- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Vietnam's Communist leaders are struggling to contain a potent mixture of economic, ethnic and religious resentments that has produced violent protests in the country's coffee-growing central highlands.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi officially warned Americans on Friday to avoid travel to the provinces of Gia Lai and Daklak, where the government has dispatched troops and attack helicopters to help riot police suppress demonstrations by indigenous ethnic groups.
The highlands, scene of long-standing tensions between the minority groups and the majority Vietnamese, include the most valuable farmland in Vietnam, the world's second-largest coffee producer after Brazil. The region's population has surged as the central government has encouraged ethnic Vietnamese to move to the area to relieve lowland crowding and promote coffee cultivation.
The central highlands region is also the home of many fast-growing Protestant sects that have resisted Hanoi's attempts to bring them under official control.
"You have all those factors mixed together and you can understand why the government would be worried," said Zachary Abuza, a political scientist at Boston's Simmons College and an authority on Vietnamese politics.
Frederick Z. Brown, a Southeast Asia scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the clashes have come as the Communist Party is attempting to organize a party congress to anoint a new generation of leaders.
On former President Clinton's trip to Vietnam in November, U.S. officials noted a sharp split between the pro-reform Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu, who was much more hostile to U.S. prodding to open up Vietnam's economy to global competition.
"That just means the regime has to manage these protests much more carefully," Mr. Brown said.
Religious rights in Vietnam will get an airing on Capitol Hill today, when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom holds hearings on Vietnam and Indonesia.
Representatives of Vietnam's Buddhist, Protestant and Catholic communities will testify.
Vietnamese officials have sealed Gia Lai and Daklak to outsiders, but even the state-run Vietnam News Agency acknowledged last week that there had been widespread unrest in the two provinces.
VNA said ethnic "extremists" had sparked the unrest in Pleiku, the capital of Gia Lai, to protest the Jan. 29 detention of two men the government said were trying to sow ethnic discord. The protests spread to Daklak's capital of Buon Ma Thuot and at least 20 persons had been arrested for "provocative acts" and property destruction, according to the government.
But private sources and wire service reports say the disturbances were far more extensive.
Local hospital officials in Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot have confirmed that 30 police officers and an unknown number of protesters were treated for injuries in the clashes, and Mr. Abuza said one Vietnamese contact told him 400 people had been detained in Pleiku alone.
The Montagnard Foundation, a South Carolina-based advocacy group for the more than 50 ethnic groups who live in Vietnam's highlands, maintained last week that the rioting was triggered when the government arrested and tortured two of its local human rights activists.
The pair, identified by the foundation as Rahlan Pon and Rahlan Djan, were arrested, severely beaten and held in a military camp, according an account posted on its World Wide Web site (www.montagnard-foundation.org).
The foundation said that some 20,000 demonstrators were gathered in Pleiku alone to demand the release of the pair, and that 600 marchers were beaten as they approached police barriers set up in the town.
The reports could not be independently confirmed and the government has denied foreign media access to the region since the unrest began.
But the scope of the government's response suggested that the protests were not confined to the two provincial capitals.
"You don't send in troops and helicopters just to deal with urban demonstrations," one Western diplomat in Hanoi said.
Peasants protesting against official corruption and graft staged violent protests in the northern province of Thai Binh in late 1997. Mr. Zachary said the government appeared to be moving swiftly in the latest clashes, employing tough new laws on detention without trial adopted in the wake of the Thai Binh fighting.
Analysts said the latest violence will undoubtedly factor into the party congress, although whether it will strengthen the hand of the hard-liners or the reformers isn't clear.
Many expected the congress, held every five years, to be convened next month, but the failure of the government to name a date has fueled talk of high-level divisions over personnel and policy.
"If the unrest continues, it will be a serious problem that doesn't reflect well on the leadership," said Mr. Brown. "The guys at the top have to take responsibility, and that is even more true in an authoritarian system like Vietnam."

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