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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.

Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – December 2019

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• Focus:

  1. Police impede festivities for Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism founder Huynh Phu So’s birthday in An Giang province
  2. The Inter-religious Council of Vietnam issues letter protesting religious oppression in Vietnam and China
  3. Conference held regarding two years of implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and supplemental Decree 162/2017/NĐ-CP, which provides further regulatory details and methods of implementation

• Changes in laws regarding religion

There have been no changes and no new state regulations related to the administration of religion.

• Events involving religious organizations:

1. Police impede festivities for Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism founder Huynh Phu So’s birthday in An Giang province

On December 18, 2019, Mr. Le Quang Hien, chief secretary of the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism Central Management Board, an organization not recognized by the state, reported that police set up roadblocks at the intersections surrounding the temporary office of the church. These actions were intended to prevent followers from gathering at the church to celebrate the centennial birthday of founder Huynh Phu So on December 20th, 2019.

Hien stated that police began setting up the post at six in the morning; they did not allow followers to pass through and kept a close watch on the committee’s members.

“These actions– banning followers from exercising their freedom of faith and preventing citizens from having the freedom of movement–are a grave violation of human rights and freedom of religion”, Hien wrote on his Facebook.

In Vietnam, religions not recognized by the state face government discrimination. The state sees these groups as high-risk and likely to carry out anti-state activities. As the operational activities of religions often involve gatherings of people, the Vietnamese state regularly prevents followers of non-state-controlled religions from gathering, violating citizens’ freedom of assembly. These obstructive actions are often carried out under false pretenses, such as plainclothes police carrying out administrative, traffic, or vehicle checks. Some go so far as to put followers and activists under house arrest.

2. The Inter-religious Council of Vietnam issues letter protesting religious oppression in Vietnam and China

On December 17th, 2019, the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam, an independent alliance established in 1990 representing five of Vietnam’s larger religions, issued a letter of protest regarding the oppression of religion and human rights in Vietnam and China.

In the protest letter, the Inter-religious Council of Vietnam asserted that the Vietnamese state implemented discriminatory policies towards independent religious groups that refused state control. The council stated that citizens’ freedom of religion and faith were being severely curtailed by the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, the Fatherland Front, and religious groups established by the state. The state was repressing, threatening, beating, and detaining dignitaries of independent religions, and many religious premises were being threatened, confiscated, or abolished by the state.

The council also brought up the issue of peaceful democracy, environmental, and social justice activists being charged with anti-government crimes that carried heavy sentences, including journalist Pham Chi Dung, who was recently arrested on November 21st, 2019. Similarly, citizens who express opinions regarding Chinese expansionism are hindered and arbitrarily detained.

In regards to China, the council condemned the totalitarian control of Beijing’s authoritarian regime exercised over ethnic minorities, religious groups, activists, Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Tibetans. The council also touched on the issue of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, including the severe and violent repression that students and protesters faced, as well as Chinese encroachment in the East Sea (also known as the South China Sea).

The council petitioned the European Union to temporarily postpone the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement until civil and political rights in Vietnam, including freedom of religion, were guaranteed in accordance with international law.

3. Conference held regarding two years of implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and supplemental Decree 162/2017/NĐ-CP, which provides further regulatory details and methods of implementation

On December 31st, 2019, the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front and the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs organized a conference evaluating two years of implementing the Law on Faith and Religion and a supplemental decree on methods of implementation.

Beyond achievements in controlling religious activities, Mr. Vu Chien Thang, head of the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, also stated that in the past two years, the stipulations of the law and its supplementary decree have encountered a number of difficulties: “difficulties such as state management of local-level faiths; advising, implementing, and enforcing policy and related laws that affect one another; surmounting difficulties and inadequacies related to religious land, the management and usage of church property, and the legal institutions themselves”, Thang expressed at the conference.

In practice, the last two years have seen this law and its supplementary decree only contribute to helping the state further control religious activities in conjunction with current law, rather than improve citizens’ freedom of faith and religion. Both the law and its decree allow the state to broadly and deeply interfere in the internal activities and external interactions (raising funds, accepting donations, or organizing activities…) of religious organizations.

The law and its supplementary decree divide religious organizations into two different groups. Organizations that desire recognition and legal status must accept the broad and deep interference of the state in its internal affairs, working in tandem with the government to limit freedom of religion. Other organizations refuse state control, desiring to be independent of the government in order to exercise their freedom of religion. This latter group faces great pressure and the heaviest of restraints from the government.

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Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – November 2019

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• Focus:

  1. The government’s Committee For Religious Affairs certifies the Vietnamese Church of Latter-Day Saints.
  2. Hoa Hao Buddhist Tran Thanh Giang is sentenced to eight years in prison for criticizing state leaders on social media.

