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Cablegate: Embassy/Congen Team Visits Dak Lak, Assesses Extent Of

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 0401 B) HCMC 0510 C) Hanoi 1007 D) HCMC 0147

1. (SBU) Summary: Embassy and ConGen poloffs discovered more
questions than answers concerning reports of recent ethnic unrest
(refs A and B), during an April 26-27 trip through the Central
Highlands province of Dak Lak. While everyone from government
officials to some of the protesters themselves acknowledged that
the April 10 demonstrators used more violence than the Montagnard
Foundation, Inc. (MFI) and other groups have admitted, it is still
too early to gauge with any accuracy the overall level of violence
on either side, the size of the demonstrations, or the numbers of
dead, injured, and detained. Official GVN statistics are still
wildly at variance with the figures cited by MFI. Also yet to be
fully understood is the effectiveness of the GVN's response to the
violence. SECV pastors confirmed, however, that there have not
been special restrictions on religious activities following the
demonstrations. At least some provincial leaders seemed convinced
of a USG and UN role in the unrest, while local officials seemed
surprised and unprepared for the level of anger they faced. Even
more so than usual, this trip was tightly controlled by local
officials, making it extremely difficult for poloffs to speak
freely with anyone. Press coverage was heavy, with reports both
on television and in the newspapers. Septel will report on the
visit to Gia Lai Province on April 27-28. End summary.

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2. (SBU) Dak Lak People's Committee Chairman Nguyen Van Lang
condemned MFI founder Kok Ksor for "deceiving, coercing, and
forcing" the demonstrators to participate in the demonstrations
with promises of cash payments and resettlement in the U.S. He
also criticized the U.S. for "harboring" Kok Ksor, an action he
deemed inconsistent with U.S. recognition of the GVN. More
troubling, however, was the way he sprinkled his commentary with
wild conspiracy theories on the role of the U.S. and UN in
fomenting the unrest, mentioning the previously planned visit by
poloffs the same weekend as the demonstrations (ref C) and the
"coincidental" presence of six UNESCO employees in the province at
the same time. He chided poloffs for disavowing advance knowledge
of the protests, noting that the information was on MFI's own
website. (Note: The Embassy has not heard this line from
officials in Hanoi.)

3. (SBU) To counter MFI's claims that the demonstrations were a
"peaceful prayer vigil," Chairman Lang played for poloffs an
edited videotape showing a group of more than 100 Montagnards
armed with primitive weapons hurling stones at the police. (He
said he would consider providing a copy of the videotape to
ConGen.) He told poloffs he had gone out to address this
particular group of protesters that morning to try to convince
them to return to their homes, but they had hurled stones at him
as well, actually hitting him in the hip. He also displayed a
crude banner allegedly carried by one group of protesters. The
banner, written in English, called for the establishment of an
independent Dega state led by Kok Ksor, and demanded that the
majority ethnic Kinh Vietnamese leave the Central Highlands.

4. (SBU) According to Chairman Lang, forty people were injured
during the demonstrations in Dak Lak, including 16 police, but no
one had died. (He claimed to have visited all of the injured in
the hospital -- police as well as protesters.) He said "more than
10" people had been detained for criminal activities, but others
had probably gone into hiding. He claimed that the protests,
which lasted from early in the morning until midday, were confined
to just three of the province's 13 administrative districts --
Krong Ana, Cu M'Gar, and Buon Ma Thuot City.

5. (SBU) In a separate meeting, the director of the largest
hospital in Buon Ma Thuot told Poloffs his facility had treated 40
patients with minor injuries on Saturday, April 10. About 20 had
arrived in roughly one group in the morning, with the remainder
trickling in throughout the day. Doctors at the hospital treated
11 police officers, one of whom was seriously injured. Some had
been transferred to local clinics after a few days, others had
been released sooner. The hospital had also treated 22
demonstrators and seven apparently innocent passers-by. Most of
the patients suffered injuries consistent with stones and other
projectiles. The badly injured policeman had been beaten over the
head with sticks.

