History and Update of the Montagnards
We Will Never Forget!
Edited by Brenda Golden
In the Central Highlands of what is now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam there live thirty-one tribes, named collectively the "Montagnard" by the French. In the 1960ís their population was estimated variously as between one and one-half and three million. Today the Vietnamese government estimates their population as roughly 650,000, although other agencies (UNDP, etc.) use estimates as high as one million. During the French-Indochina and the Vietnam War (1945-1975) the Central Highlands of Vietnam was a battlefield. The Montagnards, or the tribal hill people of Vietnam, fought along side the French and the Americans in the Vietnam War. In 1975 after the fall of South Vietnam, the Hanoi government established military control over the area and immediately carried out a policy of punishment and discrimination against the Montagnards in retribution for having fought alongside the French and Americans against Hanoi during the Vietnam War. The lives of the Montagnards in the Central Highlands became worse than it had ever been in their history.
According to a report released by the New York-based independent rights lobby Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Vietnamese government has been stepping up a campaign of persecution and repression of the Montagnards, ethnic minorities living in the country's central highlands. On April 10, 2004 in the Central Highlands 150,000 Degars (Montagnards) arrived in the city of Buon Ma Thuot to stage peaceful demonstrations to call on the Vietnamese authorities and the international community for the respect of their fundamental rights. Many were killed or had their legs and hands broken by the beatings of the Vietnamese soldiers and police. The Vietnamese soldiers, mixed with police and Vietnamese civilians, beat the people with electric baton, throwing rocks, shoot with rifles and cut off people heads with knifes. Around 200 dead bodies still were left in the city and in the coffee plantation.
"Repression of Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion in Vietnam's Central Highlands," the 200-page report released by HRW says police brutality, including torture, is among the "repressive tactics employed by the Vietnamese government" with growing frequency over the past 13 months since February 2003 to suppress the rights of the Montagnards." During the last year, the Vietnamese government has increased its persecution of Montagnard Christians, particularly those thought to be following "Dega Protestantism." This is a form of Evangelical Christianity banned by the Vietnamese government, which links it to the increasingly popular Montagnard movement for return of ancestral lands and religious freedom. Prior to the Easter protests, authorities had dispatched hundreds of additional police and military to the region-often placing police officers in the homes of villagers suspected of political activity or returnees from Cambodia-and established military checkpoints along the main roads.
For months now, strict restrictions have been placed on travel within the highlands, on meetings of more than two people, and on communication with the outside world. Possessing a hand phone to make international calls to report on abuses in the highlands brings the very real threat of arrest, and villagers suspected of helping people who are in hiding are subject not only to summonses to the police station for interrogation, but being beaten and having their homes ransacked by police officers.
Human Rights Watch said that the government crackdown on Montagnards intensified beginning in January 2004, with police surrounding villages and searching nearby coffee plantations-sometimes with dogs-to arrest Montagnards suspected of supporting the Dega church movement. HRW continues to receive credible reports of officials forcing Montagnard villagers to abandon Christianity and cease all political or religious activities in public self-criticism sessions or by signing written pledges. "The human rights situation for Montagnards in the Central Highlands has plummeted to a new low," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of HRW. "Vietnam's policy of repression of Montagnard Christians is only fueling the unrest."
On December 18 2003, the US State Departmentís International Religious Freedom Report stated that the situation remained poor or worsened for many ethnic minority Christians in the Central Highlands and Northwest Highlands. During 2003, at least 100 Montagnards were arrested in Vietnam for political or religious practices. This same reports states that during the last year, thirty-three Montagnards were tried and sentenced to prison for their religious or political beliefs or for trying to flee to Cambodia, bringing the total number of Montagnards imprisoned during the last three years to one hundred and twenty four (124.) Those who have been convicted have been charged under Vietnam's penal code with "undermining the policy of state and party unity," or having "illegally migrated abroad to act against the people's authorities."
