Vietnam says there are no Montagnards in its Central Highlands

After UN inquiries on religious persecution, Hanoi denies that the ethnic group exists.
By RFA Vietnamese
2023.08.09
Vietnam says there are no Montagnards in its Central Highlands Montagnards walk out of a forest 70 km (43 miles) northeast of Ban Lung, located in Cambodia's northeastern province of Ratanakiri, July 22, 2004. They had fled Vietnam due to religious persecution.
Adrees Latif/Reuters

Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET on Aug. 10, 2023.

Almost one year after the Vietnamese government received a United Nations communication regarding rights violations toward an ethnic minority group from the Central Highlands, Hanoi issued a letter of reply saying the ethnic group does not exist.

On Sept. 6, 2022, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and three Special Rapporteurs sent the communique to the Vietnamese government, which discussed the authorities’ suppression on Y Cung Niê, Y Thịnh Niê and Y Don Niê, who belong to the Montagnard indigenous community.

The Montagnards are a broad grouping of 30 different Central Highlands tribes who have clashed, sometimes violently, with the Vietnamese government over a variety of issues, including land rights and religious freedom.

The term "Montagnard" was first used by the French during the colonial time to refer to indigenous people living in Vietnam’s mountainous areas but it is not used inside Vietnam these days.

The three men named in the communication had sent documents requesting authorities to provide them with guidance on how their religious minority groups could register for collective religious practice in compliance with the law.

Instead of providing responses, local police in late May 2022 arrested the three people, one after another, to interrogate them. They were arrested for additional questioning on June 2, 2022, and threatened with heavy fines or possible imprisonment if they persisted in meeting religious groups not approved by the government, the communication said.

Y Thinh Niê was told by police officers that the request for guidance was unlawful because the Montagnard Christians had been reporting violations of religious freedom to the international community through reactionary organizations, it said.

Additionally, the three were arrested and fined for ceremonies they conducted on the UN General Assembly-designated International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief on Aug. 22, 2021, the communication alleged.

‘Not recognized’ 

In its letter of reply, the Vietnamese government said “there are no indigenous people, nor do there exist the so-called ‘indigenous Montagnard’” in the community of 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam.

“In Vietnam, no one is arbitrarily detained or punished for exercising legitimate freedoms, including freedom of belief and religion,” said the letter.

According to the Vietnamese government, Y Cung Niê, Y Thinh Niê, Y Don Niê are individuals with complicated activities related to the FULRO organization.

The United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, or FULRO, founded in the 1950s, was a resistance army that fought on the side of United States and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War before officially disbanding in the 1990s.  

Vietnam’s government describes the group as taking advantage of ethnic and religious issues to threaten national security, incite riots, secession, and self-rule.

“In the process of living in the locality, the above three individuals have often taken advantage of themselves as ethnic minority people to provide false information, fabricate false accusations against the government and local police force of religious and ethnic oppression; contacted organizations abroad that lack goodwill towards Vietnam to propagate false information, slandered Vietnam of human rights violations, and created inaccurate information about the human rights situation in Vietnam,” the letter said.

Hanoi also said that these three individuals were fined for breaking the law, not related to the fact that they submitted applications to the government asking for guidance on registration of religious activities and “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.”

Aga, a Central Highlands pastor who fled Vietnam to seek political asylum in the U.S. and is now a permanent resident, told RFA that local authorities in Dak Lak and other provinces in the Central Highlands often try to find ways to force independent Protestant groups to join religious organizations recognized by the state. 

Those who refuse are harassed and threatened to be imprisoned by the police, he said.

Recalcitrant response

The Vietnamese government’s response was typical dismissal of rights violation allegations, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA.

“There are serious, ongoing violations of freedom of religion and belief in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, but the government is in total denial mode, rejecting allegations of rights violations and then restricting access for the international community to those areas to deny independent observers the opportunity to investigate,” he said.

According to Robertson, clear evidence of the religious persecution in the Central Highlands and several other places in Vietnam is how the government went overboard to surveille, harass, interrogate and arrest Montagnard groups for simply daring to celebrate the “International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief” 

He said that the Vietnamese government always claims that things are done in accordance with Vietnamese law. However, the reality is Vietnam’s laws on religious affairs fall far short of international human rights standards, and “the security forces treat many Montagnard communities as potential national security threats and enemies.”

Vietnam is included in the list of countries having no freedom of religion according to the U.S. State Department's 2022 annual human rights report. In late November 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed Vietnam on the United States’ Special Watch List for violating or tolerating serious violations of religious freedom.

Over the past few years, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has repeatedly requested the Biden Administration to include Vietnam in the Country of Particular Concern list for its systematic violations of religious freedom.

Translated by Anna Vu. Edited by Eugene Whong.

This story has been updated to add background on the term 'Montagnard'.

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