6. (SBU) The People's Committee Chairmen in the districts of Krong
Ana, Krong Pak, and Cu M'Gar echoed many of Chairman Lang's
accusations of U.S. complicity in the activities of the
"terrorist" Kok Ksor, calling for his immediate extradition to
Vietnam. Like the provincial Chairman, they warned poloffs that
many local people were very angry with the U.S. and might be
hostile to the presence of American diplomats -- some because they
thought the U.S. had stirred up the unrest, and others because the
American planes had not come to take them away. (Note: Both
official and other sources have said at least some protestors
believed they were going to be transported for resettlement to the
U.S. End Note.) The district Chairman in Krong Ana noted that
the demonstrations in his district had been small in scale,
involving no more than 2,000 "gullible people" who had fallen for
promises of cash and resettlement. The few injuries, all minor,
had been the result of clashes among the ethnic minority
protesters themselves. He promised harsh punishment for the
organizers, but clemency for everyone else. The district Chairman
in Krong Pak denied that any residents of his district were
involved in the demonstrations.

7. (SBU) The district Chairman in Cu M'Gar said armed protesters
had started attacking people and businesses in some of the
communes in the district as early as 7:00 a.m. on Saturday. He
and other district officials had personally tried to persuade the
protesters to return to their homes, when the protesters suddenly
attacked the police. The demonstrations were over by noon, with
very few injuries on either side. The Chairman had no information
on detentions, but said some people had gone into hiding. Police
impounded approximately 100 tractors. Some local people had
reportedly been promised that if they made it to Buon Ma Thuot,
the U.S. Ambassador or the UN would take them to America. Others
had allegedly been told that they needed to leave because the Kinh
were going to kill them in their villages. One ethnic Ede
resident of Cu M'Gar told poloffs he had seen a group of people
passing through the village and decided to join them, without any
clear idea of where they were going or what they were planning to
do. When police stopped his group, he fought alongside some of
the other protesters. After the protests, he said, he was held in
detention for eight days.

8. (SBU) Driving to Cu M'Gar District, poloffs made an impromptu
stop (but still with a large entourage) at a commercial area on
the outskirts of Buon Ma Thuot, which turned out to be the
location featured in Chairman Lang's videotape. The local police
chief did not seem to be expecting poloffs, but brought them to
meet with several shop owners in the neighborhood. Some recounted
how they had fled immediately when they saw the protesters coming
down the road throwing stones and attacking businesses. Others
claimed that local Kinh residents had engaged in violent clashes
with the demonstrators after police had done nothing to stop the
rampage. When the police chief said the demonstrations had lasted
just two hours, an elderly woman in the shop blurted out that it
was really four.

9. (SBU) The police chief claimed to have had "at least one day's
notice" of the protests, but was not at all clear on what
precautions he had taken. Based on accounts from three injured
police officers at a local clinic just down the road (including
the officer who was seriously injured), police seem to have been
overwhelmed by the size and intensity of the protests. One
injured traffic policeman said there were just three of them on
the road with rubber batons that morning, trying to stop 200
tractors. Another described an attack on the local police
station, where many windows were broken and plaster was chipped
above the door. While some officers had helmets and shields,
others did not. The chief said that most of the protesters had
eventually listened to reason and dispersed, but some had to be
dealt with using unspecified additional measures. One police
officer intimated that local people had helped to fight back the
demonstrators. Several local residents said the same thing,
noting that property owners had been forced to take matters into
their own hands because the police were not doing anything to stop
the violence. Speaking with local residents, it was obvious that
some of the reports carried by MFI and other organizations were
circulating in the community. One individual clearly believed the
claim that government forces had beheaded children. Most seemed
nervous and suspicious of government accounts. However, police
and residents alike denied that troops stationed at an army camp
near the clinic had played any role in crowd control.

10. (SBU) Several members (strictly protect) of the provincial
representative board of the government recognized Southern
Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) also mentioned details
similar to those reported by MFI, although it was unclear whether
they had any particular basis for believing or disbelieving what
they had heard. Meeting poloffs in a restaurant with six local
government officials sitting at the next table, the board members
were circumspect in their comments, citing economic frustration as
a major cause of the demonstrations and blaming "ill intentioned
people" for inciting the violence. They had heard reports that
some of the protests were peaceful until police intervened, but
others had been violent from the start. While police had not used
weapons against the protesters, many Kinh business owners and
residents had. Inevitably, some people had been injured and some
detained, with perhaps four to five still in custody pending
further investigation. Others had fled into hiding. The board
members thought the demonstrations were larger than those in 2001,
with many Christians participating, although the basis for this
view was not clear. They confirmed that there had been no
restrictions on religious activities in the aftermath of the
protests, however.

