UN Shafts Montagnard Christians

By Mike Benge

After the atrocious response to 2004's Easter's peaceful prayer vigil by Christian Montagnards in the Central Highlands, hundreds were murdered, brutally beaten, and sent to Vietnam's hidden gulags by the Vietnamese communists. A very few legitimate refugees beat the odds and escaped to Cambodia only to find that they were betrayed once again by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. (excerpt)

Whoops, the UN has done it again! The resignation of U.N. refugee chief Ruud Lubbers over sexual harassment charges isn't the only scandal in the U.N.'s refugee program. Recently, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) signed a memorandum of understanding with Vietnam and Cambodia to settle issues related to the 750 Montagnard Christian refugees who fled persecution in Vietnam and are now in Cambodia. The MOU is the Vietnamese communists' attempt at a "final solution"? putting an end to outsiders learning of the shameful scandal of the persecution of Montagnard Christians through their presence as refugees in Cambodia by closing UNHCR camps there. "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." In a never-ending story, UNHCR is doing it again.

The state-controlled Vietnamese media accused UNHCR of stirring up an exodus of ethnic minorities from Vietnam's restive Central Highlands to Cambodia. They charged that two UNHCR staff had trained Montagnards to instigate others in the Central Highlands of Vietnam to flee to Cambodia. The charges are a "red herring." The facts are that all they did was to issue UNHCR papers to some Montagnard refugees that are "supposed" to guarantee safe passage for their return to Vietnam.

In 2001 the Vietnamese communist regime conducted a brutal crackdown after peaceful protests by Montagnard Christians in the Central Highlands. Large numbers of Montagnards fleeing persecution managed to escape to Cambodia before the totalitarian regime could cordon off the border with a phalanx of army troops and special police units.

In July 2001, I was a member of a team who went to Cambodia on behalf of a U.S. Congressional Human Rights Committee to investigate conditions of over 2,000 Montagnard Christians who had fled Vietnam and were seeking refuge and protection by UNHCR. It was discovered that a number of Vietnamese communist secrete police?Cong An from the unit Luoc Long 04?had been infiltrated into the camps with the legitimate refugees, and were providing false information to UNHCR resulting in a number of the refugees being sent back to Vietnam. These agents also threatened other refugees in the camps with dire consequences for their families still in Vietnam if they did not return.

In collusion with the Cambodian government, over 1,000 Montagnard Christian refugees were forcibly returned, or were duped in an agreement between UNHCR and Hanoi that included allowing UNHCR representatives to monitor the safe return of 1,000 refugees and see that they suffered no repercussions. At that time, the communist regime made a concerted disinformation/propaganda effort to convince UNHCR and the international press that all was well in the Central Highlands. Soon after, reports were received that many of the returnees were then beaten, imprisoned, sent to the gulags, or "disappeared." Vietnam reneged on its agreement and kicked UNHCR and the international press out of the Central Highlands.

After that, Vietnam sealed its border with Cambodia with troops, and then the draconian communist regime stationed large numbers of Vietnamese police, not only in Montagnard villages, but also in individual Montagnard houses in an attempt to totally control their movements and to prevent them from practicing Christianity. With all this security in place, a rational person should then question how this new large influx of Montagnards could make it to Cambodia without being caught.

After the atrocious response to last Easter's peaceful prayer vigil by the Montagnards in which hundreds were murdered, brutally beaten, and sent to Vietnam's hidden gulags, a very few legitimate refugees beat the odds and escaped to Cambodia. Even with the Berlin Wall, a few Germans made it out of communist East Germany to freedom in the West; however, many more were either killed or caught and imprisoned. The same goes with the Montagnard Christians. Reports eked out of the Central Highlands that many more were caught; women were raped, a large number killed, and the few who survived were imprisoned, or "disappeared."

In spite of the draconian security measures in the Central Highlands and on the Cambodian border, in the last few months an unusually large number of Montagnards purportedly escaped to Cambodia. How could this have happened without collusion of the Vietnamese communists? Reportedly many of the Montagnards are refusing third country resettlement, rather demanding refuge in Cambodia claiming they were told that UNHCR would help get back their ancestral lands back that the Vietnamese communists appropriated. First, the Vietnamese said it was a group of Montagnards in the US who were spreading these rumors. Then they blamed UNHCR. However it was neither.

