The Impact of Unequal Economic Benefits on Kinh and Montagnard Communities in the Central Highlands

Instability occurs because the indigenous communities in the region do not receive enough economic benefits.

The Impact of Unequal Economic Benefits on Kinh and Montagnard Communities in the Central Highlands
Graphics: Shiv/ Luat Khoa Magazine.

Vietnam's state media consistently emphasizes the Central Highlands' crucial role as a strategically significant geographical region for protecting the country's national security. However, only a limited number of studies or articles have focused on clarifying the region’s strategic nature. For instance, in a commentary published in the Vietnam News Agency, the author made statements such as:

“Many of our generals and foreign countries have acknowledged the significance of the Central Highlands. If anyone gains control of the Central Highlands, it is as if they have taken control of Vietnam and Indochina.”

“After the 30-year liberation war, not only us but also the French, Americans, and the world recognize the vital position of this region. They view the Central Highlands as the ‘roof of Indochina,’ the contiguous land at Indochina’s T-Junction. Therefore, occupying this region also means easily dominating the entire Indochina.” [1]

These are surface-level observations that are easy to comprehend. However, these statements are wholly insufficient in truly understanding the value of the Central Highlands.

In his commentary, the author mentions that France and the United States have placed great importance on the region. Yet, they only mention that the battles here supported the fighting in Dien Bien Phu, where the French colonialists concentrated most of their military power against the Viet Minh. Additionally, the author neglects to describe how the Communist army took control of Buon Ma Thuot in the Central Highlands to threaten southern Vietnam.

In another analysis published in the National Defence Journal (Tạp chí Quốc phòng Toàn dân), the strategic position of the Central Highlands was emphasized during the anti-American war by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. According to the study, the region served as a buffer zone that connected the southern government's other strategic military regions: Hue-Da Nang and Saigon. [2] The Communist advance into the Central Highlands was described as an opening campaign to fulfill taking control of the South. However, no other descriptions or interpretations were mentioned.

A more comprehensive understanding of the strategic importance of the Central Highlands can be attained by exploring alternative methods beyond declarations of its political geography.

Historical Importance

Until recently, historical perspectives suggested that the natives of the Central Highlands, the Montagnards, were an isolated and underdeveloped ethnic group with no economic trade, all of which have been debunked.

Many authors, such as Jean Boulbet, Gerald C. Hickey, and Oscar Salemink, have acknowledged that the strength of the southward civilizations, such as the Champa or the Inner Realm of the Nguyen lords, relied heavily on the intermediary role of the Montagnards, the Central Highland natives connected them to the political entities deep within the continent and the traders operating in the East Sea. [3]

Specifically, these southward kingdoms had cordial relations and promoted highly commercialized activities with the Austronesian (Jarai, Rhade, Churu, and Raglai) and Austroasiatic (H're, Bahnar, Koho, and Maa) communities. This allowed the southern kingdoms to access valuable products and goods in the Central Highlands and trade with other entities deep within the continent.

In other words, the Central Highlands was the main reason the southward kingdoms became a convergence point of trade in the South China Sea, attracting merchants from China, Japan, India, Arabia, and even Europe.

For the flatland trade, the Chams and Kinh communities traded precious wood, rattan, bamboo, honey, cattle, cinnamon, hemp, spices, rhinoceros horns, and products made from tigers to entice seafaring merchants.

For the highland trade, the Chams and Kinh people sold products such as salt, fish sauce, dried fish, Chinese ceramic pots, and high-standard copper and iron products to the communities in the Central Highlands and other kingdoms deep within the continent.

This vast trade network formed the groundwork for the prosperity of the southern kingdoms, serving as the primary source of tax revenue for the Inner Realm government. By maintaining stable financial resources from commercial activities, the Nguyen lords could repel border attacks from the Trinh government in the Outer Realm, expand their influence southward, and access technologies and advanced products from the West.

