Government authorities continue to apply unrelenting pressure on tribal Christians in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, while trying to convince the international community that all is back to normal in the troubled region.

The most recent outbreak in the long-standing tension commenced in April 2004, when thousands of Montagnards joined protests against the confiscation of tribal lands and the severe repression of the Christian faith that many of them profess.

Police and soldiers—many disguised as local farmers—were sent in to break up the demonstrations, resulting in deaths and injuries among the Montagnards. Due to a press blackout and intense measures taken by the government to cover up events of the April 10 and 11 clash, the full extent of what happened that Easter weekend and in the days immediately following may never be known.

Christian leaders in Vietnam close to the situation believe the number of deaths almost certainly exceeds the estimates given by some human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch, for example, initially reported only 10 deaths.

However, reports have recently surfaced of mysterious excavations at a military base near Buonmathuot following the April demonstrations. Some fear the bodies of people killed during the protests may have been buried here.

Montagnard sources told Compass that the people of the highlands desperately want their side of the story to be heard; they have supplied the names and addresses of three men in Dak Lak province who have offered to testify before any foreign investigators, regardless of the consequences to themselves.

Also provided to Compass were several lists totaling 123 names of people affected by the crackdown. The lists include dozens of highlanders sentenced to long prison terms. Others are in hiding, and still others have disappeared without a trace.

Time magazine's Asia edition of August 2 carried an article entitled "Vietnam's Tribal Injustice." Time reporter Phil Zabriski is believed to be one of the first Westerners who managed to evade government minders and talk directly with some Montagnard sources.

Vietnam has clearly broken its promise to diplomats that it would only punish a handful of the leaders involved in the Easter protests. In early May, the Vietnamese government also promised to send a special "peace corps" to help raise the living standards of poverty-stricken tribal minorities. However, Montagnards report that the main function of this unit is to serve as "spies and guards" and to intercept all traffic and communication.

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In Buon Poc, Dak Lak province, where people were active in the demonstrations, eight men were arrested and severely beaten before being allowed to return home. Between 2 and 12 members of the "peace corps" were subsequently assigned to watch over each of the men's families, camping near their homes to watch and control all movement. Visitors are treated with suspicion.

Church sources report that in late June and early July eight men were killed in Plei B'Lang, Gia Lai province. Four died of gunshots and four were beaten to death. The body of one of the men beaten to death was returned to his home and hung from a rope. Officials then proclaimed he had hung himself. Exceptionally tight security has hindered attempts to verify this report.

On July 19, Christians in Plei Trap, Gia Lai province, were subjected to public humiliation and intense pressure to renounce their faith.

Vietnamese Christians familiar with the situation in the highlands say authorities have conveniently singled out Christianity as the scapegoat for serious social problems there. The greatest problem is the illegal seizure of tribal lands for use by ethnic Vietnamese. The government appropriates land for the newcomers ostensibly to alleviate land shortages elsewhere in Vietnam. But sources in the Central Highlands say the land grab is largely driven by the allure of lucrative cash crops.

Montagnard Christians who object to the loss of their lands are accused of supporting the Dega Protestant movement, which has sometimes promoted self-determination. In reality, the vast majority of Montagnards, both Christians and others, simply want equal access to development opportunities and the return of their tribal homes and lands.

Veteran Vietnam watchers say the authorities exaggerate the security threat of rapidly growing Christianity to keep attention away from their own misdeeds. The official propaganda campaigns against Christians helps divert attention from human rights crimes, which are the underlying cause of the dissatisfaction of Vietnam's minority peoples.

The government has also refused to grant official status to many of the highland churches it has tried to disband in recent years. In Gia Lai province only 15,000 of the estimated 80,000 local Christians belong to the 11 government-sanctioned churches. Other churches remain unregistered and their members are still subjected to constant harassment to renounce their faith.

The crisis caught international attention again in July, when 198 Montagnard refugees were airlifted from the Cambodian border province of Ratanakiri to the capital, Phnom Penh. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had initially allowed forced repatriation of the refugees to Vietnam. However, he relented before international pressure to allow the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to rescue refugees from the malaria-infested jungles near the border and airlift them to Phnom Penh.

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According to an August 9 report by Agence France Presse, Cambodia has authorized a second such rescue mission. In addition, 91 Montagnard refugees have found their own way to UNHCR safe houses in Phnom Penh. The majority of the exiles are Christian.

One Vietnamese source told Compass that he believed the successful rescue of Montagnards from the border region could encourage others to flee Vietnam.

"It's hard to describe the desperation people are feeling," he said. "Some of it comes from the lack of concern and action from the international community. Vietnamese authorities tell everyone that the highlands are a place of peace, happiness and ethnic equality.

"But in reality they make it a hell for the Montagnards."

Related Elsewhere:

For more articles on Vietnam, see Christianity Today's World Report and Yahoo's full coverage.

Previous Christianity Today articles about religious freedom in Vietnam include:

Lip Service | Vietnam's guarantees of religious freedom are not fooling anybody. (April 06, 2004)
Christmas in Vietnam | A missionary writes about this year's bleak holiday in the Dak Lak Province (Dec. 26, 2002)
Vietnam's Hidden Tragedy | American church leaders manipulated as communists cover up abuse of tribal Christians. (Sept. 20, 2002)
Proposed Repatriation of Vietnamese Tribal Christians May Be Flawed | The government continues to persecute believers while giving a guarantee for the safety of returning refugees. (Jan. 29, 2002)
Empty Legal Rights | What you can do to help persecuted Christians in Vietnam. (Jan. 15, 2002)
Activist Christian Pastor Arrested In Vietnam | Public Security Police have busted up Mennonite services four times this year. (August 24, 2001)
Viet Nam Protestants Call Conference 'Miraculous' | But tribal minority Christians fear future persecution. (Feb. 14, 2001)
'We Are Always In Persecution' | Vietnam's Christians are arrested, tortured, and fined, even though the government claims to promote religious freedom. (Jan. 10, 2001)
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Vietnam Protestants Call Conference 'Miraculous' | But tribal minority Christians fear future persecution. (Feb. 14, 2001)
Vietnam Jams Hmong Christian Radio Broadcasts | Government tries to curb spread of Protestant Christianity along Chinese border. (Sept. 1, 2000)
Authorities Destroy 'Church' in Vietnam | Crude structure in Ho Chi Minh City slum had been erected only hours earlier. (July 27, 2000)
Christians Targeted in Vietnam's Highlands | Crackdown follows massive anti-government protests. (June 26, 2001)
Napalm Victim Now Agent for Peace | Canadian Christian remembers tearing burning clothes from her flesh. (Feb. 8, 1999)
Jesus Can Still Mean Jail | The plight of Vietnam's 700,000 evangelical Christians. (Nov. 11, 1998)
House Pastors Jailed in New Crackdown | Seven Vietnamese pastors imprisoned. (Jan. 6, 1997)