Religious Turmoil in the Central Highlands: Navigating a Deadlock Amidst Vietnamese Government Increasing Intervention

Indigenous ethnic groups reject the dominance of the Kinh people in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Religious Turmoil in the Central Highlands: Navigating a Deadlock Amidst Vietnamese Government Increasing Intervention
Indigenous people from the Central Highlands. Photograph by Thinh Nguyen. Graphics by Luat Khoa Magazine. 

This article was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on June 13, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated this into English.

Editorial Note: This article was published in the wake of the attack on commune government offices in Dak Lak Province on June 11. However, the article's description of government abuses of ethnic minorities in the region may not be related to the actual cause of the incident. It only aims to provide additional information about the ongoing situation in the Central Highlands.


Ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands consider this region sacred. They believe that the land belongs to their ancestors, with every stream, every tree, and every rock bearing the memories of their forefathers.

For the Kinh people, the Central Highlands is an endless treasure trove of fertile land blessed with ideal weather conditions. However, they also view this region's local inhabitants as lazy, unintelligent and easily exploitable.

The ethnic peoples of the Central Highlands have suffered oppression at the hands of a succession of governments, dating back to the French colonial period and continuing until today.

Since the French discovered the Central Highlands in about 1890, the region has never been peaceful and has remained mired in never-ending violence.

Likewise, armed conflicts revolving around issues such as the abolishing of self-governance, cultural assimilation, land encroachment, and reducing ethnic minority representation in the government have constantly plagued the Central Highlands since the days of the Republic of Vietnam (1954-1975).

However, religious issues have always been the region's most persistent, tense, and complex ones; they often go hand in hand with the region's present problems.
Y Bham Enuôl, from the Rhade ethnic group, founder and leader of FULRO (third from left), poses for a photo with reporter William H. Chickering of The New York Times in April 1973. Photo: The New York Times.

Tin Lanh Dega (Dega Christianity) and FULRO

In the Rade language, Đề-ga (Dega) is a term used to refer to ethnic minorities living in the highland areas. The term was also used by several armed revolutionaries in the Central Highlands to refer to their violent struggle when they opposed the government of the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s.

The phrase “Tin Lanh Dega” (Dega Christianity) has been widely used by the Vietnamese Communist government since the 2000s to refer to protesters and dissidents who reside in this region. [1]

The government believes that their demands for land ownership rights and religious freedom are being manipulated by former members of FULRO who live abroad. The state accuses them of forming Montagnard Christians groups and using them to oppose the Vietnamese government.

FULRO (French: Front Unifié de Lutte des Races Opprimées, English: United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) was a national front with a complex history established in 1964.

The organization continued the struggle of previous fronts in the Central Highlands when President Ngo Dinh Diem put significant military pressure on the region in 1955. The Saigon government at that time decided to abolish the Domaine de la Couronne (Domain of the Crown and Hoàng Triều Cương thổ in Vietnamese) autonomous regime at that time, resettled hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese migrants in the Central Highlands, forced the local populace from abandoning their indigenous culture, and prohibited local ethnic groups from learning and speaking their native language.

FULRO did not hesitate to organize armed attacks in response to government oppression. For instance, they killed nine Kinh passengers on a bus near the Central Highlands in 1965. In another instance, FULRO killed 12 Kinh people, including four state officials and two police officers, also on a bus. [2]

FULRO's armed violence was aimed at pressuring the Saigon government to agree to their demands, such as expelling the Kinh people from the Central Highlands, restoring indigenous culture and beliefs, allowing the establishment of their own army with its own flag, improving education policies, recognizing land ownership rights for indigenous people, re-establishing customary courts, and many more. [3]

After 1975, FULRO continued to organize attacks against the new regime, but they sought refuge in Cambodia in 1979. By 1992, more than 400 remaining members of this front and their families were resettled in the United States and other countries. [4]

Nevertheless, since 2001, the Central Highlands has been marked by a series of uprisings and protests, signifying ongoing unrest in the region.

Issues After 1975

After 1975, Vietnam isolated itself from the rest of the world. The government continued to deploy military forces in the Central Highlands and to oppress the local populace with misguided and abusive policies.

The end of the Vietnam War also brought a new wave of economic migration into the area. North Vietnamese people began to flow into the region until the late 1990s, bringing with them the expansion of state-owned farms. This led to deeper conflicts, discrimination against the indigenous people from the Central Highlands, and the prevalence of land issues.

Religious discrimination became more common as the new government believed that Protestantism and Catholicism were religions associated with colonialism, imperialism, and outside forces. As a  result, the state prohibited locals from practicing their faiths with unregistered Protestant and Catholic religious organizations.