However, the decline in governance, the heavy burden of corruption, exorbitant taxes, and exploitation by the Inner Realm government led to the deterioration of relations between the southern region and the Austronesian and Austroasiatic communities in the Central Highlands.

As recorded by historian Li Tana, the discontent of the Montagnard communities, combined with the Chams' non-submission to the Nguyen lords, laid the foundation for political support, with significant resources, for the Tay Son Uprising. [5] This led to the new political faction of the three Tay Son brothers successively overthrowing all three of the strongest feudal powers from this period: the Nguyen lords, the Trinh lords, and the Later Le dynasty.

For the reasons mentioned above, many historians acknowledge the essential role of the Central Highland communities in contributing to the development of Vietnam from the 15th to the 18th century. Their trade relations and compromises with people from the south led to southern Vietnam becoming the leading destination for international maritime trade at that time, marking the arrival of powerful states in East and Southeast Asia and European colonialism.

However, the disagreements and political reactions from the Montagnard communities towards the ruling Kinh authorities led to the collapse of the structure and the complex political arrangements between them, sparking a revolution that completely changed the political status quo of 18th-century Vietnam.

In other words, the Central Highlands has never been isolated from Vietnam’s historical trajectory; this region strategically contributed to shaping the modern Vietnamese nation.

The Geopolitical – Military Aspect

In modern analysis, Western missionary groups first observed the strategic value of the Central Highlands when they arrived in Vietnam. Subsequently, this information and viewpoint were transmitted and confirmed by French military leaders such as Galliéni and Ardant du Picq. [5]

During World War II, the ruling colonial group that favored the Vichy regime – the interim government in France during Nazi occupation – aimed to transform the Central Highlands into the new heart of Indochina, with Da Lat as the federal capital. [6] However, this plan never came to fruition as Japan invaded the country and overthrew the French in 1945.

Later, Gen. Van Tien Dung of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam quoted Gen. Pham Van Phu of the Republic of Vietnam, affirming that whoever holds Tây Nguyên (Central Highlands) will control the entirety of South Vietnam. [7]

Nevertheless, most of the above statements do not provide more precise explanations; relying only on conventional political and strategic observations, one can only attribute the significance of the Central Highlands to its geographical position.

The Central Highlands is close enough to the sea to support transportation and fortify coastal defenses. Yet, navy forces also find it difficult to attack the region due to the natural defensive barriers of its hilly terrain. The region also grants access to all lowland areas and the surrounding river valleys. During the Second Indochina War, the Central Highlands played a central role due to its connectivity with relevant battlefields.

The military significance of the Central Highlands shares similarities with other mountainous regions found in different countries. Its natural defensive capability, owing to rugged terrain and high altitude, is not unique. Nevertheless, the Central Highlands holds particular importance within the context of Vietnam as it can potentially disrupt transportation and communication between central and southern Vietnam. However, to extend its significance to the entire Indochina region, more evidence and further research would be necessary to clarify and solidify its broader strategic role.

The Economic Aspect

If the moniker “Indochina's fortress” sounds highly exaggerated, then the region’s economic contribution is perhaps why the Central Highlands has become a center of dispute and desire for control.

From an agricultural-economic perspective, the Central Highlands has continuously asserted its position with products such as pepper, coffee, rubber, cashews, cassava, etc. These are some of Vietnam’s top export commodities and are favored by many countries worldwide.

According to a 2018 survey, provinces in the Central Highlands always lead in producing various vital industrial crops. [8] Dak Lak Province alone has the country's largest output of coffee beans. Specifically, it spans 201,152 hectares, accounting for more than 40% of the coffee growing area in the entire Central Highlands and 30% of the country's total coffee cultivation. Its annual production reaches more than 450,000 tons of coffee beans. Thanks to the Central Highlands, Vietnam has become one of the world's foremost coffee exporters. [9]

Similarly, in the black pepper industry, data from 2020 reveals that the Central Highlands dominates with over 60% of the national cultivation area [10]. It remains a pivotal production region for black pepper, boasting a leading global output [11]. As for rubber, the Central Highlands ranks as the country's second-largest region for cultivation only after southeast Vietnam [12].