• Changes in laws regarding religion

There have been no changes and no new state regulations related to the administration of religion.

• Events involving religious organizations:

1. The government’s Committee For Religious Affairs certifies the Vietnamese Church of Latter-Day Saints Vietnam.

Five years after the state recognized the Provisional Representative Committee, the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs issued the Vietnamese Church of Latter-Day Saints a certificate for the registration of religious activities on November 15th, 2019.

According to the Great Unity Newspaper, the Church of Latter-Day Saints arrived in Vietnam in 1962 but was forced to cease operations from 1975 to 1995.

Mr. Hoang Van Tung, head of the church committee, says there are approximately 1000 followers, mainly in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

At the certification ceremony, Ms. Thieu Thi Huong, representative of the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs, stated that the certification will create more favorable conditions for the church to move towards legal religious entity status.

The certification of a number of religious organizations as above reveals the government’s increasingly open attitude towards permitting religious activities, though the decisions still remain largely subjective rather than following any rule of law.

2. Hoa Hao Buddhist Tran Thanh Giang is sentenced to eight years in prison for criticizing state leaders on social media.

On November 27th, 2019, the People’s Court of An Giang Province sentenced Tran Thanh Giang, age 48, to eight years in prison for social media writings criticizing the government.

According to the An Giang Newspaper, on November 2nd, 2018, the Office of Culture – Information of Cho Moi district (An Giang province), in the process of information control, had discovered Giang’s anti-government writings on Facebook and reported him to police. Cho Moi district police searched Giang’s residence, confiscating 14 cell phones, 12 sim cards, and 4 memory cards.

According to the newspaper, from 2014, Giang used two phone numbers to create a Facebook account with the name “Giang Tran Thanh”. On December 12th, 2018, he changed the name of the account to “Thanh Tran”. Giang used this account to post information opposing the state, defaming the government, and undermining the state’s policy of national and religious unity.

The government printed evidence from Giang’s Facebook account (3,314 pages of documents and 99 video clips) and email (297 pages of documents) to convict him. Giang’s indictment stated that he used email to contact Nguyen The Quang and requested to join the Vietnamese Democracy Party. Quang transferred numerous materials for Giang to post on Facebook, calling for people to oppose the government.

In court, Giang rejected the Inspectorate’s accusations. He denied that the Facebook account “Thanh Tran” belonged to him. He also stated that the witnesses were not objective because they had had the previous conflict with him.

According to RFA, Giang had been an activist for years fighting for the freedom of religion. The An Giang Newspaper said Giang had twice been warned by police for opposing the local government

In the past few years, Hoa Hao Buddhists have been one of the most often and most severely oppressed religious groups in the south. Hoa Hao Buddhists have been particularly vocal about opposing the government’s strict policies controlling religion and have accepted heavy prison sentences accordingly.

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Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – October 2019

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• Focus:

  1. Tay Nguyen highlands – the government continues to uphold oppressive policies against religious groups that refuse state control.
  2. In the southern region – Six Hoa Hao Buddhists were assaulted by security forces on their way to prevent the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple.
  3. In the southern region – Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Hoang Nam goes on a hunger strike at Xuan Loc Prison Camp.
  4. In the central coastal provinces – the government prepares to take over the educational premises of Tuy Hoa Protestant Church (in Phu Yen) at the end of November 2019.
  5. The state grants recognition to the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church.

• Changes in laws regarding religion:

There have been no changes and no new state regulations related to the administration of religion.

• Events involving religious organizations:

1. Tay Nguyen highlands – the government continues to uphold oppressive policies against religious groups that refuse state control.

Dega Protestantism and the Ha Mon religion continue to be the primary targets of elimination by security forces in the Tay Nguyen highlands.

The government believes both religions are being controlled by FULRO – an armed organization that fought for the autonomy of minorities in the Tay Nguyen highlands but which weakened and disbanded in the 90s – to oppose the state. The government believes that Dega Protestantism was established by former members of FULRO to incite people to demand autonomy in the Tay Nguyen highlands and assert the Ha Mon religion is the heresy that incites and entices many individuals among ethnic minorities.

The reality is the government solely controls the discourse surrounding these two religions. Journalists do not have the freedom to investigate the activities of religions in the Tay Nguyen highlands, and the region has become the most strictly controlled in terms of religious activities.

