Vietnam Table of Contents

Living somewhat separately from the dominant ethnic Vietnamese are the numerous minorities. The 1979 census listed fifty-three minorities accounting for 12.7 percent (6.6 million persons) of the national population. This figure included the Hoa (Han Chinese), the single largest bloc--representing approximately 1.5 percent of the total population, or about 935,000 people--in the lowland urban centers of both the North and the South. Of the other minority groups, thirty, comprising 68 percent of the minority population (4.5 million persons), resided in the North, while the remaining twenty-two groups, comprising 32 percent of the minority population (2.1 million persons) lived in the South. The size of each community ranged from fewer than 1,000 to as many as 0.9 million persons, and 10 major groups comprised about 85 percent of the minority population.

Minorities that live in the mountainous regions are known by their generic name, Montagnards. The Vietnamese also disparagingly call them "moi," meaning savage. The government attributes the backwardness of the Montagnards to the overwhelming influence of their history as exploited and oppressed peoples. They are darker skinned than their lowland neighbors.

The origins of the non-Vietnamese minorities are far from clear, but scholars generally believe that some, like the Hmong (Meo), Zao, Nung, San Chay, Cao Lan, Giay, and Lolo, are descendants of the ancient migrants from southern China who settled in the northern border regions. Others, like the Tay, Muong, and Thai are believed to be related to the lowland natives of Malay stock who were forced into the highlands by successive invasions of Mongoloid peoples from China. Among these indigenous minorities are the Cham of central Vietnam, remnants of a kingdom that ruled the central coast of the country until overrun by the Vietnamese in the fifteenth century, and the Khmer, whose Cambodian forebears controlled the Mekong delta region until displaced in the late eighteenth century by the Vietnamese. The Khmer and the Cham are lowlanders of the south and are considered, along with the Tay, Muong, and Thai of the north, to be culturally more developed than other minority ethnic groups but less so than the Vietnamese.

The non-Chinese minority peoples, however, are for the most part highlanders who live in relative independence and follow their own traditional customs and culture. They are classified as either sedentary or nomadic. The sedentary groups, the more numerous of the two kinds, are engaged mainly in the cultivation of wet rice and industrial crops; the nomadic groups, in slash- and-burn farming where forested land is cleared for a brief period of cultivation and then abandoned. Both groups inhabit the same four major areas: the northern Chinese border region and the uplands adjacent to the Red River Delta, the northwestern border region adjoining Laos and China, the Central Highlands and the area along the Giai Truong Son, and parts of the Mekong River Delta and the central coastal strip. These groups are notable for their diverse cultural characteristics. They are distinguished from one another not only by language but also by such other cultural features as architectural styles, colors and shapes of dress and personal ornaments, shapes of agricultural implements, religious practices, and systems of social organization.

The number and variety of languages used by Vietnam's minorities reflect the country's ethnic complexity. Minority groups are distinguished by more than a dozen distinct languages and numerous dialects; the origins and distribution of many of these languages have not yet been conclusively established. They can, however, be classified loosely into three major language families, which in turn can be divided into several subgroups. Eleven of the minority groups--Tay, Thai, Nung, Hmong, Muong, Cham, Khmer, Kohor, Ede, Bahnar, and Jarai--have their own writing systems.

Religious practices among highland minorities tend to be rooted in animistic beliefs. Most worship a pantheon of spirits, but a large number are Catholics or Protestants. In contrast to the Mahayana Buddhist beliefs of the majority of Vietnamese, the Khmer practice Theravada (or Hinayana) Buddhism, and the Cham subscribe to both Islam and Hindu beliefs.

Before the arrival of the French in the nineteenth century, the highland minorities lived in isolation from the lowland population. Upon the consolidation of French rule, however, contacts between the two groups increased. The French, interested in the uplands for plantation agriculture, permitted the highlanders their linguistic and cultural autonomy, and administered their areas separately from the rest of Vietnam. Conferring this special status gave the French a free hand in cultivating the largely unexploited highlands, where their administrators and Christian missionaries also set up schools, hospitals, and leprosariums.

Often, however, conflicts arose between the upland communities and the French, who were distrusted as exploitative, unwelcome interlopers. The French, however, eventually overcame the unrest and successfully developed some of the highland areas, especially those of the Ede and Jarai, where they established large rubber, coffee, and tea plantations.

