Vietnam's Three-Pronged Crackdown on Religious Activists in the Central Highlands

Vietnam's Three-Pronged Crackdown on Religious Activists in the Central Highlands

The security situation in Dak Lak Province has “returned to normal” [1], and the lives of its residents have “gradually regained stability” [2] after an armed group opened fire on two commune headquarters in the area, claiming the lives of nine people, including several policemen and local officials on June 11, 2023. Or that is what the Vietnamese state media tries to depict right now.

In reality, the lives of religious Montagnards and religious activists in Dak Lak and the Central Highlands have never been at peace. For decades, spiritual practitioners in the region have been a prime target of the Vietnamese government's restrictions and crackdowns on religious freedom. Vietnam's ethnic minorities consider religion an indispensable element of their lives, like water and air.

On the other hand, regarding religious issues, the Hanoi regime has always used draconian measures to control religion in the region. The government perceives any uncontrolled religious groups and local sects as potentially threatening its rule and so seeks to eliminate them. The Montagnards in the Central Highlands, many of whom have been punished simply because of their religious beliefs, have fled [3] to neighboring countries such as Thailand and Cambodia to escape the government's relentless persecution.

Vietnam deploys a three-pronged approach in its crackdown on freedom of religion in the Central Highlands. In addition to investing vast amounts of funding in constructing a comprehensive policing network in the region, Vietnam defames independent religious sects of the Montagnards in state media by describing them as “false religions.” At the same time, the regime legalizes its suppression of the spiritual beliefs of local people with its penal code.

Smearing Independent Religious Groups on State Media

Nowhere is Hanoi's hostile attitude towards indigenous religious groups more manifest in the portrayal of such groups than in state-controlled media. For years, government-sanctioned radio channels, newspapers, and television broadcasts have bombarded Vietnamese audiences with articles depicting these independent sects as “false,” “superstitious,” and “reactionary.” [4] [5] Most of these defamatory reports are published in Bao Cong An Nhan Dan (People’s Police News), a mouthpiece of the Vietnamese Public Security Ministry (MPS).

The Vietnamese media frequently condemns these sects for “taking advantage of religious issues to mobilize local people to oppose the government,” “dividing the national unity,” and “distorting the policies and laws of the State.” These accusations are generally unfounded and not supported by reliable evidence.

For example, in an article published [6] on the MPS webpage that urged local people to be wary of the Ha Mon sect, an independent Christian group founded in the Central Highlands, the police mouthpiece denounced the sect by claiming that it seeks to “destroy customs and practices [of the indigenous inhabitants] and incites separatism and self-determination.” Vietnamese police also accused “reactionary exiled members of FULRO,” a national front established by the Montagnards during the Vietnam War, of “gathering anti-state forces and sabotaging local stability.”

The Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ, a Protestant sect popular among the ethnic peoples in the Central Highlands, also became a target [7] of the Communist regime’s defamation campaign.

Following the unfortunate event in Dak Lak, the provincial police’s Youtube channel uploaded a video about the Protestant group, claiming that the church was a “subversive reactionary organization that incites individuals to overthrow the government.” The video, published just one week after the shooting, misled the public into believing that religious organizations were associated with the homicide. Nonetheless, the local authorities have not announced the actual motivations behind the attack.

Isolating the Religious Activists and Missionaries

At the same time, Vietnam isolates religious freedom activists and spiritual followers in the Central Highlands by barring them from meeting with foreign diplomats and delegations from international bodies, such as the United Nations.

This year, on Feb. 20, authorities in Buon Don and Cu Mgar communes of Dak Lak Province prevented the ministers and followers of the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ from meeting with a delegation of the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City. [8] Y Kreec Bya, a missionary of this Protestant sect, told Radio Free Asia (RFA)  that plainclothes security forces and communal officials blocked the entrance of his house when the delegation came, making it impossible for them to enter.

Y Nguyet Buon Krong and Y Coi Buon Krong, two other Protestant ministers living in Buon Ma Thuot City, were confined in their homes and unable to meet the U.S. delegation when they visited Dak Lak. On Feb. 22, Dak Lak provincial authorities barred the U.S. delegation from talking to Y Cung Nie, another ethnic minority minister living in Cu Mgar Commune, when they came to his house.

Nay Y Blang, a Protestant missionary living in Phu Yen Province, was stopped [9] by local security forces when he arrived at the Phu Lam bus station in Tuy Hoa City on Sept. 29 to board a bus to go to the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City to discuss  Vietnam’s oppression of the freedom of belief on Sept. 30. The missionary later received a 4 million dong ($169) fine for “gathering people” at his home to practice their religious faith. He believed it was a reprisal by the authorities.

In 2014, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, wrote in the appraisal report [10] following his his to Vietnam that he was unable to visit Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces because the Vietnamese police heavily monitored and interfered with meetings between the rapporteur and the region’s religious activists and practitioners.