According to the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs (which belongs to the Ministry of the Interior and directly administers tasks to do with religious security), the Ha Mon religion began developing in 1999 in the two provinces of Kon Tum and Gia Lai, with approximately 3,500 followers. The followers of the Ha Mon religion conduct their religious activities in small groups in private residences, similar to Catholic protocol, rather than in a government-sanctioned church. The activities of the Ha Mon religion were seen by the authorities as disruptive of order and security and needed to be halted. In 2013, the founder of the Ha Mon religion, Ms. Y Gyin of the Bana ethnic group, was sentenced to three years in prison along with seven others who were sentenced to a maximum of 11 years in prison, for undermining national unity (Article 87 of the 1999 Penal Code).

According to the Gia Lai Newspaper, the police of Phu Thien district in Gia Lai province asserted that FULRO was secretly operating in 81 hamlets and villages in the district and needed to be wiped out. District police believe that activities which involve crowds, like weddings, funerals, and birthdays, need to be strictly monitored, as these events serve as covers for unauthorized religious activities that oppose the state.

After the large-scale protests in the 2000s (and up to 2012) related to religion and land, the government’s oppressive activities have spread to religious groups. The government refuses to accept any religious activities that lay outside of its control. Religious groups, principally Protestants and Catholics, have suffered severe government oppression as they demand their right to freedom of religion.

According to our sources, in the last two months or so, approximately three families fled across the border from the Tay Nguyen highlands to Bangkok because of religious oppression. Currently, there are more than 500 individuals of ethnic minorities who are refugees in Bangkok, Thailand and another group of more than 20 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The common forms of government harassment towards religious groups in the Tay Nguyen highlands include:

  • Halting any activities involving groups of people, even if they are not religious in nature
  • Preventing individuals from leaving their home hamlet or village
  • Monitoring the daily activities of all individuals
  • Placing individuals under house arrest on days in which there are religious activities
  • Regularly coming to homes to interrogate individuals or interrogating those who recently returned from other areas
  • Illegally arresting and holding people in custody
  • Torture, beatings
  • Refusing to carry out administrative procedures for a number of families
  • Hunting down and imprisoning those who flee across the border for religious reasons
  • Punishing individuals by giving them jail sentences

2. Six Hoa Hao Buddhists were assaulted by security forces on their way to prevent the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple

At approximately 2 AM on October 7th, 2019, on the day that the roof of An Hoa Tu temple was going to be re-tiled, six Hoa Hao Buddhists (Vo Van Thanh Liem, Le Thanh Thuan, Nguyen Thanh Tung, Cao Thi Thu Ba, To Van Manh, and Le Thanh Truc) were ambushed as they were on the way to An Hoa Tu temple to prevent the roof re-tiling. As the six arrived at the Thuan Giang ferry landing, approximately a kilometer away from An Hoa Tu temple, they encountered a group of individuals who were there waiting for them. This group proceeded to beat the six Buddhists in order to prevent their arrival at the temple.

Mr. Vo Thanh Liem, age 79, spoke to RFA regarding the assault: “Today [October 7th, 2019] they took the roof tiles off the church, but the church itself remained untouched. Yesterday, they stacked [the tiles] outside the gate, same today. As we arrived at the Thuan Giang ferry landing, about 40-50 individuals blocked us, beating Mr. To Van Manh, Mr. Le Thanh Thuc, and Ms. Nguyen Thi My Trieu; my niece Vo Thi Thu Ba had her phone smashed. Realizing that they were going to beat me as well, I poured gasoline on myself and threatened to end things on my own terms, after which they left. They used long sticks, beating people so hard, the sticks smashed to smithereens.”

Other Hoa Hao Buddhists also saw that a crowd of security forces was watching over the stacks [of tiles] around An Hoa Tu temple as the roof tiles were being replaced. On October 9th, 2019, Hoa Hao Buddhist Le Tan Tai was held down and assaulted by security forces, who took his phone after believing that he was planning to record the roof re-tiling of An Hoa Tu temple. Tai said he was further slapped in the face by a female plainclothes police officer. Leaders of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism were also kept under house arrest during the days of the An Hoa Tu temple roof re-tiling.

The conflict surrounding the renovation of An Hoa Tu temple demonstrates the government’s overreaching interference in the internal affairs of a religion. Religious groups that do not accept government control are not only vulnerable and unable to freely operate but are also assaulted for expressing their opinions. Religious groups that accept state control are protected by security forces, are provided budgets, are allowed to carry out religious activities, and become a force to help the state manage religion as a whole. This disparity in treatment tends to exacerbate rivalries between the different branches of a religion.

3. Hoa Hao Buddhists dispute the re-tiling at An Hoa Tu temple

After disagreement regarding the roof re-tiling of the An Hoa Tu temple, the followers of Pure Hoa Hao Buddhism (PHHB) continue to oppose the Hoa Hao Buddhism Central Management Board – which has supervisory rights over An Hoa Tu temple and is the only Hoa Hao Buddhist organization recognized by the government – regarding the replacement of bricks that are still intact at the home temple.

