Kontum (also written Kon Tum) is a province in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The primary town (now city), Kontum, is situated in a high valley roughly 40 km north of Pleiku and 40 km southeast of the tri-border area where Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos meet.
Vietnam contains 54 different ethnic groups. Kontum Province is home to several indigenous minority ethnic peoples collectively referred to by Westerners as “Montagnards”, a French word meaning “mountain people”. This short video has scenes from the Kontum region in 1947. The video: The Mission of the Grand Plateaus (45 min) shows Montagnard society from the perspective of French missionaries in the 1950's.
These Montagnard groups represent two distinct linguistic families with widely differing origins:
The Mon Khmer(Austroasiatic) family is felt to be indigenous to Southeast Asia, with traces as far west as Myanmar (Burma), Bangladesh and Southern India. Mon-Khmer languages include present day Vietnamese and Khmer (Cambodian), as well as the local minority languages: Bahnar (Ba Na), Sedang (Xơ Đăng), Jeh (Giẻ Triêng), Rengao (Rơ Ngao) and others.
The Malayo-Polynesian (Austronesian) linguistic family is today found throughout the island peoples of the southern Pacific, ranging as far north as Taiwan and as far west as Madagascar. Historically, this was the language family of the Chăm Pa kingdoms along the central Vietnamese coast, bordered by the Red River peoples (Đại Việt) to the north and the Angkor peoples to the west. In Kontum Province, the only modern Malayo-Polynesian minority group is the Jarai (Gia Rai), with others such as the Rhade (Ê Đê) nearby to the south.
Ethnic Vietnamese people, also known as Kinh, form the largest ethnic group in Vietnam, comprising over 85% of the population of the country. Historically concentrated in lowland and coastal areas, Kinh people have migrated inland since the Second World War and more extensively since the end of war with the US, settling in lands traditionally occupied by upland minorities. Having greater economic and political resources, Kinh people have steadily displaced minorities from lands required for their traditional swidden (slash and burn) agricultural practice. Cultural differences and economic realities continue to fuel latent tensions in Kontum Province and in the Central Highlands as a whole.