A Glimpse into Vietnam’s Post-1975 Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands

A Glimpse into Vietnam’s Post-1975 Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands
Graphics by The Vietnamese Magazine.

The Central Highlands is one of the two main upland minority areas in Vietnam and the country’s northwest region. This area, home to diverse ethnic minority groups, had borne the brunt of the Vietnam War, where some of the most intense fighting, bombing, and spraying of defoliants occurred. Years-long war efforts devastated the traditional way of life and the livelihoods of this region’s indigenous population across multiple spectrums.

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Vietnam was eventually unified under Communist rule. There were hopes that peace would enable the highlanders, the Montagnards, to return to their mountain villages and resume their original lifestyle. But things did not turn out to be that way.

When the Communists took over the south of Vietnam, they conducted several controversial policies. Among them was establishing “new economic zones” (NEZs) in the Central Highlands. The policies included relocating around 10 million people from Vietnam’s southern and northern cities, either severely affected by the war or suffering from overpopulation. The regime also planned to resettle the “nomadic hill tribes” living in the region.

Today, the Central Highlands, referred to as Tây Nguyên in Vietnamese, is considered a sensitive area by the Hanoi regime. It is also a hotspot for land disputes and religious persecution, as grievances over the Communist regime’s religious policies and cultural differences have led to clashes between the region’s ethnic minorities and the postwar urban newcomers, who consist primarily of ethnic Vietnamese.

Furthermore, the discontent of ethnic minority communities over issues such as religious freedom and land rights has sometimes boiled into mass protests and prolonged conflict with the local authorities.

The social and cultural impact that Vietnam’s internal migration policy had on the Central Highlands is introduced in a research paper titled “Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands of Vietnam” [1] written by Grant Evans, an Australian anthropologist.

The research article, published in the Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, helps shed light on a topic that, until today, remains limited to contemporary researchers and readers eager to gain more knowledge of the region. It also discusses the attitudes of Vietnamese anthropologists, whose research is funded by the government, and their understanding of the policies introduced by the new Communist regime in the highlands.

The Post-1975 Emigration Policy

After the Vietnam War ended, the Central Highlands became a destination for a mass influx of lowland Vietnamese immigrants. The main reasons for this population relocation include resettling people displaced by the war back to their home villages, redistributing people from overpopulated rural areas and cities, and safeguarding border regions with Vietnamese rather than other ethnic minority groups.

But the postwar population relocation policy, which is costly, has fallen short of the government’s initial aims. Aside from poorly organized population movements, the conditions of the new resettlements in the Central Highlands were unfavorable for living.

According to Grant Evans's research, the basic facilities in this area, such as schools and hospitals, were “rudimentary even by Vietnamese standards.” Many urban settlers later left these NEZs as a result. A survey conducted in April 1990 showed that only 27% of resettled families reported being better off than before, while 25% said their lives were worse.

Due to the lack of preparation and agricultural know-how, many new settlers resorted to slash-and-burn farming. However, this method sometimes leads to uncontrolled forest fires.

They also exploited natural resources, such as timber and endangered species, to make ends meet. Many logging companies, operated by Vietnamese-owned enterprises, have correspondingly wrought havoc on the regional ecosystem due to their illegal logging and other irresponsible exploitation operations. Such practices have brought enduring environmental destruction to the Central Highlands.

The occupation and utilization of forest lands by lowland Vietnamese and agroforestry companies also deepened conflicts with the ethnic minorities in this area, as new settlers reportedly forced the indigenous inhabitants to move away from their home villages. It is unclear whether or not these ethnic villagers have been compensated for the land they lost.

The imprudent mindset of Vietnam’s Communist policymakers is exemplified in a plan to move more Vietnamese to Kon Tum Province, considered the least inhabited area in the highlands. Former Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Le Duan claimed the area needed more people. He stipulated that each district in Kon Tum should have at least 200,000 persons, although large parts of the province are inhospitable due to their high mountain ranges.

Such frigid attitudes are also reflected in the opinions held by Vietnamese anthropologists and ethnographers who studied the Central Highlands in the 1980s.

According to Grant Evans, most Vietnamese researchers witnessed the way of life and the socio-economic structure of the indigenous people in the region through the lens of socialist ideology and the Communist Party’s policies towards the ethnic minorities in Vietnam. They compared the social structure and the distribution of the wealth of the ethnic minorities to “primitive communism” and how it was incompatible with the regime’s more progressive model of developmental socialism.

Dang Nghiem Van, a Vietnamese ethnographer and vice-director of the Institute of Ethnography in Hanoi, defended the government’s plan of sending more people to the Central Highlands in an article published in 1984. Dang’s research elaborated on the comparison between the “ancient Tay Nguyen man and the socialist man,” describing how backwards the indigenous inhabitants are. He claimed that sending a Vietnamese workforce to the Central Highlands to build it could “fill the time gap” for the region to advance to socialism.

The Broken Promises of Autonomy

The Vietnamese Communist Party promised the ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands autonomy at its First National Congress in 1935. Such a promise is reiterated in North Vietnam. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s 1960 Constitution recognized the autonomous zones inhabited by minorities in its territory.

Autonomous regions were set up in the northeastern and northwestern parts of the country after the Vietnamese Communists came to power in 1955. Grant Evans writes that the existence of these zones served as a propaganda weapon for the Communists during their war with U.S.-backed South Vietnam.

But the Communists broke their vow of granting autonomy to the ethnic communities after they took over the south of Vietnam in 1975. According to Evans's research, not only were there no autonomous zones established in the Central Highlands after 1975, but those that existed in the north during the war were abolished. The unfulfillment of autonomy promises, coupled with the new regime’s policy of settling ethnic Vietnamese and Communist cadres in the region, is said to have diluted the concentration of minorities in the area and weakened their claims for autonomy.

Grant Evans concludes in his article that the absence of freedom given to these ethnic minorities to make contacts and establish solidarity with other indigenous communities further exacerbated their plight.

The South Vietnamese process of Vietnamization and colonization, which the Communists strongly criticized, is, ironically, being carried out by the Communist government on an even more brutal and comprehensive scale.


[1] Grant Evans (1992). Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, 7(2), 274–304. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41056853

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