Each industry contributes billions of U.S. dollars to Vietnam's annual export value. The Central Highlands' importance in Vietnam's economic and monetary security is crystal clear when considering employment opportunities, income, and other socio-economic stability factors resulting from agricultural and industrial production.

Nevertheless, to maintain such a large cultivation area for millions of immigrant Kinh people, indigenous communities in the Central Highlands had to forsake their traditional land sovereignty claims, unique cultivation techniques, ways of life, and their foundations of village politics.

Stabilizing the situation in the Central Highlands, even through the use of force and coercion, has become a top priority for the Hanoi regime. Any acknowledgment or return of indigenous sovereignty or self-determination to the local communities would mean losing control over vast cultivation areas and managing the supply chain of Vietnam's high-value crops.

Taking into consideration the precious mineral deposits, such as bauxite, iron, magnesite, and diatomite in the Central Highlands, the overall picture becomes even more apparent: the region is an invaluable resource hub that the Hanoi regime will not willingly overlook or relinquish control over.


The importance of the Central Highlands is often viewed from a geopolitical, military, and national defense context. However, the region’s role in the historical development of Vietnam seems to lie in its economic value.

During medieval and modern periods, the Central Highlands and the harmonious coexistence of the Kinh people with other communities formed the foundation for the lucrative trade of valuable goods and rare commodities. This led to transforming the seaport cities in southern Vietnam into international destinations.

In the modern and post-peace era, the region continues to assert its economic significance, propelling Vietnam to become a major exporter of various products worldwide.

The strategic importance of the Central Highlands is not solely due to its geographical characteristics. Any potential instability in the region may ultimately stem from the unequal economic benefits afforded to its local indigenous communities.

This article was written in Vietnamese and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on July 12, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated this into English.


1. Tây Nguyên không chỉ là một địa danh. (2023, July 12). TTXVN.

2. Chiến thắng Tây Nguyên - Giá trị lịch sử và hiện thực. (n.d.).

3. Jean Boulbet, Pays des Maa’, domaine des génies (Nggar Maa’, nggar yaang). Essai d’ethno-histoire d’une population proto-indochinoise du Viêt Nam central (Paris: Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1967)

4. Li Tana, Nguyễn Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1989)

5. Joseph-Simon Galliéni, Galliéni au Tonkin (1892–1896), par lui-même (Paris, 1941 [or. 1913]

6. Eric T. Jennings, Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011),

7. Văn Tiến Dũng, Our Great Spring Victory: An Account of the Liberation of South Vietnam (Hanoi, Vietnam: NXB The Gioi, 2000)

8. Các tỉnh Tây Nguyên thâm canh các loại cây công nghiệp dài ngày. (2018, April 6). Báo Ảnh Dân Tộc Và Miền Núi.

9. Minh M. (2023, March 6). Xuất khẩu thứ 2 thế giới: Cà phê Việt chưa có thương hiệu tầm cỡ và bỏ trống gia tăng giá trị. Nhịp Sống Kinh Tế Việt Nam & Thế Giới.

10. Phát triển hồ tiêu xuất khẩu ở các tỉnh Tây Nguyên theo hướng bền vững. (2022, April 12). Tạp Chí Kinh Tế Và Dự Báo - Bộ Kế Hoạch Và Đầu Tư.

11. Tran, D. T., Nguyen, T. H. O., Huynh, T. U., Oanh, T., DO, Nguyen, Q. V., & Nguyen, A. V. (2022). Analysis of endophytic microbiome dataset from roots of black pepper (Piper nigrum L.) cultivated in the Central Highlands region, Vietnam using 16S rRNA gene metagenomic next-generation sequencing. Data in Brief, 42, 108108.

12. Phát triển bền vững cây cao su vùng Tây Nguyên. (2018, November 19). Quân Đội Nhân Dân.

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