Bielefeldt added that the activists and practitioners he met for interviews were subject to intimidation, harassment, interrogation, and even physical injuries during and after his visit. And even those who successfully met with him were not free from different degrees of police surveillance or questioning, the report said.

Meanwhile, Hanoi has reportedly rejected most visit requests made by U.N. special rapporteurs, making assessing the country’s human rights violations more onerous. According to statistics from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), since 2010, only seven out of 24 special rapporteurs have been approved to visit Vietnam. Two special rapporteurs on religious freedom paid official visits to the country in 1998 and 2014.

Weaponizing the Penal Code

The prohibition against using religious issues to “sabotage national unity” was first mentioned [11] in Resolution 297, [12] promulgated by the Vietnamese government in 1977. The resolution declared that those who “take advantage of religion to undermine the fatherland's independence, oppose the socialist regime, sabotage national unity” will be “severely punished by the law.” It further stipulated that religious practitioners and missionaries are prohibited from “spreading propaganda that divides national unity or promotes superstitious agenda.”

The “sabotaging national unity” crime was first codified into Article 87 of Vietnam’s 1999 Penal Code. Those convicted of violating this law face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. In 2017, Article 116 [13] of the revised 2015 Penal Code stipulates that people found “preparing to commit the crime of undermining unity policy” can receive sentences between six months and three years in prison.

In reality, the application of “undermining unity policy” charges is exclusively reserved for ethnic minority religious activists and missionaries.

According to the database [14] documenting the cases of Vietnamese political activists from The 88 Project, a free speech advocate, 38 people have been arrested under Article 87. At the same time, another two were charged under Article 116. A majority of the incarcerated are Protestant ethnic minorities living in the Central Highlands.

Most recently, on April 8, Y Krec Bya, 48, a Protestant missionary living in Buon Don District, Dak Lak Province, was arrested and prosecuted [15] for allegedly “conducting activities to undermine the unity policy” under Article 116. The Vietnamese police alleged that Y Krec Bya had hosted online meetings and collected documents aimed at “causing division between the people and the Vietnamese government, the armed forces, and between people of different religions.”

The Hanoi regime is slowly turning the Central Highlands into a giant prison with its indiscriminate crackdown on religious freedom and spiritual beliefs. Ironically, the suppression is carried out to “preserve national unity.” However, Vietnamese authorities should remember that national unity cannot be achieved through empty slogans and rigid ideology but by recognizing and respecting the traditions, customs, and demands of local ethnic minorities.


[1] Thành Q. V.-. V. (2023, June 14). An ninh, trật tự tỉnh Đắk Lắk đã trở lại bình thường, thêm 1 đối tượng tự thú - Báo Công an Nhân dân điện tử. Báo Công an Nhân Dân Điện Tử.

[2] Hưng Đ. H. Q. (2023, June 15). Cuộc sống tại Đắk Lắk bình yên trở lại. BAO DIEN TU VTV.

[3] Duy, T. (2019). Montagnards: Persecuted in Vietnam, Living in Limbo in Thailand – The Vietnamese. The Vietnamese Magazine.

[4] An, B. C. (n.d.). Đấu tranh xóa bỏ tà đạo Hà Mòn.

[5] Dương P. (2022, May 2). Nhận diện hoạt động của một số tà đạo hiện nay - Báo Công an Nhân dân điện tử. Báo Công an Nhân Dân Điện Tử.

[6] Ibid., [4]

[7] Nguyen, L. (2023). The Lack of Supporting Evidence in the Vietnamese Government's Accusations Against the Montagnard Evangelical Church of Christ in the Central Highlands. The Vietnamese Magazine.

[8] RFA. (2023a, February 22). Chính quyền ngăn cản phái đoàn Mỹ gặp tín đồ Hội Thánh Tin Lành Đấng Christ Tây Nguyên. Radio Free Asia.

[9] RFA. (2022, December 1). Người truyền giáo Tin lành bị sách nhiễu, tịch thu tài sản sau khi gặp đại diện ngoại giao Hoa Kỳ. Radio Free Asia.

[10] Bielefeldt, H. (2015). Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt. Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development.

[11] Nguyễn, V. (2022). Người hoạt động tôn giáo hay bị cáo buộc những tội danh gì? | Luật Khoa tạp chí. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí.

[12] Đồng P. V. (1977, November 11). Nghị quyết số 297-CP về một chính sách đối với tôn giáo do Hội đồng Chính phủ ban hành. Nghị Quyết Số 297-CP Về Một Chính Sách Đối Với Tôn Giáo Do Hội Đồng Chính Phủ Ban Hành Số Hiệu 297-CP - LawNet.

[13] Kiệt N. H. T. (2022, December 9). Những hành vi của Tội phá hoại chính sách đoàn kết là những hành vi gì? Tội phá hoại chính sách đoàn kết là tội nặng hay nhẹ?

[14] Database - The 88 Project. (2023, June 19). The 88 Project.

[15] RFA. (2023b, April 9). Một người Thượng vừa mới bị bắt với cáo buộc theo FULRO. Radio Free Asia.

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