After the mid-1950s, North and South Vietnam dealt with the minorities differently. The Hanoi regime in the North, recognizing the traditional separatist attitudes of the tribal minorities, initiated a policy of accommodation by setting up two autonomous zones for the highlanders in return for their acceptance of Hanoi's political control. By offering limited self-government, Hanoi's leaders hoped that integration of the minorities into Vietnamese society could eventually be achieved. By contrast, the noncommunist Saigon administration in the South, under Ngo Dinh Diem, opted for direct, centralized control of the tribal minorities and incurred their enduring wrath by seizing ancestral tribal lands for the resettlement of displaced Catholic refugees from the North.

After Diem's death in 1963, successive Saigon administrations granted a modicum of autonomy, but the strategic hamlet program, introduced in the South in the 1960s, caused further disruption by forcing highlanders to relocate to fortified enclaves. The program was proposed to improve the physical security of montagnards as well as to deny food and services to Viet Cong guerrillas, but it largely embittered its minority participants, who wanted to be left alone to continue living on their ancestral lands in the traditional manner. In an act of resistance, some tribal leaders gathered in 1964 to announce the formation of the Unified Front for the Struggle of Oppressed Races (Front Unifie pour la Lutte des Races Opprimees--FULRO), representing the Bahnar, Cham, Ede, Hre, Jarai, Mnong, Raglai, Sadang, Stieng, and other groups.

After 1975 a number of northern minority cadres were sent to the Central Highlands to lay the groundwork for socio-economic development. In 1977 a university was set up at Buon Me Thuot, capital of the Dac Lac Province, to train a corps of minority cadres. These tactics were designed to narrow the socioeconomic gap not only between the highlanders and the lowlanders but also among the minorities themselves.

In the mid-1980s, the party and media expressed satisfaction with the cadres' training and commended certain highland provinces for progress in agricultural cooperativization, noting that a growing number of slash-and-burn farmers had turned to sedentary farming and that further improvements in cultural and health facilities were planned. By 1986 about 43 percent of the estimated 2.2 million nomadic minority members were reported to have adopted a more sedentary life. There were also glowing claims that minorities were now full-fledged participants in national affairs, as was evidenced by their representation in the National Assembly and in other government and party organizations.

A cursory examination reveals, however, that progress was spotty. The living conditions of highlanders continued to lag behind those of lowlanders. In remote areas, "backward customs and practices" remained unchanged, minority groups were insufficiently represented among cadres, and sorely needed resources for material improvements were lacking. Official claims that closer unity and greater harmony were being achieved in a multinational Vietnam were belied by the government's frequent admonishments against "narrow nationalism" (the parochialism of the minority groups) and against "big nationality prejudices" (the ingrained Vietnamese biases against minorities). To be sure, the number of minority cadres with either general or college- level education was growing, but in 1987 these cadres represented only a small portion of the functionaries serving in the highland provinces, districts, towns, and villages. In Dac Lac Province, 91 percent of the district-level cadres and 63 percent of the key village and lower level cadres had been transferred from other places, presumably from the North or the lowlands of the South.

Under the government program of population redistribution, lowlanders continued to emigrate to the Central Highlands. In 1980 about 52 percent of the Central Highlands population consisted of ethnic Vietnamese. In 1985, as pressure mounted on the Vietnamese government to produce grain and industrial crops, a greater influx of ethnic Vietnamese was anticipated. By 1987 it seemed clear that minority groups were likely to remain unequal partners in the management of their local affairs, despite official protestations to the contrary, as increasing numbers of Vietnamese settled in the Central Highlands.

The minority question remained an issue because of its implications not only for integration but also for internal security. In the mid-1980s, there were occasional official allusions to counterrevolutionary activities attributed to FULRO. Hanoi was quick to assert, however, that these rebel activities were blown out of proportion by the Western media. Nonetheless, the authorities were concerned about the northern border areas, where renegades of such groups as the Hmong, Zao, and Giay were said to have participated in China's anti-Vietnamese activities after 1979 as "special gangs of bandits." Official literature supported the construction of "a border cultural defense line to counter the multifaceted war of sabotage waged by the Chinese expansionists."

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress