is an expert on land reform in Vietnam, said in an interview that the disputes tended to be more violent when villagers perceived that business interests outweighed public ones.”

Dong Tam, with a population of around 9,000, continues to be under siege, according to social media reports. All parties involved remain on edge, with activist Anh Chi stating that “Tuan Ngo, one of lawyers helping the villagers, came to Dong Tam but was stopped outside. He was threatened to be arrested by a man in plainclothes with aggressive words.”

Images of one of the police officers killed in the clash have also begun circulating on social media, with those on both sides of the land dispute expressing sympathy. Nhu Quynh, whose 27-year old husband appears to have been involved at Dong Tam, inadvertently revealed in her caption that 3000 police officers were deployed. The image (screencaptured below) has since been taken down.

Translated post: “Oh, my husband!!! Of 3 thousand officers, why did it have to be you?” The Vietnamese

Le Dung Vova, a well-known activist and writer has stated of land disputes in Vietnam: “Things will not stop at Dong Tam. […] Similar incidents will keep happening everywhere [as in Loc Hung Garden], with different levels of intensity, especially as land resources become more scarce.”

Update: BBC News has reported that Dong Tam’s leader Le Dinh Kinh has passed away January 10, after clashing with government forces in the early morning hours of January 9.

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Free Press

Minister of Propaganda Says Vietnam’s Press Should Serve Party, Prevent “Self-Evolution”

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At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”. 

Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”

In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.

In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.

“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.

Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.

The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure. 

Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.

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