A human rights group has accused Vietnam of persecuting and repressing an ethnic minority known as Montagnards in the country's troubled Central Highlands region. More than a year after anti-government riots shook the area, Human Rights Watch says ethnic and religious leaders are still being targeted.
Documents smuggled out of Vietnam and interviews with fleeing asylum-seekers paint a grim picture of the Central Highlands region.
According to the New York-based human rights group, at least 50 ethnic minorities - eight of them evangelical Christian ministers - have been arrested over the last six months. Villagers suspected of taking part in last year's protests have been forced to swear a loyalty oath, sealed by drinking a mixture of goat's blood and rice wine.
A 200 page report released by Human Rights Watch Tuesday gives the most comprehensive account so far of the dynamics of unrest in the Central Highlands. The mountainous coffee-growing region has been sealed off to independent observers since the riots broke out in February 2001.
The report confirmed that a U.S.-based exile group helped stir up the protests by sending in undercover organizers calling for an independent state for the region's hill tribes, known collectively as Montagnards. It took at least five days for army troops to bring the unrest under control.
But Human Rights Watch charged that the root cause of the protest was the communist government's failure to respond to Montagnard complaints. The report reprints complaints filed to district and provincial authorities objecting to land seizures and discrimination against evangelical Christians.
Since the demonstrations, officials have reportedly burned down an evangelical church in the province of Gia Lai and have continued to monitor and arrest anyone considered disloyal.
More than 1,000 highlanders fled to Cambodia last year and are in the process of resettling in the U.S. The border has now been sealed, though Human Rights Watch appealed to Cambodia to allow new refugees to cross.
Vietnam had no immediate response to the report, but has said in the past that the protests were the result of "hostile forces" intent on destroying the communist government. Hanoi calls continued reports of abuse "sheer fabrication." Nevertheless, the government still refuses to allow diplomats and journalists unrestricted access to the highlands.