- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

HANOI International human rights groups and U.S. politicians are trying to convince Vietnam to address reports of torture and other abuses of political dissidents, as well as of religious and ethnic-minority groups.

"It is necessary to say there are no political prisoners and nobody is detained for their thought, only criminals who are detained for violating the law," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh said.

Illegal protests are orchestrated by anti-communists who were allied with America during the Vietnam War, according to the government.

Government-run media blames FULRO, the French acronym for the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, which fought alongside U.S. forces.

But trouble has erupted in scattered regions, for a variety of reasons, according to human rights groups and Vietnamese dissidents.

"Major violations" by Vietnamese officials included "police torture of people in detention or during interrogation, including beating, kicking and shocking with electric batons," said New York-based Human Rights Watch in a recent report.

"Violations of the right to freedom of religion, include destruction and closure of ethnic-minority Protestant churches, and official pressure on Christians to abandon their religion under threat of legal action or imprisonment," the group said.

Titled "Repression of Montagnards," the 194-page report released in April focused on Vietnam's Central Highlands in and around Pleiku, including the provinces of Kon Tum, Dak Lak, Gia Lai and Lam Dong.

Vietnam is bursting with 80 million people who are crammed into the S-shaped nation along the South China Sea.

Highland tribes are struggling against the relentless arrival of Vietnamese lowlanders majority ethnic Kinh and other groups who want to farm the prized coffee-growing zone.

Hanoi fears Highlanders, many of whom are Protestant Christians, are protecting their region because they want to create an autonomous Degar homeland.

Degar people are indigenous inhabitants numbering a few hundred thousand in the Central Highlands plateaus.

These 40 or so tribes are known collectively as Montagnards French for "mountaineers."

"We have suffered a fate similar to the Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, African bushmen and other original inhabitants subjected to invasion and exploitation by outsiders," according to the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Montagnard Foundation.

Hanoi avoids international censure "by playing on the guilt of the Vietnam War" and hobbling domestic and international media investigating human rights, the foundation said.

The New York-based Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FRD), however, recently issued a watch list titled, "Home Grown Terrorism?" naming U.S.-based "immigrant groups" that "support insurgencies in Indochina."

"Reminiscent of the darkest days of the Cold War the most colorful and dangerous" groups include the Montagnard Foundation, it warned.

"The foundation's activities are supported by a group of U.S. Special Forces veterans," the FRD said.

In recent months, amid protests and crackdowns, about 1,000 Montagnards fled west across the border into Cambodia.

Many were eventually allowed to resettle in the United States.

Vietnam's Montagnards include thousands of people who converted from their tribal animist beliefs to become Protestants after being recruited by the United States during the Vietnam War.

Today, Protestant churches hidden in villagers' homes have increased their flock by preaching in minority languages, drawing the wrath of Vietnamese authorities, who consider the churches illegal.

Catholics also face problems.

Catholic priest Tadeus Nguyen Van Ly was blocked from traveling to Washington last year to speak to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

He was later arrested by Vietnamese officials for providing purportedly false written evidence to the United States about human rights violations.

The cleric's action violated Article 13 of the Vietnamese Constitution, which forbids any activity perceived as opposing the independence, sovereignty, reunification or territorial integrity of Vietnam, officials said.

In 1995, the priest, based in Hue, was released after 10 years in jail for his dissident behavior.

His current demands include the return of church land, which the communists seized in 1975 when the war ended.

"Despite a marked increase in religious practice among the Vietnamese people in the last 10 years, the Vietnamese government continues to suppress organized religious activities forcefully and to monitor and control religious communities," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a report last year.

"This repression is mirrored by the recent crackdown on important political dissidents," it said.

The strongest anti-communist challenge comes from the illegal Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV).

The UBCV's leader, dissident Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do, spent more than 18 years in prison or house arrest before being released in 1998.

Vietnam's "one-party totalitarianism" and "cruel dictatorship" has resulted in "our people being enslaved spiritually and materially, our morality degraded, and our country weakened and paralyzed," he said last year.

Thich Quang Do's defiant declaration, now posted on various Web sites, also requests U.N.-supervised elections for "political parties of all inclination, except the Communist Party."

London-based Amnesty International meanwhile condemned "the continuing repression of non-official religious groups in Vietnam in flagrant contradiction to the Vietnamese government's assertion of freedom of religion."

Hanoi denies all accusations of human rights abuses and insists its actions are within the law.

Any crackdowns were merely the authorities enforcing the law to prevent the sort of anarchy that has swept other impoverished nations, officials said.

Some foreign analysts warn a harsh U.S. response such as trade sanctions may alienate Vietnam and push it closer to China, without helping dissident groups.

Official corruption and a stagnant economy, however, fuels unrest among many Vietnamese.

Villagers' traditional animist beliefs are also frowned upon by communist officials, who worry that "superstition" and other supernatural concepts make people irrational, wasteful and subject to exploitation.

But Vietnamese officials forced some detainees to perform animist-style rituals to demonstrate they are not Christians, according to Human Rights Watch.

"Beginning in June [2001], provincial authorities conducted dozens of ceremonies in the Central Highlands in which Montagnards who had participated in the February demonstrations were forced to read confessions about their alleged wrongdoings and renounce Christianity in front of entire villages, sealing their pledges by mandatory drinking of rice wine mixed with goat's blood," the human rights group said.

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