Michael Sainsbury, Vientiane
Updated: June 25, 2015 07:51 PM GMT
The Vietnamese government has come under fire for its ongoing persecution of Christian Montagnards in a comprehensive report on the plight of the ethnic group by New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The sensitivity of the subject was made more pointed after Thailand’s military junta cancelled its launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Friday, citing diplomatic relations with Vietnam.
The closure marked the third time in less than a month that the junta has canceled an FCCT press event, but previous Thai regimes have also shut down Montagnard-related report launches under pressure from Hanoi.
The latest report, titled Persecuting “Evil Way” Religion: Abuses against Montagnards in Vietnam, documents the escalating efforts of Vietnam’s Communist Party regime to ratchet up the suppression of the ethnic group.
The Montagnards, also known as the Degar or simply Highlanders, are a distinct ethnic group that lives in Vietnam, eastern Cambodia and southern Laos. Originally animist, they began converting to Christianity during the 1950s and 1960s. Of the estimated one million Montagnards, about half are Protestant and approximately 200,000 are Catholic.
In the early 2000s, Montagnards began holding large-scale protests calling for greater autonomy and religious freedom, which led to increased and violent government suppression. In the intervening years, intimidation and harassment has continued unabated.
The HRW report is based on interviews conducted during the first half of 2015 with Montagnards who have fled their homeland in search of somewhere — in this case Cambodia and Thailand — where they have a better chance to practice their religion without fear of persecution.
Unrecognized by the government, their faiths are classified among the “evil ways” religions to be actively stamped out. The treatment of Montagnards mirrors that of other outsider religious groups whom authorities “monitor, harass, and sometimes violently crack down on”.
In the report, asylum seekers detail horrific mistreatment at the hands of Vietnamese officials.
“Every time the police summoned me to the commune police station, they beat me and denied me food. I was placed in a room with hands tied and an interrogator beat me. I was kept in that position overnight, too,” one Montagnard asylum seeker from Gia Lai province told HRW.
“Vietnam’s official media make it shockingly clear that persecution of religious minorities is state policy,” Brad Adams, HRW Asia director said in a statement.
“The government should discard its Cold War mentality of treating people of different religions as the ‘enemy within’ and respect their basic right to religious freedom.”
The report saves some of its most damning commentary for the countries to which the Montagnards flee, particularly Cambodia, one of the few nations in ASEAN that is signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. As such, it is “bound not to return a refugee or asylum seeker to any country where their life or freedom is at risk”.
Yet, as the report makes clear, Cambodia routinely flouts it obligations with respect to the Montagnards. In January 2015 it inked an agreement with Vietnam to return Montagnard asylum seekers.
The same month Cambodian officials in Ratanakiri province “launched sustained and intensive searches for asylum seekers in the area’s jungles”, the report said.
By June, Cambodia had sent back at least 54 Montagnards “without allowing any opportunity to seek refugee status, and had denied at least another 109 the possibility of registering there as asylum seekers”.
According to local media, there are now at least 118 Montagnards seeking asylum in Phnom Penh.
Adams urged Cambodia to resist refoulement of the asylum seekers and allow a just assessment of their claims.
“Montagnards and others fleeing persecution in Vietnam should be allowed to make claims for asylum in Cambodia and other neighboring countries without being illegally forced back,” he said.