Obstacle for Montagnards Fleeing Repression in Vietnam
Montagnards from the Central Highlands of Vietnam are still fleeing
repression and human rights abuses there even though the Vietnam War has
been over now for 31 years. A few of these persecuted Montagnards who
were America's allies during the war still survive the long trek to the
UNHCR camps in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The long treacherous journey has
become even more difficult now. If they can evade Cambodian and Vietnamese
soldiers on both sides of the border trying to hunt them down, and can
pay a human trafficker 500 dollars, then they can make it to the gates
of UNHCR headquarters in Phnom Penh.
There are three UNHCR camps in Phnom Penh, but the non-government organization
(NGO) community and visitors are only allowed into Site 3. There are 293
Montagnards in Site 3 who have met the standards that qualifies them for
refugee status because of a well founded fear of persecution based on
race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group.
Site 1 has 63 Montagnards and Site 4 has 37. This is the official tally
as of Oct 15, 2005. No one is allowed to visit Sites 1 and 4 except UNHCR
and Cambodia personnel in charge of security.
I visited Site 3 accompanied by UNHCR field rep, Eldon Hagar, and a Khmer
interpreter on l5 October. Two armed Cambodian soldiers guarded the entrance.
Site 3, a four-story apartment building surrounded by walls with barbed
wire on the top, is in quite good condition.
Jesuit Relief Services (JRS) is contracted by UNHCR to distribute food
and to provide basic healthcare and sanitation programs to Site 3. An
English class for the Montagnard children was in session while I was there,
as well as a sewing class attended by several of the women.
I mingled among the Montagnards and they seemed to be happy as anyone
can be in a refugee camp. They do their own cooking and cleaning, and
a volleyball court and net is available for use in the front courtyard.
The Montagnards, who escape the bounty hunters in the Cambodian forests,
have now a new obstacle to overcome. In conversation with the American
UNHCR employee on that day, it became apparent that UNHCR has adopted
the Vietnamese communist propaganda line and no longer believes that many
of the Montagnards are legitimate refugees fleeing repression.
My UNHCR tour guide Hagar lectured me during my visit. "Vietnam
is no longer a communist country. It's an authoritarian one." That
should be startling news to the Politburo and the Vietnamese Communist
Party that are the real power behind the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
today. Perhaps he doesn't know about the police state control in the Provinces
and Districts of Vietnam and the People's Party that governs at every
level with an iron fist.
I informed Hagar that I had just come from Vietnam where I located an
old South Vietnamese soldier friend of mine after 35years. He was afraid
that if I visited him in his village, the police would come after I left
and possibly cause problems for him. In another village called Xuan Que
I visited, it wasn't long before the police told me to come to the People's
Party Headquarters for questioning.
Hagar, the UNHCR rep barely listened to me. He shrugged it off, saying
that the same kind of thing happens in America. Strange talk for an American
employed by the UNHCR.
The UNHCR rep continued his lecture as to the real problem in Vietnam
in regard to the Montagnards. "If you ask me, the Dega Christianity
(tinh lanh) practiced by the Montagnards isn't a religion at all. It's
a political movement-a separatist movement led by Kok Ksar in America
to take back the Central Highlands. It has nothing to do with religion.
To be brutally frank, the Montagnards have been manipulated by outside
sources." Again Hagar is regurgitating Vietnamese communist propaganda,
because only about 10 per cent of the Montagnard Christians ascribe to
the "Degar" brand of religion.
But it is a fact that the Vietnamese Communist Party has confiscated huge
tracts of the Montagnard ancestral homeland for their own personal use.
Thousands of party members were transferred south after the war to take
over the rich homeland and exploit the vast natural wealth there.
It appears that UNHCR has an explanation for that also. "They took
everybody's land after 1975 and then dispersed it as they saw fit,"
says Hagar. Translated that means it was OK to take the traditional homeland
from the Montagnards in the Central Highlands.
"I've been to Vietnam several times now to investigate the alleged
human rights abuses that the Montagnards claim happen to them. There's
nothing to it," says Hagar.
But of course, this American employee of the UNHCR is new on the scene
and has only been in Cambodia less than 6 months. He has been the recipient
of carefully guided tours with an official escort. No one gets into the
Central Highlands today without an escort. Not even the American ambassador,
nor the US Consulate officials in Ho Chi Minh City, can travel there without
prior approval and official Vietnamese Communist Party guides.
Last year in April of 2004, I was in Lai Kei, the location of the old
base camp of the lst Infantry Division with another Vietnam Veteran and
a Vietnamese guide,when the police stopped us. We had only driven l00
meters off the main highway. Taken to police headquarters, our guide was
grilled for over an hour and his tour guide license taken away. He had
to appear in court the following week to explain our presence there. And
we were a hundred kilometers from the Highlands.
That evening when I returned to the Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, I learned
why. The BBC reported that over 400 Montagnards were killed near Buon
Ma Thuot while protesting for freedom of religion and the return of their
Hagar has spent years in the refugee field before going to work for the
UN. His efforts to convince me that the Montagnards were not true refugees
and that they did not suffer religious persecution and human rights abuses
would have made Hanoi proud.
"We now have an employee on our staff that investigates the reported
abuses in Vietnam. He is a Vietnamese based in Hanoi," continues
Hagar. What Hagar left out is, that the employee was a citizen of communist
"Do you really think that the communist party power apparatus would
allow him to conduct an independent investigation?" I asked.
Hagar answers emphatically, "Yes, by all means. He wouldn't jeopardize
his job with us to report falsely." Of course Hagar conveniently
forgot to mention that the Vietnamese citizen's life would be in jeopardy
if he didn't report what Hanoi wanted.
