Vietnam, June 06, 2015: “Vietnam’s official media made it shockingly clear that persecution of religious minorities is state policy,” said Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Asia director, Brad Adams, after the advocacy group released a report on Friday (26 June). Compiling interviews with Vietnamese ethnic Montagnards seeking asylum abroad, the report reveals the government’s deliberate actions to persecute the ethnic minority because of their desire to follow Christianity.
“I was hit everywhere; they even used electricity to shock me,” said one of the Christian Montagnards interviewed by HRW. “The police hit me with their hands on both sides of the face… The police told me if I continued going to church, then the police would continue arresting me.” Labelled an “evil way” religion by communist Vietnam, these followers of Christianity are the victims of constant surveillance, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and abuse under detention.
According to HRW, an official media report released in January said that the Vietnamese authorities had organised a campaign to “deal seriously with their leaders and core members”. And in the same month, General Tran Dai Quang, a government minister in the Central Highlands (where most Montagnards reside), called on security forces to “actively fight” followers of unauthorised Christianity.
The threat to Montagnard Christians in the Central Highlands of Vietnam is causing many to flee into neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand, where they seek a place to worship Christ in freedom, a reality that even the Vietnamese officials recognise.
Reaching Cambodia, however, they are deported back into Vietnam despite the fact that this goes against the 1951 UN Refugee Convention of which Cambodia is a signatory country. According to the report, over the past year Cambodia had sent back at least 54 Montagnards “without allowing any opportunity to seek refugee status, and had denied at least another 109 the possibility of registering there as asylum seekers”.
In Thailand, a press conference that was due to coincide with the launch of the report on 26 June was cancelled just minutes before it was set to begin. The decision to stop the conference was said to have been to protect diplomatic ties between Thailand and Vietnam. HRW, however, is concerned that Vietnamese authorities may have requested Thai officials to intervene in an attempt to prevent the issue from ever being heard.
But this recent campaign against the Montagnards is sadly nothing new. In 2001, hundreds of ethnic Montagnards fled across the border into Cambodia after a government crackdown led to numerous arrests of Montagnards demanding greater religious freedom and the return of their lands which had been seized by the authorities.
Ethnic Montagnards are an originally animist people group who began converting to Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1990s, house churches mushroomed and today they are a predominantly Christian ethnic group. In addition to being persecuted for their Christian faith, Montagnards also believe they are targeted because of their allegiance to the U.S. in the Vietnam War. “The war is over but they still punish us because we fought alongside the Americans,” said Rong Nay, head of the Montagnard Human Rights Organisation (MHRO). “Until today,” he said, “they accuse the Montagnards of [attempting to] overthrowing the government of Vietnam… How can we overthrow it? We have empty hands.”