Cablegate: Police Disrupt Consular Visit to Central Highlands

Published: Wed 22 Oct 2003 01:00 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (U) During a particularly unpleasant trip to the Central
Highlands to fulfill normal consular duties -- fraud
investigation, document verification, and personal
interviews regarding relationships and status -- ConGenOff,
two Consular Section and Refugee Resettlement Section FSNs,
and two FSN drivers were subjected to harassment, oral
threats, the attempted confiscation of their notes and
schedules, an attempt to block their diplomatic vehicle, and
an attempt to get into it. The incidents took place in Gia
Lai and Dak Lak Provinces October 7-9, and were perpetrated
by local police.
2. (U) This was the first time in more than three years
that local authorities have reacted so vociferously and
physically to a routine consular visit, although
surveillance and red tape are not unknown whenever
ConGenOffs travel outside Ho Chi Minh City. Nonetheless,
Post views this as a significant departure from customary
practice. Since HCMC's consular district boundaries have
never been established, ConGenOffs have had to depend on the
political willingness of GVN officials to "create favorable
conditions" for the carrying out of consular and other
official duties outside HCMC city limits.
3. (U) Separately, this trip has shown that at least in two
ethnic minority villages, ConGen can confirm that some
family registration books are being altered, travel is
severely restricted, and individuals are closely monitored
and being prevented from having outside contact. End
4. (SBU) The ConGen group traveled to three Central
Highlands provinces for a routine fraud investigation and
consular verification trip. This was a joint Consular
Section Fraud Prevention Unit and Refugee Resettlement
Section undertaking that focused on eight consular and eight
refugee cases. In an effort to verify the status of the
refugee follow-to-join Visas 93 case of Rmah H'Ri and her
daughters residing in Plei H'Rai Commune, Nhon Hoa Village,
in the Chu Se District of Gai Lai Province in the Central
Highlands, ConOff Li Gong and RRS FSN conducted a site visit
to the family on October 7. ConGenOff's goal was to verify
the family's passport application status, establish family
relationships and examine civil documents related to her
visa application. However, plainclothes policemen from both
the village and province disrupted the visit. The police
harassed ConOff and FSN, by shadowing their every move and
insisting on "answering" the questions that ConOff posed to
Rmah H'Ri.
5. (SBU) Rmah H'Ri's house is located along National
Highway 14, 36 kilometers from the provincial capital of
Pleiku. Before arriving at her house, ConOff telephoned
Rmah H'Ri at her neighbor's house and informed her of the
intended visit. Rmah H'Ri met ConOff and FSN by the gate to
her house and took her inside. Five minutes later, they
were interrupted by five plainclothes policemen who entered
the house without knocking or asking permission. Rmah H'Ri
stayed seated without speaking a word. Her three daughters
hid in another room. The police were led by A Anh Tuan, who
claimed to be the provincial policeman in charge of the
village. He and two other policemen were accompanied by the
village police chief.
6. (SBU) A Anh Tuan demanded ConOff surrender her ID card
and barked out a series of questions: who sent you here; who
gave you permission to come to this house, etc. ConOff
explained she was an American diplomat working at the U.S.
Consulate General in HCMC, who was here to conduct routine
consular fraud investigations and to learn, firsthand, why
Rmah H'Ri's family had not applied for their resettlement to
the U.S., even though the Visas 93 petitions were filed more
than two years ago. ConOff stated she did not need
permission for such a visit. A Anh Tuan demanded ConOff
follow him to the local People's Committee, saying any
foreigners wishing to visit the village had to obtain local
and provincial police permission. A Anh Tuan spoke in a
threatening voice, visibly upset that he was unsuccessful in
intimidating ConOff. ConOff explained that ConGen staff
conduct fraud investigations on a regular basis throughout
south and central Vietnam. No other province has ever
required the Consulate to obtain permission. A Anh Tuan
then informed ConOff she could continue her conversation
with Rmah H'Ri but only in his presence.
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7. (SBU) ConOff told A Anh Tuan that a policeman is present
whenever she visits an American prisoner in jail. She asked
if Rmah H'Ri was a criminal. A Anh Tuan replied, "She is
not a criminal, but her husband is a criminal wanted by the
Vietnamese government." He went on to say that the husband
belonged to a U.S.-based anti-GVN group and is wanted by
Interpol. When ConOff re-emphasized the purpose of her
visit was simply to verify the relationship as a consular
issue, the policeman relaxed somewhat.
