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The restive Central Highlands of Vietnam has hit the news again, this time with an international dimension. In late April, the New York based group Human Rights Watch released a report highly critical of the treatment of ethnic minorities, loosely termed the Montagnards, living in this region. The HRW report levelled accusations of torture, abuse and religious oppression.
What are the underlying issues involved here? The answer varies, depending on who you talk to. The HRW report highlights oppression of religious freedom, land use, economic inequality and historical mistreatment of the Montagnards, whereas the government reply stresses the local misunderstandings and overseas-masterminded troublemaking.
Without doubt there are many interlinked core issues. This region has had a complex history of successive waves of migration settlements, and a troubled relationship with central governments of all persuasions. In the early decades of this century, migration by lowlanders to this region was minimal. People only migrated when they had to, and few wanted to move from the prosperous coastal areas to resettler in the harsher highlands to resettle. In the early years of President Diem's rule, a significant number of lowlanders were resettled in areas traditionally inhabited by highlanders. During the Vietnam war, the strategic importance of the area was well understood, with devastating consequences for the indigenous population, whose ancestral homeland was ravaged by the war. General Vinh Loc, then Chief of the Second Strategic Region which covered the central highlands, said that the key to holding the Central Highlands was the loyalty of the Montagnards, and that if the South ever lost control of this region, Saigon would be next to fall, a prophecy that came true in 1975 in a dramatic fashion.
During the war, many troops were stationed here, and their families settled in the region. After 1975, two different groups of migrants arrived. The first comprised those who were displaced by the war, people connected to the fallen government of South Vietnam who, for many reasons, were denied the right to live in their former homes. The second wave consisted of people from the densely populated provinces of the North, encouraged to move to this extremely fertile area. Then the coffee crops began to take off, attracting even more people. Thus, the whole region is a richly layered mix of the original inhabitants, those who came during the war as families of the former South Vietnam Army, those displaced in 1975 and those who came in the 1980s.
Such a mix of population brings a degree of friction. When I was in Ban Me Thuot last year, just before the troubles flared up, it was common to hear the hill tribes stereotyped as backward, culturally inferior and prone to crime, somewhat similar to the way Australian press sometimes portrays newly arrived migrants in Australia. But during my trip I also noticed that local schools were well run and the University of Central Highlands was well resourced. This seemed to reflect the central government's stated policy of providing assistance to ethnic minorities.
On the face of it, Vietnam has a good record. The Constitution guarantees equal rights to all people regardless of race, and positive discrimination measures in the provision of health, family planning and education are aimed at reducing inequality. In the early years of the struggle for independence, the Vietnamese Communist Party relied heavily on support of the ethnic minorities in the Northern Highlands for its survival, and the Party has always valued the relationship with the ethnic minorities in the Northern Highlands. The current Party leader, Nong Duc Manh, is of Tay heritage. On the other hand, the minorities in the Central Highlands have had difficult and sometimes testing relationships with the French and then various governments of South Vietnam. Many of them fought for American interests, and the US has accepted nearly a thousand of those who escaped into Cambodia into the US as refugees, a move that angered the present government of Vietnam. The connection with some US based groups of Montagnards in exile also fuelled claims by Vietnam that 'overseas trouble makers' were behind the unrest of February last year.
The fact remains that within thelast 60 years, the Montagnards have lost a great deal of their ancestral land to the lowlanders. Their struggle to continue to exist has now become even more urgent. Vietnam's economic and social agendas are being driven by considerations beyond their control and over which they have very little influence. Their plight can best be summed up in one word, power (or lack of power). In the Vietnamese language, the word for rights, quyen, also means power.
WATCHPOINT: The rights of the Montagnards will remain meaningless unless they have the power to exercise them.
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