This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Police in Vietnam’s Central Highlands have arrested 39 people in connection with an armed attack on two police stations that left nine people dead, according to state media reports Tuesday.
The attack took place in a part of Dak Lak province that’s home to some 30 tribes of indigenous peoples – known collectively as Montagnards.
Two state newspapers, VnExpress and Cong Thuong, published detailed information about the incident, saying that at dawn on Sunday, around 40 people wearing camouflage vests split into two groups to attack the two police stations in the Ea Tieu and Ea Ktur communes.
Some of them then stopped a pickup truck and shot and killed the driver, according to a VnExpress bulletin, which was deleted shortly after posting. Cong Thuong also reported the shooting of the driver but then withdrew its article.
The reasons behind the attack weren’t immediately clear, but anger and frustration in the region has grown after decades of government surveillance, land disputes and economic hardship.
In recent months, there have been a number of land revocation incidents by local authorities, police and military forces, according to a researcher who specializes in ethnic minority cultures in the Central Highlands and Vietnam’s south-central coast.
“As many people have suggested on social media, this could have happened because of oppression and tensions caused by land conflicts. They might have come to a dead end and therefore, they risked their lives,” he told Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
History of intimidation, mistreatment
In 2020, Human Rights Watch said the Montagnards have been subject to “constant surveillance and other forms of intimidation, public criticism, arbitrary arrest and mistreatment in security force custody.”
“In detention, the authorities question them about their religious and political activities and any efforts to flee Vietnam,” the group said.
During the Vietnam War, the Montagnards fought alongside U.S. Army Special Forces in the Central Highlands.
Hundreds have crossed the border into Cambodia over the last few decades, citing oppression by the Vietnamese government, religious persecution of the mainly Christian minority, and expropriation of their land. Many have been forced home, ending their hopes for resettlement and a better life.
The Ministry of Public Security had previously said on its website that six suspects were taken into custody in connection with the attack.. The ministry said six people – police officers and commune officials – were killed in the attack and several officers, commune officials and civilians were injured.
The State-linked Voice of Vietnam website said Tuesday that police had now arrested 39 people and raised the death toll to nine people — four police officers, two commune officials and three locals.
It earlier reported that police had freed two hostages, quoting Ministry of Public Security spokesperson Lt. General To An Xo, who said another hostage escaped on his own.
Government crackdown expected
The government has continued to monitor residents of the Central Highlands while failing to create jobs and education opportunities, said Vietnamese scholar Nguyen Quang A, former director of the now-dissolved Institute of Development Studies.
“The participation of many young people did not surprise me.” he said, referring to Sunday’s attack.
“Young people are more likely to be incited by information on social media,” he said. “For young and unemployed people, when they are at a dead end, they are very likely to explode.”
The Ministry of Public Security and the government will surely deploy more forces to the Central Highlands to forestall similar incidents, the researcher said.
“In terms of consequences, it’s certain that the Vietnamese government will consider this a big deal,” the researcher told RFA. “Involved people, if arrested, would definitely get heavy sentences, even death sentences.”
But a more appropriate approach would be to make sure people “feel safe, free, and satisfied,” Nguyen Quang A said.
“I think we should have a better understanding of them,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the elite in Vietnam seems to fail to understand indigenous and ethnic minority people, what they want, and how they want things to be managed. We should have respected those things.”