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Sacrifice at the Shrine of Trade By: Scott Johnson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, October 13, 2008

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 worst.”


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 Department officials.


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.


Indeed, there 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 religious freedom.


Potentially, CPC 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.

Scott Johnson is a Human Rights Advocate for the US Based Montagnard Foundation.

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