More than two weeks after a government crackdown on highland Montagnards, ending with hundreds of protesters wounded and at least 10 killed, the Vietnamese government is no closer to letting outsiders in on what happened.
Vietnam's state-run media first reported that Communist authorities had broken up Easter weekend demonstrators protesting religious persecution and land confiscation. But so far the government has sealed the area in Dak Lak province, refusing permission to U.S. embassy officials and other outsiders to travel there.
Human Rights Watch investigators in Asia successfully interviewed dozens who fled the province. Based on those firsthand accounts, it estimates that about 30,000 ethnic minority Montagnards were involved in demonstrations. Security forces and plain-clothes agents intervened, attacking protesters in Dak Lak province with metal bars, machetes, clubs with nails, and other weapons. Some protesters threw rocks in self-defense. The Vietnamese forces also ambushed protesters from roads and bridges and blocked their route, burning hundreds of farm tractors the Montagnards had packed with food to travel to the protest site.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi contacted Vietnam's Foreign Ministry for permission to visit the Central Highlands but was turned down. Police also turned back a U.S. delegation that tried to reach the area during the unrest, saying the area was "not suitable" for foreigners.
The news blackout came as the UN Commission on Human Rights gathered in Geneva. But Vietnam's growing record of repression did make the annual meeting's agenda. Vietnam held one of 53 seats on the commission until this year.
A 26-year-old eyewitness described this April 10 incident to Human Rights Watch:
"A thousand people tried to get away from the slaughter by the police and civilians. They were beating us with metal bars and sticks. People were bleeding from their throats, noses, mouths, and eyes. The villagers were crying as they tried to get away from the slaughter by the police and civilians. We were running helter-skelter.
"Those who tried to hide in the coffee plantation were caught, beaten, and killed on the spot. Police, students, and Vietnamese threw rocks at us. Many of us were bleeding from being hit on our heads with rocks. Many people were injured and bleeding.
"We didn't have any first aid for their wounds. They were bleeding from their throats, noses, mouths, and eyes.
"A blind woman sitting on the farm tractor was killed on the road by a dozen Vietnamese people, including police. They asked her to get down from the tractor but she could not because she was blind. They rushed at her and beat her until she fell from the tractor and died.
"The police and Vietnamese civilians smashed and stepped on our food, clothing, and blankets we had prepared for a long-term peaceful demonstration asking for freedom and the end to harassment of our religion and our Montagnard life."
Vietnam recognizes only a handful of state-sponsored religions and frequently oppresses Buddhists, Christians, and other minorities. The Montagnards, who are mostly Protestants, have long been denied not only religious freedom but also basic rights to own land and operate businesses. A 2001 protest also ended in a clash with police and a mass exodus of Montagnards to Cambodia. From there about 1,000 refugees were resettled in the United States. This time, Vietnamese officials sealed the border ahead of the Easter unrest. And so far, they have sealed off from outsiders the details of the latest confrontation.