Unraveling the Conflict: Understanding the Rising Tensions in the Cu Kuin District in the Central Highlands

The region’s complex historical background has led to several violent and persistent conflicts.

Unraveling the Conflict: Understanding the Rising Tensions in the Cu Kuin District in the Central Highlands

This article was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on June 16, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated this into English.

On June 11, 2023, a shocking attack unfolded in Dak Lak Province, striking state offices close to the city center of Buon Ma Thuot. The targeted area was accessible, just a 20-minute drive from the city's heart or a mere 10-minute commute from the nearby airport.

The Central Highlands is infamous for being Vietnam's most heavily monitored and highly policed region. However, the close proximity of the June 11 attack to the city center of Buon Ma Thuot makes it all the more alarming. What were the underlying factors that led to this shocking event?

The answer to this question lies in the complex population, security, and religious factors within the Ea Tieu and Ea Ktur communes. These two communities are located in the Cu Kuin District and form a pivotal focal point for understanding the circumstances surrounding the attack.

The Former Operational Stronghold of FULRO

In 1977, the former secretary of the Provincial Party Committee of Dak Lak, Y Luyen Nie Kdam, was assigned to work in Ea Tieu Commune. At the time, Ea Tieu was recognized as a prominent hub for FULRO (Front uni de lutte des races opprimées) operations. [1]

Founded in 1964, FULRO was an ethnic front that fought against the Saigon regime to restore self-governance, religious freedom, cultural preservation, and land rights for the ethnic communities residing in Vietnam's Central Highlands. FULRO’s formation was prompted by the implementation of the assimilation policy initiated by the Ngo Dinh Diem administration, which stripped away many freedoms from the region’s indigenous population.

During the Vietnam War (1954-1975), there were instances when the communist forces and FULRO worked together towards a shared objective of challenging the Saigon regime. Nonetheless, after the Republic of Vietnam collapsed in 1975, the newly established communist-led government persisted in suppressing FULRO and its undertakings. This repression persisted until the early 2000s, evident when the state levelled accusations against former FULRO members, alleging their involvement in infiltrating the Central Highlands provinces to orchestrate protests advocating for religious freedom and the resolution of land-related problems.

The attack on the headquarters of the People's Committees of Ea Tieu and Ea Ktur Communes stands out for its audacity, particularly due to their close proximity to the center of Buon Ma Thuot city. Interestingly, the geographical significance of these areas has made them hotspots for launching protests aimed at exerting pressure on provincial authorities.

The Complex Ethnic Situation

Cu Kuin District has eight communes with a population of approximately 100,000 people (2019), but the two communes of Ea Tieu and Ea Ktur account for 40% of the district's total population. [2] [3] [4]

While the Kinh people remain the largest community in Cu Kuin District,  there was a notable migration of ethnic minority groups from the northern mountainous regions during the 1990s.

According to the General Statistics Office, Dak Lak Province had a population of over 1.8 million people in 2019, of which the Kinh people (the ethnic majority of Vietnam) accounted for 66% (1.2 million). Approximately 12% were from the northern ethnic groups (221,000), while the indigenous people from the Central Highlands accounted for the remaining 22%. [5]

The indigenous people of the Central Highlands have become a minority group in their own land and face significant challenges, particularly concerning land rights and cultural preservation, due to the influx of migrants who have settled in their ancestral homeland. The increasing presence of outsiders has negatively affected their traditional way of life and cultural heritage.

A Religious Hotspot

In 2022, Y Thanh Ha Nie Kdam, a member of the Central Party Committee and chairman of the National Assembly's Ethnic Council, attended the “National Great Unity Day” celebration in Ea Tieu Commune.

In his speech, he emphasized that the local administration needs to continue "struggling to defeat the sabotage plot of hostile forces." [6]

For the Vietnamese government, religion is the main avenue hostile entities use to incite the indigenous people of the Central Highlands to fight against the state.

