- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Vietnam's human rights scandal

Government-controlled newspapers in Vietnam last Thursday condemned Michael D. Benge's Jan. 13 Washington Times Commentary Forum article, "Terrifying abuses in Vietnam." On Saturday, the Embassy of Vietnam issued a news release slandering Mr. Benge by accusing him of carrying out acts of sabotage against Vietnam.
In his article, Mr. Benge brings to light the Vietnamese government's ongoing and systematic abuse of the Montagnard people, who fought alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. As usual, the Vietnamese government's response distorted or deliberately omitted facts.
For instance, Mr. Benge is a senior adviser to the Montagnard Human Rights Organization, not Human Rights Watch, as the government's newspapers reported. Of course, I'm sure the government was confronted with several dilemmas. First, it is not surprising that it would hesitate to admit that there is a Montagnard Human Rights Organization or, more important, that Vietnam's human rights record is so abysmal that there are several human rights organizations concerned about the abuses.
Another distortion is the newspapers' contention that the Vietnam Human Rights Act failed to pass the U.S. Senate. In truth, one senator, John Kerry of Massachusetts, is keeping the bill from a vote. In a behind-the-scenes maneuver, Mr. Kerry blocked the bill from coming to the Senate floor, where it surely would pass, as it did overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives.
In its attempt to slander Mr. Benge and cover up the truth of who he is and the abuse of the Montagnards, the Vietnamese embassy failed to mention another important fact: Mr. Benge is an expert witness concerning Vietnamese human rights violations. He was held in a North Vietnamese communist prison, where he was tortured, held in solitary confinement, starved and beaten, from 1968 to 1973. This was in violation of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which Vietnam signed. Mr. Benge also buried fellow prisoners who died of abuse and deliberate neglect at the hands of the North Vietnamese government. Mr. Benge was a noncombatant when he was captured a civilian working to help the Montagnards and Vietnamese as a member of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the same agency to which Vietnam now has its hand out for assistance.
No one who loves and cares for the Montagnards and the majority of the Vietnamese people wants to stand in the way of normalized trade. However, Americans do expect that in return for that trade, the Vietnamese government will treat all of the people of Vietnam with dignity and respect. The United States can forgive our former enemies; however, the United States will never forget our former allies.
I challenge the Vietnamese ambassador to open the Central Highlands to controlled tours and truly independent public inspections not guided by the communist government. If he accepts this challenge, I and I'm sure Mr. Benge as well will gladly provide the names and locations of Montagnards who have been subjected to the government's religious repression and human rights abuses to that independent party in order to verify our claims. Is the Vietnamese government willing to accept this challenge?

Special projects officer
Save the Montagnard People Inc.
Gaithersburg, Md.I was taken aback while reading the completely fabricated claims in Michael Benge's Jan. 13 Commentary Forum column.
He tries to smear the respected U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) by weaving a story about two Vietnamese policemen pressing a UNHCR official to force 117 Montagnard people into the hands of Vietnamese police to face torture, prison or death. Instead, a series of meetings among Vietnam, Cambodia and UNHCR have been held in order to peacefully repatriate the refugees.
The events last year in the Central Highlands were caused largely by land disputes resulting from mismanagement by local authorities, as observed by former U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson after his fact-finding trip to the region last July. Mr. Peterson said, "Local officials are working hard to improve the quality of life of their citizens and are seriously addressing the people's grievances over land distribution."
To make it worse, hostile outsiders fed the people misleading information and instigated them to flee to Cambodia. This was acknowledged by a senior counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives' International Relations Committee who visited Vietnam and Cambodia last summer. Many demonstrators testified that they were given money (50,000 Vietnamese dong; $1 U.S. equals 15,111 dong) to show up at the demonstration. This fact was confirmed by several Vietnamese and foreign professionals working in Vietnam.
In addition, Mr. Benge challenges the common sense and intelligence of those who have visited and worked in Vietnam through the years with his terrifically fictitious tales describing how the local authorities in the Central Highlands treat the people of their own tribes.
The fact is that one of the priorities of Vietnamese government policy is to promote economic, cultural and social development in mountainous areas and improve the living standards of ethnic minorities. Vietnam's achievement in poverty alleviation has been praised recently as exemplary by the World Bank and the United Nations. Our 54 brotherly ethnic groups live harmoniously, hand-in-hand, addressing the legacy of war and building the country.
Regarding religious life, an independent American observer gave a firsthand account in a letter to the U.S. Senate. He wrote from Vietnam: "[R]egarding 'destruction of churches and temples' that seems to me absurd, given the rate of construction of new churches all over the country, proudly displaying the construction date with large plaques over the main door: 'Built in 1999' or more recently. Yes, the government did tear down a Protestant church in the central region after it had been built in a security border area, against warnings by local officials who approved a different site for the church. When officials realized the building had been erected illegally, they responded by enforcing the law. The perpetrators recorded the scene on videotape, obviously preplanned, and used it in the U.S. to prove that there was 'destruction' of churches and temples by the government here."
Since the September 11 tragedy, Vietnam has taken concrete anti-terrorist measures in cooperation with the United States. Anyone who has a little knowledge of the Vietnamese culture will not find it difficult to apprehend the sincerity of our condolences and sympathy.

Press attache
Embassy of Vietnam

Scottish castle's historic irony

As the scion of generations of MacLeods, I was understandably interested in the Jan. 20 story about Chieftain John MacLeod's difficulties paying for the upkeep of our clan headquarters at Dunvegan ("Mountains go to save castle"). With all the MacLeods/McLeods around the world, some quite wealthy, one might expect the checks to pour in.

I had tea with the chieftain's grandmother nearly 30 years ago, and she asked for a contribution. I demurred out of respect for my MacLeod grandfather. He and his ilk were MacLeods, but not of the status welcomed at the castle. We MacLeods around the world descend not from the castle, but from the thousands of MacLeod kinsmen previous chieftains ran off their farms to make room for sheep and golf courses. His lairdship might turn Dunvegan into a bed-and-breakfast, raising money by entertaining the descendants of these exiles.



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