Montagnards: Escaping Vietnam, stateless in Thailand
In the heart of Bangkok, a small community says it is escaping religious persecution by the Vietnamese authorities.
Thailand, Bangkok – Far away from the sprawling skyscrapers at the heart of Bangkok’s megalopolis lives a small community of 150 Montagnard families.
The Montagnards are the native inhabitants of the Central Highlands, one of Vietnam’s mountainous regions that is known for its coffee plantations. Predominantly converts to Protestantism, the Montagnards say they have been facing repression and religious discrimination since Vietnam’s communist government took power in 1975.
The number in Thailand has grown over recent years as more continue to escape what they describe as religious persecution, land expropriation, and arbitrary arrests by Vietnamese authorities.
It isn’t easy to find them. They live nestled among plantations and canals and surrounded by small bamboo houses above the water.
“It’s safer for them to live here as there is too much police downtown,” explains Grace Bui, the Thailand programme director at the Montagnard Assistance Project.
Thailand is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. As such, the Montagnard asylum seekers have been described by countries such as Cambodia as undocumented economic migrants. They have have no rights or status regardless of their registration with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.
Stateless in Bangkok
“The Vietnamese police used a glass bottle and hit me so hard that they broke my tooth and cut my eye,” says Ayun Tre, 50, describing, in his native Jarai language, the 15 days of hard labour he served in 2003 for refusing to renounce his faith.
Once a farmer in his village in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province, Tre left for Thailand in 2015 fearing for his life after he says he was again arrested and beaten in 2014.
“I want people to know that we do not have a good life nor justice under Vietnam’s oppressive communist regime,” he says.
“I miss the fresh air and the green trees,” says Tre. “But now, the government erased everything I had and nothing is left.”
They were once among Vietnam’s most economically prosperous people. But after decades of land appropriation, they are now some of the poorest. Since the end of the 1960s, there have been several government-led resettlement and modernisation projects in the Central Highlands that have targeted the community.
After selling everything he owned, including his only cow and some wood, Tre managed to bring his wife and children to Thailand in late 2016, paying a smuggler about $1,000 per adult and $400 per child.
Finally reunited, the family is waiting for an interview with the UNHCR in the hope of being recognised as refugees and resettled in a third country.
“Thailand is a free country where we can meet and gather, not like Vietnam,” says Tre.
But without the appropriate documentation, Tre lives in constant fear of being arrested by local Thai police, detained in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), and eventually sent back to Vietnam.
“The IDC is a very dirty place with very little food,” says Pornchai Kamonsin, a Thai pastor from Bangkok’s Glory to God Church, who helps the Montagnards with housing and hospital bills, but whose power is limited once the asylum seekers reach the IDC.
“When they’re sick, I’m the person they call in the middle of the night,” he says.
Kamonsin also vouches for the paperless Montagnard children who, without his help, would not be able to attend Thai schools.
His church was founded seven years ago and while only Thai people attended the services initially, Kamonsin says he has noticed a significant increase in the number of Montagnards over the past few years.
“When we first opened, there were only 15 Thais attending the church,” he says. “Now, there are over 100 Thais and 200 Montagnards.”
For him, the problem lies in the fact that there are very few UN legal officers available in Bangkok to help the asylum seekers, as well as the slow process of examining each case.
Grace Bui concurs. “Not only are there few UN officers but the number of translators from the Jarai language to English or Vietnamese is almost nonexistent, and a vast majority of Montagnards do not speak Vietnamese,” Bui says.
Nay Hoch, a 45-year-old farmer from Gia Lai, is awaiting his fifth interview, now scheduled for July 2017, with UNHCR after it was cancelled and rescheduled four times.
“While many countries have national systems and staff to cope, in Thailand UNHCR does the processing with far fewer resources,” explains Jennifer Bose, the UNHCR’s associate reporting officer in Bangkok.
“We are much underfunded in this operation and have eight trained legal staff to process 4,000 asylum cases in Bangkok,” Bose says.
