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Cablegate: A/S Dewey in Vietnam Central Highlands: Lam Dong

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E. O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) HCMC 0833 B) HCMC 0842

1. (SBU) Summary: In recent meetings with Lam Dong provincial
authorities, PRM Assistant Secretary Dewey expressed strong U.S.
concern about the treatment of ethnic minorities and a lack of
religious freedom for unregistered Protestant house churches. Lam
Dong officials stressed that the practice of Christianity and
Buddhism is open and widespread, and said they were considering
measures to accelerate the pace of church registrations. In the
meantime, house churches would be allowed to operate while their
paperwork was being completed. So far, Lam Dong has registered 12
Protestant churches under the umbrella of the GVN-recognized
Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV). Another 168 house
churches are in the process of applying for registration. It is
unclear how many other churches do not wish to apply at this time.
Provincial officials emphasized poverty as the biggest threat to
the welfare of ethnic minorities and asked for assistance in
attracting U.S. investments. On the whole, Lam Dong province
seems to represent a slightly more progressive model of religious
tolerance in the Central Highlands, although there are continuing
reports of problems. PRM Assistant Secretary Dewey was
accompanied by DCM/Charge, HCMC Acting CG, Refugee Resettlement
Section chief, and EAP/BCLTV Vietnam Desk Officer. End summary.

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2. (U) In a meeting with Lam Dong Provincial People's Committee
Chairman Phan Thien, A/S Dewey expressed his pleasure at returning
to Dalat for the first time in nearly 40 years, setting a cordial
tone for the discussion that followed. Mr. Thien provided a
relatively positive overview of current conditions in the
province, despite its underdeveloped economy. He said the
introduction of coffee as a cash crop had initially been a great
boon for ethnic minorities. During the period of rising coffee
prices a few years ago, as many as 140,000 hectares of land had
been planted with coffee and many towns and villages had bought a
lot of machinery and equipment to support coffee farming.
However, the more recent downturn in coffee prices had affected
ethnic minority groups badly. Their income from coffee crops had
declined dramatically, and they had heavy debts still to pay from
the equipment purchases of previous years. He hoped that a
gradual rise again in coffee prices might help alleviate the
situation. He also said the province was trying to build more
roads this year and would strive to extend the electrical network
to the last three villages still without electricity.

3. (U) On the issue of religious freedom, Mr. Thien stated
directly that Vietnam in general -- and Lam Dong province in
particular -- enjoy freedom of religion. He called the practice
of Catholicism and Buddhism "very good now," noting there are
numerous new churches and pagodas to be seen on the road to Dalat.
He claimed there is no town in the province where religion is a
problem. Chairman Thien then went on to state very matter-of-
factly that he was sure, however, that we wanted to know about
policies toward Protestants. He started by noting that there are
over 65,000 Protestants in the province, an increase since pre-
1975 days, and that many of the Protestants are residents of
ethnic minority villages.

4. (SBU) Mr. Thien expressed concern that many believers seek to
use the cover of religion for what is actually political activity,
citing the Dega group in particular. A/S Dewey responded that he
had spoken with many sincere believers on this trip, e.g., in
Pleiku (ref B), who were also concerned about staying away from
such political activity. A/S Dewey said clearly that the USG
recognizes the territorial integrity of Vietnam and does not
support the Dega movement or its calls for a separate state.
However, Mr. Dewey said the U.S. believes the Dega political group
to be relatively small, and that the vast majority of Protestant
believers simply want to practice their faith. It is essential
that believers be allowed to gather together for religious

5. (SBU) Chairman Thien indicated he understood this distinction
and noted there are now 12 Protestant churches officially
recognized in Lam Dong Province. Religious Affairs Committee
(CRA) director Bang noted that there are a total of 180 Protestant
churches in Lam Dong. Concerning the question of the other 168
churches gaining recognition, Mr. Bang emphasized the role of the
SECV in establishing charters for Protestant churches as a first
step. After that, the CRA would work with the SECV to recognize
additional churches. Mr. Bang also raised the need to obtain
funding in order to build churches for these congregations. He
said that as churches established charters through the SECV and
constructed church buildings, they could become recognized fairly
quickly. In response, A/S Dewey emphasized that a church is more
than just a building; it is also a community. The important issue
is to allow for freedom of assembly -- the ability to gather
together, whether in a church or a house. Provincial leaders
pointed out their priority is helping groups build churches and to
gain formal recognition, but in the meantime, they would permit
congregations to gather in smaller groups in houses to worship

6. (SBU) A/S Dewey asked for confirmation that the 168
unrecognized but known Protestant churches can gather without
interference, even in houses. CRA director Bang confirmed this to
be the case. Mr. Bang said it was "important to take care of the
spiritual needs of the people," as well as their material needs.
He also stated that the CRA would try to "facilitate" the
registration process, so the 168 unregistered churches could
register in a relatively short time. When A/S Dewey made a point
of stating that the USG does not support the Dega movement, Mr.
Bang responded that his committee "understands the difference" and
"tries to distinguish" between those in the Dega movement with a
political agenda and those who are "true believers." A/S Dewey
welcomed this news and said he hoped Consulate General staff would
be able to follow up in the near future to see some house churches
in action.

