Tiananmen Square in Central Vietnam?
Michael D. Benge from Falls Church, Virginia, protested on the morning of March 12 alongside hundreds of Montagnards on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. Starting in 1963, he had spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer, five of them as a prisoner of war. Upon his release in 1973, he returned to continue working with the Montagnards, staying until the Vietnamese Communists took over the South in 1975. He is currently an active Board member of the National Alliance of Families, working for the return of America’s missing servicemen and women whether they were lost in World War II or the Gulf war or any conflict in between.
“If TV cameras and journalists were allowed to record the tanks, five divisions of crack troops, thousands of secret police, and helicopter gunships crushing Gandhi-style peaceful protests by 20,000 Montagnard farmers in Gia Lai and Dak Lak provinces in early February,” he said, “it would have been known as Vietnam’s Tiananmen Square.”
“The Vietnamese government has blocked off the whole central highlands region, cut phone lines, and banned foreigners and the media from visiting. The Vietnamese army has arrested hundreds of Montagnards, and beaten and tortured them. Many have disappeared, and some may have died. The Vietnamese enforced martial law and prevented thousands of these poor people from fleeing across the border into Cambodia or gaining access to the media,” Benge continued. “I am very sad to know that our Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, is back in the U.S. at this moment to lobby Congress to ratify the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement.” Benge spoke in a choking voice. “We abandoned our Montagnard allies after the war, and, after that, Bill Clinton traded human rights for business interests with the Vietnamese Communists. The Montagnards had rescued American pilots, and saved thousands of American lives. As a result, more than half of their adult population was killed.”
In fact, the Ambassador was on a lobbying tour, giving talks in the Washington area to urge bi-partisan support from members of Congress to ratify the BTA. He said that, despite shortcomings in Vietnam, “the human rights trends have been positive in recent years, and critical public expression is now tolerated by the authorities. “Some protestant churches recently met to form an officially-recognized organization, and some individuals well known for dissident views say that they have experienced an easing of the pressure on them.” Peterson went on. “ Vietnam is not a monolithic dictatorship. There is only one legal party, but there are significant differences of view contending within it.” However, he reported that he himself had been denied permission to travel to the central highlands to observe the situation there despite many requests since disturbances erupted last month.
The Montagnards, the French name for the ethnic minorities who live in the mountains of Central Vietnam, were allies to American forces during the Vietnam War. Thousands have rioted in the cities of Pleiku and Daklak since early February, protesting against the Communist government for repressing them. Y-Bhuat Eban, Executive Director of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, Inc. (MHRO), headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., said, “Vietnamese propaganda has cited falling coffee prices as an excuse for these criminal acts, but cultural genocide, religious repression, and the stealing of ancestral lands are the root cause of the problem.”
Eban and his organization brought six large buses with 300 Montagnard-Americans, mostly from North Carolina, to the capital to show their support for their oppressed countrymen. They traveled with their wives and children for six hours through the night and began their demonstrations next morning, first on Capitol Hill, then at Lafayette Square across from the White House, and, finally, that evening, at the Vietnamese Embassy on 20th Street. They appealed for an end to the human rights violations against the Christian Montagnards/Dega, who number about 750,000 according to the Vietnam Census Office in 2000.
“Communist officials burned our churches and banned us from holding religious services in our native land, said Y Hinnie, Secretary of MHRO. They forced us to attend only state-run services conducted by Communist clergy. If we resisted, they fined us and jailed us for practicing our protestant religion.
Y-Jut Buonto of the Montagnards Association Inc., in Washington state, who came along with a few compatriots, recounted, “The Christian Missionary Alliance introduced Protestanism among the Montagnards in the early 1930s. It is thought that the Communist regime associated the presence of Christianity in the highlands with the independence movements. Since we are very strong anti-communist minded, they feared that they would lose their control over us, so they had to exterminate our population and also do away with our religion.”
Mloi Rmah, the Pastor of Dega Alliance Church, lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. He shuttles constantly to Charlottsville and Raleigh to tend to the needs of his Montagnard church members. With a soft but determined voice, he said, “ I instruct my disciples in our ethnic language so the children won’t forget their own mother tongue. I also tape God’s words to send home to my people. I remind them to keep their faith alive and not be brain-washed by Communist proselatizing.”
Dock Rmah, one of the MHRO leaders, told the usual tale of the Communists’ assimilation policies. “As soon as the Vietnamese Communists from the North took over the South in 1975, they started their revenge against our people because we had fought alongside the U.S. army. They accused us of being CIA spies. In 1961, the American military had trained 50,000 Montagnards, and we joined the Special Forces and Green Berets. And now, the Vietnamese Communist military, which owns logging companies, is resettling Vietnamese on our fertile lands. They have confiscated our coffee plantations and relocated entire villages to the hillside jungles with little way to subsist.”
“They not only stole our ancestral lands,” Rmah continued, “but also destroyed our social system of extended families. They herded our old people into “retirement villages” and locked them up in leprosy gulags. Diseases have reached epidemic levels, and we have no money to buy drugs to treat our people. They colonized our homelands and chased us away.”
A Montagnard woman in her late fifties from Charlottesville, North Carolina, declining to give her name for fear of reprisals against her two adult children in Vietnam, added, “ Worse, they sterilized the hilltribe women against their will with injections and surgery. They want to persecute us, kill off our lineage, and “cleanse” us of our culture and traditions. They call us Moi or “savages.” They keep our men from any employment other than menial labor, and prevent our children from equal educational opportunities with Vietnamese children.”
“Our goal is to make the Communist government abide by its human rights obligations under international law. We want to preserve our culture and our race, and we call on the Vietnamese authorities to stop the years of genocide, to return our ancestral lands, and treat us with civility. They must stop harassing, jailing and torturing our tribesmen,” said Nay Rong, Chairman of the MHRO and Vice-President of the Montagnard Dega Association (MDA). “ We have no desire to overthrow the government. We ask them to let our people live in peace.”
“There has been a total news blackout in the area,” Rong continued. “But as recently as last week, we learned that the Communist authorities had stepped up their propaganda work by sending money, cars, pamphlets, and documentary films to the highland provinces, and by hanging portraits of Ho Chi Minh all over the highlands. They are planning to take foreign journalists on a guided tour in an attempt to whitewash their brutal repression and their military invasion. They want a disinformation campaign to show the world that human rights have been respected in Vietnam. They are trying to make the world believe that there is national unity and religious freedom in Vietnam, but this time they cannot deceive the press as they did during the Vietnam War. The only difference is that the Communists blocked the media from covering this Tiananmen Square development. I hope that our appeal to justice has not gone unheard.” Rong concluded.