11. (SBU) More generally, the pastors noted that they had just
submitted a list of 50 preachers (one quarter of the total number
for the province) for training at a new bible school (ref D),
which was still under government consideration. These 50 had
studied in secret after the closure of the Nha Trang Seminary in
1976, and the short-term training course was a way to regularize
their status and make them acceptable to both the GVN and the
SECV. They said the government had promised to facilitate the
construction of real church buildings for the five registered
churches in the province. Three already had permission to build,
but were held back by a lack of funds. The pastors remained
resigned to the slow process of recognition, one church at a time.


12. (SBU) While we may never have accurate numbers for those who
participated in the demonstrations, or were injured, killed, or
detained, this trip provided our first opportunity to view the
terrain where the largest protests occurred, and to try to put
together the various pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, our
caravan of seven escort vehicles carrying government officials,
police, and at least a half dozen members of the press made truly
open inquiry impossible, except for occasional brief encounters.
From our Monday flight to Buon Ma Thuot, where poloffs and our two
FSN assistants were given an extra degree of attention, to the
scolding we received from a local official as we crossed the
border to Gia Lai on Tuesday, our hosts tried to keep us to the
program they had arranged. With the exception of the impromptu
stop on the outskirts of Buon Ma Thuot, they largely succeeded.
When we tried to stop at a village in Krong Pak, we were blocked
by a group of men in civilian clothes who knew that this village
was not on our program. When we drove down a side road en route
to Gia Lai and were stopped by a police car that seemed to come
out of nowhere, we were again told it was not on our program.
When we stopped to talk to a local villager, a dozen young men
materialized from the brush yelling at us in what appeared to be
an ethnic minority language. The GVN was also clearly looking at
this as an important press opportunity, going so far as to print a
full page article in one of the nation's highest circulation
newspapers reporting on the meeting with Chairman Lang, even after
poloff's had made it clear that journalists were not allowed in
the meeting. (Note: Trips to the Central Highlands, when allowed
at all, are often restricted in a similar manner, especially
during periods of heightened tensions, although the number of
"escorts" this time was higher than usual and the press coverage
was significantly more.)

13. (SBU) The only "facts" that seem to be established at this
point are that at least some of the protests were violent, but
they do not appear to have been extremely large or widespread.
Other details will be harder to establish. How high would the
level of ethnic animosity and/or desire for any of the benefits
reportedly promised need to be to drive ethnic minority villagers
to this kind of violence? Local officials really did seem
surprised by the anger of the crowds, and their unwillingness to
listen to reason. The financial lure of social security and green
cards appears to have played a role. And how important a factor
was religion? Most reports from official and other sources focus
on land and other economic issues as the main source of
discontent, and religious practice seems to have been unaffected
the very next day, but religion may well have been part of the
mix, at least for some. Answers to these questions will be slow
in coming, along with a better understanding of how the protests
were coordinated and organized. It will also take time to sort
out the details of the government's response. If the casualty
figures are as low as the GVN would have us believe, then
restraint seems to have been the order of the day. But if a
stronger response was required to quell the disturbance, then
higher figures could be closer to the real number. And we do not
know how many protestors are still in detention.

14. (SBU) We did hear a number of recurring themes throughout the
trip, such as claims of Montagnards clashing with other
Montagnards, Montagnards clashing with Kinh, and police dressing
in civilian clothes to make the clashes look like Montagnards
against Kinh. Other stories seemed more bizarre, like the
accounts we heard from several officials in different districts
that elderly, paralyzed people had been loaded on tractors and
forced to join the protesters, later requiring treatment in the
hospital. In a country where the government is generally
suspicious of the people and the people are often equally
suspicious of their government, it is not surprising that both
sides might be willing to believe the worst. And in a region with
poor communications and transportation infrastructure, rumors can
easily become the coin of the realm. Even with all of the
restrictions, this was a useful trip. Sadly, the suspicions
voiced by the Dak Lak PC Chairman about USG and UN involvement are
likely to be taken seriously among a large number of local and
even some national GVN officials. Mission will remind national
leaders that they have a responsibility to dispel ridiculous
conspiracy theories.

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