In 2009, Dak Lak Province boasted a population of 171,661 Catholics and 149,526 Protestants. When comparing these figures nationally, Protestant believers in the country accounted for only one-sixth of the Catholic faithful in 2019. This indicates that Dak Lak Province has a significantly more significant proportion of residents adhering to the Protestant faith and underscores the prominence of Protestantism within the region. [7]

Cu Kuin District is a hotspot for religious freedom. It is an area that houses many new active Protestant religious groups from various different faiths, such as the Hệ Phục Hưng and the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ of the Central Highlands. [8] [9] However, the Vietnamese government deems these groups illegal and anti-state and actively tries to suppress their activities.

In line with this state policy, the district police in Cu Kuin frequently arrest and interrogate independent Protestant believers while confiscating their household belongings.

In October 2020, a pastor's house was searched, and religious materials were confiscated. [10] In July 2021, the police forcibly brought a pastor to their headquarters for questioning. [11] In May 2022, an individual from an ethnic minority group was sentenced to four years imprisonment for allegedly spreading false information and possessing literature that criticized the government’s position on ethnic and religious issues. [12]

Real Estate Boom and Land Disputes

Due to its close proximity to Buon Ma Thuot City and the nearby airport, the government's implementation of the Ho Chi Minh Bypass Road to the East of Buon Ma Thuot City project has led to a sharp rise in real estate prices and development in land situated in the Ea Tieu and Ea Ktur communes. [13]

These two communities have established numerous projects for land plots, residential areas, and ecotourism zones.

In November 2022, an investor was fined for illegally offering a proposal for constructing villas on agricultural land and selling them in Ea Ktur Commune. However, these villas did not exist. This plan was a fraud.[14]

Ea Ktur also became the unfortunate setting for a distressing incident involving a Tien Phong journalist who was subjected to death threats while reporting on a case of soil exploitation and theft within a residential land plot. It is also important to note that local authorities refused to speak with this journalist who covered the land dispute story. [15]

In addition, the Trung Hoa new urban area project in the Ea Ktur and Ea Tieu communes led to widespread land speculation and resulted in the displacement of the local indigenous population.

By June 2022,  the government had initiated the forced demolition of 64 unauthorized construction projects, with an estimated 500 additional structures slated to undergo the same fate. [16]

The Conflict Between Locals and State-owned Coffee Companies

The residents of Ea Tieu and Ea Ktur communes have also faced numerous conflicts with state-owned coffee companies.

In 2011, many households reported that state-owned coffee businesses engaged in problematic practices in running their coffee plantations. These businesses leased land to residents under the pretense of agricultural use, only to impose unreasonably high coffee production quotas, violating land-use regulations. To further intensify the coercion, state-owned coffee companies deployed security forces on the land leased to residents to compel them to surrender their harvest. [17]

In 2013, residents from Cu Kuin District continued accusing these coffee companies, including Ea Ktur Coffee One Member Co., a Vietnam National Coffee Corp. subsidiary, of land use violations, illegal land leasing, and unreasonable quotas. [18]

These accusations continued in subsequent years. For instance, in 2015 and 2016. [19] [20]

Troubles Within the Local Police Force

In November 2014, an incident unfolded when Police Captain Vo Ngoc Quang, the leader of the Social Order-Related Crime Investigating Police Team in Cu Kuin District, found himself entangled in a dispute with another local police group during a search of his own residence. During this encounter, Quang brandished a firearm and faced accusations of involvement in illegal timber trading and bribery. [21]

By March 2015, the repercussions of this incident had reverberated throughout Cu Kuin District, resulting in disciplinary actions against a total of 11 police officers, including four individuals implicated in the case of Captain Vo Ngoc Quang. [22]

Regrettably, this area has persistently remained a focal point for various disturbances, none of which have been effectively resolved to this day.


