Vietnam security forces break up Hmong gathering

Thousands of ethnic Hmong have returned to their homes after Vietnamese security forces broke up more than a week of religious activities near the northwestern border with Laos, a church official said Monday.

Nguyen Huu Mac, head of the northern Evangelical Church of Vietnam, said he has been in regular contact with church members who were involved in the gathering in Muong Nhe district of Dien Bien province starting April 30. Little information about the incident has been released by the Communist government, and foreign media and diplomats have not been granted access to the area.

Provincial officials have said the Hmong gathered after a rumor spread that a supernatural force would arrive and take them to a promised land where they would find health, happiness and wealth. They accused overseas groups of using the incident to influence some Hmong to call for an independent state.

Mac said church members reported that up to 5,000 Hmong rode horses and motorbikes to the district town and camped out to await for God, expected to take them to the promised land on May 21. He said that while some participants attend his congregation in Hanoi, this was a separate millenarian movement with beliefs not connected to his church.

Mac said the church members reported that military helicopters arrived to disperse the crowd, with some security forces in uniform and others in plain clothes. He said he had received no reports of injuries or arrests related to the dispersal. He said buses were called to transport the remaining Hmong home on Sunday.

The U.S. Embassy said Monday it was aware of reports alleging a clash had occurred between security forces and Hmong followers and urged restraint while trying to verify whether any casualties occurred.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called for a full investigation and for foreign journalists and diplomats to be given access to the area.

The state-run Vietnam News said Monday at least one child had died from illness and several other followers had become sick after being exposed to bad weather during the gathering.

There is a long history of mistrust between the government and many ethnic hilltribe groups, collectively known as Montagnards. Many anti-communist hilltribe fighters were allied with the United States during the Vietnam War, and many Hmong refugees resettled there after the war.