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08/03/2005 | Written statement on item 15: Indigenous issues.

Written statement submitted by the Transnational Radical Party, a nongovernmental organization in general consultative status


8 March 2005

On 9 July 2004, Dr. Antonio Maria Costa, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a press release entitled “Laos Reduces Its Opium Poppy Cultivation by Half in One Season” in which the UNODC was confirming that the Lao PDR opium cultivation in 2004 showed a 45% decline in comparison to 2003.

In concluding his statement, Mr. Costa also added that there was a “collective responsibility to ensure that the poorest of the poor are not the ones who pay the price for successes in drug control. A large number of people have been displaced by drug control initiatives. Extending a compassionate hand to destitute farmers is also a condition for ensuring the sustainability of the elimination of opium production in Laos” Mr. Costa therefore urged “donor countries and development agencies to join forces with [UNODC] to make this drug control success a humanitarian one as well.”

The exact figures concerning the number of people displaced have never been made public, but knowing the systematic persecution of indigenous peoples that during the so-called “secret war” that was waged in the 1960s and 1970 in Laos, and who sided against the faction that today is ruling Laos, and if one should draw a conclusion from the amount of money that is currently invested in the country on so-called “supply eradication programmes” conservative estimates could put the number of the indigenous groups that have been displaced between 25 and 30% of the population that was inhabiting the provinces.
The drug eradication programme was supposed to “addresses the growing problem of opium poppy production and abuse in the northern part of the country”; in signing the memorandum, the Chairman of the Lao National Commission of Drug Control and Supervision (LCDC), Minister Soubhan Srithirath stated that the "the northern target area is physically and economically isolated", but did not mentioned the fact that those regions are mainly inhabited by the indigenous Hmong. Dr. Halvor J. Kolshus, the UNDCP Representative in Laos stressed that the fact that "measures to address food security, provide alternative income sources, better health facilities and reduce poverty are essential components of the drug control programme."

There are concerns about the ways in which some programs are in fact carried out where indigenous people live and it is legitimate to speculate that several relocation programs have targeted specific communities that were not necessarily involved in the production of poppy. The LDPR, but also UNODC, should be asked to provide figures concerning the actual number of communities displaced in the framework of the country narcotic supply eradication programs and also to provide the plans concerning the implementation of so-called “alternative development” programs that, according to Dr. Costa still have not been carried out.

Indigenous groups have always been at the center of particular policies carried out by the Government as a retaliation for their siding with the enemy during the Indo-China war.

In their new book published in November 2004 entitled “Planned Resettlement, Unexpected Migrations and Cultural Trauma in Laos” Olivier Evrard and Yves Goudineau address the issue of relocation. “Though not officially considered a ‘policy’ by the Lao government” states the presentation of the book “resettlement of ethnic minorities has become a central feature of the rural development strategy in Laos. Over the past ten years, a majority of highland villages have been resettled downhill, and the local administrations are planning to move the remaining villages in the coming years”.

This essay draws on a national survey about resettlement in Laos, commissioned by UNESCO and financed by UNDP, that was undertaken by the authors, and focuses on the consequences of these huge shifts of population and on the social and cultural dynamics that underlie them.

The planned resettlements, which are intended to promote the ‘settling’ of the highland populations by enforcing the ban on slash-and-burn agriculture and opium growing, actually cause increased and diversified rural mobility. This in turn complicates the implementation of the rural development policy and the political management of inter-ethnic relationships.

In a statement recently issued by the World Rainforest Movement it is pointed out that “for more than a decade, the Lao government has been carrying out a programme to remove Indigenous Peoples from their ancestral homes in the mountains to lowland areas of the country”. The statement also mentions the U.S. State Department survey on Laos, which, among other things, notes that during 2003, the Lao government “accelerated efforts” to relocate upland farmers to lowland areas, “in keeping with the Government’s plan to end opium production by 2005 and slash-and-burn agriculture by 2010.”

The Lao government’s resettlement programme amounts to a complete restructuring of rural society in Laos. Hundreds of villages, many of them of Indigenous Peoples, have been moved from the mountains down to lowland areas. In theory, the government provides services such as roads, schools and health care at a series of “focal zones” in lowland areas and “encourages” people to move. In reality, “District and provincial officials used persuasion and, in some cases, verbal orders to encourage villages to relocate, especially in the northern provinces,” according to the U.S. human rights report.

Government authorities continue to apply unrelenting pressure on the indigenous hill tribes in Vietnam's Central Highlands (also known as Montagnards), while trying to convince the international community that all is back to normal in the troubled region after peaceful demonstrations were organized last year.

The most recent outbreak in the long-standing tension commenced in April 2004, when thousands of Montagnards joined protests against the confiscation of tribal lands and the severe repression of the Christian faith that many of them profess.

