Ethnic Minorities Protest in Vietnam

Ethnic minority villagers protested Saturday in Vietnam's troubled Central Highlands province of Daklak, the site of mass demonstrations over religion and land issues three years ago, police and government officials said.

Authorities blocked the villagers, also known as Montagnards, from entering the provincial capital city of Buon Ma Thuot, a local government official said on condition of anonymity.

"Authorities are trying to persuade them to go back to their villages," he said.

Police officers joined the government officials in trying to contain the crowd, a local policeman said. He declined to estimate the number of protesters, saying only that it was "not a very big crowd" and that they were peaceful.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Saturday it had received reports of a government crackdown on Montagnards intensifying over the past two weeks, with police surrounding villages and searching nearby coffee plantations — sometimes with dogs — for those who may be hiding.

"We've been documenting ongoing crackdowns, and they have become increasingly more repressive," a representative of the group said on condition of anonymity.

The government official said the protesters were demanding religious and land rights, and accused a U.S.-based group of instigating the protests.

The U.S.-based Montagnard Foundation was founded by former members of a group of anti-communist Montagnard fighters allied with the United States during the Vietnam War.

In February 2001, thousands of members of several ethnic minority groups flooded the streets of Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku, the capital of neighboring Gia Lai province, to protest the loss of their ancestral lands and restrictions on their Protestant faith.

The Central Highlands are Vietnam's major coffee-growing region, and the government has steadily displaced thousands of ethnic minority villagers in order to use the land for coffee plantations.

Vietnam sent hundreds of military troops and riot police to quell those protests. The crackdown spurred an exodus of thousands into neighboring Cambodia, where they sought refugee protection from the United Nations.

Nearly 1,000 were accepted for political asylum in the United States. Human rights groups assert that more than 70 people were jailed in Vietnam for helping organize the protests.

The Central Highlands area has remained sealed off to foreign observers, including the United Nations refugee agency and international media.

International rights groups say Vietnam has continued persecution of ethnic villagers, including Protestant church leaders, land rights advocates, and people suspected of having helped asylum seekers flee into neighboring Cambodia.

Over the past month, at least 46 Montagnards have sought asylum in Cambodia at the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has placed them under protection.

Cambodia criticized U.N. agency for taking the action without its approval.

The UNHCR "are doing things covertly to prevent us from knowing what they are doing. They are not cooperating with us ... and not respecting sovereignty of our authorities," Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said.

Authorities will increase vigilance along the border with Vietnam to thwart any attempts by Montagnards to enter Cambodia during the next week's Khmer New Year holiday, said Police Chief Reach Samnang in northeastern Mondul Kiri province.