Vietnam's Classification of the Dak Lak Attack as Terrorism Raises More Questions Than Answers

Vietnam's Classification of the Dak Lak Attack as Terrorism Raises More Questions Than Answers

Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security (MPS) only needed 12 days to search for, arrest, and indict nearly all the suspected assailants who allegedly attacked the two government offices of the Ea Tieu and Ea Ktur communes in Dak Lak Province.

In a public announcement published [1] on June 23, the Investigation Security Agency of the Dak Lak Provincial Police officially prosecuted 75 suspects on a charge of "conducting terrorism aimed at opposing the people's administration" under Article 113 of the Penal Code. These defendants face the maximum sentence of death penalty [2] if convicted.

The police investigation agency also charged seven defendants with "failing to report criminals" under Article 390 and accused another person of "concealing criminals" under Article 389. Another suspect got indicted for "organizing, brokering for others to exit, enter or stay in Vietnam illegally," a violation of Article 348. It was unclear whether or not these detainees had access to lawyers or other legal assistance.

The Vietnamese police said they had seized relevant weapons, explosives, ammunition, and vehicles purportedly owned and used by the suspects to conduct their brazen attack, including 10 FULRO flags. FULRO is a French acronym for United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, a national front established [4] in 1964 in the Central Highlands.

According to the MPS' initial investigation, [3] the attack was incited by hostile forces and several FULRO members living in exile to deepen the ethnic division between the Kinh people, Vietnam's largest inhabitants, and the ethnic minorities. However, foreign-based organizations representing the Montagnards confirmed they had no members involved in the attack, and the police did not publicize photos of the confiscated flags.

FULRO was an armed group that often organized violent attacks to pressure the Saigon government to respect and recognize the autonomy of the region's indigenous inhabitants. The group was active between 1964 and 1992.

After the Vietnam War concluded in 1975, the Communist leadership in Hanoi used heavy-handed methods to control and oppress any opposition to its political domination, including the operations of FULRO in the Central Highlands. In the face of the new regime's persecution, many members of this front withdrew [5] from the region and took refuge in Cambodia. In 1992, about 400 members of this force and their families were resettled in a third country.

Although the MPS previously declared [6] that it had successfully wiped out FULRO in the 1990s, these forces remained a convenient scapegoat for the Hanoi regime whenever social unrest occurred in the highlands.

For instance, when protests demanding religious freedom and land rights broke out in the Central Highlands in the 2000s, the government, and state media shifted the blame to FULRO forces and accused the organization of organizing these protests to take advantage of land and religious issues to mobilize local residents to oppose the government.

Vietnamese police leaders recently changed [7] their description of the Dak Lak incident from an "attack" to "terrorist acts." At the same time, state-run media explicitly used derogatory terms [8] such as "barbaric" and "inhumane" to vilify the detained suspects.

The MPS also began to point a finger at "external factors" as the main perpetrators who orchestrated the shooting. Lt. Gen. To An Xo, a spokesman for the MPS, claimed the attack "was supported and directed by several organizations and individuals abroad," including those "who illegally infiltrated into Vietnam and performed the terrorist attack."

The China Experience

But the Vietnamese authorities' efforts to find a justified explanation for the coordinated attack in Dak Lak have raised more questions than provided satisfactory answers for the general public and independent observers.

An American journalist with 18 years of experience reporting on China told The Vietnamese Magazine on the condition of anonymity that he didn't find the accusations that FULRO members were behind the Dak Lak rampage reliable. He also covered the Chinese authorities' persecution of ethnic minorities, especially Xinjiang's Muslim Uyghurs.

The journalist said that the Communist governments, such as those in Vietnam and China, commonly took advantage of an alleged incident of violence to score propaganda points and attribute the incident to a group it opposes to discredit that organization. "And this often happens without the government providing any evidence to back up its accusations," he added in an email interview with The Vietnamese Magazine.

Similar incidents also happened in China. Most of the time, Beijing used the "terrorism" framing to condemn ethnic minority groups, such as the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, for their purported role in planning and conducting such attacks.

For instance, on October 28, 2013, a car crashed in front of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing five people, including three passengers inside the vehicle and two bystanders, and injuring 38 Chinese pedestrians. The Chinese police arrested five men and described them as "Islamic jihadists" for their alleged connection to the deadly car crash. The incident was portrayed [9] as a "violent terror attack" that was "carefully planned and organized." The police claimed [10] they found in the vehicle a container for petrol, two knives, and a flag containing "extremist religious slogans" on it. However, the picture of the flag was not made public, while the trial of the accused perpetrators was closed to the public.

