US seeking details of reported attack on Christians in Vietnam

( [email protected] ) Apr 16, 2004 12:15 AM EDT

On Wednesday, April 14, the United States Embassy in Hanoi pressed for access to a volatile region of Vietnam, amid conflicting reports about the extent of a reported Easter weekend crackdown against ethnic minority Christians. Since Saturday, there have been claims that "hundreds" of the villagers in the central highlands had been killed. There has been no independent confirmation of the allegations, and other reports spoke of a multitude of arrests and injuries, but no deaths.

On Saturday, thousands of the ethnic minority villagers, known collectively as the Montagnard or Dega (mountain people), held what supporters described as peaceful prayer gatherings and demonstrations against religious oppression. In a statement issued after the demonstrations had begun, Kok Ksor, President of the Montagnard Foundation Inc. (MFI) said that no attempt was made by the Christians to use violence. He also stated that the Christians are not seeking independence, merely the right to worship freely.

MFI, an organization representing the largely Christian Degar people, has stated that, “Our people cannot continue suffering this way as the Vietnamese government continues to arrest, electric shock torture, and kill our peaceful hill tribe people for being Christian or for trying to save our ancestral land from being confiscated.”

Ksor, who has been advocating on behalf of the Montagnard for the past decade, said the demonstrations had been peaceful protests, calling for the right to worship freely in an environment where even small prayer meetings in private homes were outlawed. But Christians had been violently attacked by police, soldiers, civilians, and even by prisoners whom he said had been let out of their cells and ordered to join the attacks, using sticks and knives. Ksor also said Wednesday that his group had learned that "hundreds" of villagers had been killed since Easter. He acknowledged that it was hard to get updated information, as people in the area were being forced to remain in their homes, and so could not move around and report back.

Eyewitnesses had reported seeing corpses lying on two streets in Buonmathuot and in coffee plantations and also bodies being dumped into wells and rivers, or being taken away on military trucks.

Although the results of Saturday are still not confirmed, it is certain that there was a disturbance on Saturday as a result of the protests. The Foreign Ministry in Hanoi blamed the disturbances on "extremists" whom it said had acted under "overseas instigation" to cause "social disorder." Local government officials had taken steps to stabilize the situation, it said.

After Saturday's events began in the provincial capital, Buonmathuot, authorities closed the entire region to outsiders to deal with the protests, blocking roads and canceling flights. US Embassy officials planning to visit the area on Saturday were turned back by the police.

A spokesman said by phone Wednesday that the embassy was pursuing the request, but had yet to hear whether staffers would be allowed to visit the central highlands. The embassy was unable to confirm reports of serious clashes or killings. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing earlier the US is trying to obtain information on what had happened.

Vietnam's communist government has long been accused by the West of persecuting Protestant Montagnard and members of other religious faiths not recognized by the state. Rights groups have reported decades of persecution, including instances of individuals or whole villagers being forced to renounce Jesus Christ under threat of violence. Currently, it is believed that more than 500,000 of the estimated 800,000 Montagnard are Christians.