National Minorities of Central Vietnam

Alternative names: “Montagnards”, various tribal names: Bohnar, Sodang, Mnong, Ma, Sre, Rhade, Jarai
Location: Gia Lai-Kontum, Dae Lac, Lam Dong provinces
Population: about 800,000
% of population: about 1.5% of total Vietnamese population
Religion: indigenous beliefs, Christian
Language: various

The indigenous tribal peoples (Autochthons) of Central Vietnam are concentrated in three provinces of Gia Lai-Kontum, Dac Lac and Lam Dong — a largely forested plateau between the Mekong valley to the west and coastal plains to the east. The French termed the minorities Montagnards or mountain-dwellers, but the term is not strictly accurate since they actually live in the high valleys. The present government of Vietnam terms them “National Minorities” and the groups call themselves either by a proper or generic name e.g. cau sre (rice people). They are not a homogenous group but share a similar lifestyle. The various groups, numbering in total about 800,000 fall into two categories: (i) the Mon-Khmer linguistic group (Austroasiatics), who are related to the Khmer and live at elevations of about 500 metres. They include the Bohnar and Sodang in the north and the Mnong, Ma and Sre to the south; and (ii) the Malayo-Polynesian linguistic group (Austronesians) who are related to the Malays and Indonesians and live on fertile lower lands. They include the Rhade and Jarai, the largest single group with a population of about 200,000. There are other tribal minority groups in the

National Minorities of Central Vietnam

north of Vietnam including the Hmong, Yao, Nung and Tay.

The traditional lifestyle of the highland peoples was one of hunting and gathering; however, in their more recent history they have lived mainly by farming, either the slash and burn method or by cultivating flooded rice fields. Maize, vegetables and fruit are grown and the diet supplemented through hunting, fishing and gathering. All the groups have strong religious beliefs in a spirit world which is approached through shamans and healers. Their oral literature makes use of rich imagery and many individuals are skilled in crafts such as weaving and basketry.

The French colonial period

For several centuries the Vietnamese had been expanding from the north, conquering and displacing Khmer and Cham peoples. However Vietnamese influence in the interior of the country was limited, although the tribal people themselves made occasional incursions to the coastal plains and returned with Vietnamese slaves. In 1850 a French Catholic mission was established in Bohnar territory. Although the missionaries showed little respect for traditional culture and religion they built hospitals, nurseries and leper colonies. By the 1890s the French had established a protectorate over the three-fold territory of Cochin-China, Annam and Tonkin. The people of the interior found themselves surrounded by the colonial power and military outposts were erected in their territory. The Pays Montagnards du Sud (PMS) were created as part of a development plan and numerous schools were opened, especially around Kontum and Banmethout. Minority children were taught to read and write in their own language and by 1949 the schools register of the PMS contained 3,500 Montagnard pupils. “Montagnard battalions” were formed which were later to be used against the Vietnamese. Rubber, tea and coffee plantations were established and Vietnamese were brought in to work on them. As the Vietnamese were moved into the minority areas the indigenous groups themselves began to be pushed away from their homelands. However, while the French were in charge this process was relatively limited.

During World War II Indo-China was occupied by the Japanese and Vietnamese resistance was organized by the Viet-Minh, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, and it was this movement which in 1945 declared Vietnam to be an independent republic. The French were determined to regain their colonial possessions and began a savage eight year war which lasted until the final French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Vietnam was partitioned with the north becoming the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the south the Republic of Vietnam. Initially minority insurgents aided and abetted the Vietnamese revolutionaries while most of the plateau area became the scene of a guerrilla war with the French controlling the main towns and roads. In 1949 the PMS were converted into Crown Possessions and the French set up an autonomist movement, the United Front of Liberation of the Oppressed Races (FULRO) which was restructured under Montagnard leadership in 1958. This movement, ostensibly aimed at improving relations between the French and the minorities, was led by the Rhade and some Bohnar but initially gained little popular support, and only succeeded in making the Vietnamese suspicious of the minority groups and regarding them as collaborators.

The Vietnam War

By now, the Americans had become fearful for their interests in the region, believing that South-East Asia as a whole was in danger and that if South Vietnam were to fall to the Communists other countries would follow. The USA therefore supported the anti-communist governments of first Diem and later Thieu, both of whom showed little respect for the minority population. Under Diem tribal peoples were concentrated in roadside camps and many of their lands were given to Catholic refugee settlers from the north. In 1953 there had been only 20,000 Vietnamese in the highlands but twenty years later the number had reached half a million. New laws effectively deprived the Montagnards of legal ownership of lands while the separate courts and administrative systems set up by the French were abolished, as was the use and teaching of tribal languages. In some areas traditional dress was banned while the general attitude of the Vietnamese authorities was that the tribals were savages who had to be integrated into Vietnamese society. As a result there was a FULRO-led revolt against the government, which continued for several years in the mid-1960s, and sought autonomy for the highland areas. The USA, who had enlisted many Montagnards in the CIA-sponsored “Special Forces”, managed to dampen some of these demands and after US pressure, negotiations began with the government. Thieu established a Ministry for the Development of Ethnic Minorities, seats were reserved for Montagnards in the legislature and the Montagnard courts were reopened.

The USA entered Vietnam on the basis of economic assistance and help with building up its armed forces; however, over the next few years the number of US military personnel in South Vietnam grew until by 1963 there were some 16,000. In 1965 US troops were sent into Vietnam, the numbers reaching 550,000 by 1968. During the war Montagnards were forced into fortified villages or “strategic hamlets”, surrounded by triple stake fences. Later villages were regrouped along the main roads and populations were hurriedly moved so that families were frequently separated between different camps. In the camps conditions were bad and mortality rates increased. Many of the tribals — especially the Austronesians — refused to be housed in camps, remaining in their villages or hiding in caves in the bush. Between 1968 and 1973 the numbers of Montagnards dropped drastically; perhaps 80,000 were killed in war or died of hunger or disease. Many Montagnard troops of the South Vietnamese army mutinied or deserted. Others joined the Vietcong in areas occupied by the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), who however were also responsible for acts of terror and coercion against the tribals. In late 1968 North Vietnamese troops had entered the South to support the Vietcong, a process which eventually lead to the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the reunification of Vietnam. The contribution of the minorities to this struggle was an important one: they supported the resistance movement, feeding and sheltering insurgents and allowing them to travel through the forests towards the South.


Although the right to self-determination was recognized as early as 1935 by the Vietnamese Communist movement, this was modified in 1960 to a call for “autonomous zones” where there was a “concentration of national minorities” and minorities were invited “to catch up within the shortest possible timescale” with the Vietnamese. An autonomous zone was established in Viet Bac in the North but it was announced in 1978 that the autonomous zones were to be abolished in order to advance socialism. No such zones were established in the South although the Montagnards were promised a degree of autonomy by the PRG, and most of the new officials appointed in the highlands were apparently drawn from tribal groups. Some FULRO resistance to the government continued into the late 1970s and in 1981 a Thai report announced the formation of the National Front for the Liberation of the Highlands. This group claimed to have formed a provisional government in Dac Lac province among the Rhade tribes.

Since 1975 Vietnam has largely been a closed country and information on minority groups has been scarce. It appears that the present government is following a similar policy to the previous South Vietnamese regime in encouraging large-scale settlement on tribal lands and it was reported in 1979 that 57,000 North Vietnamese were settled in Lam Dong Province in the years 1976-79. Many thousands of Vietnamese have spent time in “re-education camps” and it seems probable that at least some tribals, regarded as collaborators, were among them.

(See also Hmong of Laos)