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Cablegate: Ethnic Minority Issues in Vietnam's Central Highland Dak

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 HO CHI MINH CITY 001491

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PHUM SOCI PREL PGOV PREF KIRF VM ETMIN HUMANR
SUBJECT: ETHNIC MINORITY ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S CENTRAL HIGHLAND DAK
LAK PROVINCE

REF: A) HCMC 1464 B) 1173 HCMC C) HCMC 1140

1. (SBU) Summary: The Central Highlands Province of Dak Lak
appears to be following Hanoi's directives to improve the economic
and educational status of ethnic minorities. Discrimination and a
plantation economy have left the ethnic minorities poor and
disenfranchised. Provincial officials claim to have cut in-
migration, initiated land reforms and begun to tackle the
education deficit in the minority community. Local officials
downplayed the issue of minorities crossing into Cambodia, stating
that migration was a result of economic difficulties not political
oppression. A visit to two villages showed some progress but
continued official suspicion towards minorities. End Summary.

2. (SBU) A joint HCMC-Hanoi team visited Buon Ma Thuot, the
capital of the Central Highlands Province of Dak Lak November 15-
17 to review ethnic minority issues. Dak Lak was a center of
ethnic minority unrest in 2001 and 2004 as was neighboring Gia
Lai, which we visited in September (refs B and C). During the
visit, we discussed ethnic minority issues with the Chairman of
the People's Committee, the Provincial Director of the Ministry of
Public Security, a number of officials at the Department of
Planning and Investment and the Heads of the Committees for
Minority and Religious Affairs. The team also visited the
Highlands' Tay Nguyen University, coffee and rubber plantations --
key employers of ethnic minorities -- a boarding school for ethnic
minorities and two ethnic minority villages, one without our GVN
minders. (Issues of religious freedom and the province's economic
outlook are covered in refs A and septel respectively.)

3. (SBU) Dak Lak Province has changed considerably since
unification in 1975, but left its ethnic minority population
disenfranchised economically and politically in the process.
Until 1990, ethnic minorities comprised a majority in the
province. By 2004, the province's 510,000 ethnic minority
inhabitants comprised less than 30 percent of the population.
This in-migration of ethnic Vietnamese (Kinh) also raised the
population five-fold from 350,000 in 1975 to 1.7 million in 2004.

4. (SBU) Plantation cash-crop agriculture predominates in Dak Lak.
Local officials told us that the province expanded from 7,000
hectares of coffee under cultivation in 1975 to 164,000 hectares
today, and Dak Lak now produces 60 percent of Vietnam's coffee.
In 1975 the province had 2,000 hectares of rubber under
cultivation; 23,000 hectares today. Thirty years ago the province
had no pepper, cotton or cashew industry; now it is a large
producer of these products. As reported septel, ethnic Kinh, not
the province's ethnic minorities, have benefited most from these
new agricultural opportunities. All the company directors we met,
both state-owned and private, said they employed only a small
percentage of ethnic minorities.

5. (SBU) Mr. A Ma Phong, Head of the Provincial Committee for
Minority Affairs (CMA), acknowledged that the province's economic
development had largely bypassed ethnic minorities. Some 60
percent of persons in the province under the poverty line are
ethnic minority, although minorities comprise less than 30 percent
of the population. Similarly, only 48 percent of the ethnic
minority households are electrified. Overall, 72 percent of
households in the province are wired to the grid.

6. (SBU) Mr. Mai Van Thin, Vice Dean of Tay Nguyen University,
told us that 11 percent of the University's recently expanded
student body of 6,370 are ethnic minority students drawn from
throughout the Central Highlands. Since its founding in 1977, 13
percent of the University's roughly 7,700 graduates have been
ethnic minority students.

New initiatives
---------------

7. (SBU) People's Committee Chairman Nguyen Van Lang and CMA Chief
Phong stressed that the province has begun to implement measures
mandated by Hanoi to address economic and educational disparities
between the ethnic Kinh and ethnic minorities:

-- As of 2004, the province banned in-migration from other
provinces. Chairman Lang added that, in recent years, in-
migration had been ebbing as land became scarcer and the price of
coffee declined.

-- the province has banned land transactions between ethnic
minorities and majority Kinh. The province wishes to stem the
practice of Montagnards selling their land to ethnic Vietnamese
only to be left with nothing after a few years, forcing them to
press for additional land handouts from the Government. In tandem
with this policy, the province is focusing on improving the
productivity of minority farmers.

-- each of the 38 poorest communes in the province -- most, if not
all, ethnic minority -- will receive a 500 million Dong (USD
31,750) budgetary supplement for development. Children in these
communities also will receive free education, free schoolbooks and
free medical care. The province is in the process of establishing
13 boarding schools for ethnic minority children to serve these
communities. These schools will feed into the ten high school-
level boarding schools the State has established for ethnic
minorities, the CMA Head said. The province also is considering
establishing remedial training centers for older ethnic minority
workers to enhance their competitiveness in the labor market,
Chairman Lang told us.

