Cablegate: Hcmc Ero Briefs Foreign Diplomats On the Central

Published: Fri 23 Apr 2004 03:57 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
REF: A) HCMC 0391 B) HCMC 0401 C) Hanoi 1113 D) HCMC 0406
1. (SBU) Summary: In a briefing for the Consular Corps on April
20, Director Le Quoc Hung of the Ho Chi Minh City External
Relations Office (ERO -- the southern branch office of the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs) blamed "extremist elements" inside
and outside of Vietnam for demonstrations that turned violent on
April 10-11 in the Central Highlands provinces of Dak Lak and Gia
Lai (refs A and B). Mr. Hung assured the Consular Corps that the
ERO would work to arrange visits to the area after the People's
Council elections were held on April 25. End summary.
2. (SBU) Mr. Hung opened the briefing by acknowledging that "some
incidents" had occurred in Dak Lak and Gia Lai, as well as in one
small part of the new province of Dak Nong, which was spun off
from Dak Lak late last year. He accused "extremist elements" of
"inciting, threatening, and forcing" some ethnic minority
residents in the Central Highlands ("Montagnards") to take part in
violent demonstrations. According to Mr. Hung, the protesters
attacked commune offices and "kidnapped" local officials, damaging
property and causing injuries to both officials and ordinary
residents in the process. Despite the violent nature of the
protests, he said, security forces had used maximum restraint in
their efforts to quell the disturbances.
3. (SBU) Mr. Hung cited casualty figures of 60-70 injured, most of
them not seriously, and two dead, one from a sharp object thrown
by another protester and one from an overturned tractor. Mr. Hung
stressed that those numbers were far below the "exaggerated"
reports of Montagnard Foundation, Inc. (MFI) and other groups in
the U.S. While Mr. Hung admitted that hundreds had been arrested
in the course of restoring public order, he affirmed that only the
ringleaders and those who committed specific criminal acts were
still being detained. He said that government officials had even
provided the rest of the demonstrators with transportation back
home. Approximately 200 tractors used by the protesters had also
been impounded, but would be returned to any owners who had merely
been deceived into participating in the demonstrations. Mr. Hung
told a questioner later that he was not sure which ethnic groups
had taken part, although he thought there had probably been many
Ede and Bahnar. He was also unable to offer any specific numbers
on possible refugee flows across the long border with Cambodia.
4. (SBU) Responding to a question later in the briefing, Mr. Hung
acknowledged that the GVN had advance notice of the demonstrations
and referred to a press release before the event by MFI. What the
GVN had not known for sure was exactly where and when the protests
would take place. He said local officials had been surprised by
the methods employed by the protesters -- particularly the use of
tractors -- and the ferocity of the attacks. While it would have
been easy to put down the protests by force, given the ample
military assets in these strategic border provinces, he said the
GVN did not want to harm the majority of participants who had been
innocently "duped" into joining the protests. Knowing that the
organizers were hoping for a harsh response, the GVN had accepted
higher casualties among the military and police by choosing to
exercise restraint.
5. (SBU) Tying MFI and other foreign groups directly to the
protests, Mr. Hung noted the unlikelihood that similar
demonstrations could have occurred at roughly the same time across
a wide geographic area, without "collusion" between internal and
external forces. For those who doubted foreign involvement, Mr.
Hung pointed to MFI's press release of Friday, April 9, which
announced the pending demonstrations and called on the
international community to send observers. According to Mr. Hung,
this showed that the protests were merely a pretext for gaining
international attention. The real goals of the organizers were to
tarnish the image of Vietnam, particularly in the eyes of
international organizations and aid donors, and create social
disunity at home. That plan included encouraging people to cross
the border to Cambodia illegally.
6. (SBU) Mr. Hung stressed that the Central Highlands were now
open to foreign tourists, although local authorities were still
dealing with the aftermath of the destruction and looting. When
Acting Consul General followed up on the access issue during the
question and answer period, Mr. Hung modified his comments
somewhat, saying that while tourists were free to travel,
journalists and diplomats should recognize the sensitivities
involved and make sure their visits were handled through official
channels. While diplomats were always free to travel as tourists,
that meant limiting themselves to guided tours and not "poking
around" and talking to people in the affected areas. He said ERO
would do its best to arrange official visits as soon as the
People's Council elections were over on April 25.
7. (SBU) When A/CG raised the general issue of visits by
journalists and others, Mr. Hung announced that the ERO would send
a diplomatic note to ConGen HCMC on Wednesday inviting a
delegation to visit after the elections (note: the dip note had
not arrived as of Thursday evening). Noting that he wished
foreign diplomats had been there to see the violent acts committed
by the "terrorists," Mr. Hung said the GVN had decided to restrict
such travel because it feared a visit by foreigners might
encourage extremist elements. He added quite bluntly that ERO
really had difficulty persuading local officials to accept
American and other foreign delegations, especially in the Central
Highlands. He excused this, saying that local officials needed to
expend a great deal of time and energy to arrange good trips and
were easily drained by frequent visits.
8. (SBU) Director Hung ended his formal briefing by noting that
some press agencies had carried false stories blaming the GVN for
oppressing the Montagnards. On the contrary, he said, the GVN was
committed to improving the material and spiritual life of the
ethnic minority groups, although their standard of living and
educational level remained low, especially in the Central
Highlands. Noting that some protesters had carried banners
blaming the ethnic majority Kinh Vietnamese for appropriating
their land, Mr. Hung attributed the problem to ethnic minority
migrants from the north. At the same time, he acknowledged that
better land management was needed everywhere in Vietnam, not just
the Central Highlands.
9. (SBU) According to Mr. Hung, the real motivations of the
protesters were quite different. He claimed that debriefed
protesters had told authorities they were deceived into
demonstrating in Buon Ma Thuot by promises that UNHCR planes would
come to their rescue and take them out of the country. Other
rumors promised UNHCR would pay US$5,000 to any refugees they
resettled. Asked by a member of the consular corps why the GVN
hadn't simply tried to explain the situation to the Montagnards
before the rumors spread, Mr. Hung noted that the authorities were
not close enough to the people they serve. He also said it takes
time to change people's thinking, something the GVN had been
trying to do with the Montagnards since the unrest of 2001. To
make his point, he noted that the GVN had been pushing a family
planning policy to improve the lives of the ethnic minorities.
Unfortunately, Kok Ksor had twisted that policy to convince the
ethnic minorities that the GVN was really using the policy to
eliminate their culture.
10. (SBU) Comment: The ERO did not cover any new ground after the
previous day's MFA briefing in Hanoi (ref C), but the question and
answer session was more extensive than expected, lasting over an
hour. And this briefing was certainly more enlightening than a
private meeting at ERO a week earlier (ref D). In a brief
statement as the Dean of the Consular Corps, the French CG noted
that this was the first such briefing on a sensitive matter he had
been asked to attend in his four years here. On the margins of
the meeting, several foreign diplomats commented that while it was
difficult to overcome the GVN's often defensive tone, their
sources seemed to confirm the broad general outlines of the
demonstrations presented during the briefing. They agreed,
however, that it is extremely difficult to get a full and accurate
picture of events without open access to the Central Highlands.
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