Cablegate: Montagnards, Religion and Development in Central

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

091133Z Nov 04




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) Summary: Special Advisor to the Prime Minister for the
South Vo Viet Thanh told the Consul General that the GVN wants
U.S. support to solve the problem of ethnic Montagnards in the
Central Highlands fleeing to Cambodia. He suggested that Vietnam
could establish an "in-country" program similar to how the GVN
successfully concluded the "boat people" crisis in the early
1990s. More broadly, Thanh said that the GVN recognizes that
"sometimes mistakes were made" in treatment of religion and ethnic
Minorities; "conservatives" and inept local party officials were
at fault. The ordinance on religion and new socio-economic
initiatives in the Central Highlands were evidence of a new GVN
approach. While welcoming this "new thinking," the CG emphasized
that GVN must ensure that its policies are implemented at a local
level to have real impact. The CG also encouraged the GVN to
facilitate USG development assistance in the Highlands and to
solve problems surrounding the applications of Montagnard family
members "following to join" relatives already in the United
States. End Summary.

2. (SBU) On November 8, CG and PolOff met with "Special Advisor to
the Prime Minster for the South" Vo Viet Thanh. Lieutenant
General Thanh was Vice Minister of Public Security and later
served as Chairman of the HCMC People's Committee. At Thanh's
initiative, the discussion centered on freedom of religion, the
Central Highlands, and cross-border flight of ethnic minorities to

Religion, Development and the Central Highlands
--------------------------------------------- --

3. (SBU) While sticking to the usual GVN talking points that
ethnic unrest in the Central Highlands was "incited from abroad,"
Thanh said that the GVN had realized that local authorities had
made significant mistakes in their handling of religion and of
ethnic minorities in the Central and Northern Highlands. These
mistakes, he suggested, helped foster the conditions that gave
"outside extremists" opportunities to create problems. Thanh was
critical of the past GVN policy on religion. In his view, there
was no reason why the GVN needed to regulate the internal affairs
of religious organizations. Such a policy merely inserted the GVN
into the internecine rivalry of various religious sects without
enhancing GVN security, he argued. He said that in the past, he
had pushed this argument in Hanoi, but "conservative elements
scattered throughout the GVN" hadtorpedoed this approach.

4. (SBU) The GVN's new legal framework on religion, due to come
into effect November 15, is proof that the GVN now recognizes that
it is counter to national interest to intervene deeply into
religious affairs, Thanh argued. Thanh agreed with the CG that
Vietnam's growing Protestant house church movement was not
consistent with the hierarchical and centralized structure that
the GVN demanded of religious organizations. Thanh said the
religious ordinance was designed to resolve some of these issues.
Further refinements in the law were possible as the GVN continues
to "learn from its mistakes," he suggested.

5. (SBU) Thanh said that, in the Central Highlands, the GVN
already has authorized local authorities to register all branches
of protestant religious organizations "without discrimination."
According to Thanh, the only exception is the "Dega Protestant
church," which the GVN considers to be a reincarnation of the
Montagnard separatist movement. (GVN officials have long argued
that a number of ethnic Montagnards were using the "Dega" church
as a platform for overtly political and anti-Vietnam messages.)

6. (SBU) The GVN is serious about resolving the decades-long
problems of ethnic minority economic and social disenfranchisement
in the Highlands, Thanh maintained. Hanoi recognizes that many of
its ongoing economic and educational initiatives will take at
least a decade to show significant results. That is why, inter
alia, the GVN recently issued a directive banning all land
transactions involving ethnic minorities and majority Kinh. While
even some minority representatives protested this approach, the
GVN believes it is needed to stem the pernicious practice of
economically-backward Montagnards selling their land to ethnic
Vietnamese (Kinh) to raise cash only to be left with nothing after
a few years, forcing them to repeat the process, further
disenfranchising the Montagnards from their land.