As of June 14, 2004, Some 94 Vietnamese ethnic minority Montagnards are in the care of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Phnom Penh, a third of whom arrived after Vietnamese authorities crushed Easter protests in the Central Highlands. A further 160 are reportedly hiding in the border region, too afraid to seek assistance from Cambodian authorities who until last week insisted the Montagnards were illegal migrants and did not allow UNHCR to operate in the area. Cambodia's border police tightened up security in the wake of April 2004 major protests, which were over religious repression and confiscation of land, in a bid to prevent refugees entering Cambodia, sparking an outcry among rights groups. Critics have said Cambodia has not wanted to help the refugees so as to avoid irking Vietnam. Vietnamese officials insist there is no need for the Montagnards to leave the Central Highlands region. Human rights groups say at least 10 (ten) people from several central highland provinces were killed in the most recent protests in June 2004, while the Vietnamese government puts the toll at 2 (two).
Vietnamese Montagnards hiding in the jungle-clad Cambodian border region after fleeing from their homeland have appealed for urgent international assistance, a report said in late June 2004. Cambodians sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, deemed illegal immigrants by the government, reportedly estimate that some 160 Montagnards are hiding in makeshift camps along the border in northeastern Ratanakiri province. "We want the international community and the UN to help and protect us," a 40-year-old man who left his village on April 13, shortly after Vietnamese authorities quashed a major Montagnard protest, told the Cambodia Daily.
"We can't go back because we are afraid the Vietnamese government will kill us or we will be put in the prison," another unnamed 19-year-old told a news reporter. "We want the UN to help us. If we stay in the jungle, we have no medicine." But the UN's refugee agency told reporters it was unable to do anything to help the asylum seekers in the remote border zone, given an ongoing Cambodian government ban on the agency traveling there. "There's unfortunately not much at this stage we can do because we are not allowed to go to the border area," country representative of the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Nikola Mihajlovic said.
Today there are roughly 8,000 Montagnards in the U.S. From their number have come three millionaires, three PhDs, one published author, and one multi-engine commercial pilot. But they have all prospered, mostly by working multiple jobs and saving money. None, absolutely none, are on welfare. Meanwhile, in the Highlands, their numbers have shrunk, and their culture is being subsumed. We, the Friends of the Central Highlands, Inc. (FOCH) will never forget the sacrifices the Montagnards have made and continue to make in their fight for the right to own land, and freedom of religion and expression. These, our former allies in war, are being subjected to an ethnic cleansing worse than that reported in Bosnia, Iran or Iraq, yet the world and the US government has chosen to ignore these reports and increase trade with Vietnam. How can our own Oklahoma State Department of Commerce staff an office in Hanoi, Vietnam and encourage trade, exporting and importing goods with a country that practices such blatant human rights violations?
We hope that you will join in a united effort to hold a candle light vigil for our Montagnard friends in the United States, overseas and in honor and memory of all combatants and non-combatants who gave their lives in Vietnam. Thus far, candlelight vigils are scheduled to take place on July 25, 2004, in the following cities: Charlotte North Carolina; Salem, Oregon; and at the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The following groups are participating in the USA: The Friends of the Central Highlands, Inc.; Rolling Thunders; Save the Montagnard People, Inc.; Montagnard Alliance Church; Bamboo Cross International; Special Forces Association; United Montagnard Christian Church; Vietnam Veterans of America; Special Operations Association; Montagnard Christian Ministry; Montagnard Dega Association; Montagnard Catholic Ministry; Rankin Baptist Church; Montagnard Human Rights Organization; International Montagnard Bible Church; and the United Dega Asheboro Project.
The success of this event will illuminate the urgency of problems in the Central Highlands to both the government and the public and will generate greater support for the Montagnard people. Join us at the Oklahoma State Capitol on July 25, 2004 at 8:00 PM and light a candle in honor of our Vietnam allies, veterans, and the persecuted hill people of Vietnam.