Reports coming out of the Central Highlands indicate that this is yet another Vietnamese communist disinformation/propaganda effort to discredit the few legitimate refugees who make it to Cambodia fleeing continued persecution in the Central Highlands. With the tightened security in the Central Highlands, there is no way this large number of Montagnards could leave their villages and get through the cordon along the border without collusion between the Vietnamese communist party officials, the police, the army, and Cambodian border guards. Feeding off the Montagnards' desire to have their ancestral lands returned to them, Vietnamese communists reportedly have been spreading rumors in villages that if the Montagnards go to Cambodia, UNHCR will help them get their land back. Authorities then tell the army, police and border guards to stand down and let the Montagnards cross the border.

The Vietnamese communist's disinformation program serves several purposes. First, it identifies potential Montagnard leaders with courage to defy authorities and run the gauntlet - troublemakers in the eyes of the regime. When returned, they are sent to the gulags - so-called "reeducation camps." Last November 17 Montagnards were convicted of "forcing" other Montagnards to flee to neighboring Cambodia and of undermining national security, when in fact they were part of the Montagnards "Underground Railroad." They were each sentenced to 10 years in prison. Second, it allows communist cadre to infiltrate the refugee camps and terrorize legitimate refugees in an attempt to force them to return to Vietnam. Third, even more important to the communist regime in Vietnam, this creates the illusion with UNHCR and the international community that the Montagnard Christians are not fleeing human rights abuses and religious persecution, but are economic opportunists seeking land. Lastly, it gives the Cambodian government -- Hanoi's marionette -- the excuse it wants to once again close down UNHCR refugee camps for the Montagnards as it did in 2002.

New testimony gathered by Human Rights Watch establishes the widespread and continued use of torture against activists, religious leaders, and individuals who have been deported from Cambodia or have voluntarily returned to Vietnam. Arbitrary arrests continue unabated. In the weeks before Christmas 2004, police rounded up and arrested hundreds of Montagnard Christians. In Gia Lai province alone--one of five provinces in the Central Highlands--police arrested 129 people between December 12 and 24. Many of those arrested during the Christmas crackdown were Montagnard house church leaders, and wives and even young children of men who fled the repression in Vietnam (HRW Briefing Paper, 01/10/2005).

After being named a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) by the Department of State regarding religious persecution and other human rights abuses, Hanoi recently staged a charade, making a show of "saving face" by releasing a few outstanding Vietnamese prisoners from their jail cells only to be put under house arrest. However, none of the hundreds of Montagnard Christians who have been detained were released. Human Rights Watch has recorded the names of 188 Montagnard Christians who received harsh prison sentences of up to fifteen years since 2001 for their religious activities, and hundreds more not on record have been sent to gulags - termed reeducation camps by the communists. To add to this travesty, Cambodian police are arresting and forcibly returning Montagnard asylum seekers as they cross the border, selling them to Vietnamese police for cash bounties.

It seems as if the Hanoi regime's ruse on releasing a few political and religious prisoners while arresting others may have been bought by the Administration. It was recently announced that there would be no sanctions levied as called for by designating Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern for religious persecution and continued human rights abuses. Does the phrase "Paper Tiger" come to mind?

The Vietnamese communist's strategy during the Vietnam War was talk and fight. While the U.S. was off guard negotiating, Hanoi used this time to reinforce their troops and better position them for the next attack. They use this strategy today in their talks with the US government regarding CPC and sanctions, while the State Department is negotiating with them, the Vietnamese communists are turning the screws on their people. When will we ever learn?

On March 18, Hanoi's Prime Minister signed a decree prohibiting activities such as taking advantage of citizens' democratic rights to incite, lure or force other people to gather in crowds to cause public disorder or carry out illegal activities. (Source: VNA news agency web site, Hanoi, in English 22 Mar 05)

Shamefully, the new MOU with Vietnam and Cambodia does not provide any mechanism for UNHCR to monitor and ensure that there is no retribution by the Vietnamese communists against the returning Montagnards. This is not only a violation of UNHCR's mandate, but it is a travesty for the Montagnards given Hanoi's past record of retribution against returnees.

Why isn't the Administration doing anything about this travesty against the Montagnards who were among America's most loyal allies during the Vietnam War? Perhaps it is because America is now Vietnam's biggest export market - totaling US $5 billion. But then what is the excuse of the religious communities in the U.S. who have been conspicuously mute on the persecution of their Christian brethren. Hypocrisy has no boundary.

In his inaugural address, President Bush pledged, "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors." Will President Bush live up to that pledge, or will he ignore the plight of the Montagnard Christians? Time will tell.


April 15, 2005

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