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Human Rights Group Condemns Vietnam for Treatment of Montagnards - 2004-04-14

A leading human rights group has condemned Vietnam for violently breaking up a protest by minority tribes people in the Central Highlands. Human Rights Watch also called for international observers to be given immediate access to the region.

Human Rights Watch says police use electric truncheons, tear gas, and water cannons to disperse thousands of Christian tribes people as they protested religious persecution and the confiscation of their ancestral lands. The protests in Vietnam's central highlands took place Saturday and Sunday, over the Christian Easter holiday.

The New York rights group says witnesses report that some of the protesters - known as Montagnards - were beaten and killed during the demonstrations. Others are reported missing.

On Monday, the Vietnamese government confirmed there were major disturbances in the area, but blamed it on "extremists" influenced by outside forces. A Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected the Human Rights Watch report, calling it "fabricated and exaggerated," and the result of ill will.

The Vietnamese government has closed the region to international observers and diplomats. Some foreign governments are pressuring Hanoi to allow them access to the area.

On Saturday, a delegation from the U.S. embassy was turned back while trying to visit the region. The U.S. embassy has asked the government to allow its delegation access to the area. On Wednesday, the Italian embassy asked that journalists be allowed into the area and suggested the government use more transparency.

Sunai Phasuk, head of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, says the suppression of ethnic minorities rights, especially the freedom to worship and land ownership rights, has been a problem in Vietnam for years. "But it is too bad that instead of allowing independent investigation into the status of the Montagnards and the highlanders inside Vietnam, the Vietnamese authorities choose to use a sort of denial strategy as a way to turn off international skepticism and criticism, which will not help anything," says Mr. Phasuk.

He says by closing off the area to international observers, the Vietnamese government creates suspicion about the treatment of the Montagnards. "Instead, what the Vietnamese government should do is to open up the area for independent investigation ? credible international agencies such as the Red Cross or other agencies to get into the area, assess the need and the state of the Montagnards," he says.

In 2001, the police suppressed similar demonstrations by the group and thousands fled across the border into Cambodia.

Vietnam accuses the Montagnard Foundation, which advocates ethnic minority rights, of organizing the Easter demonstrations, and the protests in 2001.

The group, based in the United States, was founded by former members of an anti-Communist group of Montagnards, who helped the United States during the Vietnam War. Thousands of Montagnards have resettled in the United States since the war ended almost 30 years ago.