Authorities in Vietnam were asked on Monday to conduct a full, impartial, and transparent investigation into recent unrest among thousands of ethnic minority Hmong in a remote area.
In making the call, Human Rights Watch, a U.S. group, also wanted diplomats and other international observers to be permitted "immediate unfettered" access to the area in the country's northwestern Dien Bien province following reports of deaths and injuries.
Details have been scant from the hard-to-access region, but Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said last week "some extremists" had tricked Hmong from other areas to gather in the county of Muong Nhe, near the Lao border, around the end of April and in early May to advocate the establishment of a Hmong "kingdom."
"Some over-reactive individuals have been detained for investigation and will be dealt with in accordance with the law," Nga said.
She declined to give a number, but Agence France-Presse quoted a British-based religious freedom group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), as saying last week that 130 men had been detained.
Nga said that some people fell sick during the gathering due to bad weather and that one ill child died.
The area where the protests occurred.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that on April 30, thousands of Hmong began to gather near Huoi Khon village in the Muong Nhe district of Dien Bien.
On May 4-5, Vietnamese military troops and helicopters moved in to suppress the assembled people, it said.
There were unconfirmed reports that a number of Hmong were killed or injured, it said, noting that the authorities had sealed the area and refused permission to foreign diplomats and journalists to travel there.
“The Vietnam government can’t just throw a dark shroud over this situation and pretend that everything is back to normal," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
"When communal unrest like this is handled behind closed doors, it creates conditions ripe for abuse—
and for impunity,” he said.
“The government’s credibility in the situation hinges on letting independent journalists and observers to go to this remote area and see for themselves what happened.”
Last week, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Truong Vinh Trong visited Muong Nhe district and declared that “stability has been restored.” U.S. seeks details
The U.S. State Department said it was aware of the Hmong protests and had sought details from the Vietnamese government.
"Our embassy in Hanoi has been in regular contact with relevant Vietnamese government officials and other contacts in the region to inquire about reports on the violence, and then we also inquired about unconfirmed reports of possible deaths associated with these protests," a department official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We urge all parties involved to avoid violence and to resolve any differences peacefully and in accordance with the Vietnamese law and internationally recognized human rights standards," the official said.
Human Rights Watch wanted the Vietnamese authorities to conduct a no-holds-barred probe supervised by a committee that includes representative members of the Hmong ethnic community.
It should look into the reasons for the unrest, allegations of excessive violence by government authorities, and violence by protesters, and make public the findings, the group said.
Access to Muong Nhe and other parts of Dien Bien province, as well as adjoining provinces, should be given to for foreign journalists, Hanoi-based diplomats, U.N. agencies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross to conduct "independent investigations," it said.Identities of those held
Human Rights Watch also asked the authorities to release names of all those arrested in connection with the unrest, and to reveal their current location and any charges filed against them.
“Vietnam’s past track record in handling ethnic protests in other remote areas includes widespread arrests, abuses in detention, religious repression, trumped up charges, and use of excessive force,” Robertson said.
“Vietnam’s donors should demand that the government conduct a fully independent and transparent investigation to get to the bottom of these incidents.”
Vietnam's northwest is home to various hill tribes as well as stubborn pockets of deep poverty.
The government has a six trillion dong ($286 million) plan to reduce poverty in the region, and conditions there have already improved, said John Hendra, outgoing chief of the U.N.'s Vietnam mission.Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.