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Rare rally tests Vietnam's religious tolerance

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 6 May 2011 11:16 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Troops brought in, government negotiator may have been held

* As many as 7,000 people may have been involved in protest

* Government says "several" Hmong gather (Adds analyst comment)

By John Ruwitch

HANOI, May 6 (Reuters) - Vietnam has deployed troops to contain a rare mass protest by ethnic Hmong people that is testing the government&${esc.hash}39;s tolerance of minority Christians, just weeks after human rights activists accused leaders of persecuting another hill tribe.

As many as 7,000 Hmong people began to gather several days ago in the far-flung mountains of Dien Bien Province, near the northwestern border with Laos and China, apparently for religious reasons although some were advocating an independent kingdom, according to diplomatic, government and other sources.

The unrest was unlikely to pose a threat to the government but the demonstration is the biggest involving ethnic minorities since unrest in the Central Highlands region in 2001 and 2004.

Details were scant from the hard-to-access region but a Catholic priest close to the area cited followers as saying troops had been deployed and the protesters had detained at least one government official sent to negotiate.

Vietnam&${esc.hash}39;s northwest is home to various hill tribes and stubborn pockets of deep poverty in a country that has emerged from the hangover of war with a fast-growing middle class and a dynamic, factory-driven economy.

"They probably have a hard time seeing their way out of (poverty)," Daniel Mont, senior poverty specialist with the World Bank, said of people in the region.

He added that parts of the northwest were so remote they had never been fully integrated and many minority people spoke little Vietnamese.

The Hmong are originally from southern China. Many of them migrated over many years to mountainous parts of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

Their culture, which includes belief in shamans and animal sacrifice, contrasts with modern Vietnam, which began allowing religious practice in the early 1990s. While officially atheist, most of Vietnam&${esc.hash}39;s 87 million people are Buddhist by tradition.

Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales, said the demonstration was a "squall" that came out of nowhere but did not pose a significant risk to the state.

"It&${esc.hash}39;s remote and it&${esc.hash}39;s not a threat to the regime," he said.

"SUPERNATURAL FORCE"

A diplomatic source said 5,000-7,000 people had been involved in the unrest and one of the demonstrators had apparently proclaimed himself king.

The military had cordoned off the area and cut electricity and telecommunications, said Pham Thanh Binh, a Catholic leader in the hill town of Sapa with contacts in the area.

The protesters had detained one or more government officials sent to negotiate, he added. It was unclear when that happened or if the officials had been released.

The U.S.-based Center for Public Policy Analysis, which advocates for the Hmong, said 28 Hmong were killed in an army crackdown, but that could not be verified.

Vietnam has 54 recognised ethnic groups including numerous minorities in its northern and central mountains. Some opposed the central government after the end of French colonial rule.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said on March 30 the government was persecuting Christian hill people in the Central Highlands. Authorities put down mass protests there in 2001 and 2004.

In a statement late on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga quoted a government official from the region of the latest disturbance as saying "several" Hmong had gathered in the belief a "supernatural force" would lead them to a promised land and they would have health, happiness and wealth.

"Taking advantage of the situation some bad elements tried to provoke the crowd and mobilise to establish an independent &${esc.hash}39;kingdom&${esc.hash}39; of the Hmong, disturbing the social order, security and safety of the locality," Nga said.

Authorities sent officials to "convince" those gathered to leave and some had returned home, she said. But the situation "is still being resolved by all levels of party and government so that the lives of the compatriots there can return to stability at an early time".

The BBC reported in Vietnamese that army units had been sent to quash the demonstration, which started on April 30. (Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)

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