Relaymedia

Controversies in Vietnam and its Government Involvement

Dec 09, 2002 08:42 PM EST

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Three ethnic minority Christians have been executed by Vietnamese authorities as part of a recent crackdown on "illegal" Christian churches, according to the Montagnard Foundation, a human rights watch group based in South Carolina.

The three Montagnard believers -- Y-Suon Mlo, from Buon Kuang village, Y-Het Nie Kdam, from Buon Ea Tieo village, and Y-Wan Ayun, from Buon Gram village in Vietnam's Central Highlands -- reportedly were injected Oct. 29 with an unknown drug and died in convulsions after being convicted of participation in anti-government activities in February 2001.

Those "anti-government" activities included a peaceful protest by hundreds of Montagnards in favor of religious liberty and against government corruption in key Central Highlands cities. Following the protests, Vietnamese authorities began a systematic campaign to force Christians out of unregistered churches, which they believed had been infected by American Protestant thought that, as one source put it, "opposes the programs of the country."

The situation had cooled, but Compass Direct news service reported Nov. 13 that Vietnamese authorities had intensified persecution of Montagnard Christians in the highlands region while more than 1,000 Montagnards fled into neighboring Cambodia.

Several hundred Montagnards sought and were granted political asylum in the United States.

By September, 354 of 412 churches in Dak Lak province alone had been forcibly disbanded. More than 50 pastors and elders were said to have "disappeared." Dak Lak province is adjacent the Cambodian border.

No official news agency has yet confirmed the report of the recent executions in Dak Lak province, but critics of the Vietnamese government's human rights record are not inclined to dismiss reports of executions, and even mass killings.

According to the Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the Vietnamese government is still following its "Official Plan 184," a secret plan established between 2000-2001 to "eradicate Christianity among tribal minorities." The center learned of the plan through state documents smuggled out of the Southeast Asian nation.

A report released last April by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights lobby, cited multiple instances of torture, mutilation and intimidation on the part of Vietnamese authorities.

In March 2001, for instance, Cong An (Vietnamese police) ordered Vietnamese villagers to enter a Montagnard village and destroy the village church with axes. Some villagers were reported to have been killed. Authorities then forced the Montagnards to burn the remains of their own church.

"Everyone was crying -- for the dead and wounded and for the church," one Montagnard told an HRW researcher.

In other instances, authorities tortured ethnic minority Christians to elicit confessions of revolutionary activity and public statements of remorse, the report said.

The 200-page report, "Repression of Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion," was dismissed as a fabrication by Phan Thuy Thanh, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. The report "slanders, fabricates and distorts" the situation between the Vietnamese and Montagnards, she said.

But critics claim that the reports are true. Mike Jendrzejczyk, the Washington-based director of HRW's Asia division, told the Australian Broadcasting Company Oct. 1 that the reports of Christians being persecuted in Vietnam are reliable. "We have sources both in the highlands and those who have since left Vietnam. ... They're pretty consistent I think with the reports that others are also receiving."

Among those reporting human rights abuses in Vietnam is Scott Johnson, an Australian lawyer and advocate for the Montagnard Foundation, who said recently that the Vietnamese government has forcibly sterilized more than 1,000 Montagnard women. The action was intended to prevent population growth among those referred to as "moi" or "savages" by the Vietnamese, according to the Australian Broadcasting Company.

Michael Benge also leveled accusations of sterilization, poisonings and even crucifixions against the Vietnamese government in the Washington Times in May 2001. Benge spent 11 years as a Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and continues to work to improve the plight of Montagnards.

As recently as last September, a Washington Times editorial chastised the Vietnamese government for its treatment of the Montagnards. Nguyen Thi Thai Thong, press attache for the embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in Washington, D.C., wrote that the editorial was "replete with distortions and outright lies."

"The Vietnamese government has maintained a consistent policy of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all ethnic groups in Vietnam," Thong wrote.

Assurances by the Vietnamese government that all is well in the Central Highlands did not prevent the U.S. State Department's Commission on International Religious Liberty from naming Vietnam a country of "particular concern," the worst category for offenders of religious liberty.

Vietnamese officials reacted angrily to the commission's report, calling it a setback in relations and the promotion of "mutual understanding" between the United States and Vietnam. "This is another ill-intentioned move full of prejudices by the USICRF," Thanh said.

Vietnam's largest ethnic group, the Kihn, are traditional Vietnamese. Since the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, the Kihn majority has repressed all of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minorities and undertaken a program of assimilation to eliminate ancient tribal cultures. Repression has intensified as many of the tribal groups have begun to renounce animism and ancestor worship for Christianity. Repression has been particularly costly to Montagnards in the Central Highlands region.

During the Vietnam War, an estimated 50 percent of all Montagnard males were killed fighting alongside members of the United States Army Special Forces or "Green Berets" in the Central Highlands. Their past association with and continued fondness for Americans has made them particularly susceptible to Vietnamese attacks.

Montagnards, also known as Dega people, are people of Malayo-Polynesian or Mon-Khmer decent.

Excerpts of HRW's report on the repression of Montagnards are available at http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/vietnam. Further information on the plight of Montagnard refugees in Cambodia is available from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees at http://www.unhcr.ch.

By Albert H. Lee
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