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Vietnam Accused of Fresh Crackdown on Montagnard People - 2003-04-25

A U.S. based human rights group is reporting a new government crackdown on the Montagnard people of central Vietnam. The alleged crackdown would be part of a long history of persecution of the Montagnards.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch says Vietnamese authorities have started a fresh crackdown on ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

The rights group says the allegations are based on letters received from Montagnard Protestant church leaders in Vietnam's Dak Lak Province. The letters describe beatings of church leaders by police and security officials, churches being destroyed, bans on nighttime gatherings, and confiscation of villagers' farmland.

In recent years, Communist authorities and the largely Christian Montagnards have clashed repeatedly over land ownership. Persecution of the primitive tribal group by the low-land Vitenamese dates back to well before the 1975 communist victory in Vietnam, and enmity between the two groups has a long history.

Many Montagnards fought alongside American Green Berets and other special forces during the Vietnam War. Their targets were ostensibly the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army but there were also instances of Montagnards attacking South Vietnamese soldiers, their ostensible allies.

During 2001, about a thousand Montagnards fled to Cambodia to escape the violence. Eventually, more than 900 of them immigrated to the United States under a program supported by the U.N. refugee agency.

Hanoi-based diplomats tell VOA they do not believe there is a specific campaign against the Montagnards, but rather a desire by the communist government to enforce national unity and economic development.

Not all the conflicts in the Central Highlands have involved the government. There have also been land disputes between the Montagnards, many of whom still rely on slash-and-burn agriculture, and newly arrived ethnic Vietnamese settlers.

David Marr, a professor of history at the Australian National University in Canberra, says Vietnam's communist government has acknowledged it made mistakes during the ethnic unrest in 2001. But he is pessimistic about an easy solution for the Montagnards in their conflict with the central government. "The police system is strong, of course, throughout Vietnam and it's being applied here quite rigorously. A number of reports [point to] police excesses and that I would find quite credible. Whether or not there is another approach, through negotiation, frankly, I am skeptical," he said.

Human Rights Watch says that since the start of the year more than a hundred Montagnards have attempted to flee to Cambodia only to face forced repatriation to Vietnam.