Friday, April 23, 2004


The European Union and the Italian-based Radical Party recently expressed interest in the plight of the Montagnards in Vietnam after a recent Easter crackdown by the Vietnamese government on this ethnic minority. The Montagn-What you ask? Good question.

The Montagnards, also known as the Degar people, were at one point politically independent. They are culturally, physically and linguistically distinct from the Vietnamese. In 1950, the French government established "the Central Highlands as the Pays Montagnard du Sud (PMS) under the authority of Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, who the French had installed as nominal chief of state in 1949 as an alternative to Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam." When the French withdrew (or were forced out) from Vietnam and recognized a Vietnamese government, Montagnard political independence was decimated. However it is not just the Montagnards' aspirations for greater autonomy that have led the Vietnamese government to crack down on the Montagnards.

Although French Catholic missionaries converted some Montagnards in the nineteenth century, American missionaries made more of an impact in the 1930's, and many Montagnards are now Protestant. Of the approximately 1 million Montagnards, close to half are Protestant, while around 200,000 are Catholic. The religious tendencies of the Montagnards--and particularly their embrace of an individual-based religion such as Protestantism--have made this minority suspect to Vietnam's communists.

To top things off, many Montagnard fought beside the US in the Vietnam War, and thousands of them fled to Cambodia when Saigon fell. The Vietnamese government's persecution of the Montagnards has been subsequently relentless. The Montagnard's natural abode is Vietnam's central highlands, and the government has steadily displaced thousands of villagers to use the fertile land for coffee plantations.

Human Rights Watch has documented the following repression of the Montagnards:

--Police torture of people in detention or during interrogation, including beating, kicking, and shocking with electric batons.

--Violations of the right to freedom of religion including destruction and closure of ethnic minority Protestant churches, and official pressure on Christians to abandon their religion under threat of legal action or imprisonment.

--On March 10, 2001, hundreds of police and soldiers, who were apparently attempting to break up a peaceful all-night prayer service, that villagers acknowledged included discussions of independence, fired into a crowd of ethnic Jarai, killing at least one villager. The police then burned down the church and arrested dozens of villagers

--Instituting "goat's blood ceremonies" during which Montagnards are forced by Vietnamese soldiers to drink goat's blood in front of the entire village as a sign that the Montagnard has renounced his Christian faith.

--Restrictions on travel. In some areas authorities were requiring written permission to be secured in advance of any temporary absence from the village, making it difficult for farmers to go to work in their fields.

--Arrest and torture of highlanders who fled to Cambodia and were then forcibly returned to Vietnam. According to one Montagnard who was expelled from Cambodia back to Vietnam, the Vietnamese soldiers: "beat us over our whole body, including our heads. They beat our fingers, hands, arms, and necks-everywhere. There was no blood because they used a rubber truncheon. After beating us they took our photographs again."

Waves of Montagnard refugees have settled in the US--including one wave of several hundred in 1986 to North Carolina and another wave of almost 1000 in 2002 again to North Carolina.

Valuable information on the Montagnards can be found here.

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