Another Chinese court in the city of Kunming in southwestern Yunnan Province announced [11] in March 2015 that the authorities had executed three men for carrying out a knife attack on civilians in a crowded train station, which killed 31 people and wounded 141 others. According to the court's announcement on its microblog, all the men who were executed had ethnic Uyghur names. Officials had said an eight-person group was responsible for the attack, adding that four were shot dead at the scene, and the others were arrested.

The American journalist told The Vietnamese Magazine that this trial, similar to the one convicting the suspected perpetrators in the Tiananmen car crash, was held behind closed doors with no further details or evidence given. Many of the details of the Kunming attack, he said, were "quite vague and difficult to believe" since the court offered no supporting evidence.

Beijing alleged that Uyghur terrorist organizations committed many violent incidents and accused these groups of receiving funding from overseas to sustain operations. But China experts believe there is little or no evidence to prove these terrorist networks exist.

Likewise, the Vietnamese police utilize the same terrorism narrative to accused ethnic minorities of alleged violent acts while failing to present solid proof to support their claims. It's also likely that those arrested were either intimidated or tortured to give forced confessions.

Ignoring the Ethnic Minorities’ Legitimate Grievances

Like the ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans, the Montagnards living in Vietnam's Central Highlands are victims of the government's systemic persecution and controversial policies. [12] One example is the relocation of more Kinh people to the region after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Indigenous grievances with lowland newcomers over issues such as religious freedom, land rights, and cultural differences have accumulated over the years and eventually led to intense confrontations and protests against the government.

As of this writing, the Vietnamese police have not disclosed any official motivations behind the Dak Lak attacks. And the government has ignored one crucial point: there have been very few violent attacks committed by ethnic minorities against civilians and civil facilities. The outrage is mainly aimed at the Vietnamese police and local officials, similar to the pattern in China.

Designating the indigenous inhabitants as terrorists is a convenient tactic. However, by doing so, the Vietnamese government strips the public of a chance to adequately learn about the ethnic people's legitimate grievances.

The government’s effort to cover up the root causes of such incidents may only serve to further exasperate ethnic-related discontent and conflict in the region.


[1] An, B. C. (n.d.). Khởi tố 84 bị can liên quan đến vụ việc xảy ra tại huyện Cư Kuin, tỉnh Đắk Lắk.

[2] Kiệt N. H. T. (2022, December 9). Người phạm tội khủng bố nhằm chống chính quyền nhân dân thì phải chịu hình phạt gì? Có được đương nhiên xóa án tích không?

[3] Hằng T. (2023, June 16). Bắt giữ toàn bộ đối tượng cầm đầu vụ tấn công trụ sở xã tại Đắk Lắk. Báo Điện Tử VTC News.

[4] Nguyen, L. (2023). Religious Turmoil in the Central Highlands: Navigating a Deadlock Amidst Vietnamese Government Increasing Intervention. The Vietnamese Magazine.

[5] Thanh, T. (2020, July 3). Bản tin Tôn giáo tháng 3/2020: Triệt hại FULRO và tự do tôn giáo. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. Retrieved June 29, 2023, from

[6] Sơn Đ. (2016, July 3). Chuyên án F101 – Chuyên án chống FULRO của lực lượng An ninh.

[7] Việt, V. T. (2023, June 23). Vụ nổ súng ở Đắk Lắk: Công an khởi tố tội khủng bố, mức án lên đến tử hình. VOA.

[8] Pv. (2023, June 23). Khởi tố vụ án khủng bố nhằm chống chính quyền nhân dân tại Đắk Lắk. BAO DIEN TU VTV.

[9] Neuman, S. (2013, October 30). Police: “Jihadists” Detained In Tiananmen Square Car Crash. NPR.

[10] BBC News. (2013, October 30). Tiananmen crash: China police “detain suspects.” BBC News.

[11] Wong, E. (2015, March 24). China Executes 3 Over Deadly Knife Attack at Train Station in 2014. The New York Times.

[12] Nguyen, J. (2023). A Glimpse into Vietnam’s Post-1975 Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands. The Vietnamese Magazine.

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