HANOI, Vietnam (Reuters) — Communist Vietnam barred foreign nationals from travel to its restive Central Highlands after ethnic minorities clashed with police and military with stones and sticks on in a repeat of protests three years ago.
Thousands of the hill tribespeople drove into Buon Ma Thuot city, the capital of Daklak province, on Saturday and massed outside the provincial government office, local residents said.
“They marched as if in a military parade,” said one resident.
The Montagnard Foundation Inc, which says it represents some of the hill tribespeople, says they are Protestants protesting against alleged repression by authorities.
Major unrest in the highlands in February 2001 over religious and property rights was crushed by Hanoi and the region has since been under a blanket of security. Diplomats and foreign journalists must get clearance to travel to the area.
An estimated 200 to 300 of the minorities, loosely called Montagnards, were detained after Saturday’s melee during which tear gas was used, a local resident said.
A number of people with minor injuries were treated on Saturday at the General Hospital in Daklak, an official at the facility said on Sunday. “We do not know how many people in total…The injuries were minor,” she said.
The Buon Ma Thuot resident said conditions in the city, the centre of Vietnam’s coffee belt, appeared calm on Sunday.
The U.S. embassy said a delegation of its officials was prevented by police from entering Buon Ma Thuot on Saturday. Their car was stopped en route from southern Ho Chi Minh City and they were told the area was “not suitable for foreigners,” a spokesman said.
The diplomats were on a previously scheduled trip to the highlands. The U.S. embassy spokesman said the group was also told it could not travel to Pleiku, another highlands city that was struck by unrest three years ago.
One Vietnamese businessman who was unable to fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Buon Ma Thuot on Saturday said foreigners were pulled off earlier flights to the city.
A foreign resident said he was told by Vietnam Airlines he could not fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Pleiku on Sunday morning. However, the capital city of Gia Lai province, north of Daklak, was apparently unaffected by the protests, according to several local residents.
U.S. citizens have been warned by the embassy against travel to Daklak province.
The Montagnards, a term used to refer to highlanders, minorities or mountain people, are the hill tribes of central and northern ViêtNam. There are also areas in the south, to a lesser extent, where such groups can be found.
ViêtNam is home to over 54 minorities, the term Montagnards was coined by the French and is still widely used today.
They were also called Moi (savages) in pre-colonial times before educated people travelled into the interior. Today the word moi is a derogatory phrase used by Viêtnamese.
During the American War the Montagnards were widely recruited as fighters by both North and South Viêtnamese and much of their land was destroyed. In fact, Montagnard were fighting the Viêtnamese for about 90 days after the Americans had surrendered SaiGon.
This continued war exacerbated ill-feelings between the Ha Noi Government. Their autonomous existence ended after the American War.
Tribes in the highlands scratch a living from farming (growing rice, coffee, black beans and sweet potatoes), as well as producing charcoal, which is seen as an undesirable occupation by the Viêtnamese.
Many of these groups are semi-nomadic, practicing slash and burn methods of farming causing considerable damage to the environment.
Presently only 21% of ViêtNam’s land remains forested after the unchecked gathering of fire wood and routine clearing of land.
Most Montagnards indulge in a tipple of rice wine, which consists of a jar with multiple straws protruding from every side, that can be shared simultaneously by many drinkers. It is considered an insult not to join them when asked.
Those Travellers unaccustomed to this alcohol may well experience upset stomachs, in addition to becoming drunk.
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