(Catholic seminarians attend Easter Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi April 24, 2011/Kham)

Vietnam has deployed troops to contain a rare mass protest by ethnic Hmong people that is testing the government’s tolerance of minority Christians, just weeks after human rights activists accused leaders of persecuting another hill tribe. As many as 7,000 Hmong people began to gather several days ago in the far-flung mountains of Dien Bien Province, near the northwestern border with Laos and China, apparently for religious reasons although some were advocating an independent kingdom, according to diplomatic, government and other sources.

The unrest was unlikely to pose a threat to the government but the demonstration is the biggest involving ethnic minorities since unrest in the Central Highlands region in 2001 and 2004. Details were scant from the hard-to-access region but a Catholic priest close to the area cited followers as saying troops had been deployed and the protesters had detained at least one government official sent to negotiate.

Vietnam’s northwest is home to various hill tribes and stubborn pockets of deep poverty in a country that has emerged from the hangover of war with a fast-growing middle class and a dynamic, factory-driven economy.

“They probably have a hard time seeing their way out of (poverty),” Daniel Mont, senior poverty specialist with the World Bank, said of people in the region. He added that parts of the northwest were so remote they had never been fully integrated and many minority people spoke little Vietnamese.