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Hmong Protestants still leaving Vietnam's northern mountains

DATELINE: HANOI, May 6, 2002 Monday

Protestant Christians among the Hmong people of Vietnam's northern mountains are still leaving for the central highlands, despite a year-old wave of repression there which rights groups say has targetted minority Protestants.

In the single highland province of Dak Lak, nearly 3,000 new Hmong migrants were recorded in the first quarter alone, the head of the province's New Economic Zones department Vo Van Tam told AFP.

Hmong from the northern mountains made up nearly 90 percent of a total of 3,293 so-called "free" migrants who were known to have moved to the province without government backing over the period. A total of 1,135 had come from the mountain province of Lai Chau, 393 from Cao Bang, and the rest from Ha Giang, Tuyen Quang and Bac Can provinces.

Tam confirmed that all of the Hmong migrants were Protestant converts, but insisted land hunger rather than religious persecution had sparked their departure from their traditional homeland.

"We are afraid that more Hmong migrants will come in the coming months -- most of the migrants told us they had moved to Dak Lak because they didn't have any land to farm in the north."

Foreign-based evangelist organisations say Hmong Protestant have been fleeing Vietnam's northern provinces in large numbers since at least 1999 after a series of mass conversions among the traditionally pagan hill people aroused the hostility of communist authorities.

But in recent months the treatment of Protestant converts among the indigenous minorities of the central highlands has come in for even greater criticism from rights groups.

An army crackdown on hill tribe protests across the highlands in February last year sparked a wave of repression which had systematically targetted the 40 percent of highlanders who were Protestant Christians, Human Rights Watch said last month.

The authorities had resorted to church-burnings, arbitrary arrest and torture, and organized mock pagan ceremonies at which believers were pressured to publicly renounce their faith, the New York-based watchdog said.

Tam said new homes had been found for 1,800 of the Hmong migrants in an army project clearing land for cash crops. The Nong Nghiep Viet Nam (Vietnam Agriculture) newspaper named the unit as Batallion 16 in Quang Tin commune.

Nearly 400 non-Hmong migrants, who refused to participate in the same military-run scheme, were forcibly returned to their original homes in Thanh Hoa province on the north-central coast.

A further 1,053 Hmong have yet to be found new homes as the cash-strapped authorities have run out of budget.

"So far this year, we've had just 16 billion dong (a little over a million dollars) from the central government to cope with free immigration, but it's not been enough," said Tam.

"We need another 10 billion dong (670,000 dollars) to deal with this problem and settle people down."

In the first three months of the year, another 150 ethnic Vietnamese families, or some 750 people, were moved to Dak Lak from the northern Red River delta under government-sponsored migration schemes, Tan added.

It is part of a huge migrant wave which has seen the indigenous highlanders reduced to a minority in all four highlands provinces over the past quarter century.