"And if there were really human rights abuses, don't you think the
American CIA would know about them? Don't you think they have their spies
in the Highlands?" Now he is parroting communist party paranoia about
secret CIA spies everywhere.
Can he really believe this, or is he trying to give me the UNHCR spin
on things? I am beginning to think that Hagar has become like the infamous
Colonel Kurtz in the movie, "Apocolypse Now." He's gone to far
up river in Cambodia.
Talking with the NGO personnel who run Site 3, they say the Montagnards
are afraid to talk with Hagar because he runs and tells the Vietnamese,
and then their relatives are in danger back in Vietnam. The Montagnards
confide in NGO employees who are then reluctant to pass on reported human
rights abuses to UNHCR for fear of retaliation by the Vietnamese.
A recent report of an investigation conducted by UNHCR's rep in Hanoi,
Vu Anh Son, may shed light on why the Montagnards don't trust UNHCR. Following
a field trip to the Central Highlands of Dac Nong on Oct 5-6, he states
that, "Eight of the l3 returned Montagnards are leading good lives
with high stable incomes. Each of the target families earns up to hundreds
of millions of Vietnamese dong a year." (A hundred million dong equals
approximately 6000 dollars). But according to independent reports, 5 of
the returned are in jail.
This investigation was being conducted at the same time that I had located
my old South Vietnamese Army friend in the Mekong Delta. He had suffered
greatly by being on the losing side of the war and had been homeless for
a number of years. He was now working at the subsistence level in the
rice paddies, barely earning over 200 dollars a year for his back- breaking
For UNHCR to accept a report that the returned Montagnards from the forced
repatriation back to Vietnam in July are making $6000 a year is beyond
comprehension. That's almost 30 times the salary of my old friend. A factory
job around Ho Chi Minh City pays no more than l00 dollars a month and
is considered a good job.A Vietnamese worker in a silk factory in Dong
Nai Province, just south of the Central Highlands, earns 40 US dollars
a month, and is happy to get it.
My conclusion is that whatever proselytizing department in Hanoi directs
the UNHCR rep behind the scenes needs to learn how to write more credible
The UNHCR and the NGO community in Phnom Penh also have two different
versions of the July 04 incident where 100 Montagnards were forced back
to Vietnam. NGO eyewitnesses say that camp guards and police used electric
batons and nightsticks on the Montagnards who sat on the ground and refused
to get on the buses that would transport them back to Vietnam.
Says Hagar, "The July incident was caused by active collusion from
the Montagnards in the United States. They received phone calls the night
before telling them if they resisted they would not be sent back."
He emphasized the point that they were using illegal cell phones that
weren't registered with the government.
Imagine, we're talking life and death here, and the emphasis is on the
operation of an illegal cell phone. Cambodia is one the most corrupt countries
in the world, and now UNHCR is shifting the blame to illegal cell phones-an
offense on the same level as a traffic violation.
UNHCR is also criticizing the Montagnards in America for continuing to
fight for human rights for their brethren in a country that imprisons
its writers and religious leaders. That's what American citizens in a
free country have the option to do. They aren't thrown in a prison for
attending a church service and they aren't subject to thought control.
I talked to eyewitnesses from the NGO community who witnessed the beating
of the Montagnards with nightsticks and the use of electric batons on
Eighteen NGO's signed a letter of protest to the Cambodian government
over the abuse and the return.
Hagar denies this. "Their source of information is a Human Rights
Watch representative here in Phnom Penh. Human Rights Watch is not a credible
source of truth here."
Why is the UNHCR so willing to deny the Montagnards' claims of human rights
abuses in Vietnam, yet so willing to accept what the police state government
of Vietnam tells them?
The emphasis has been cleverly shifted from the human rights abuses suffered
by the Montagnards over the years to the discrediting of those NGO agencies
that report the incidents, and those in America who keep the Montagnards'
It appears that UNHCR is willing to gloss over human rights abuses because
they feel in the long run this approach with the Vietnamese Government
will get them more access to Vietnam.
Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a long- time prisoner in the Gulag,
would have this to say about UNHCR's unchallenged acceptance of what the
police state system feeds them from Hanoi. "During my time in the
camps, I had got to know the enemies of the human race quite well. They
respect the big fist and nothing else; the harder you slug them, the safer
you will be."
UNHCR pulled their refugee camps from the Cambodian/Vietnam border where
the fleeing Montagnards could once find refuge. There are reports of 22
Montagnards hiding in the jungle in Ratankiri Province, waiting for someone
to rescue them.
Hagar says with sarcasm that a carload of five Montagnards has just been
deposited at the doorstep of UNHCR headquarters in Phnom Penh. "They
had to pay $500 dollars a head to a human trafficker to bring them here.
It will be very difficult for them to prove persecution and obtain refugee
status. They only want to go to America to get better jobs."
There's not much sympathy here for a race of people who have lost their
land, and suffer religious and political persecution. And that's the way
it goes for the Montagnards in Phnom Penh. They don't seem to get much
"Now you will have to decide who is telling the truth here in Phnom
Penh," Hagar says as I am leaving. "The NGO community has their
own agenda, but we at UNHCR don't have one. We're here to help the Montagnards."
Beloved Big Brother in Hanoi, Vu Anh Son, who is also there to help the
Montagnards, could have scripted that line. It appears that UNHCR may
be the willing victim of the Orwellian mind manipulators in Hanoi and
have become as Orwell's last words in his prophetic book stated: "He
loved Big Brother."
One JRS employee asked me as I left, "The American soldiers who fought
with the Montagnards won't give up on them, will they?" With the
implication being that those who are charged with helping them have been
"Not until we all die," I answered.
The Co Van