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New evidence shows Vietnamese security forces are continuing to mistreat and arbitrarily detain Montagnards, indigenous hill people from the communist country’s Central Highlands.

Human Rights Watch today in a new 16-page briefing paper said Vietnamese officials are also continuing to force Montagnard Christians to recant their faith.

Targeted in particular are those perceived as following “Dega Christianity,” an unsanctioned form of evangelical Christianity followed by many Montagnards, who distrust government-controlled religious organizations and seek to manage their own affairs, HRW said in a report received by Assist News Service.

Human Rights Watch said the Vietnamese government has banned Dega Christianity and charges that it is not a religion but a separatist political movement.

“Montagnards who attempt to practice their religion independently still face assaults and live in fear,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The persecution of Montagnards for their religious beliefs and for their claims to ancestral lands continues unabated.”

Human Rights Watch said that recent talks between Vietnam and the United States on Vietnam’s designation by the U.S. as a “Country of Particular Concern” for religious persecution have produced some commitments by the Vietnamese government to allow greater religious freedom. Registration requirements for some churches have been loosened, and the prime minister has issued a regulation banning the forced renunciation of religious beliefs.

However, the regulation requires religious organizations to obtain government permission in order to operate. It states that only churches that have conducted “pure religious activities” since 1975 can register for official authorization. This effectively eliminates Montagnard house churches in the Central Highlands, most of which started up in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

HRW says that in an ominous tone, the regulation instructs officials to publicly expose “disguised Protestants” and to “fight attempts by hostile forces to abuse Protestantism to incite people to act subversively.”

According to recent eyewitness accounts obtained by Human Rights Watch, local authorities in the Central Highlands have used the new regulation as grounds to arrest Montagnards suspected of belonging to Christian groups that operate independently.

Government officials in Cu Se district of Gia Lai province summoned Montagnards from many villages for all-day meetings at district headquarters, where they were warned not to follow Dega Christianity, and in some cases forced to sign pledges promising to abandon religion and politics. The Evangelical Church of Vietnam/South is the only Protestant organization authorized by the government to operate in southern Vietnam.

HRW reports that in March and April, security forces in several districts of Gia Lai conducted search operations in the forests and midnight raids on villages, in which they ransacked the homes of women whose husbands have gone into hiding.

Some women and their children were beaten during these raids. Human Rights Watch said that Montagnards in hiding, as well as villagers suspected of providing food to them, continue to be arrested by police and soldiers.

Those arrested include not only those perceived to be Dega Church members but pastors affiliated with the ECVN and their relatives. Some of those arrested have been beaten or tortured in detention, according to credible eyewitness accounts.

“Recent commitments from the Vietnamese government on religious freedom are welcome, but only if they lead to an end to abuses,” said Adams. “Vietnam should amend the regulations to allow full and unconditional religious freedom in order to end the official identification of religion as a threat to the state.”

Human Rights Watch said that at this point, the reforms appear to be having the perverse effect of allowing government security forces to take fresh action against religious activists.

Human Rights Watch also said that it also has received reports of mistreatment of Montagnards who voluntarily returned to Vietnam from refugee camps in Cambodia.

According to these reports, at least four Montagnards who returned to Vietnam in March were detained for more than ten days upon return. During interrogation by police at the Gia Lai Provincial Police Station, one of the returnees was stabbed in the hand with a writing pen. Another was punched in the back, the third was hit in the stomach, and the fourth was slapped across the face. They were then escorted to their home villages by commune police and local officials, who placed them under surveillance.

In a recent Memorandum of Understanding signed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, Vietnam pledged that there would be no retaliation or mistreatment against individuals who return from Cambodia to Vietnam. However, Vietnam continues to deny international monitors unhindered access to the Central Highlands to check on the safety of returnees.

“The general mistreatment of Montagnards and the targeting of returnees from Cambodia makes it clear that Vietnam is not upholding the commitments it made to UNHCR in January,” said Adams.

“Hanoi must allow international monitors into the Central Highlands to ensure proper implementation of the agreement. Vietnam should stop denying that these abuses are happening and start showing the political will to end them,” Adams said.

Cases from the briefing paper include:

  • On March 14, commune police summoned a villager from Ia Grai district, Gia Lai. He was interrogated and held in a dark, windowless room for one day, where he was asked about the leadership, practice, and membership of his religious group. He was told that he needed written permission from the district and commune in order to worship. He was warned that if he practiced religion without permission, he would be arrested again.

  • In late March, police in Dak Lak province arrested a Montagnard pastor who is a member of the ECVN and six relatives of another Montagnard pastor affiliated with the ECVN. Two of those arrested were subsequently released; one after facing public denunciation in which he was accused of having preached the gospel illegally and calling himself a pastor without government approval. The whereabouts of the other five remains unknown.

  • On April 26, Ia Grai district police officers in Gia Lai province delivered a written summons to three villagers, ordering them to report to commune headquarters. The police officers interrogated them and accused them of “heading the separation of the believers” and ordered them to cease their beliefs on the side of those who have “separated themselves from the church.” The villagers reportedly admitted being among those who had separated from the church (presumably meaning the ECVN) and refused to abandon their faith. The officers slammed their fists on the table and threatened them with arrest. All three villagers were beaten by the police officers before being released and allowed to return to their homes. One was slapped across the face and jaw; another was punched in the chest; and the third was boxed in their ears.

  • In early April, a Montagnard from Cu Se district of Gia Lai was arrested and detained at the district police station. District police officers beat him, forced him to drink alcohol, and ordered him to stop believing in Jesus. They tied his feet and had him hold his arms straight out, crucifixion style, while they beat him with their hands and kicked him with their boots. When he lost consciousness they poured wine into his mouth. He was released that evening.

  • On Feb. 25, two police officers from Ia To commune, Ia Grai District summoned two men and a woman for interrogation. They were asked whether they followed Dega Christianity or the “Christianity of [Prime Minister] Phan Van Khai. They were asked who in their village followed “the religion that is political” and where they worshiped, and ordered to cease following Dega Christianity. They did not agree to stop. The police hit one of the men with their fists and beat the second man until he lost consciousness. The three were released from detention the same day. They were threatened with arrest if they were caught practicing their religion again.

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