UNHCR-another 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 land.

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 Vietnam.

"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 efforts.

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 propaganda reports.

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 their flesh.

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' plight alive.

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 respect here.

"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 co-opted.

"Not until we all die," I answered.

The Co Van

(American Advisor)
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