Vietnam: Troubles in the Highlands: What does it all mean?


Ton-that Quynh-Du

In the recent news from Vietnam, two matters stand out: the violent unrest in the coffee growing Central Highlands provinces of Dak Lak and Gia Lai and the impending ninth party congress which will elect the next leaders.

In early February, thousands of people – mostly of the Ede and Jarai ethnic minorities, traditional owners of lands that have been progressively taken by lowlands Vietnamese to grow coffee plantations – took to the streets of the cities of Ban Me Thuot and Pleiku to protest. The protests went on for several days, some sources said weeks, and the protestors destroyed a number of public buildings and temporarily overwhelmed some local government officials.

The government’s reaction was swift. Army units and riot police, tanks and helicopters were mobilized into the provinces in a show of force to quell the unrest. The government announced that twenty-two people have been arrested for creating disturbances and for disrupting social stability. A number fled into Cambodia and will be repatriated by the Cambodian authorities. No deaths were announced.

The government closed off the whole area to foreign journalists for nearly six weeks, but in mid March it organised supervised tours for foreign journalists to visit the area.

The unrest was officially blamed on 'hostile elements from aboard' spreading misinformation amongst local ethnic minorities who are already unhappy at losing their control of ancestral lands. Since 1975 there has been a steady influx of lowlanders, first by those displaced after the war and later those from the Northern provinces who moved into the area to cultivate coffee plantations. And the migration has been substantial: within fifteen years Vietnam came from nowhere to become the world's second largest producer of coffee beans, almost entirely due to coffee grown in these two provinces. The government also dismissed religious oppression (many of the protestors were presumed to be Protestants) as a cause of the protests.

Most analysts concur that land issues and ethnic tension are the most likely cause. Some analysts suggest that this unrest may even have an impact on the composition of the leadership, soon to be decided in mid April. Some analysts have suggested that this unrest could damage General Le Kha Phieu’s chances of being re-elected to the top post, arguing that he has shown ineptitude in his dealing with the crisis. But I don’t see how this argument could stand up to scrutiny, because it was a Phieu-led government who successfully and peacefully dealt with the 1997 peasant riots in the northern Thai Binh province.

Comparisons with the Thai Binh unrest of 1997 are possibly unsafe here, as facts do not emerge clearly from these events, but while the provocation in Thai Binh was much worse the reaction seems to have been milder. Then again, in Thai Binh the government was dealing with its own core constituencies, the solid peasantry of traditional Vietnamese villages, whereas in the highlands they were dealing with a part of the population deserving much less sympathy (in the government’s view) – highlanders, some of whom fought for the other side in the ‘American’ war.

The protest and the government’s reaction to it are instructive in two main respects:

1. This protest will not be the last. Times of economic reform are notoriously dangerous for governments. How badly do people have to be hurt before they take to the streets?

2. Should a flare-up occur, a similar response can be expected from the authorities: swift, decisive and forceful, since this is their ultimate means of persuasion. The current authorities differ from the revolutionary leaders of the recent past in this respect.

WATCHPOINT: An interesting case, about to unfold, is the proposed building of a hydro-electric dam in the northern province of Son La. Seven hundred thousand people will need to be relocated as a result. Where to? One hundred thousand have been slated to be moved to Dak Lak.


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