Vietnam sends troops to restive highlands

HANOI - Vietnam's army has sent hundreds of soldiers to live with minority people in two central highland provinces hit by ethnic unrest last month, official media said.

Wednesday's official Quan Doi Nhan Dan (People's Army) daily said 500 soldiers and officers from the Tay Nguyen (Western Highland) Corps had settled in nine districts of Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces.

It said they were tasked with spreading Communist Party propaganda, working with local people on infrastructure projects and providing health care services.

The protests in the central highlands in early February were the worst to hit Vietnam for years and rattled authorities intolerant of open shows of dissent.

"The good deeds by the teams have contributed to stabilising political security and social order as well as improving living standards of the people," the paper said.

State-run Vietnam Television on Tuesday showed brief footage of the protests for the first time. It showed masked demonstrators using slingshots and fighting with police in Pleiku, capital of Gia Lai and hundreds gathered in neighbouring Daklak province.

Vietnamese media has blamed a U.S.-based emigre group, the Montagnard Foundation Inc, based in Spartanburg, South Carolina and led by ethnic emigre Kok Ksor, for organising the protests.

Official media has revealed recently that the protests were more widespread and long-running than previously admitted.

Tuesday's Lao Dong (Labour) newspaper said authorities in Gia Lai's Plei Lao commune had arrested some "stubborn" minority men for causing a very serious disturbance in the area on March 10.

The paper said the men had forced local people to make contributions to build a chapel which they used for themselves.

District and commune officials refused to comment on a foreign media report that quoted local officials as saying the clash erupted after authorities tore down the chapel.

Vietnam's authorities have been at pains to play down the role religion played in the protests, clearly concerned about the effect on a trade agreement signed with the United States last year but still to be ratified by the U.S. Congress.

Many who took part in the protests were Protestants and church sources have estimated that as many as 60 pastors and church elders were detained in the highlands because of the unrest.

Church sources say that while many who took part were minority protestants, the protests were triggered by ethnic rights issues, including land, rather than religion.

On Tuesday, Hanoi denounced as interference a plea by Amnesty International for Cambodia to grant asylum to 24 minority people who fled across the border to escape the crackdown.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh also brushed aside a U.S. call for diplomats to be allowed to visit the highlands, saying the decision up to local authorities.

The U.S. State Department urged Vietnam last Friday to give diplomats access to the highlands, saying Americans of minority origin had expressed concern about the well-being of relatives.

06:41 03-28-01

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