According to several organizations, among which Human Rights Watch, the Montagnard Foundation and the U.S.-based publication Christianity Today, police and soldiers—many disguised as local farmers—were sent to several villages to break up the demonstrations. Such an infiltration resulted in deaths and injuries among the Montagnards.
In the aftermath of the demonstration, the Government imposed a Dpress blackout and intense measures, such as martial law, were taken to cover up whatever happened on April 10 and 11. Several Christian leaders in Vietnam close to the situation believe the number of deaths almost certainly exceeds the estimates given by some human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch, for example, initially reported only 10 deaths.

Recent reports have been sneaked out of Vietnam and talk about mysterious excavations at a military base near Buonmathuot following the April demonstrations. Some fear the bodies of people killed during the protests may have been buried here.

Time magazine's Asia edition of August 2 carried an article entitled "Vietnam's Tribal Injustice." Time reporter Phil Zabriski is believed to be one of the first Westerners who managed to evade government minders and talk directly with some Montagnard sources.

From Time's recount, it is clear that Vietnam has broken its promise to diplomats that it would only punish a handful of the leaders involved in the Easter protests. In early May, the Vietnamese government also pledged to send a special "peace corps" to help raise the living standards of poverty-stricken tribal minorities. However, according to the Montagnard Foundation Inc., the main function of this unit is to serve as "spies and guards" and to intercept all traffic and communication.

In an article appeared in Christianity Today in August 2004 it is stated that “in Buon Poc, Dak Lak province, where people were active in the demonstrations, eight men were arrested and severely beaten before being allowed to return home. Between 2 and 12 members of the "peace corps" were subsequently assigned to watch over each of the men's families, camping near their homes to watch and control all movement. Visitors are treated with suspicion.” other Christian sources reported to the Publication that over the summer of 2004 “eight men were killed in Plei B'Lang, Gia Lai province. Four died of gunshots and four were beaten to death. The body of one of the men beaten to death was returned to his home and hung from a rope. Officials then proclaimed he had hung himself. Exceptionally tight security has hindered attempts to verify this report.
According to information gathered by the Montagnard Foundation, on May 14, 2004 Vietnamese police went to the village of Plei Blang “3”, commune of Ia To “B-14”, district of Ia Grai, province of Gialai to arrest Puih Hyi age 40 because he was a preacher for indigenous Montagnard Christians, who did not want to follow the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN). Puih Hyi was fearful police would torture him so he escaped to the jungle. 14 days later, on May 28, 2004 he went back home because he could not cross the Cambodian border as Vietnamese and Cambodian police sealed it off.

On May 29, 2004 the Vietnamese police arrested Puih Hyi at his house, handcuffed him and beat him from his house along the way to the police station in the district of Ia Grai. The police asked him where other Degar people have been hiding but he did not know. So the police beat him and tortured him repeatedly until they broke his skull and he died on May 31, 2004 in Ia Grai district. Then the police tore up his shirt, made a rope and hung him like he had committed suicide. At around 8:00 PM on the same day, the police told the family of Puih Hyi to pick up his body to take home for burial. The police told his family that he had hung him self with his own shirt but the family examined the body and found out that his skull was smashed. His family buried Puih Hyi on June 1, 2004. Witnesses who had examined his body verify this information.

In an interview with Human Rights Watch in June 2004, an Ede man who participated in the march to Buon Ma Thuot city in April said that after the clash with the police at Phan Cu Trinh Road, he saw thirty to forty Montagnard protesters who had been severely beaten, lying unconscious on the roadway. That afternoon he went to the city hospital, where he estimated that at least 250 wounded Montagnards and forty Kinh had been admitted. An ethnic Vietnamese resident of Buon Ma Thuot estimated that at least twenty to twenty-five Montagnards were killed during the protest, as well as several police officers.

The Montagnard Foundation confirms that Ksor Krok (the brother of Mr. Kok Ksor, member of the General Council of the TRP) has received seven years imprisonment for the false charges of causing social unrest. Also imprisoned were other Montagnards named; Ksor Dro, Siu Djing, Siu Yunh, Ksor Jon, Ksor Sen, Siu Panh, who received prison terms ranging from four to seven years. This information was also reported in the official Vietnamese newspaper “Vietnam News” on 13 January 2005.

On 24 October 2004 Christian believers of Ia Ko commune were arrested by three district policemen who came into the village in a jeep at 5am in the morning. One of the policemen is named Ksor Lom but the names of the other two are unknown. Cu Se district officials paid the three Montagnard police 40,000 Vietnamese dong for identifying the Montagnard Christians below.

In February, MFI received information that Cambodian police continue to arrest and forcibly return Montagnard asylum seekers back to Vietnam for cash bounties. The latest incidents involve a total of 21 Montagnard Degar refugees who were arrested and deported. The bounty paid by Vietnam was 5 million Vietnamese Dong (approximately $300).

The TRP urges the Commission to monitor the indigenous situation of both Laos and Vietnam very closely as some of the policies applied by both Governments seem to have a common root.