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2. Tổng điều tra dân số và nhà ở. (2020). Tổng Cục Thống Kê. https://www.gso.gov.vn/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Ket-qua-toan-bo-Tong-dieu-tra-dan-so-va-nha-o-2019.pdf

3. Chủ tịch Hội đồng Dân tộc của Quốc hội dự Ngày hội Đại đoàn kết toàn dân tộc ở Đắk Lắk. (2022, November 18). Đại Đoàn Kết. http://daidoanket.vn/chu-tich-hoi-dong-dan-toc-cua-quoc-hoi-du-ngay-hoi-dai-doan-ket-toan-dan-toc-o-dak-lak-5702435.html

4. Tổ chức Lễ công bố xã Ea Ktur đạt chuẩn nông thôn mới. (n.d.). https://thongtinkhcndaklak.vn/eaktur/pages/2020-8-7/To-chuc-Le-cong-bo-xa-Ea-Ktur-dat-chuan-nong-thon-ezc5c2yj3qkh.aspx

5. See [2].

6. See [3].

7. Tổng cục Thống kê. (2010, June). Kết quả toàn bộ: Tổng điều tra dân số và nhà ở Việt Nam năm 2009. https://www.gso.gov.vn/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/KQ-toan-bo.pdf

8. Nội, B. I.-. S. 7. P. Đ. P. H. K. H. (2019, January 17). Tham gia các tổ chức tôn giáo bất hợp pháp - một biểu hiện suy thoái nghiêm trọng. https://web.archive.org/web/20230615143330/https://www.qdnd.vn/phong-chong-tu-dien-bien-tu-chuyen-hoa/tham-gia-cac-to-chuc-ton-giao-bat-hop-phap-mot-bieu-hien-suy-thoai-nghiem-trong-560696

9. Đấu tranh phòng, chống các âm mưu, thủ đoạn của các thế lực thù địch lợi dụng các vấn đề dân tộc ở Tây Nguyên hiện nay. (n.d.). https://web.archive.org/web/20230615143732/https://lamdong.gov.vn/sites/lacduong/tinchinhtri/SitePages/Dau-tranh-phong-chong-cac-am-muu-thu-doan-cua-cac-the-luc-thu-dich-loi-dung-cac-van-de-dan-toc-o-Tay-Nguyen-hien-nay.aspx

10. Anh Y Quí Bdap cầm bảng yêu cầu nhà nước Việt Nam phải chấm dứt. . . (2020, October 28). Người Thượng Vì Công Lý. https://www.facebook.com/101304018317786/photos/a.101318384983016/185489656565888/?type=3&paipv=0&eav=AfYaLQ3CcX08fiyQixCAarqJV2BVen52PyCEGSPPPTozGkz06NC1X023x9MLtzLr_zg.jpg

11. Mach Song Editor. (n.d.). Cơ hội cho tín đồ Tin Lành Tây Nguyên sau cuộc bố ráp của công an Đắk Lắk. https://machsongmedia.org/vietnam/quyenconnguoi/1737-co-hoi-cho-tin-do-tin-lanh-tay-nguyen-sau-cuoc-bo-rap-cua-cong-an-dak-lak.html

12. Xét xử bị cáo Y Wô Niê về tội lợi dụng các quyền tự do, dân chủ xâm phạm lợi ích của Nhà nước, quyền, lợi ích hợp pháp của tổ chức, cá nhân. (2022, August 25). Công an Tỉnh Đắk Lắk. https://congan.daklak.gov.vn/-/xet-xu-bi-cao-y-wo-nie-ve-toi-loi-dung-cac-quyen-tu-do-dan-chu-xam-pham-loi-ich-cua-nha-nuoc-quyen-loi-ich-hop-phap-cua-to-chuc-ca-nhan

13. Phan Tuấn. (2023, March 2). Người dân bàn giao mặt bằng trước giờ cưỡng chế ở dự án 1.500 tỉ đồng. Lao Động. https://laodong.vn/bat-dong-san/nguoi-dan-ban-giao-mat-bang-truoc-gio-cuong-che-o-du-an-1500-ti-dong-1153207.ldo

