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Vietnamese government represses ethnic minority Christians

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Socialist Republic of Vietnam admitted April 19 that the nation’s troubled Central Highlands region had again seen unrest following the protest of thousands of ethnic minority Christians in Dak Lak and Gia Lai provinces April 10.

Government officials said in Nhân Dân, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, that “naïve” tribesmen, also called Montagnards or Dega people, had been seduced into holding illegal demonstrations by “ill-intentioned forces outside Vietnam.” The Associated Press and Reuters both reported that the peaceful demonstrations intended to draw attention to the government’s abuses of religious freedom and the confiscation of the Montagnard’s ancestral lands.

Numerous ethnic minority Christians were beaten and jailed by Vietnamese police during the peaceful protests in the cities of Buon Ma Thout and Pleiku, according to AP. The Montagnard Foundation, an ethnic minority advocacy group based in South Carolina, said that six ethnic minority Christians were killed and more than 20 were missing in Buon Ma Thout alone. Police were reportedly searching coffee plantations with dogs to flush out some of those who fled the protest.

The admission that problems again exist between the Vietnamese and the largely Protestant ethnic minority tribes came after two days of fierce denials that anything out of the ordinary had occurred over the Easter holidays in the region. An April 16 statement issued by the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., claimed that “all aspects of life” in the area remained normal.

That statement was issued in response to allegations by the Montagnard Foundation and Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based organization, that several hundred ethnic minority Christians had been abused and killed in the recent demonstrations. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Le Dung said from Hanoi that western advocacy groups were guilty of “ill-willed fabrication and exaggeration” about the persecution of ethic minority Christians in the region.

Dung told the Vietnam News Agency that there were protests in the Central Highlands, but that the ethnic minority people were responsible for the violence.

“The truth is that … some extremist elements in localities in Dak Lak and Gia Lai provinces, with external incitement … induced, deceived and forced the local people to carry out demonstrations,” Dung said. He also claimed that “extremists” had looted some stores, used “dangerous weapons to beat on-duty officers” and destroyed public works and property in some areas. “More seriously they even dared attack commune headquarters, capture local officials and display banners demanding the establishment of a ‘Dega state.’”

A special state for the Dega people is the goal of the Montagnard Foundation, which frequently advocates inside the country for democracy and logs cases of the religious persecution and murder by the Vietnamese government. The organization even described the impending protests on its Web site April 9, a full day before the peaceful demonstrations began.

Access to the Central Highlands has been forbidden since the protests, but officials with the United States embassy in Hanoi are asking to be admitted to the area for an inspection tour. A group from the embassy was on a regular inspection tour of the area when they were turned away. Officials in the area said the region was “unsuitable” to foreigners, and so officials cancelled regularly scheduled flights and tourist visits to the area.

Vietnamese police, or Cong An, have been stationed in the homes of ethnic minority Christians to prohibit assemblies and enforce house arrests, HRW’s spokesman Brad Adams said. Cambodia also sealed its border with the Central Highlands provinces in order to prevent the passage of what it termed “illegal migrants,” or ethnic minority Christians who wish to escape the crackdown.

Nikola Mihajlovic, a representative for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to Cambodia, said in a statement April 13 that 59 Montagnards had crossed the Vietnamese-Cambodian border since January 2004, indicating that persecution has increased for ethnic minority Christians.

The latest troubles of ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands came after three years of intensifying persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government, which consistently denies any knowledge of such events. But information has poured out of Vietnam over the past three years that details atrocities committed by the communist regime.

In 2001, for instance, Vietnamese police destroyed ethnic minority churches and some villagers were reported killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Persecution was so intense that HRW issued a report, “Repression of the Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion,” which contained reports of the forced sterilization of Montagnard women.

In November 2002, Compass Direct news service reported that Vietnamese police had forcibly closed more than 350 ethnic minority churches in Dak Lak province. Most of the churches met in homes, gatherings illegal under communist law. Reports of the church closures were followed by reports of executions and the murder of ethnic minority children at church services.

In December 2003, Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom reported that the government had also stepped up persecution against Hmong Christians that live in the northern part of the country.

According to the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the steadily mounting persecution is part of a secret plan in which Hanoi hopes to “eradicate Christianity among the nation’s 54 ethnic minority groups.” In 2001, the center obtained documents outlining “Official Plan 184,” as the eradication plot was named.

Vietnamese officials have denied that such a plan exists.

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