Montagnards in Cambodia

7. (SBU) Thanh said that he was tasked to "independently
research" the problem of ethnic minority flight from the Central
Highlands to Cambodia. In his view, the majority of the
Montagnards are economic migrants, who believe that they would
have a better life overseas. Many are encouraged to flee by
overseas "Dega" activists, who hope to use the refugee issue to
embarrass Vietnam. He alleged that many Montagnards in Cambodia
were instructed by overseas Montagnard groups to refuse UNHCR
offers of resettlement to third countries, as the Dega movement
sought to have the refugee problem fester in Cambodia.

8. (SBU) Thanh appealed for U.S. cooperation to resolve the
problem of Montagnard cross-border flight. He said that the GVN
is examining the possibility of creating an in-country program
that would facilitate Montagnard legal migration. Such a program
could be modeled on the effort the GVN had launched to end the
boat people crisis when he was Vice Minister of Public Security.
During this effort, he said 400,000 Vietnamese were given
passports and allowed to leave Vietnam in an orderly manner.
Vietnam, he said, would be willing to treat the Montagnards in the
same fashion. Similarly, those Montagnards who wished to return
to Vietnam would be welcomed back with no repercussions, as the
GVN had done when it accepted boat people who had failed to secure
third country resettlement from camps in Hong Kong and elsewhere
in the region.
9. (SBU) In this regard, the GVN now recognized that the UNHCR was
"not the enemy," but was itself a victim of manipulation by the
"Dega" movement. Thanh said he was not aware that some
Montagnards who wished to leave and join their families in the
United States were not being allowed to apply for passports or
were having their applications buried in procedure. He pledged to
clarify the matter if we could provide him with additional

U.S. Assistance in the Highlands

10. (SBU) CG agreed with Thanh that the problem of ethnic
minorities in Vietnam had deep social, economic and political
roots that predated 1975. He noted that the issue of the status
and human rights of indigenous peoples was not unique to Vietnam.
In this regard, the GVN approach of focusing on long-term
education and economic development of the Highlands is an
important element in fostering stability in region. The CG added
that the USG supports the GVN's efforts to economically-revitalize
the Highlands and to better integrate the Montagnards into
Vietnamese society. The CG said that the USG is prepared to
provide financial and technical assistance, in close coordination
with the GVN, local officials and NGO's, to promote these shared
objectives. The CG also noted that the GVN must be much more
rigorous in ensuring that its directives are implemented at the
provincial and local levels, where many religious freedom and
human rights violations arise.

Reaching out to the Viet Kieu

11. (SBU) Thanh also said that he was playing an active role in
GVN efforts to build better ties with the overseas Vietnamese
community. The GVN's policy is clear in trying to encourage
economic, cultural and social participation of Viet Kieu. In this
regard, he had met twice with former Vice President of South
Vietnam Nguyen Cao Ky. Thanh informed CG that Ky was in HCMC for
a second working visit. Thanh also said that he was in contact
with other senior officials of the pre-1975 Saigon government,
many of whom had made significant investments in Vietnam.

12. (SBU) Comment: If the company he keeps is any indication,
Thanh has some pull within the political elite in the South.
During the meeting, Thanh was flanked by two senior members of the
HCMC External Relations Office and another senior functionary of
the HCMC branch of the Prime Minister's Office. Nguyen Cao Ky
separately told us on November 9 that Thanh is one of his primary
contacts with the GVN and Party. (More on our conversation with
Ky septel.)

13. (SBU) Bio Notes: Born in Ben Tre province, Thanh, 62, was
active in the NLF in the Mekong Delta from 1964-75. After the war
he studied in the Soviet Union. Thanh was Vice Minister of
Public Security from 1987-91 and holds the rank of Lieutenant
General. A protege of former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, Thanh
served as Chairman of the HCMC People's Committee from 1997-2001,
when he was forced out in the inter-Party feuding between
supporters of Vo Van Kiet and Party Secretary Le Kha Phieu. The
Southern faction of the party reportedly brought him back to HCMC
to be the PM's "Special Representative for the South."

14. (SBU) Thanh is an avid golfer. He is married with three
children, at least one reportedly studying in the U.S. He speaks
passable French and limited English.


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