Sunday, November 12, 2006

Forum: Remember the Montagnards

November 12, 2006
The Washington Times

This Nov. 17, this Friday, President Bush will visit Vietnam for the annual Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

To many, this may seem another step forward to bury the past and an opportunity to expand trade and diplomatic ties between two old foes. However, the collective honor of the United States will be carried there with Mr. Bush and either will be sold on the chopping block or heralded as a force to champion humanity. This collective honor however, is not apparent to many as it has unfortunately been buried in the deceitful myths of the Vietnam War.

Few Americans, in fact few people anywhere in the world have ever heard of the Montagnards, the indigenous highland tribes of Vietnam's Central Highlands. Fewer people still know of their fate during the Vietnam War, let alone the persecution these peoples suffered since the communist takeover of South Vietnam. The media historically never bothered reporting on the Montagnards. In 1975, the communist government sealed the Central Highlands off from international scrutiny.

Today, Vietnam continues to impede international monitors from investigating human rights abuses committed against these people. Media watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders has identified Vietnam as one the most restrictive nations in the world concerning freedom of the press.

At any one time during the Vietnam War an estimated 40,000 Montagnards served with the U.S. military as allies in the fight against communism. These ancient peoples had their world obliterated during the war. An estimated 200,000 Montagnards were killed, roughly one-quarter of their entire population.

The perception of the Vietnam War would, however, leave a dark stain on American foreign policy. The media bears much responsibility for this, showing a deadly ambivalence toward reporting human-rights abuses by the communists. After the war, the international community dared not question Vietnam's human rights record. The South Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Lao, the Hmong, the Hoa Hao, the Cao Dai, the Muslim Chams, the northern highland peoples and of course the Montagnards were generally ignored. Little in-depth analysis of the Vietnam War would ever reach the masses, and the myths of Vietnam's history would give Hanoi a blank check to take its revenge against America's former ally, the Montagnards, for decades to come.

One of the worst mass slaughters of civilians during the war involved the communists using flamethrowers to murder hundreds of woman and children at the village of Dak Son in 1967.

Vietnamese authorities since have done little for the Montagnard people.

Upon taking over South Vietnam, the communists began eliminating the Montagnards' leaders. The Montagnard Senator Ksor Rot was publicly executed with a bullet in his head in 1975. The Minister of Ethnic Minorities, Nay Luett, would die an agonizing death in a re-education camp some years later. Montagnard leaders and pastors were all executed or imprisoned, whereupon the communists unleashed a sophisticated form of revenge against the Montagnards that reads like a blueprint for genocide.

The Hanoi government confiscated all the land of South Vietnam, including the ancestral lands, the lifeblood of its indigenous peoples. Montagnard villages were relocated to areas with extremely poor farmland and limited health services. Large-scale internal migration policies brought thousands of ethnic Vietnamese from the coast and North Vietnam onto Montagnard lands.

Allocated small plots to farm, the Montagnards found themselves driven into poverty and gerrymandered into insignificance. The forests were virtually logged to oblivion by companies controlled by the military. With the land, the Montagnard lifeblood, taken away, the Hanoi government declared the Montagnard's culture "backward" and enacted assimilation policies to eliminate their cultural identity.

In the 1990s, the authorities increased coercive birth-control programs on the Montagnard population, using threats, fines and financial incentives to force their woman to get surgically sterilized. It is no wonder the Montagnards experienced a revival in Christianity among their population, a revival not unnoticed by the authorities. Having taken the Montagnards' ancestral lands and identity, the communists then took all that was left, their religion, called "Plan 184."

That involved repression of Christianity with a vengeance, including forcing Montagnards to renounce their faith in official ceremonies, under threat of imprisonment and torture.

The decades of Christians' persecution in Vietnam had generally gone unnoticed by the international community, but in 2004 the U.S. State Department designated Vietnam as a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) on a watch list of nations that are the worst violators of religious freedom. Vietnam to this day remains on the CPC watch list.

Today more than 350 Montagnard prisoners remain in Vietnamese prisons, many convicted in secret one-day trials on trumped-up charges relating to protesting for human rights, for spreading Christianity or for attempting to flee to Cambodia. The horrors reported inside the prisons are appalling. Only weeks ago another Montagnard Christian named "Thup" died in Ha Nam prison from abuse and torture.

The Montagnard Foundation reports that in recent weeks security forces have surrounded hundreds of villages throughout the Central Highlands threatening to shoot those who disobey the lockdown. Police have also confiscated hundreds of mobile cells phones from Montagnards. Such crackdowns have been a regular occurrence but this one has particular significance.

President Bush is visiting Hanoi in mid-November, and the Vietnamese authorities fear a public demonstration may mar the event. Previously in 2001 and Easter 2004, tens of thousands of Montagnards converged on the highland towns protesting against government repression, whereupon the Vietnamese military used brutal force to crush their calls for freedom.

The repression perpetrated against the Montagnards has continued far too long now for the world to just sit back and ignore. Vietnam needs to change. The Montagnards deserve more, and this is why President Bush needs to bring America's honor to Hanoi with him and to speak out in defense of these people.

At the APEC summit, the memory of the murdered woman and children of Dak Son will hang like ghosts over the president's shoulder calling him to remember the Montagnards.

America's honor demands that he answer their calls.

Adviser to the Montagnard Foundation.