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Deadly Conflict in Vietnam's Central Highlands Ramps Up Persecution of Ethnic Minorities 

FILE - Montagnard hill tribesmen walk towards the main road from dense forest 70 km (43 miles) northeast of Ban Lung, located in Cambodia's northeastern province of Ratanakiri, July 22, 2004.

Vietnamese authorities reportedly have heightened security and increased the persecution of ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands after a deadly attack last month on government buildings there.

The Central Highlands is home to Montagnards, an umbrella term for ethnic minorities native to the region, many of whom identify as Christian. They have historically been at odds with Vietnam's one-party state and have grievances going back decades, relating to issues including land appropriation and religious persecution. Rights groups and Montagnard refugees living abroad say the government has intensified the crackdown on native highlanders.

On June 11, two groups in the Ea Ktur and Ea Tieu communes of Dak Lak province attacked the local People's Committee buildings using guns and Molotov cocktails. The incident left nine people dead, including four police officers, two commune leaders, and three residents, according to state media.

Rights groups in contact with Montagnards in the region say the attack has exacerbated repression in the region and put Montagnard refugees in nearby Thailand at risk. There are fears the Vietnamese government will use the incident as justification to increase its harsh policing of the region.

"The government will for sure capitalize on this to justify their already repressive policies towards the Montagnards in the Central Highlands," said Nguyen Dinh Thang, president of U.S.-based Boat People SOS, which advocates for religious freedom in Vietnam.

Authorities responded to the attack in force, bringing in security troops from the Public Security Ministry and the Vietnamese People's Army.

Deputy Public Security Minister Le Quoc Hung on June 12 called the Dak Lak shootings "terrorist acts" with the "instruction and support of hostile parties abroad." He said the ministry had utilized all its resources to arrest the suspects and seized all weapons from the attack. More than 90 suspects have now been arrested for various crimes including terrorism, according to local media reports.

"They're deploying guys with very high-end sniper rifles," Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert and professor at the National War College in Washington, said of the response to the attacks. "They were taking this pretty damn seriously with shoot-to-kill orders."

Former Cambodia-based Human Rights Watch researcher and Campaign to Abolish Torture in Vietnam founder Sara Colm, now in North Carolina, cited Montagnards living in North Carolina as saying highlanders in Vietnam have been living in fear since the attack.

"So many were so frightened, almost terrorized by the intense show of force by police and elite security units that they fled their homes," Colm told VOA. "Meanwhile, they're being hunted on both sides of the border because Cambodia has heavily militarized its side of the border and made threats."

Cambodia's Khmer Times reported June 14 that police in provinces bordering Vietnam were increasing security on Prime Minister Hun Sen's order following the Dak Lak attacks. Hun Sen also reportedly ordered that those crossing into Cambodia would be arrested and sent back to Vietnam, and warned that international organizations in Cambodia would be shut down if they offered refuge to "fugitives" fleeing Vietnam.

Colm added that Vietnamese civilians also took part in tracking down Montagnards.

"Even ethnic Vietnamese civilians were sort of fanning out and hunting them down," she said. "The manhunt was probably the most intensive thing I've ever seen or heard of in Vietnam."

Now, the Central Highlands are under lockdown with a particular show of force in Dak Lak province. Through his contacts in the region, Thang, with Boat People SOS, said there are rising instances of forced abandonment of religion and restrictions on freedom of movement, and that Montagnards are being surveilled on newly installed security cameras.

"People feel that they're being watched 24 hours a day, wherever they go," Thang said. "They are fearful. They are getting harassed by the police. They have been placed under tight surveillance, and there has been an increase of forced renunciation of faith."

Y Bion Mlo, an interpreter and Montagnard leader in North Carolina, also described the deteriorating environment.

"The situation in the Central Highlands is getting worse," he wrote via email.

Placing blame

Although the motive of the attackers is unknown, experts point to the long-running repression of Montagnard rights in Vietnam and a lack of sufficient response from the Vietnamese government.

"The fact that a group resorted to violence is truly tragic," Colm said. "Even more tragic is that they felt they had no alternative."

Local media have tied the attackers to several overseas "terrorist" groups, including Boat People SOS and the advocacy group Montagnards Stand for Justice.

"Vietnam's state-run media have a long history of discriminatory bias and creating tall tales against ethnic minorities," Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, said.

"We have little faith in their accounts," he said.

Thang said neither Boat People SOS nor their contacts in the Central Highlands has any connection to the June 11 attacks.

Y Phic Hdok from Dak Lak province joined Montagnards Stand for Justice in 2019 after fleeing Vietnam to Thailand to apply for United Nations refugee status. Now living in the United States, he told VOA that members of the group were not involved in the attacks.

"All people from Vietnam who have joined MSFJ are not involved in the violence," he said by email. "We are solely focused on monitoring the situation in the Central Highlands of Vietnam concerning human rights and religious freedom."

Although the group denies involvement, Montagnard refugees who live in Thailand and are with the organization are now at risk, Thang said.

"The government in Vietnam has identified several people who are seeking refugee status in Thailand, and they are key members of Montagnards Stand for Justice," he said. "On the 28 and 29 of June, they saw four people wearing black and helmets taking pictures of Montagnards. … We are very concerned."

The capture of refugees in Thailand by Vietnamese security forces has precedent.

In April, independent Vietnamese journalist Duong Van Thai went missing in Thailand after having lived in the country as a refugee since 2020. He was later found to have been detained in Vietnam.

Hdok said the danger is high for Montagnards in Thailand and contact with the Central Highlands has become more difficult since the attack.

"They can be at risk anytime," he wrote of Montagnards in Thailand. "[And] it's really hard to connect with people in the Central Highlands. ... People who share information abroad or try to contact us, they risk being arrested and imprisoned."

Hdok added that many innocent individuals in the Central Highlands are still being mistreated by authorities, weeks after the attacks.

"Many innocent individuals have not been released yet," he said. "In fact, most of them have been beaten."