Vietnam's communist government continues committing gross acts of repression against indigenous Christian minorities living in the country's Central Highlands, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported Thursday.
The organization reported Hanoi's decades-long brutality directed at the Montagnard tribes, whose members are predominantly evangelical Protestant or Catholic.
"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, HRW deputy Asia director, according to The New York Times. "The Vietnamese government has been steadily tightening the screws on independent Montagnard religious groups, claiming they are using religion to incite unrest."
Traditionally animalist, Montagnards later converted to Christianity in large numbers – first with the French Catholic missionaries in the 19th century, then with U.S. Protestants in the 1950s thru 60s. The Americans made a more lasting impact as most Montagnards currently are Protestants.
Fiercely independent, the highland Christians often meet clandestinely in house churches that are outside government supervision. Many distrust the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV), the state-authorized Protestant church in the Central Highlands.
The main authority in Hanoi has actively attempted to stamp out house churches by deploying specialized paramilitary units to assist provincial policemen, who routinely conduct arbitrary arrests. Officials often stage communal struggle sessions to humiliate and coerce Christians into renouncing their faith.
Under Vietnamese laws governing religion, the freedom to worship is seen as a privilege instead of a fundamental human right.
The atheist communist government started allowing religious practices in the early 1990s, but only for groups that had registered with authorities. Even so, authorized groups had to operate under official guidelines. Though the government had approved some evangelical Protestant churches in the last decade, virtually none of the 400 highland churches were recognized.
Decades of Ethnic Tension and Intolerance
The HRW report on Thursday reveals centuries-old mistrust and prejudices between Montagnards and majority lowland Vietnamese.
The communist government reserves long-standing enmity for Montagnards, who had fought alongside U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War. After the communist victory in 1975, Catholic and Protestant churches in the highlands were forcibly closed and many tribesmen, including pastors, were arrested in retribution.
Tens of thousands of highlanders went into hiding or fled to neighboring Cambodia. Others formed the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO), a ragtag army that fought the communists without American support throughout the 1980s thru early 1990s. By 1992, the last of the guerillas were evacuated by U.N. peacekeeping troops.
Although having long since abandoned armed resistance, Montagnards continue facing pressures including losing ancestral farmland to encroaching lowland settlers and agricultural plantations. This fueled resentment that led to mass protests. At the center of the unrest, an activist Montagnard church movement - Tin Lanh Dega or Dega Protestantism – emerged to champion for land rights.
In February 2001, thousands of Montagnards in the four Central Highland provinces staged an unprecedented mass protest demanding religious freedom and return of confiscated land. In the consequent crackdown, police and military units sealed off provincial borders and arrested scores of demonstrators. Many were tortured into making false confessions, while dozens were imprisoned. By the following year, over a thousand Montagnards had fled to Cambodia.
Since then, authorities continually allege that FULRO elements are in collusion with unregistered churches such as those with Dega Protestants. While no evidence suggests that armed anti-government groups exist in the Central Highlands, Hanoi does not trust unregistered Montagnard Christians.
Claiming to improve political stability and security in the region, the police have over the years launched a systematic campaign to shut down unofficial house churches and arrest its members. Individuals are often forced into either making false confessions or renouncing their faith in staged struggle meetings with villagers.
Reports of repression of Montagnards conflict with Hanoi promises to improve religious freedom in its bid to join the World Trade Organization, which requires the country to remove itself from the U.S.'s "country of particular concern" list.
The United States had previously designated Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for religious freedom in 2004, but removed it from the list two years later. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom repeatedly recommends Vietnam be placed back on the CPC list in light of reports revealing human rights violation in the communist nation.