-- Of the 1,500 new teachers being trained in the province, one-
third are ethnic minority, Chairman Lang said. He added that Dak
Lak has begun to develop a bilingual curriculum for some of its
minority students.

-- The CMA Chairman said that the province has initiated a survey
to identify which ethnic minority families have substandard
housing or insufficient land to maintain themselves. The state
will ensure that all ethnic minority families have at least two
thousand square meters of rice paddy and one hectare of other
arable land. Those who live in forested areas will receive 10
hectares of forest.

-- Some 200 families have been given nine million Dong (USD 570)
each to build new homes, the CMA Chairman told us. Five million
Dong comes from the central budget and four million from the
provincial budget. The province has identified 16,612 households
that require housing assistance.

Montagnard border flight and Visas 93
-------------------------------------

8. (SBU) Provincial officials downplayed the problem of ethnic
minorities crossing into Cambodia, calling it a "normal
phenomenon." They maintained that the bulk of border crossings
are family or business oriented visits to neighboring ethnic
minority villages in Cambodia. Many crossed "erroneously" as the
border is not well demarcated. The Province's Ministry of Public
Security Director did not raise the issue of Montagnard flight
with us, even though we broached border control issues with him.
However, a pastor affiliated with the GVN-recognized Southern
Evangelical Church of Vietnam told us in late October that police
and military units still are heavily deployed along the Cambodian
frontier to prevent ethnic minority cross-border flight.

9. (SBU) Chairman Lang acknowledged that "some" Montagnards sought
to flee because of economic hardship in the province. He and CMA
Head Phong maintained that many ethnic minority members had taken
out large bank loans to plant coffee only to struggle when prices
declined sharply. Only a small minority has been encouraged to
flee by "Dega" separatists such as Kok Ksor and the North Carolina-
based Montagnard Foundation, who hoped to use the refugee issue to
embarrass Vietnam.

10. (SBU) The People's Committee Chairman and the CMA Chief
asserted that any ethnic minority individuals who wish to leave
and join their families in the United States would be allowed to
do so. They denied that any Montagnards are being prevented from
applying for passports or are having their applications buried in
procedure. The only exception was for those individuals who broke
the law (NFI) or had unpaid bank debt. Chairman Lang recommended
that ConGen notify the HCMC External Relations Office (ERO) of
pending Montagnard follow-to-join cases. He said that HCMC ERO
would then work with the province to facilitate processing.

Village Visits
--------------

11. (SBU) An unscheduled stop without our minders at a roadside
ethnic minority village some 40 kilometers south of Buon Ma Thuot
confirmed that some progress was being made. The village was
relatively prosperous and was at least partially electrified.
Villagers told us that many had sufficient land -- a few families
were making between two and three million Dong (USD 120-180) per
month, others only one-tenth that amount. The small community had
at least 15 students in high school; many of them were hoping to
go on to college.

12. (SBU) However, even in this relatively successful minority
village, not all was well. Within ten minutes of our arrival,
plainclothes police appeared and ordered us to depart, informing
us that it was a "banned area." We later learned that at least
some members of that community had participated in the unrest in
April 2004. The province planned a second, "typical" village
visit. The 46-person community clearly was relatively prosperous.
However, we later found out that the village elder was a member of
the province's Fatherland Front committee and an atypical ethnic
minority member of the Province's political elite.

Impact of Drought; Low Coffee Prices
------------------------------------

13. (SBU) Provincial officials were fretting over the impact of
drought on the province's economy. Nguyen Xuan Huong, Deputy
Director of the Dak Lak Department of Planning and Investment
(DPI), told us that up to 80 percent of the province's farmland
was under threat. The DPI foresaw loses of 600 billion Dong (USD
38 million) in the agricultural sector, roughly 15 percent of the
province's USD 250 million export earnings in 2003. Locals in the
province also continue to agonize over depressed coffee prices. A
local producer told us that a kilo of beans sells for 7,500 Dong
(USD 48 cents), down 35 percent from only a few years ago. He
told us that, at its peak in 1994, Dak Lak coffee would sell for
over 40,000 Dong a kilo (over USD 3.00 at 1994 official exchange
rates.)

14. (SBU) Comment: Most, if not all, the province's initiatives
appeared to be have been launched or expanded since ethnic
minority unrest first flared in 2001 or since the second wave of
protests in 2004. The good news is that local authorities, who in
the past have denied that anything was amiss, now seem to be
trying to do something about the problem. However, their remedies
will take time to have an impact, even if properly implemented.
That said, over the near term, drought and depressed agricultural
prices could heighten difficulties facing both ethnic Kinh and
ethnic minority residents reliant on cash crops such as coffee.
It is far from clear if the local and central governments'
economic and education programs are sufficient to undo years of
neglect and discrimination that contributed to the Montagnards'
current difficulties. Dak Lak provincial officials did not show
willingness to partner with NGOs to bring in development
expertise.

WINNICK

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