The followers of PHHB assert that the recent activities regarding the renovation of An Hoa Tu temple are a gradual attempt to completely change the original state of the home temple. They state that this will alter the home temple’s historical markers.

4. Hoa Hao Buddhist Nguyen Hoang Nam goes on hunger strike at Xuan Loc Prison Camp in Dong Nai province

According to RFA, the wife of Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, a Hoa Hao Buddhist and a prisoner serving his sentence at Xuan Loc Prison Camp, reported that Nam went on a hunger strike for six days, from October 11th – 17th, 2019 to protest his transfer from the area for political prisoners to a cell for drug-related criminals.

Mr. Nguyen Hoang Nam, a 37-year-old Hoa Hao Buddhist, chose to practice his religion independent of the state. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2018 for disturbing public order, along with four other Hoa Hao Buddhists, one of whom was sentenced to one year of prison for obstructing officials. According to Human Rights Watch, these verdicts were intended to punish those Hoa Hao Buddhists who demanded religious freedom and refused state control.

Current conditions in prisons are deplorable, though on the whole, political prisoners are able to enjoy better conditions than normal criminals. However, they can be punished by being transferred to cells with less desirable conditions.

The following prison conditions need to be improved:

Using the same water source for eating, drinking, showering, and washing clothes

Meals that are low-quality, unclean, or lack essential nutrients

Prisoners being unable to maintain daily bodily hygiene

Prison cells which are hot, lacking in sunlight, or overcrowded

Prisoners not receiving sleeping nets and suffering mosquito bites

Unreliable health care

The price of food and commodities that prisoners can buy at the canteen being 2 to 3x the market price

Prisoners being overworked

5. The government prepares to take over the educational premises of Tuy Hoa Protestant Church (in Phu Yen) at the end of November 2019.

According to the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church of Phu Yen province, the provincial government issued a notice that it was reclaiming a piece of church land in November 2019. The land, which contained the educational premises of a church at 65 Nguyen Hue, Tuy Hoa city, Phu Yen province, was earmarked for the construction of a pre-school.

The piece of land is under 1000 square meters and includes classrooms and school grounds; it has since belonged to the church before 1975. The church agreed to let the local government borrow the grounds in 1978 to open an elementary school and a pre-school. From then on, the government refused to return the land, creating a deed and merging the piece of land with the school in 2014. At the beginning of 2019, the municipal government issued a decision to construct Hoang Yen Public Pre-school on the piece of church land, without any negotiations on compensation.

The church reverend, the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church, and parishioners all opposed the city’s decision. According to RFA, the church opposed the decision by unfurling protest signs. Afterward, provincial police called the reverend down to the station many times to confiscate his banners and threatened to expel him from the province.

Currently, the Tuy Hoa Protestant Church remains concerned about the fate of their piece of land, fearing that it will be reclaimed unconditionally and lost permanently at the end of November 2019.

6. The state grants recognition to the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church.

Ten years after being permitted to operate, the Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church was recognized by the state as a religious organization on October 24th, 2019, in Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese Pentecostal Gospel Church was established in the south in 1972. However, after 1975, the church stopped operating after suffering government oppression; followers were forced to practice in their own homes. In 1989, the church was reinstated and operated under close government supervision. It was not until October 2009 that the government agreed to legalize the church by issuing it a permit to operate.

7. Conference held for the 2019 third quarter briefings re: the state administration of faith and religion in the cities and provinces of the central coast and the Tay Nguyen highlands

On October 9th, 2019, the government’s Committee For Religious Affairs along with the People’s Committee of Khanh Hoa Province organized a conference for the 2019 third quarter briefings regarding the state administration of faith and religion in the cities and provinces of the central coast and the Tay Nguyen highlands. The conference brought together the home affairs offices of 17 provinces and cities.

Although it was a conference related to the administration of religion, the Internal Security Office and the Military Region 5 Command also attended.

According to Khanh Hoa radio and television, the administration of religion in the final months of 2019 will focus on: continuing the roll-out of the Politburo’s Directive #18 regarding religious tasks in new situations; stepping up the check of land-use certificates for religious premises, and discovering and handling new religious phenomena that adversely affect local order and security in a timely manner.

The Politburo’s Directive #18 regarding religious tasks in new situations is a directive that still has not been announced to the public. This conference reveals that the government still views unauthorized religious activities as contrary to the law, attempting to tie them to such concepts as “heresy”, “spiritual deviation”, “superstition”, and “disruption of security and order”.

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