8. (SBU) Rmah H'Ri, who is a Jarai ethnic minority, and her
three daughters live in a modest house located in a mixed
Vietnamese Kinh/ethnic minority village. She is now a
pepper farmer working on the land assigned to her, after she
was forced to resign from her job as a teacher in order to
apply for passports so she and her daughters could resettle
in the U.S. The family's passport applications were
subsequently denied. Rmah H'Ri last contacted the Gia Lai
Provincial Immigration Office in September 2002 and was told
there was no update on her applications. Another
immigration officer told Rmah H'Ri that her family would
never be issued passports.
9. (SBU) Rmah H'Ri stated that she was closely monitored
and frequently called in for questioning by the village
police. The number of village policemen had increased from
three to five, after her husband was resettled in the U.S.
via Cambodia in 2001. Rmah H'Ri also confirmed that a "Do
Not Enter" sign had been affixed to her door before PRM
Assistant Secretary Dewey's visit to Gia Lai Province in mid-
August. Police took down the sign one day prior to A/
Dwy's visit, and then put it up and took it down again.
10. (SBU) According to A Anh Tuan and the village police
chief, their responsibility is "to control the village and
people like Rmah H'Ri" and "to monitor and limit their
contact with the outside world." A Anh Tuan informed ConOff
that police trained the villagers to report any visitors or
strangers as soon as they entered the village. The village
police chief said that everyone had to have the police's
permission to leave the village and that Rmah H'Ri was no
exception. The village police chief recalled the last time
Rmah H'Ri left the village was this past June, when she took
her daughter to a doctor in Nha Trang City.
11. (U) ConOff asked to examine Rmah H'Ri's family
registration book, her children's birth certificates, her
marriage certificate and some family photos. Rmah H'Ri
handed over a brand new family registration book (ho khau)--
which did not include her husband's name. ConOff asked why
her husband's name was not in the ho khau. Policeman A Anh
Tuan responded that the ho khau only includes people
currently living in the village and that everyone had been
issued a new ho khau last year. (Post Note: Deleting family
members who no longer reside in a given village is not the
normal practice in Vietnam. Ho khaus do include family
members who have already left the household, with a note
indicating when the person left.)
12. (SBU) As ConOff prepared to depart, A Anh Tuan promised
there would be no punishment/reprisals against Rmah H'Ri and
her family. When ConOff asked A Anh Tuan why he could not
help Rmah H'Ri reunite with her husband, he responded, "I
was told by higher ranking officers to monitor Rmah H'Ri. I
have no role in the passport issuance matter, even though I
sympathize with her situation."
13. (SBU) According to Rmah H'Ri, her annual income from
the two-hectare pepper farm is about five million dong
(USD$320 - the average per capita income in Gia Lai Province
is about USD$240). Her husband sends USD$100-200 per month
to supplement the family expenses and calls her once a
month. Rmah H'Ri also has one cow and some chickens. The
oldest daughter, born in 1986, dropped out of school in
order to help with the farm work. The two younger
daughters, born in 1991 and 1995, continue to attend school.
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14. (SBU) The next day, ConOff, two FSNs and two drivers
set off to locate another Montagnard case in Ea Bar village,
about 35 kilometers northwest of Buon Me Thuot in Dak Lak
Province. This time, the local police forced ConOff and
team to leave the village before they could locate the
family of H'Pun M'Lo. Though ConOff was prevented from
locating H'Pun M'Lo, the very fact that the ConGen group had
entered the village and spoken even briefly with a couple
residents to ask for directions clearly upset the local
authorities. The police were both nervous and angered by
the thought of any conversation that might have occurred
between ConOff and the villagers. Police escorted ConOff and
FSNs to the local People's Committee where they detained
them for over two hours.
15. (SBU) H'Pun M'Lo is the wife of Y-Rit Hdok, who went to
the United States as a refugee, after fleeing to Cambodia in
2001. He had subsequently written to an American NGO and
the State Department to urge speedy visa issuance in
bringing his wife and family to the U.S. Y-Rit Hdok alleged
that local police had arrested his wife, H'Pun M'Lo. The
Refugee Resettlement Section was unable to locate a visa
petition filed on behalf of H'Pun M'Lo, given the limited
information contained in the original letter from Y-Rit
Hdok. ConOff's goal was to find out from the family itself
whether a petition had ever been filed, examine their
documentation, and verify relationships.
