The Highlands have abundant coffee fields, pepper farms and rubber trees, but much of that recent prosperity has bypassed the Montagnards—French for "mountain dwellers"—who live in grievous poverty in tin-walled homes or rickety wooden stilt houses. They say their land has been encroached upon by Vietnamese migrants from the lowlands and that they have been subjected to religious persecution because many follow a form of Protestantism that isn't officially sanctioned.
These grievances have occasionally boiled over into antigovernment protests. Last Easter weekend, several thousand Montagnards gathered in Dak Lak, Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces and clashed with waiting security forces. It was the largest show of protest in Vietnam since 2001, when similar demonstrations occurred in the same region. On this, both sides agree. On every other point, bitter disputes rage. The Communist Party of Vietnam insists that only two people died during the April clashes; Human Rights Watch, the New York City-based NGO, has recorded 10 deaths, while Amnesty International counts eight and says it "fears the final death toll is considerably higher."
In recent years, thousands of Montagnards have fled the country for Cambodia, and many were subsequently resettled in the U.S. (Some 1,000 made the journey Stateside following the 2001 protests.) Another exodus to Cambodia has now begun. TIME has met more than 160 would-be refugees trapped in wet, mosquito-infested jungles, afraid of being rounded up by Cambodian police and repatriated. They are battling hunger and illness. "We came so that the international community would help us," says a Gia Lai man in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province. But so far, no help has come. Still, says another, "It is better to die here than in Vietnam."
The Vietnamese government dismisses reports of Montagnards' fleeing as "fabrications." According to Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Dung, "There is no reason for ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands to leave their homelands." One of those "fabrications" is a 40-year-old man from Gia Lai who took part in the Easter demonstrations. Asked why he left the Highlands, he recalls: "Police, soldiers and Vietnamese people came to our village and kicked in our doors and attacked us." Now, having trekked for days, he is hiding in Ratanakiri—some 600 km from Phnom Penh and the nearest office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He lives beneath a small sheet of plastic with five other men in dense jungle, where torrential rainstorms are daily occurrences. In another group elsewhere in the province, an eight-year-old girl has built a miniature house out of twigs in a clearing of jungle beside the plastic sheet where she is camped with her family. She says it reminds her of home. "I am happier here," she says, "because there are no soldiers." But her father confesses, "I don't know how long we can live like this."
The presence of the Montagnards is causing controversy in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said they are not refugees but "illegal immigrants," and might be a rebel movement set on establishing an independent state in the Central Highlands. Cambodia's King Sihanouk, in contrast, has strongly supported the asylum seekers. "The Montagnards are deprived of their ancestral lands, their forests, their houses, their cattle," he wrote in a letter of support last week.
What exactly happened on Easter weekend in the Highlands? Hanoi says bands of organized "terrorists" armed with sticks, stones, knives and slingshots tried to converge on the provincial capitals from several different directions and attacked security forces. Dozens of protesters were injured and the government claims two were killed by rocks thrown by their own gangs. The authorities claim the clashes were organized from afar by Kok Ksor, a 60-year-old exile from the Jarai tribe who lives in South Carolina and runs the Montagnard Foundation, which tries to publicize the plight of the Montagnards. His goal, according to Hanoi, is an independent state. It says Ksor and confederates are also reconstituting F.U.L.R.O., a separatist guerrilla force disbanded in 1992. Ksor allegedly persuaded poor farmers to take part. Says Vu Quang Khuyen, police chief of Ayun Pa district in Gia Lai: "They are uneducated, lazy and easily deceived."
As evidence, the government cites confessions, separatist banners allegedly carried in the marches, and the fact that Ksor announced prior to Easter that the protests would take place. Several Montagnards, including Ksor's uncle and mother, have denounced him in the state-controlled media. Dak Lak officials screened for TIME four minutes of edited video footage in which some protesters indeed advance on riot police and militiamen, but it's impossible to tell from the fragment who started the clashes, and the rest of the tape wasn't made available. Gia Lai Governor Pham The Dung even goes so far as to compare the protesters to Iraqi insurgents. "Terrorism does not mean they have to use explosives," he says. "They could even use martial arts." Scores of people have been arrested in the Highlands, the government says. Those who then performed public self-criticisms were released, while an unknown number await trial.