Thailand has long been a hub for asylum seekers from around the world. According to Asylum Access, a US-based non-profit organisation dedicated to helping refugees worldwide, there are more than 8,000 refugees currently living in the Thai capital from countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
Arrested for working illegally on a construction site with no papers, Hoch spent two nights in a Thai prison before being released after the intervention of Kamonsin.
“It’s hard to live in Thailand because I’m a man and I cannot work to feed my family,” says Hoch. He knows too well what being imprisoned feels like. Back in Vietnam, he was arrested for practising his religion and sentenced to five months in jail and hard labour in 1987.
“They beat up everybody in my village and made me dig sewers and drains as a punishment for my faith,” he says.
A 2015 Human Rights Watch report stated that the Central Highlands have been subjected to a series of crackdowns from the Vietnamese authorities as part of a systematic, high-level policy meant to rid the country of so-called “evil-way” religions practised by the Montagnards.
The report was meant to be presented in Bangkok on June 26, 2015, but Thai military officials cancelled the news conference because of concerns it would threaten relations with Vietnam.
Last year, the two countries celebrated 40 years of diplomatic relations. Vietnam’s deputy foreign minister, Vu Hong Nam, declared that the two-way trade between Vietnam and Thailand was set to reach $20bn by 2020.
A long history of persecution
On November 18, 2016, Vietnam passed its first law on religion since the communists came to power. It will come into effect in January 2018.
Critics argue that the law limits religious freedom by increasing state control and criminalising independent religious groups.
It is Rmah Aloh’s second attempt at applying for asylum in Thailand. The 27-year-old farmer from Gia Lai first escaped religious persecution on February 14, 2014.
Aloh’s troubles began in 2004 when he took part in a peaceful protest organised by the Montagnards.
“That’s when my life in Vietnam became difficult,” he says. “Local police would not allow me to practise my religion.” After forbidding him from attending church services, the police eventually arrested him and closed his church.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, demonstrations in 2001 and 2004 were crushed by the Vietnamese authorities who arrested hundreds of Jarai highlanders, and used torture and arbitrary arrests to extract confessions and fictitious public statements of remorse by protest organisers.
After escaping through the Cambodian jungle, Aloh’s life in Bangkok took a turn for the worse in July 2015, when the Vietnamese police got hold of his phone number after he had called home.
“They asked me to come back and promised me and my family that nothing would happen to me,” he says.
After agreeing to this, Aloh was met by Vietnamese policemen in the middle of the night at his home in Bangkok and put on a train heading to Laos.
“As soon as we crossed the border into Laos, that’s when the nightmare started,” he says. When the train stopped, he says they all disembarked, went to a hideout where Aloh was handcuffed, repeatedly beaten, and starved for a few days.
He says he was made to sign a prepared statement saying that he came to Thailand in search of prosperity and a better life and not because of the persecution against his people.
“They were very violent and I wanted them to stop beating me, so I signed it,” he says.
For Anna Nguyen, a human rights lawyer and ASEAN programme coordinator at VOICE, it is technically against international law for government officials to go to foreign countries to arrest or bring back their own citizens.
“However, this is not to say that this doesn’t happen,” she says. “I’ve heard a lot of stories but do not know of any specific cases. This also commonly occurs in Cambodia and I’ve heard that [the] Cambodian government works quite closely with the Vietnamese government to return illegal Vietnamese migrants.”
Once back in his village in Gia Lai, Aloh says his life was marked by constant harassment, threats and daily arrests. Pictures obtained from his mobile phone show him being interrogated, questioned and photographed by the Vietnamese police.
“They told everyone in the village that I was spreading propaganda against the government,” he says.
When he received a summons from the government to appear in court, he went into hiding at his sister’s home and borrowed some money to escape.
As retribution for leaving once again, he learned through a phone call from his family that his wife had been raped by police.
“Don’t believe the communist government,” he says. “They tricked me once, they will trick me again.”
After managing to bring his wife to Thailand in December 2016, he is now waiting for the UN to reopen his asylum case as it was closed after too much time passed since his first time in Bangkok.
A central demand of the Montagnards’ 2001 and 2004 protests was the restitution of their ancestral lands, which have and continue to be taken away by the Vietnamese government.
Nay Bro, 62, one of the organisers of the 2001 protest, arrived in Bangkok in November 2016 with the help of a pastor in Ho Chi Minh City. As a punishment for taking part in a public demonstration, he was sentenced to seven years in prison in February 2005. While he was in jail, his wife was repeatedly beaten and now suffers from nerve damage.
“I will never, ever go back,” he says. “My son is still in jail. It’s been 12 years now; I don’t know what happened to him.”
Now in Thailand, Bro and his wife must rely on the help of Kamonsin and the Montagnards Assistance Project to pay for their THB 3,000 ($86.50) rent.
For the Montagnards, recognition of land rights is done orally among clans and families. But according to historian Oscar Salemink in his book, The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders, the Vietnamese communist regime sees the land as “res nullius”, or “unclaimed by anyone”.
In this context, Vietnam’s 1993 Land Law, which has been amended several times, most recently in 2003, stipulates that a person using the land must be compensated and told why the land is to be recuperated by the state.
The Montagnards interviewed by Al Jazeera say that their ancestral lands were confiscated without notice, explanation or compensation in every case.
Al Jazeera contacted the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok, and this was the response: “In Vietnam, all fundamental freedoms of citizens are codified in the constitution and respected in practice. This has received wide recognition and appreciation by the international community. The Embassy affirms that the information given to you by the group of people mentioned is false. There is a small number of Vietnamese nationals from the Central Highlands who illegally crossed the border to Thailand due to neither suppression nor banishment at home but sole economic reasons, hoping to be resettled in a third country.”
“During recent years, Vietnam has been implementing socio-economic development policies in the Central Highlands to support and improve the lives of the communities in this region. Vietnam is also strongly committed and actively engaged with neighbouring countries in efforts to regulate migration and prevent illegal migration, on the basis of international law and Vietnamese law,” the embassy added.
Forgotten allies of the US
Back in 2007, when he was arrested the first time by Vietnamese police, Ro.o Y Brik, 72, from Dak Lak, was told his religion belonged to the French and the Americans.
“They accused me of trying to overthrow the government and asked me if I belonged to FULRO,” he says. “But I don’t know much about it, I don’t follow anyone but God.”
FULRO, or the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, was an armed movement that sought independence for the Montagnards from Vietnam. It is said to have been disbanded in 1992.
Brik, one of the oldest members of the Montagnard community in Bangkok, fought alongside the French troops during the French-Indochina War and the US army during the Vietnam War.
“I was never a leader, only a follower,” he says.
In addition to the issues of religion and land, the Montagnards’ former alliance with the US during the Vietnam War continues to exacerbate the communist government’s suspicion that they represent a foreign threat to national unity.
Now caught in limbo in Bangkok, Brik’s future and that of his community in Thailand looks uncertain.
For Grace Bui, the only way to offer them a better life is to resettle them in a third country. “Given the current US administration, our hope is in Canada,” she says. “Canada has recently accepted some of the last remaining Vietnamese boat people from the Vietnam War, but the Montagnards remain a forgotten people.”
Canada, along with Australia, and the US have been the world’s top resettlement countries, according to UNHCR. Together, the three countries account for 90 percent of all resettlements.
Despite this, “UNHCR has been emphasising to all refugees and asylum seekers here that resettlement is not a right or a given,” says Jennifer Bose, from the UNHCR in Bangkok. “There are not enough resettlement places for every refugee who needs it.”
“Less than 1 percent of the world’s refugees actually get the chance to start a new life in a resettlement country,” she explains.
When asked if they knew that Thailand did not recognise refugees, the Montagnards interviewed say they did. Yet, this did not deter them from fleeing to the kingdom, as they say the limited window of opportunity was better than the oppression they faced back home.
Not knowing whether he will stay indefinitely in Thailand or will be able to start a new life elsewhere, Tre’s only wish, he says, is for the world to understand how the communist government treats his people.
“[I hope] the regime will change to allow human rights, freedom and dignity to live our lives,” he concludes.