Vietnam sentences Christian to 8 years for ‘undermining unity’

Rian Thih was accused of plotting to set up a separate state for ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.
By RFA Vietnamese
2023.10.04
Vietnam sentences Christian to 8 years for ‘undermining unity’ Rlan Thih at trial on Sept. 28, 2023.
Gia Lai newspaper

A court in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province sentenced a Christian to eight years in prison and three years probation for “undermining the unity policy” under Article 116 of the criminal code.

The Gia Lai online newspaper said that Rian Thih’s trial on Sept. 28 lasted for several hours and the defendant, also known as Ama Philip, “honestly testified and admitted the crime.” The newspaper did not specify whether he had a defense lawyer.

Vietnam often uses the allegation of undermining the solidarity policy to suppress activists for religious freedom in ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands or the northern mountainous areas, according to an activist on religious freedom speaking to Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The targets of repression are religious leaders of unregistered independent religious groups, often in contact with civil society organizations abroad or international human rights organizations to report violations of religious freedom in the country,” the activist said.

“Such people are often persecuted under Article 116 with heavy sentences of up to 20 years in prison, or at least convicted under Article 331 – abusing democratic freedoms – with a sentence of four to five years in prison.”

The activist said in the Central Highlands there are many Protestant groups registered with the state and with legal status. Many of them have committed actions that, according to the activist, “caused division between ethnicities and between religions” but they were not charged with undermining the unity policy.

Vu Quoc Dung, executive director of the human rights organization VETO! The Human Rights Defenders Network, based in Germany, told RFA via text:

“In some previous cases of ethnic minorities engaging in religious activities that we know well, the fact that they were convicted of ‘undermining the policy of national unity’ only shows that they follow independent religious organizations and refuse to join a state-recognized organization. In a few other cases, the government accused the victims of abandoning tradition or not respecting local customs.

“Accusing them of undermining the policy of national unity violates the right to freedom of religious practice under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the right to observe and practice their own religion of minority groups according to Article 27 of the ICCPR, to which Vietnam is a party.”

Rlan Thih, 43, was arrested on Dec. 19, 2022. According to the indictment, from 2008 until his arrest, Rlan Thih was directed by FULRO (the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) exiles abroad to secretly persuade ethnic minorities in Ia Glai commune to join a meeting group that was a variation of “Dega Protestantism,” with a plot to establish a “separate state for ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands.”

MONTAGNARD.jpeg
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. Credit: Reuters

The Vietnamese government says that Christians 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. 

Montagnards are a mainly Christian indigenous minority from the Central Highland provinces who are pressing for religious freedom and land rights. The government now claims there are no Montagnards in the Central Highlands.

The Gia Lai newspaper said that Rlan Thih participated in violent protests in Gia Lai in 2001 and 2004 and “remained stubborn, refusing to stop trying to sabotage the party and state, affecting national unity and local security” but did not specify what these acts were.

Rlan Thih is one of many religious freedom activists in the Central Highlands who was arrested recently.

In April, authorities in Dak Lak arrested preacher Y Krec Ba of the Central Highlands Evangelical Church of Christ on charges of “undermining the unity policy.” A month later, Nay Y Blang was arrested on charges of “abusing democratic freedoms.”

According to RFA statistics, there are currently nearly 60 ethnic minorities imprisoned on charges of “undermining the solidarity policy” with sentences ranging from four to 20 years.

Translated by RFA Vietnamese. Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

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