16. (U) Ea Bar Village, located 30 kilometers from the
Cambodian border, was home to several ethnic minority
residents who went to the U.S. as refugees in 2001, but
never filed petitions on behalf of family members left
behind. ConOff had intended to speak with some of those
family members to find out why petitions were never filed,
as Post never received the numerous Visas 93 petitions it
had expected.
17. (SBU) Upon arriving at Ea Bar Village, ConOff asked for
directions to H'Pun M'Lo's house. A villager told her to
ask a policeman -- one who just happened to be standing a
little too close for comfort to the ConGen's diplomatic
license-plated car. When the Consulate driver tried to back
the car up, three policemen blocked it and ordered ConOff
and FSNs to follow them to the police station. There, three
policemen questioned ConOff and two FSNs for about 20
minutes. They wanted to know if police permission had been
granted for the visit, and how the ConGen group found out
about H'Pun M'Lo (though nobody would confirm that she lived
in Ea Bar village). ConOff told police that this was a
routine consular investigation trip for which she needed to
speak directly with the family in question.
18. (U) The policemen claimed that according to Vietnamese
law, anyone who wished to visit an ethnic minority person or
village had to obtain prior permission. (Post Note: Post is
unaware of any such law and the policemen could not produce
it or quote a citation number for it.) At this point, the
lead policeman left the room. Meantime, the other policeman
was crowding in close to one FSN, apparently trying to get
into position to snatch the trip schedule from her hands.
When the lead policeman returned ten minutes later, he
ordered the ConGen team to proceed immediately to the
District People's Committee. The lead policeman then tried
to get into the Consulate car to escort them, but the doors
were locked and ConGen travelers shooed him away. Five
plainclothes policemen on motorbikes surrounded the ConGen
vehicle, and led it to the People's Committee.
19. (SBU) After arriving at the District People's
Committee, ConOff and one FSN were escorted to a conference
room, where a People's Committee official and commune
policeman waited. Neither would give their names. ConOff
was informed that the chief immigration officer for the
district would soon arrive. Two or three policemen
surrounded ConOff and FSN at all times during the 45-minute
wait. None of the policemen spoke, except to say that it
was against Vietnamese law to visit a member of an ethnic
minority group without prior permission. None would confirm
whether H'Pun M'Lo lived in Ea Bar Village.
20. (U) Meanwhile, outside the District People's Committee,
two more GVN vehicles with a total of 20 uniformed policemen
had arrived. The FSN and two drivers who remained behind
were questioned separately by police. The police were
particularly interested in learning how ConOff found the
right route to the village, whether the ConGen group had
spoken with any minority people prior to "meeting" the local
police, and what did the ConGen group talk about when they
were riding in the car. The policemen were intensely
interested in finding out what was in the ConGen vehicle and
asked whether there were any gifts for the ethnic minority
people (there weren't). (Post Note: We are not sure if the
police were hinting for a bribe, or were sincerely concerned
that ConGen staff might be smuggling "subversive" documents
into the villages.)
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21. (U) The chief immigration officer, Mr. Nguyen Dinh
Thoi, his assistant Mr. Le Dinh Tri, and External Relations
Office rep Ms. Tran Thi Thang arrived at the People's
Committee 40 minutes later. Mr. Thoi was pleasant enough,
but also appeared to be under the influence of alcohol.
22. (U) Mr. Thoi had only one message to deliver -- ConOff
had violated Vietnamese law, but could be forgiven as long
as she promised that this would never happen again. He
repeated this three times. After ConOff repeatedly
responded that no one in the Consulate General was aware of
the existence of such a law, and asked him to produce a copy
of said law, Mr. Thoi finally conceded that ConOff had not
broken any law. But, he admonished, any and all future
ConOffs would still be required to obtain prior permission.
In addition, he requested an "introduction letter" attesting
to the ConOff's bona fides. He claimed the Immigration
Office would only be able "to help" if ConOff could present
such a letter, describing the nature of her inquiries, and
in effect, asking for permission.
23. (SBU) ConOff responded that she could ask the ConGen to
fax such a letter, with the understanding she would proceed
with the visit. The three GVN officials then stated that
this letter had to be sent to the provincial ERO in Dak
Lak's capital, Buon Me Thuot, where a decision on permitting
a consular visit would be made. According to Mr. Thoi, Ea
Bar Village was a sensitive place and "unsafe for a diplomat
without escort." (Post Note: This is a favorite GVN
excuse.) After spending about 90 minutes in this "meeting"
at the People's Committee, ConOff and team were instructed
to go to their hotel under police escort. The ConGen
travelers passed an uneventful night, and departed for Lam
Dong Province the next day as scheduled. Though Lam Dong is
also a Central Highlands province, the ConGen group
experienced no problems there.