In interviews arranged by local officials, government representatives and some Montagnards echoed the official accounts. But these were not supported by anyone interviewed away from oversight. Photographs obtained from a Jarai demonstrator now in Cambodia show marchers in Gia Lai carrying banners calling for land and religious rights and the removal of soldiers from villages—not for an independent state. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International assert that the security forces initiated the fighting and incited civilians to attack the marchers, injuring hundreds. A doctor who was on duty that weekend in Dak Lak's main hospital told TIME that "many" people came in with head wounds, while other people with injuries avoided hospitals for fear of arrest. A group of 17 farmers encountered in Gia Lai and two others interviewed separately claim that a protester from their village died after being shot in the head, not by getting hit "with a very big rock," as governor Dung says. A man from the Jarai tribe says he saw the corpse of the other fatality acknowledged by the government. He says the victim appeared to have been beaten to death. The man, whose work takes him to several districts, claims knowledge of 10 deaths in Gia Lai alone.
Since Easter, security has been ratcheted up in the Highlands. Relatives of people who have fled their towns, either for the border with Cambodia or for closer hideouts, are regularly questioned by police and local officials. Some are made to take loyalty oaths, which one district leader in Dak Nong province refers to as "brotherhood ceremonies." Farmers are followed to their fields, their shopping is monitored lest they buy food for those in hiding, and security personnel are billeted in people's homes, particularly those with relatives who earlier fled to the U.S. (Highlands officials say government representatives live and labor with poor families to help them with their work.) A Jarai woman says more than 20 people from her village have been arrested since Easter for joining the demonstrations.
H'ble Ksor, Kok Ksor's mother, lives in a ramshackle stilt house in Ayun Pa district. Sounding exhausted and heartbroken, she wants to speak not of the son who went to America in 1974 and whom the government blames for all the trouble—"I barely know his face," she says—but of two other sons who have been missing since Easter. "I am very worried," she says softly. "Do you know where they are?"
As for Kok Ksor, the alleged terrorist mastermind, he is easy to find. Sitting in a Red Lobster seafood restaurant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in early June, he hardly appears fearsome. (American authorities aren't worried about him: "Neither the Montagnard Foundation nor Mr. Ksor are included on any official U.S. government list of terrorists," says a U.S. embassy spokesman in Hanoi.) Ksor, who fought with the Americans during the Vietnam War, knows of the allegations back home and realizes that relatives in the Highlands have denounced him (under duress, he says). He admits to having been in contact with highlanders but says the organizers informed him that they planned to demonstrate nonviolently and rejected his counsel to wait till the fall. Ksor says he also suggested they call it a prayer vigil, not a protest. International attention, not an independent state, Ksor adds, was the goal. However, he didn't help his cause by claiming later that 400 people were "massacred" over the Easter weekend. This wild estimate was a gambit, he says, to force Hanoi to open the region to external observers.
Following the 2001 demonstrations, about 1,000 Montagnards were resettled in North Carolina, many of them in the city of Greensboro. (The U.S. special forces, whom the Montagnards fought alongside in Vietnam, are based there.) In some ways, these exiles could be viewed as the lucky ones. But of the eight men sitting in a modest Greensboro apartment one morning, seven still have wives in the Highlands and five have relatives in hiding there or in jail. All carry folders of papers listing the names, ages and villages of people they've been told are injured or missing. H., a 37-year-old refugee, has just got off the phone with a Highlands contact, and his eyes are red and puffy. He knows he's fortunate with his new life in North Carolina: the factory job and the cramped, two-bedroom apartment. But that doesn't help him forget the relatives he left behind. "Sometimes during breaks at work," he says, "the manager asks me what I'm doing. I tell him that I'm thinking about home. My family and my neighbors in Vietnam are afraid or in prison. How can I be happy?"