14. Hưng K. (2022, November 21). Dự án ‘bánh vẽ’ ở Tây Nguyên: Sau xử phạt, vẫn thi công và mở bán rầm rộ. Báo Điện Tử Tiền Phong. https://tienphong.vn/du-an-banh-ve-o-tay-nguyen-sau-xu-phat-van-thi-cong-va-mo-ban-ram-ro-post1487526.tpo

15. Nhóm Pv Tây Nguyên. (2023b, May 26). Vụ mai phục “đất tặc”: Phóng viên Báo Tiền Phong bị đe dọa “giết cả nhà.” Báo Điện Tử Tiền Phong. https://tienphong.vn/vu-mai-phuc-dat-tac-phong-vien-bao-tien-phong-bi-de-doa-giet-ca-nha-post1537675.tpo

16. Thủy H. (2022, June 3). Cưỡng chế xong 64 công trình trái phép trên đất cà phê, hơn 500 điểm khác vào tầm ngắm. Báo Điện Tử Tiền Phong. https://tienphong.vn/cuong-che-xong-64-cong-trinh-trai-phep-tren-dat-ca-phe-hon-500-diem-khac-vao-tam-ngam-post1442797.tpo?ref=luatkhoa.com

17. Khiếu nại kéo dài tại Cty TNHH MTV Cà phê Chư Quynh (Đắk Lắk): Đâu là nguyên nhân? (2011). Thanh Tra Tỉnh Đắk Lắk. https://thanhtra.daklak.gov.vn/khieu-nai-keo-dai-tai-cty-tnhh-mtv-ca-phe-chu-quynh-dak-lak-dau-la-nguyen-nhan-123.html

18. C.L. (2013, December 8). Thanh tra, kiểm tra các công ty cà phê tại huyện Cư Kuin (Đắk Lắk) - Báo Công an Nhân dân điện tử. Báo Công an Nhân Dân Điện Tử. https://web.archive.org/web/20230615150827/https://cand.com.vn/Kinh-te/Thanh-tra-kiem-tra-cac-cong-ty-ca-phe-tai-huyen-Cu-Kuin-%28Dak-Lak%29-i246801/

19. Anh Q. (2015, August 19). Công bố kết luận thanh tra tại các Công ty cà phê ở Cư Kuin (Đắk Lắk): Còn nhiều điểm chưa chính xác. Thời Báo Ngân Hàng. https://web.archive.org/web/20230615150827/https://cand.com.vn/Kinh-te/Thanh-tra-kiem-tra-cac-cong-ty-ca-phe-tai-huyen-Cu-Kuin-%28Dak-Lak%29-i246801/

20. UBND tỉnh đối thoại trực tiếp với các hộ dân nhận khoán của Công ty TNHH Hai thành viên Cà phê Cư Pul. (n.d.). Báo Đắk Lắk Điện Tử. https://web.archive.org/web/20230615151853/http://web.archive.org/screenshot/https://baodaklak.vn/channel/3481/201612/ubnd-tinh-doi-thoai-truc-tiep-voi-cac-ho-dan-nhan-khoan-cua-cong-ty-tnhh-hai-thanh-vien-ca-phe-cu-pul-5514773/

21. Online T. T. (2014, November). Thiếu tá công an rút súng dọa bắn tại UBND huyện. TUOI TRE ONLINE. https://web.archive.org/web/20221004073442/https://tuoitre.vn/tam-dinh-chi-thieu-ta-cong-an-rut-sung-doa-ban-tai-ubnd-huyen-674607.htm

22. Online T. T. (2017a, August 9). Bị kỷ luật, 4 công an huyện được chuyển công tác lên tỉnh. TUOI TRE ONLINE. https://web.archive.org/web/20230615152247/https://tuoitre.vn/bi-ky-luat-bon-cong-an-huyen-duoc-chuyen-lencong-an-tinh-715355.htm

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