7. (U) In his meetings with provincial officials, A/S Dewey
encouraged them to improve investment and foreign development
assistance opportunities in the province. Having heard their
comments about the lower level of economic development in Lam
Dong, he hoped the province would make it easier for U.S.
companies to participate in economic development. Chairman Thien
noted that Lam Dong is far away from the economic powerhouse of Ho
Chi Minh City. It has a limited road network, a small airport and
no direct access to the sea. But the provincial capital of Dalat,
which already attracts domestic and some foreign tourists, is
planning to upgrade the airport to receive international flights.
Authorities are hopeful that this will help Dalat develop into a
major tourist center, and felt there may be a role to play for
American companies in developing the tourism and hospitality
industry. A/S Dewey also urged provincial leaders to consider
foreign assistance projects that USAID could assist with, and said
he hoped the Embassy would be permitted to follow up on this

8. (SBU) On a visit later in the day to the village of Suoi Tong
A, A/S Dewey and his group saw close-up the slowly improving,
though still underdeveloped, state of the countryside. Most of
Suoi Tong A had electricity; a school building had been recently
built; and most of the houses were of reasonably solid wood and
stone construction. The fields surrounding the village were all
planted and seemed to be filled with thriving crops. In stops at
two different houses, A/S Dewey heard from the residents about
conditions in their village. While life is still very hard, they
said that the building of roads and the electrification of the
village have improved conditions in the past few years. Both
Catholics and Protestants live in Suoi Tong A, but no one we spoke
with complained of any concerted effort to discourage them from
practicing their religion. While there were no churches in the
village itself, Catholics are able to attend a church down the
main road a few kilometers. Protestants informed us that they
were able to gather among themselves informally without
interference. There are about eight such "house churches." They
have been told they can operate in small groups until a larger
church is built and registered, when they will be expected to
consolidate and attend that church.

9. (SBU) One light moment came during a short stop en route to
Suoi Thong A at an ethnic minority handicraft shop. A/S Dewey and
his group browsed through the handicrafts and purchased several
items such as bags and silk fabrics. As A/S Dewey attempted to
bargain with the shop lady to lower the price a little bit, she
shook her head, pointed to the Catholic church across the road,
and said with a gentle smile, "God sets the prices." It turned
out the shop is owned and run by the Catholic church to raise
money for its ethnic minority congregation.

10. (SBU) Comment: Of the three provinces visited by A/S Dewey
on his trip through the Central Highlands, Lam Dong seemed to
present the most forward-looking and progressive image. The
provincial authorities genuinely seem to be trying to improve
conditions for the ethnic minority population through economic
development. The over-reliance on coffee as a new cash crop may
have backfired due to the drop in the world market price (caused
in no small part by Vietnam's additional supply), but prices have
recovered off of their lows. Road building and rural
electrification seem to have reached even the smaller and more
remote villages, increasing access to markets and improving their
living conditions. The growth of the tourism industry in Dalat
should also spur economic development. Nonetheless, Lam Dong
remains a relatively poor, underdeveloped province and its ethnic
minority groups remain on the lower end of the economic and social
spectrum within the province.
11. (SBU) In the area of religious practice, Lam Dong provincial
officials seemed more willing to discuss the issue, with less
defensiveness and with some apparent plan in mind for further
registration of churches. On the drive into Dalat from
neighboring Dak Lak province, A/S Dewey observed what appeared to
be a number of recently constructed Catholic churches in several
villages along the highway. The mindset of provincial leaders
that Protestant congregations must build "real" churches as a pre-
condition for being recognized is a stumbling block, both
physically and philosophically. While the apparent tolerance of
Protestants gathering in houses until "real" churches can be built
and registered is a welcome sign, we must point out that the
majority of Suoi Tong A's Protestants are affiliated with the GVN-
recognized SECV anyway. The Consulate General will follow up with
additional visits, and to verify progress toward registering at
least some of the 168 identified but unrecognized house churches
who wish to register.

12. (U) This cable was not cleared by A/S Dewey before his


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