Despite this, Protestantism continued to gain traction in the Central Highlands. The number of Protestants in the Central Highlands increased more than fourfold from 1975 to 1999, rising to 228,618 believers. By early 2002, Gia Lai Province only recognized two pastors, yet the number of Protestants was approximately 100,000. [5]

The Vietnamese government believed that the rapid development of Protestantism could serve as a way for ethnic people to unite and oppose the state. Therefore, the government organized campaigns to suppress Protestant believers, which included arrests, torture, church burnings, and depriving them of their livelihoods. [6]

In 1998, three researchers, Neil L. Jamieson, Le Trong Cuc, and A. Terry Rambo, predicted that a conflict could begin anytime, leading to several indigenous groups becoming impoverished in material and spiritual aspects. [7]

Their findings would soon become a reality. Between 2001 and 2008, the Central Highlands witnessed a series of small and large uprisings by ethnic minority groups. The government used violence in response, but the state never disclosed the number of deaths and arrests or even acknowledged the true origin of these conflicts.

The United States included Vietnam in its Countries of Particular Concern for religious freedom in 2004, as it believed that Vietnam detained numerous religious prisoners, forcibly closed churches, coerced the abandonment of religious faith, and physically assaulted and killed religious believers in the Central Highlands. [8]

Although the government has made efforts to improve various aspects of life in the region, these efforts failed to meet the needs of the indigenous peoples.

Early Intervention, Heavy Interference

In Thailand, a refugee camp in Bangkok houses hundreds of Montagnards who crossed the border from Central Highlands provinces through Cambodia and Laos to seek asylum with the United Nations.

Most believe that the Vietnamese government denies them the freedom to practice the Protestant faith and subjects them to harassment, arbitrary arrests, and torture, targeting individuals and their family members. Additionally, they face land seizures and other similar infringements on their rights.

Engaging in activities to practice their Protestant faith has become a practical need for the ethnic people of the Central Highlands. However, the government does not accept this. If discovered, unregistered Protestant groups are targeted by the police. People who follow these non-recognized religious groups must join Protestant groups approved by the state. It seems that the Vietnamese government does not want ethnic minorities with a shared history of land seizures and religious oppression to organize and challenge its control and authority.

Early intervention and heavy interference is a strategy the state uses to control the Central Highlands. Accordingly, the Vietnamese government does not hesitate to wrongly arrest or torture anyone related to unsanctioned religious groups or local organizations that discuss social issues.

This strategy has caused great confusion among the indigenous population and has even forced some people to cross the border and seek asylum in other countries.

The Loss of Religion, the Loss of Everything

Aside from Dega Christianity, several other religions have emerged in the Central Highlands, such as the Hà Mòn religion and the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ of the Central Highlands.

In March 2020, the provincial police in Gia Lai Province arrested three individuals belonging to ethnic minority groups who had been hiding in the forest for nine years. The authorities initially claimed they were core members of the Hà Mòn religion and guilty of organizing anti-government activities. [9] They were released three months later.

The truth is that none of these three individuals were involved in any anti-government activities or had any connection to foreign organizations. They hid because they feared what the government would do to them. After all, they adhered to a non-sanctioned religion. [10]

The religious beliefs of the indigenous people in the Central Highlands cannot be shaken. For them, religion is a matter of life and death.

Despite this, the Vietnamese government does not allow the formation of new religious groups due to concerns about national security and the potential for these groups to foster unity among the oppressed indigenous people. The authorities have kept a very tight policy on recognizing and authorizing new religions in the entire country, including the Kinh people. For the government, any newly established religious group is a potential threat that must be immediately destroyed.

The government oppression directly opposes the essence of indigenous minority groups in the Central Highlands. They have a strong sense of ethnic pride in their history and faith. They will never see themselves as Kinh people and will not accept any attempt to assimilate their native cultures and the government’s desire to control their sacred land.


1. Thái Thanh. (2022). Religion Bulletin for 3/2020: Triệt hại FULRO và tự do tôn giáo | Luật Khoa tạp chí. Luật Khoa Magazine.

2. Từ FLM đến FULRO - Cuộc đấu tranh của các dân tộc thiểu số miền Nam Đông Dương, page 74. (2007). Champaka.

3. See [2].

4. (2019, September 8). Khi Tây Nguyên không còn là nhà. Luật Khoa Magazine.

5. See [4[.

6. See [4].

7. See [4].

8. Văn Tâm. (2022). Mỹ đưa Việt Nam vào Danh sách Theo dõi Đặc biệt về tự do tôn giáo: 16 năm vẫn quanh quẩn. Luật Khoa Magazine.

9. Thái Thanh. (2022b). Religion Bulletin for 3/2020: Triệt hại FULRO và tự do tôn giáo | Luật Khoa tạp chí. Luật Khoa Magazine. Thái Thanh. (2020, November 13). Religion Bulletin for 6/2020: Tín đồ về từ rừng, tranh chấp đất đai, VN phản đối báo cáo của Mỹ… Luật Khoa Magazine.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to The Vietnamese Magazine.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.