Cablegate: Montagnards Protest in Central Highlands Over Easter

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 0391 B) HANOI 1007 C) HCMC 0147

1. (SBU) Summary: ConGen HCMC has spoken with numerous sources in
Ho Chi Minh City and the Central Highlands regarding reports of
violence during demonstrations by ethnic minority residents
("Montagnards") of Dak Lak and Gia Lai provinces. The
demonstrations began early on the morning of Saturday, April 10
(refs A and B), one day after the U.S.-based Montagnard Foundation
(MFI) issued a press release declaring that 150,000 Montagnards
would undertake nonviolent protests throughout the Central
Highlands over the Easter weekend against the GVN's "denial of
their freedom to worship Christ" and "ongoing repression against
the Montagnards." Absent intervention by the international
community, the release warned, the GVN's "repression against the
Montagnards will be cruel and bloody." While no individual ConGen
source has been able to offer an overall estimate of the number of
Montagnards involved in the protests, the numbers they report seem
much lower than figures cited by MFI. Accounts relayed by
reliable ConGen sources also suggest the protests may have been
confined to limited areas. According to religious leaders in
HCMC, Dak Lak, and Gia Lai, the unrest over the weekend had "no"
effect on Easter celebrations, which went forward as planned in
both government recognized and unregistered Protestant churches.
Most of Post's Protestant contacts claimed the protests had very
little to do with religion, and much more to do with land disputes
and economic disparities. End summary.

2. (SBU) A house church pastor, who had just arrived in HCMC from
Gia Lai on Monday morning, told Poloff that most of the
demonstrations in his area had been confined to Dak Doa District,
which stretches approximately 15-60 kilometers from the provincial
capital of Pleiku. He said that Saturday morning had been quiet
near his home, until reports began to trickle in from neighboring
Dak Lak early in the day. Traveling to one of his churches
approximately seven kilometers from Dak Doa around noon, he noted
sizeable numbers of police and military units setting up razor
wire to guard the roads into Pleiku. For most of that afternoon,
he observed two military helicopters circling overhead, as
ambulances raced back and forth between Dak Doa and the city.
Police contacts told him that reinforcements were being sent in
from Binh Dinh Province to control the spread of the protests.
(One of ConGen's Protestant sources in HCMC noted that 1000 riot
police had been flown to Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot from HCMC as
well.) He had heard reports of 50-60 injured in Dak Doa, but had
no idea how many of those were police and how many were villagers,
or how many Montagnards were involved overall. The pastor had
departed Pleiku at about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. He claimed to have
had no problem leaving the city, since the roadblocks ran only in
the opposite direction. As of the time he departed Gia Lai, he
was aware of no problems faced by recognized or unrecognized
Protestant churches in his province.

3. (SBU) The pastor's brother-in-law, who lives in Dak Lak, told
the pastor on Saturday that police there were apparently aware of
the planned protests by Montagnards over the weekend and had
prepared themselves to contain the protesters in their own
villages. They had also established roadblocks to divert cars to
Nha Trang and Quy Nhon, on the Central coast. He said his friends
on the police force told him that they had expected most of the
villagers to enter the city via National Highway 14 (connecting
HCMC to the south with Gia Lai and Kon Tum to the north), and had
been caught off guard when groups of ethnic minorities appeared
within a kilometer of the city limits via other routes. The
brother-in-law attempted to travel to Pleiku Saturday morning. He
was unable to reach Pleiku, normally a four- to five-hour trip,
until late in the evening. After arriving in Pleiku, he told the
pastor that there were signs of conflict at various points along
the way, including abandoned tractors, piles of stones, and some
bloodied garments. As far as all of ConGen's contacts were aware,
ethnic minority protesters employed only stones in Dak Lak
Province, although primitive slingshots were used to increase
their effectiveness. The pastor heard rumors of possible small
arms in Dak Doa, but had no definitive information.

4. (SBU) The sister of one prominent HCMC pastor with nationwide
contacts reported from Buon Ma Thuot that perhaps a thousand
ethnic minority males had been detained in makeshift camps outside
the city. Females were apparently not detained. She said that
police had stopped most of the protesters before they ever reached
Buon Ma Thuot, shooting the wheels of the converted tractors often
used as transportation in this part of Vietnam. Most of the
protesters appeared to be from rural villages well outside of the
provincial capital. She had apparently also heard that police
were under orders to refrain from using guns to quell the
disturbances. She told her brother that she knew for sure that at
least two police had died near Buon Ma Thuot, largely because they
were forced to engage the protesters with only clubs at such close
range. She and other sources said that the police were fighting
the protesters in street clothes, so that it would look as if the
clashes were between ethnic minority villagers and their ethnic
majority Kinh Vietnamese neighbors, rather than with the
government. While the sister decided not to return home to Cu
Mgar (just north of the provincial capital) on Saturday, she was
able to attend her normal Protestant house church service there on
Sunday. At least one pastor in Buon Ma Thuot reported via a HCMC
contact that several of his relatives had been detained in Cu Mgar
in the aftermath of the protests, but it was unclear exactly why,
or whether they were still in detention.

