Vietnamese security forces have arrested more than 50 people in the country’s Central Highlands, who they allege were involved in deadly attacks on two commune offices in Dak Lak province last week. The attacks, which occurred in the early hours of June 11 in Cu Kuin district, left nine people dead, including four police officers, two commune officials, and three civilians.
In a report published on Friday, Radio Free Asia (RFA) quoted a Ministry of Public Security spokesperson as saying that those arrested were, in RFA’s paraphrase, “young people who harbored delusions and extremist attitudes and had been incited and abetted by the ringleaders via the internet.”
The attack took place in a region home to numerous indigenous minority groups known collectively as Dega, or Montagnards. In the ministry’s telling of the attack, about 40 people launched a pre-dawn attack on the People’s Committee buildings and police offices in Ea Tieu and Ea Ktur communes, which are located south of the provincial capital Buon Ma Thuot. Petrol bombs and grenades were also reportedly used in the assault, with Public Security Ministry spokesperson To An Xo telling reporters last week that the attackers were “ordered to kill officers and local police on sight, taking their assets and weapons.”
It remains unclear whether any of the assailants were injured or killed in the attack, but the incident prompted an intimidating deployment of security forces in Dak Lak while police hunted down those involved. Meanwhile, the provincial authorities issued a notice calling on the public to place its trust in the authorities. “Don’t listen, don’t trust, don’t follow” those promoting “reactionary” agendas, it said.
As Michael Tatarski noted in his indispensable Vietnam Weekly newsletter, the Dak Lak attack is the “most high-profile eruption of violence since the sensitive Dong Tam incident on the outskirts of Hanoi in January 2020.” That involved a land dispute between the village of Dong Tam, in northern Vietnam, and Viettel Group, Vietnam’s military-run communications company. The dispute culminated in a major clash in which three police officers were killed.
The motivation and goal of the Dak Lak attackers remain unclear, but the Central Highlands has seen periodic protests and clashes between Montagnards and the central state, particularly over land disputes, economic difficulties, and crackdowns on unregistered evangelical churches.
In a 2018 report, Human Rights Watch reported that Montagnards continued to be subject to “ongoing government religious and political persecution,” including “intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and mistreatment in custody.” As a result, increasing numbers of Montagnards, particularly Christians, have sought asylum in Cambodia and Thailand.
All of this is set against a fraught historical backdrop. During the Indochina Wars, some Montagnard groups fought for the southern Republic of Vietnam and then carried on an armed insurgency against the state that persisted until the early 1990s. Since then, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has viewed the indigenous inhabitants of the Central Highlands with suspicion, and has evinced a tendency to view expressions of ethnic and political grievance as stirrings of separatism and treason.
What little news that has emerged about the Dak Lak incident has passed through the political filter of Vietnamese state media, which has sought to depict the attackers as common criminals without a legitimate political agenda. As Public Security Ministry spokesperson To An Xo put it, the attackers were “organized, violent, bold, barbaric, and inhumane.”
Even if it is true that the attacks were not motivated by explicit political goals, they are likely inseparable from the years of state persecution and tensions over land and resources. In its coverage of the clashes, RFA quoted an anonymous researcher specializing in the indigenous cultures of the Central Highlands, who speculated that the attackers “might have come to a dead end” and acted out of desperation.
Whatever the exact motivation, the Vietnamese authorities will clearly use the incident to increase the apparatus of surveillance further, making further such attacks simply a matter of time.