U.S. official finds no abuse of refugees in Vietnam's Central Highlands

Hanoi, Vietnam - A U.S. official praised Vietnam on Monday for improving its record on human rights and religious freedom, traditionally a contentious subject between the two nations.

Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey visited the restive Central Highlands, the scene of protests in recent years over land rights and religious issues. The region is home to ethnic minority hill tribes, collectively called Montagnards, many of whom are Christians that belong to churches not recognized by the Vietnamese government.

After violent protests in 2004, several hundred people fled to neighboring Cambodia. Some were later denied refugee status and forced to return to Vietnam, while others went home voluntarily.

Some international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have charged that many of those who returned were harassed, jailed or beaten.

Sauerbrey said she visited with seven refugees who had returned from Cambodia, and none said they had been mistreated by local officials after coming home. She said that no Vietnamese government officials were present for the interviews, and she chose the interviewees herself, without consulting local authorities.

"All indicated that there had been no punishment," said Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. "Those we had the opportunity to speak with seemed happy to be home."

Sauerbrey said many refugees had apparently left the region for economic reasons, and she encouraged the government to provide more jobs to help solve the refugee problem.

"They don't see a positive future in the Highlands," she said.

She praised Hanoi for allowing representatives of the U.S., the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and European diplomats to visit the region and investigate conditions firsthand.

"Most importantly, the government of Vietnam is opening the door so that there can be frequent visits," Sauerbrey said.

Relations between Hanoi and the Montagnards have traditionally been tense, because many people in the Central Highlands sided with the United States during the Vietnam War.