5. (SBU) Anecdotal evidence from business contacts in the region
confirmed that the disturbances, while very real and in some cases
very violent, did not seem to have spread very widely. Asked
about the prospects of bringing a group of foreign tourists to the
Central Highlands in the next few days, a government-owned tour
operator in Gia Lai said Monday that the most serious incidents
had occurred in Dak Lak, although even those were over by Saturday
night. Much more limited protests had taken place in Gia Lai,
while Kon Tum had been completely quiet. The tour company
representative said these protests were much more muted than those
in 2001, and that the government was much better prepared this
time around. She blamed the protests on the growing gap between
rich and poor, noting that most of the protesters had been caught
trying to break into stores to loot food. An employee at one of
the ConGen's favorite restaurants in Buon Ma Thuot noted that the
protests lasted less than a day, and were mostly confined to a
single ward of the city. While other groups had tried to come to
the city from rural villagers, they were all stopped by the police
in their villages, or en route. He thought there had been very
little real violence, and was ready to book a table. A
businessman with factory interests in Gia Lai was aware of the
protests, but thought the government was being much smarter than
in 2001, and was looking for ways to avoid direct confrontation.
He said that local officials had told business owners that they
were responsible for defending their own premises from protesting
Montagnards. The businessman had heard stories about one unarmed
official being killed by a group of ethnic minority villagers in a
remote part of the province, but was unable to estimate the extent
of the protests, the level of violence, or the number of

6. (SBU) Pastors from both government recognized and unregistered
churches blamed the unrest in the Central Highlands on Kok Ksor
and his Dega followers in Vietnam, with one going so far as to
say, "Kok Ksor controls everything." While they were not sure
whether or not Dega organizers had recently crossed the border
from Cambodia to incite the mostly-poor ethnic minority villagers,
many contacts had heard rumors that protesters were offered US$50
(up to four months earnings or more in the poorer parts of the
Central Highlands) to participate, although the money had yet to
be paid. One reliable Protestant house church source with good
contacts in the Central Highlands told Poloff that many of the Ede
leaders who had returned from Cambodia after the 2001 uprisings
had told the villagers they could earn money just by fleeing to
Cambodia. They also promised resettlement in the U.S. Those
stories carried great currency in the economically underdeveloped
ethnic minority villages, the contact said. According to his
sources in the Central Highlands, Dega organizers had recently
contacted many of the villages to tell the residents that if they
"made a lot of noise" they would be allowed to resettle in the
U.S. While Post's sources uniformly agreed that the Montagnards
had valid reasons to protest -- particularly related to
confiscation of tribal lands and what the Montagnards viewed as
ethnic discrimination in health care, education, and economic
opportunity -- they felt the protests had very little to do with
religious persecution.

7. (SBU) Comment: It is interesting to note that many ConGen
sources came to the same conclusion independently of one another:
namely, that the government was much better prepared to deal with
ethnic protests this time around than in 2001. There also
appeared to be a consensus of opinion that the police had
generally attempted to exercise restraint in quelling the
protests, at least by their standards. A striking point that
emerged from Poloff's conversations with religious contacts,
however, was that the protests seemed to have no impact on the
ability of both government recognized and unrecognized Protestant
house churches -- or Catholic churches, for that matter -- to
conduct services on Saturday and Easter Sunday. According to most
of these sources, the protests, confined to relatively limited
areas to begin with, were over by Saturday in Dak Lak and by
Sunday in Pleiku. Pushed for estimates, their numbers of ethnic
minority villagers involved ranged in the thousands, not the tens
or hundreds of thousands reported by MFI.

8. (SBU) Comment (cont.): Almost none of Post's well-connected
sources knew that anything out of the ordinary was going on in
those first few hours when fights were purportedly raging
throughout Dak Lak and Gia Lai. In fact, the first many of them
heard that there were potential problems in the Central Highlands
was when Poloff called them for information. When they followed
up with their local church leaders at Poloff's request, they often
found that even pastors in Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku were
completely unaware of the protests. One HCMC-based contact, who
used to live in Buon Ma Thuot, chalked this up to the very limited
contact between urban and rural residents in the Central
Highlands, and noted that peoples' awareness often extends only as
far as their own immediate living area. This is consistent with
ConGenoffs' own experiences during provincial trips, when we are
often confounded by local villagers who don't even recognize the
name of the very next village only a few kilometers away. Poloff
was also surprised to learn how much his HCMC contacts seemed to
be relying on the Internet for information on these events, since
their own large networks of religious workers in the provinces
were not aware of any disturbances. Those contacts attributed
this to the lack of affiliation between the Dega communities and
their own Protestant congregations.

9. (SBU) Comment (cont.): All of this makes it extremely
difficult to determine the accuracy of the many conflicting
accounts of these protests. ConGen will continue to follow up
with contacts and seek direct access to the affected areas. Even
so, it will likely take time to clarify what really happened in
the Central Highlands over Easter, and what effect, if any, it
will have on the process of "normalization" (ref C) of
unregistered Protestant churches there.

© Scoop Media

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