Authorities in Vietnam have stepped up repression of the Montagnards, indigenous minority Christians from the country’s Central Highland provinces who are pressing for religious freedom and land rights, according to a detailed report by Human Rights Watch.
The U.S.-based rights group said it had documented police sweeps to "root out" Montagnards in hiding and detailed how the authorities dissolved house church gatherings, orchestrated "coerced" renunciations of faith, and sealed off the country's border to prevent asylum seekers from fleeing to neighboring Cambodia.
More than 70 Montagnards have been detained or arrested in 2010 alone, and more than 250 are known to be imprisoned on national security charges, Human Rights Watch said in its report “Montagnard Christians in Vietnam: A Case Study in Religious Repression.”
Human Rights Watch documented the abuses in the Central Highlands, which is off-limits to independent, international rights groups, through interviews with Montagnards who have fled Vietnam and reports in Vietnam’s government-controlled media.
“Montagnards face harsh persecution in Vietnam, particularly those who worship in independent house churches, because the authorities don’t tolerate religious activity outside their sight or control,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
He said the Vietnamese government "has been steadily tightening the screws on independent Montagnard religious groups, claiming they are using religion to incite unrest.”
Allegations of torture
Human Rights Watch provided depressing details of interviews it conducted with Montagnards who had been jailed.
"They put me in handcuffs when they took me out for questioning. The handcuffs were like wire—very tight," said one Montagnard, who described his treatment at a provincial prison after he was arrested for participating in a protest calling for religious freedom and land rights.
"They used an electric shock on me every time they interrogated me. They would shock me on my knees, saying you used these legs to walk to the demonstration," he said.
Sentenced to five years in prison for “violating national solidarity,” he remains partially deaf from repeatedly being boxed on both ears, the report said.
"They used both hands to box both of my ears at the same time. They would do this three times, the last time putting strong pressure on the ears. Blood came out of my ears and my nose. I went crazy from this. It was so painful, and also the build-up made me very afraid and tense."
The Vietnamese government says that Montagnards who belong to unregistered house churches outside the control of the official Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam are “Dega Protestants,” which authorities allege is not a legitimate religious group but a cover for a Montagnard independence movement.
Vietnamese law requires all religious groups to register with the government and operate under government-approved religious organizations.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to end its "systematic repression" of Montagnards, allow independent religious organizations to conduct activities freely, and release all Montagnards imprisoned for peaceful religious or political activities.
"Until Vietnam improves its record on religious freedom, Human Rights Watch calls on the U.S. government to reinstate Vietnam’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern for violations of religious freedom," it said.
The list of "countries of particular concern" was created in 1999 to identity nations notorious for religious repression as part of an annual report on global religious freedom by the U.S. State Department. Vietnam was removed from the list in 2006.
Leverage to effect change
Scott Flipse, East Asia director at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms, called on President Barack Obama's administration to press human rights and rule of law issues with Vietnam as Washington moved to enhance trade and security ties with the Southeast Asian nation.
"U.S. interests are in long-term, peaceful political and legal reforms. So the rule of law, human rights, democracy, greater democratization, are U.S. interests long-term," he said.
"There’s much more leverage to effect change in Vietnam [than in China]. We have mechanisms to do that, plus we have long-term leverage with this younger generation that we don’t have with China," Flipse said, pointing out that 66 percent of Vietnam's population was under 35 years old.
"They have relatives in Australia and the U.S. They’re tuned-in globally. They don’t remember, in the same way that the older generation does, the issues of the war," he said, citing the Vietnam War.
Sophie Richardson, Asia Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch, said Vietnam should be reinstated in the U.S. religious freedom blacklist.
"In our view, Vietnam certainly belongs on the Countries of Particular Concern list with respect to violations of the freedom of religion."
"It is not particularly difficult to document anything from forced renunciations of religious belief to the persecution of people who are leaders of particular faiths and who are also involved in other issues," she said. "Vietnam deserves to be on the CPC list."
Reported by Richard Finney and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.