- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

This Saturday, protesters will gather outside Vietnamese embassies in several cities around the globe, including Washington, to protest that government's human rights abuses, particularly with respect to the Montagnards.

Those indigenous, largely Christianized tribal people from Vietnam's central highlands were true friends of American soldiers during the Vietnam War, and they paid a terrible price. More than 50 percent of adult Montagnard males were killed alongside American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

The Montagnards have continued to suffer arrests, imprisonment, torture and religious persecution since the Americans left. Last April, Human Rights Watch released a 200-page report detailing the Vietnamese government's repressive activities. On one occasion, in March 2001, hundreds of troops entered the village of Plei Lao to break up an all-night prayer meeting. They stayed to shoot a villager and ransack the church.

The Vietnamese government's policy of forced sterilization of the Montagnards has been written about by Scott Johnson, a lawyer based in Perth, Australia and a human rights advocate for the Montagnard Foundation in South Carolina. That foundation has documented more than 1,000 cases of women who were forcibly sterilized. More shockingly, the Vietnamese government has admitted that it implemented such a policy.

Montagnard repression has been especially brutal since the U.S. government granted asylum to a group of more than 800 Montagnard refugees earlier this spring, according to Kay Reibold, director of the Vietnam Highlands Assistance Project for Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas, whose organization has given shelter and assistance to many of those refugees. Mr. Benge has also received horrifying accounts of the Vietnamese government's crackdown. In mid-July, agents of the Vietnamese government allegedly captured and mutilated (cut off the men's achilles tendons and the women's breasts) a group of about 60 Montagnards in the Gia Lai provence. Other witnesses told Mr. Benge of seeing between 50 and 60 mutilated bodies along a riverbank in Montagnard territory earlier this month. While such stories are impossible to confirm since the Vietnamese government has shut down access to Montagnard regions, they do fit into the Vietnamese government's well-documented pattern of human rights abuses.

Montagnard activists hope that the Senate will find time on its calendar to pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act. It would deny non-humanitarian aid to the Vietnamese government unless it ended its repression of the Montagnards. It passed the House more than a year ago by a 420-1 margin, but has been held up in the Senate, reportedly at the behest of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who fear that the bill will actually weaken human rights activists and democratic reform.

There's no doubt that Vietnam's government needs democratic reform. But while waiting for that to happen, the U.S. representatives should insist that the Vietnamese government stop its brutal persecution of America's friends in the Vietnamese highlands.

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