An intensified campaign of religious and political persecution of Montagnards by security forces in Vietnam is responsible for more than 150 of the group fleeing to Cambodia, while authorities in both countries are working together to track down asylum seekers crossing the border, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released Friday.
“Persecuting ‘Evil Way’ Religion,” which was compiled through interviews with 21 Montagnards who have fled Vietnam’s Central Highlands and draws on articles published by state media in Vietnam, depicts a far-reaching surveillance network intended to curtail religious practices and politically “autonomous thoughts” among the mainly Christian minority group.
Vietnamese authorities, the report claimed, are operating a systematic program of arrest, detention and torture that targets “objects” of suspicion in the Central Highlands.
“This persecution is driving Christians from Montagnard ethnic minorities to seek asylum in neighboring Cambodia and in Thailand. Vietnamese authorities have responded by preventing people from leaving Vietnam and pressuring Cambodian authorities to prevent border crossings and deny those who do cross the right to seek asylum,” the report said.
One Montagnard from Gia Lai province interviewed earlier this month told the rights group he was subjected to torture during detention in February and March after authorities shut down a local church.
“I was hit everywhere; they even used electricity to shock me. They used it so I would answer their questions. The police hit me with their hands on both sides of the face. After they hit me I couldn’t hear anything from my ears,” he said. “The police told me if I continued going to church, then the police would continue arresting me.”
The report says Hanoi tightened its grip on religious freedoms in January 2013 when it promulgated a vaguely-worded decree that prohibits the “manipulation of freedom of belief and religion” or acts that “undermine …national unity” and requires official permission to practice religious beliefs.
In a January 2014 speech, General Tran Dai Quang, a minister in the Central Highlands, which the government calls the “Western Highlands,” called on security forces to “actively fight” to eliminate “reactionary organizations” and “evil way” religions, including Degar Protestant Christianity, the religion of many Montagnards, according to the HRW report.
This has resulted in authorities detaining and questioning ethnic Christian minorities about their religious or political activities and potential plans to escape from Vietnam, the report said. Since October, about 170 Montagnards have crossed into Cambodia, many through the northeastern province of Ratanakkiri.
Despite the Cambodian government granting refugee status to the first group of 13 Montagnards who applied for asylum last year, the assistance stopped there, the report said, following a meeting between Vietnamese Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang and Interior Minister Sar Kheng in January, during which they signed a set of agreements that included provisions on security force cooperation in border provinces, including coordination “in [the] struggle against objects wanted.”
By the beginning of this month, Cambodian authorities had deported at least 54 Montagnards, and “had denied at least another 109 the possibility of registering there as asylum seekers,” the report said.
One of the justifications by the Vietnamese government for its surveillance of the Montagnards, according to HRW, is that the “De Ga Country”—De Ga or Degar is another term for the group—may be a cover for the resurrection of the armed separatist insurgency of the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO).
Rong Nay, head of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization (MHRO), which is based in North Carolina, refuted the claim, stating that FULRO laid down weapons in 1992. Mr. Nay believes the Vietnamese government is still punishing the Montagnards for fighting on the side the U.S. during the Second Indochina War.
“The North Vietnamese, they have a long memory of the war and they still consider the Montagnards as long-term historical enemies,” Mr. Nay said.
“The war is over but they still punish us because we fought alongside the Americans. Until today, they still use the FULRO in order to arrest us and they accuse the Montagnards of [attempting to] overthrowing the government of Vietnam,” he said. “How can we overthrow it? We have empty hands.”
Along with more overt forms of persecution, Mr. Nay said, the Vietnamese government is also attempting to divide ethnic communities by training some Montagnard pastors under government-sanctioned programs while pressuring independent preachers to cease operations.
“The pastors that accept to register under the government control, the government trains them,” Mr. Nay said. “If they are independent, they don’t want to train them because they are already trained [by other pastors] in the past.”
HRW had planned to hold a press conference to launch the report in Bangkok on Friday. However, the event was canceled following pressure from the Vietnamese government, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director for the group’s Asia office. He said Thai authorities informed him the event was shut down over concerns it “could affect the friendship and cooperation” between the two countries.
“What it shows, first of all, is the scorched earth nature of the Vietnamese policy against the Montagnards. These people are viewed as a dire threat to be chased, pursued and done away with by the Vietnamese government,” Mr. Robertson said.
“They basically have decided that these people are some kind of threat to their security, and taking this kind of extreme action to protest to a government like Thailand…indicates how thorough the government in Vietnam is to try and silence people speaking about the Montagnards,” he said.