US military documents indicate that at any one time
during the Vietnam War an estimated 40,000 Montagnards served with the American
military and throughout the decade long war it is likely 100,000 Montagnards fought
as allies with the United States. By the end of the war roughly one quarter of the
Montagnard population had perished, some 200,000 people including half the adult
male population who died fighting communism.
Today, some thirty three years after
the Vietnam War ended, hundreds of Christian Montagnards or Degar people rot in
Vietnamese communist prisons, seemingly abandoned by their former ally as the US
State Department deems them unfit for categorization as “prisoners of concern.”
How do we know this? Well, for
starters in 2006 the (then) US Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Marine told us so.
Yet, we also know that since 2001 untold thousands (I must emphasis thousands)
of Montagnards have been arrested, tortured and threatened in a campaign by
Vietnamese authorities to crush the spread of Christian house churches and
repress the entire Montagnard population. Some of these Christian hill tribe
people have even been murdered by security forces. Curiously this persecution
in Vietnam has received little attention by the media yet details of this official
religious policy, called Plan 184, were first uncovered back in the late 1990s.
Vietnam is today quite intent on maintaining
archetypical communist control over religion, and Montagnards are threatened
and tortured into signing ‘forced’ confessions or pledges to stop participation
in Christian house churches. While thousands have been persecuted, hundreds of
Montagnards have actually been sentenced to long prison terms not only for being
members of these house churches, but for speaking out against human rights
abuses or for trying to flee to Cambodian as refugees.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty
International, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom all
acknowledge that “hundreds” of Montagnards are currently imprisoned under
Vietnam’s authoritarian laws. These laws are vaguely defined as crimes of
“undermining state unity” which in reality means these Montagnards were imprisoned
for crimes relating to religious freedom and free speech. It appears these
prisoners have been deliberately forgotten as the State Department remains largely
silent on their fate and thus the rather uncomfortable question arises, as to why?
It is likely these ancient highland
peoples are viewed as complicating matters for US/Vietnam diplomacy, in
particular - trade relations. A hint can be found in the words of Congressmen Frank
Wolf (R-VA) who a few years ago courageously lashed out at the US/Vietnam trade
lobby, labeling them “those who worship at the shrine of trade.” He was
referring to the US/Vietnam economic relationship that has grown dramatically
in recent years, albeit while human rights in Vietnam remains stagnated in communist
repression. To be fair, this growing US/Vietnam relationship is important to both
these nations, even to the development of actual human rights in Vietnam.
However, the deafening silence over the hundreds of Montagnard prisoners suffering
in Vietnamese jails reeks of a rather convenient betrayal.
In 2006, Ambassador to Vietnam Michael
Marine stated quite clearly that Vietnam “no longer had any prisoners of
concern” and even more recently in June 2008 we saw President Bush
describing Vietnam’s progress on religious freedom as “noteworthy.”
The reasons for President Bush’s
praises are itself “noteworthy” as they occurred at a meeting in
Washington with none other than the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung himself.
Yet there’s the rub, the same meeting involved
negotiations of a bilateral investment treaty of which US Trade Representative
Susan Schab stated, “this agreement will provide US investors in Vietnam
with key legal protections and enhanced market access with important direct and
collateral benefits for US exporters and consumers alike.”
The situation was summarized by the
former Vietnam War POW Michael Benge in his essay “Religious Freedom Lost on
Vietnam” (5 August 2008, Frontpage Magazine) who described US policy
towards the Montagnards as nothing less than “Coke bottle diplomacy at its
The evidence of repression is there
for all to see, and the US State Department itself reported that Vietnam “used
other decrees, ordinances, and measures, such as Article 88, to detain
activists for the peaceful expression of opposing political views.” Human Rights Watch has identified over 350
specific cases of these prisoners and the Montagnard Foundation provided
hundreds of actual photographs of these victims to the State Department in 2006.
I know this because I witnessed Kok Ksor, the President of the Montagnard
Foundation, personally hand the photographs (in a detailed report) to State
Lest we forget Amnesty
International and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)
also identified these “hundreds” of Montagnard prisoners. The USCIRF has also urged
the State Department to recognize them as “prisoners of concern” and yet, the
official line is - they don’t qualify.
seems a reluctance by the US State Department to deal with this issue notably
by refusing to re-designate Vietnam as a “Country of Particular Concern” or CPC
designation. Born from the International Religious Freedom Act the CPC
designation identifies nations who commit the most serious violations of
designation involves economic sanctions being imposed on violators by the US
and Vietnam was in fact named on the CPC designation list for the first time in
2004. Negotiations between the US State Department and Vietnam commenced soon
after resulting in an agreement whereby Hanoi “promised” they would cease forced
renunciations of Christianity and halt other acts of religious repression.
Hence the CPC designation was removed in 2006.
Yet (again) there’s the rub. Vietnam
however, was merely biding for time and those who (naively) thought Vietnam really
intended to uphold its end of the bargain would be gravely disappointed. Once Vietnam
gained ‘Permanent Normal Trade Relations’ with the US and acceded to the
WTO, they promptly reneged on their promises and commenced what Human Rights
Watch would describe as “launching
one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years” (Oh, how
the dissidents had warned us!). Consequently,
in 2008, the USCIRF recommended to the US State Department that Vietnam be placed
‘back’ on the CPC designation list, but to no avail.
I interviewed a Montagnard Christian
in 2006 who had been hung and electric shock tortured by Vietnamese authorities.
He spent several years in Trai Ba Sao prison, jammed in a crowded cell with some
70 other Montagnard prisoners. He endured torture, brutality and forced labor
before his release. Along with a Montagnard child who was also tortured by
Vietnamese authorities you may see their testimony on Youtube.
Among the hundreds of Montagnard prisoners currently held in prison is Puih
Hbat, a mother of five who was arrested in April 2008 for holding Christian prayer
services in her home. To this day, the authorities have denied her family visitation
rights, and the fear is that Puih Hbat actually died in custody from torture.
To his credit, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte recently
raised human rights with Vietnam on a diplomatic visit to Vietnam. However, one
cannot but think these ancient indigenous people who fought and died for
America deserve more, that some concrete effort is actually taken to help these
unfortunate prisoners, that the convenient silence about these prisoners is
broken by some courageous person.
Meanwhile in Hanoi and Washington the
shrine of trade is burning bright as old enemies become new friends and old
allies are cast aside. While this congregation wallows in investment treaties
and count their pieces of silver, far away in dark dank cells, hundreds of Degar
Montagnard Christians lie rotting in Vietnam’s communist prisons. No doubt the children
of Puih Hbat also pray, but to another, more spiritual God, and they must desperately
grieve for their poor mother who they may never see again.