NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – A new report from Human Rights Watch claims the oppression of Vietnam's Christian Montagnards (mountain people) has reached a critical state, with one official promising to put an end to Christianity or "the evil way" among them.
The report, Persecuting "Evil Way" Religion: Abuses against Montagnards in Vietnam, claims government authorities have arrested Christians, detaining them sometimes for days and sometimes for months. Many of the detainees, who follow a form of evangelical Protestantism not recognized by the government, were beaten.
The report also claims an elderly man, ill-treated by the government, died in the jungle as he attempted to flee to Cambodia through the jungle.
I was hit everywhere; they even used electricity to shock me. They used it so I would answer their questions. The police hit me with their hands on both sides of the face. After they hit me I couldn't hear anything from my ears. ... The police told me if I continued going to church, then the police would continue arresting me. ... I was scared that I would get into trouble with the police again, so that is why I left Vietnam.
"The current persecution is being carried out against what Vietnamese authorities call 'objects' (doi tuong) of security force suspicions. These include those who subscribe to beliefs the Vietnamese government maintains are 'set up by the reactionaries' to oppose Communist Party rule and achieve other 'dark purposes,' such as to 'abuse the freedom of belief to sow division among the national great unity.'"
"Official media reports describe the security forces as taking action against minority 'peaceful evolution' activists protesting against shortcomings in Communist Party policies related to 'national minorities,' including allegations that the authorities are violating their human rights. The Vietnamese authorities deny these violations are occurring and characterize them as a fabricated excuse for committing the crime of illegally leaving Vietnam for Cambodia," the HRW report said.
Persecution has been especially harsh in the Central Highlands, an area where Protestant missionaries worked before and during the Vietnam War. Today, many of the ethnic minority tribes there still practice evangelical Christianity.
Following the Vietnam War, many of Vietnam's Montagnards – from tribes like the Jarai, Rhade, Bru, Sedang and Katu – continued to fight the Vietnamese authorities under the banner of an organization called FULRO, a French acronym for the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races. The various ethnic minorities were largely, but not exclusively Christian, and began to call themselves "De Ga" or "Degar" people – a generic term for all ethnic minority Montagnards.
In that brief period of conflict, before the Vietnamese government gained full control over the Central Highlands, many of the communist authorities came to permanently associate Christianity with the political dissent of the ethnic minorities.
Now, persecution occurs on both religious and political grounds.
In one province, Gia Lai, home to the large city of Pleiku, the report claims a government official claimed "the entire political system" and leaders from the area provinces had mobilized against the religious minorities, convincing them to "voluntary" and "completely renounce the evil way religion."
"In the near future, the district will ask for provincial permission to summarize and announce that the evil way religion has been eliminated," Chairman Nguyen Truong of Dak Po People's Committee in Gia Lai Province told a local newspaper.
In the report, one Montagnard villager described being summoned to the district police headquarters repeatedly. He said he was denied food and beaten and left in awkward handcuffed positions all night long.
Another villager, who was detained twice by the police in 2014 and eventually fled the country, reported his village church was forced to close.
"If we were going to carry on worshipping, the police were going to arrest us. It was the commune police who came and forced us to shut the church in July 2014. We can't practice our religion in our village or anywhere else," the villager told HRW.
"I was hit everywhere; they even used electricity to shock me. They used it so I would answer their questions. The police hit me with their hands on both sides of the face. After they hit me I couldn't hear anything from my ears. ... The police told me if I continued going to church, then the police would continue arresting me. ... I was scared that I would get into trouble with the police again, so that is why I left Vietnam."
Periodic bouts of harsh persecution are nothing new among Vietnam's Christianity minorities, but, according to the report, persecution of the evangelical Christian minority became official policy in January 2013 when the communist Vietnamese government passed "Decree 92." The new law clamped down on religious groups not registered with the government, prohibited the "manipulation of freedom of belief and religion," and outlined "propaganda against the state" and threats to "national unity."
Vietnam's constitution contains a guarantee of religious freedom, but it only extends so far as the government allows.
The HRW report claims the most recent campaign of religious and political persecution of ethnic minorities was given "authoritative impetus" a little more than one year ago when Vietnam's Minister of Public Safety Gen. Tran Dai Qaung called on authorities to "fight against and prevent illegal missionary" activities.
He also said the evangelical Christian Montagnards were guilty of collaborating with "reactionary organizations" and "evil way" religions.
Many of the Montagnards who have fled the Central Highlands have reached Thailand through Cambodia – a foot journey of nearly 350 miles. Cambodian officials said they would not accept Montagnard refugees from Vietnam because they did not want to provoke the Vietnamese authorities.
A report from Radio Free Asia, however, noted that its journalists had met with a group of 85 Montagnards living in the jungles of Cambodia after they fled from Vietnam.
HRW was to deliver its report in Bangkok, Thailand, June 26, but Thai military officials cancelled the news conference, claiming revealing the movement of the refugees from Vietnam would violate national security. They said they, too, did not want to threaten relations with Vietnam.