Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have released independent reports detailing a government campaign of suppression and violence against the Montagnard people of central Vietnam. Many Montagnards have fled their homes as a result, some into Cambodia.

The reports say violence erupted in Vietnam in early April, when up to 30,000 Montagnards gathered simultaneously in several parts of central Vietnam to demand religious freedoms and the return of ancestral lands.

The government responded by sending in security personnel, who reportedly attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, clubs and bars.

Carl Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense College in Canberra who follows the Montagnard issue, says Vietnam's security forces moved harshly to put them down. "The [Vietnamese] security forces picked up warning of this, met them and, using local toughs and their own methods, treated them rather brutally."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch - quoting eyewitness reports - says dozens were killed and hundreds injured. Hanoi-based diplomats confirmed the reports of violence and at least several deaths. The Vietnamese government says two people died. Since the April protests, human rights groups and diplomats say hundreds of Montagnards have fled their homes. Some are reported living in the jungles, while others ran into neighboring Cambodia.

Human Rights Watch says the Vietnamese government has tightened the border with Cambodia. Even if the Montagnards do make it across the border, they face an uncertain future.

In a statement last month, the London-based Amnesty International accused the Cambodian government of forcing Montagnard asylum seekers back to Vietnam - where, Amnesty says, they face possible torture and imprisonment.

Amnesty International's Somsi Hananuntasuk, speaking from Bangkok, called on Cambodia to respect the Montagnards' rights as refugees. "We don't want the Cambodian Government to send them [the Montagnards] back to Vietnam because they will face this problem with their government. They should treat them like refugees, choose other alternatives to help them, at least keep them for the moment in Cambodia."

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees representative in Cambodia also criticized the deportations, saying they breach Cambodia's international commitments on refugees.

The Cambodian government has ordered the UNHCR to close an office (in northeastern Ratanakiri Province) near the Vietnam border. Its Interior Ministry defends the deportation policy, saying some Montagnards were smuggled into the country as part of a bid to join relatives already living in third countries.

The Montagnards, who fought with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, have always been a people apart in Vietnam. They are ethnically different from the lowland Vietnamese, and they tend to be Protestant, while the Vietnamese are mostly Catholic or Buddhist.

The Montagnards have seen their traditional lands being given to lowland Vietnamese as part of government efforts to boost agricultural production in the Highlands.

Professor Thayer says that religion is at the root of the conflict. "It really involves a long simmering suppression of ethnic minorities because they're Protestant and they have a house-church organization and the state can't control it," he says.

The Vietnamese government has rejected the claims made by the human rights organizations. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters in Hanoi that only law-breakers had been arrested in April and that no one had been detained on the basis of political opinions or religious beliefs.

Hanoi has blamed a U.S.-based group, the Montagnard Foundation, for stirring up the recent unrest. The foundation says it simply acts as an advocate for the minority group.

Vietnam instituted a similar crackdown in early 2001, following similar protests by the Montagnards. Thousands fled to Cambodia. More than 900 of them were eventually resettled in the United States during 2002 and 2003.

Since the 2001 crackdown, Vietnam's Communist Party has made attempts to address the minority issues. That year, the Communist Party appointed as secretary-general Nong Duc Mahn - a member of the Tay ethnic group. His appointment was seen as a way of easing tensions with the country's minorities.

After the appointment, the Hanoi government punished both protesters and local officials, who were accused of heavy-handedness in dealing with the Montagnard protests. The government also announced several development and aid projects for the central region.