24. (SBU) During both incidents in Gia Lai and Dak Lak
provinces, the local police were constantly on the phone,
consulting with someone in higher authority. The insistence
that ConOff needed local and provincial police permission in
order to carry out normal consular duties was a surprising
additional requirement. The monitoring and control in
these two ethnic minority villages was far more severe than
anything other ConGenOffs have seen during previous Central
Highlands visits. The environment of oppression and control
reflected a clear attempt to prevent contact with the
outside world. Given the population composition of Ea Bar
and Nhon Hoa villages, one can only assume these practices
are directed against ethnic minorities and/or against those
families who had someone who fled to Cambodia. It is no
wonder that the Refugee Resettlement Section has seen so few
follow-to-join resettlement petitions for these family
members. If local police feel empowered to intimidate and
threaten ConGen personnel, one can only imagine how they
treat the people who are supposedly in their care. ConGen's
experience in Dak Lak Province and Gia Lai Province -- but
PARTICULARLY DAK LAK -- contradicts our experience in other
parts of southern Vietnam, where local authorities have
welcomed consular visits and offered assistance.
25. (SBU) As a result of this trip, Post was able to
confirm some specific allegations that have been made about
GVN treatment of ethnic minorities in Ea Bar (Dak Lak
Province) and Nhon Hoa (Gia Lai Province). Family
registration books have been altered. Whether this is to
make it more difficult to determine relationships for
immigration purposes or not, is difficult to conclude.
However, it is not normal Vietnamese practice to delete
people from family registration books simply because they no
longer live in a given village. Ethnic minority residents
in Ea Bar and Nhon Hoa definitely live in fear of the police
and local officials. Travel is restricted, and in lead
policeman A Anh Tuan's own words, the police are there to
control inhabitants and prevent contact with the outside
26. (SBU) Post was in regular communication with the ConGen
travelers throughout. At no time were they in actual
danger, although the provincial and local authorities were
verbally and physically intimidating. The Embassy and ConGen
have raised Rmah H'Ri's case with provincial and central GVN
officials in diplomatic notes and in person. We have made
no secret of our concern. The case has also generated
inquiries from Senator John Edwards (September 8, 2003) and
Kay Reibold of the Vietnam Highlands Assistance Project.
The case of H'Pun M'Lo was the subject of an e-mail from
Mike Benge and a subsequent inquiry from DAS Matt Daley
(September 18). Neither case is extraordinary in its
consular implications. What is unusual is the strongly
negative local GVN over-reaction. Whether or not the GVN
likes the fact that ethnic minority people fled to Cambodia
before seeking refuge in the U.S., these are bona fide
refugee cases as adjudicated under U.S. law. GVN officials,
who profess to give a high priority to family reunification
and the establishment of a "normal bilateral immigration
relationship with the U.S.," seem not to extend this
priority to follow-to-join family members in the Central
27. (SBU) Further, it would appear that a GVN policy
evolved over the years of permitting Vietnamese to travel
freely throughout the country has taken a step backward --
at least in certain parts of the country or at least as
certain local police choose to enforce it. GVN public
statements about how Vietnam is a safe place, and that
foreigners and tourists can visit all but officially
restricted areas, also seems at odds with what local police
told ConGen travelers.
28. (SBU) On a more personal note, Post is once again
reminded of how much its travel depends on which side of the
bed GVN officialdom wakes up on each morning. Without the
established consular district as outlined in the L. Desaix
Anderson of February 12, 1997 (from Thua Thien-Hue and all
points south), ConGen personnel are subject to arbitrary
treatment and constantly shifting definitional goalposts as
to what constitutes "permission", "approval",
"notification", "requests", etc. whenever they travel
outside of HCMC.
29. (SBU) There has been no movement on the GVN's part to
formally recognize the Consulate General's consular district
in the past six years. And now, even the usual and
customary practice of the past three years of "allowing"
routine consular trips to proceed without prior permission
has been set on its head. In fact, GVN authorities seem to
have affixed additional requirements and hoops to jump
through. Vietnam may have aspirations to join the
international economic community via the WTO. One can only
hope it aspires to join the international diplomatic
community as well. End comment.
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