Refugees reveal little-known religious and ethnic tensions in Vietnam's Central Highlands

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2001

SEN MONOROM, Cambodia (AP) -- The Rev. Y-Lei Buon Krong gripped his Bible, thought of God and blanked his mind out to the shouting voices of his interrogators.

It was his 12th grilling in nine months at a police station in Vietnam's Central Highlands. The 47-year-old pastor again refused to sign a pledge to stop leading Christian gatherings and to stop advocating the rights of Vietnam's ethnic minorities.

After they failed to break him, the police let him go but ordered him to return in three days. Instead, the pastor, his wife and four children fled the next day, walking for 48 hours before crossing into Cambodia. Eventually, they found refuge at a United Nations camp inside the border.

''They would have made me an example to scare others,'' Y-Lei said.

Y-Lei says his experience this spring is only one example of the discrimination that ethnic minorities in the remote Central Highlands face at the hands of Vietnam's communist government.

The minorities' accumulated complaints of religious repression and economic exploitation have exploded into rare public protests this year, posing an unexpected challenge to an authoritarian Vietnamese regime that is used to a docile public.

When the minorities, collectively known as Montagnards, rioted in February in the provinces of Daklak and Gia Lai, the protests were broken up by water cannon, and dozens of people were accused of stirring up unrest.

Although no deaths or beatings were reported during the protests, Hanoi barred reporters and outsiders from visiting the area on their own. But the government couldn't stop the highlanders from fleeing their homes and sneaking into neighboring Cambodia.

While the conflict involves ethnic discrimination, it also has a distinctly religious flavor. Many of those claiming harassment are Protestants, and their faith is tied to their identity. Moreover, many of them worship in ''house churches'' that lack official approval.

The regime sees the groups' organizing ability as a threat and uses the illegal status to bully them.

By contrast, Vietnam set up a centralized Buddhist organization and has a wary though improving relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Restrictions on these recognized groups have loosened and public worship at authorized temples and churches is flourishing

But Hanoi has historically been suspicious of the ethnic minorities because they fought alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam war. Some Montagnards say they are still targeted due to actual or alleged affiliation with the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, a now-defunct armed Montagnard group that was once the main ally of American forces in the Central Highlands.

Y-Lei acknowledged he was a former member of the United Front but said he never resorted to violence.

For now, Y-Lei and his family are living under a blue plastic sheet tied to bamboo poles in the Sen Monorom camp, nestled among rolling hills and grassy knolls 170 miles north of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. There some 190 refugees are being cared for by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (or UNHCR).

Another camp in a neighboring province houses 50 refugees. Most of the refugees hope to get political asylum in the United States, where 38 others were resettled in April.

Those in the camps say another 1,000 Highlanders may be hiding in the jungles, afraid to show themselves to Cambodian authorities for fear they will be sent back.

Indrika Rawatte, a regional officer of the UNHCR, said the organization's goal is to facilitate the return of the people to Vietnam.

But the UNHCR complains that Hanoi is obstructing efforts to piece together what is happening in the Central Highlands by denying it access to the region. However, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press that a request by the UNHCR to visit the area ''will be considered.''

The highlanders protest that they are fast becoming a minority even on their ancestral lands because of migration of farmers from the lowlands, drawn by the lucrative coffee and rubber farming in the area that is encouraged by the government.

''The land issue has become a powder keg,'' said Sidney Jones of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights group.

''More and more ancestral land is being taken over for state rubber and coffee plantations or by individual land holders ... and that's making it very difficult for highlanders to earn a living,'' she said.

Many of those interviewed at the Sen Monorom camp spoke of regular detentions and threats of violence by local police. They say their crops are regularly stolen by the migrants and that local officials ignore their pleas for justice, even when they can identify the culprits.

The minorities also say they have been ignored by the government's development plans. In 1998, 75 percent of all ethnic minorities, who comprise 15 percent of Vietnam's 77 million people, lived below the poverty line, compared to 31 percent for the majority Kinh population. Among the underprivileged minorities, the highlanders remain the poorest.

Asked for comment, Vietnam's foreign ministry said in a statement to the AP that the refugees' complaints are ''totally fabricated.''

End Advance for Friday PMs, July 27

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