- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

When it appears that even the North Korean glacier is beginning to melt on the surface at least there is one communist dictatorship that remains hard and fixed in its wickedness, one for whom nothing changes: the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. A useful criterion for testing such a statement is to examine how a government treats its minorities, particularly a helpless one. In the case of Vietnam, the ethnic minorities that the party government has mistreated for decades are a handful of indigenous mountain tribes known collectively as the Montagnards, the mountain people who live endangered lives in Vietnam's Central Highlands.
The Freedom House annual survey of freedom in the world puts Vietnam at the very bottom of its ranking on political rights and civil liberties. Despite some economic reforms in recent years, reforms which affect a small part of Vietnam's almost 79 million people and which permit the occasional protest meeting, the Vietnam Communist Party exercises its power ruthlessly against the Montagnards. They are denied land rights, equal education, freedom of religion (many are Christian) and the right of emigration.
I must admit a personal fondness for the Montagnards, a feeling that developed while reporting on the war in Vietnam. I met some of them in the Central Highlands around Dalat. American servicemen in the area, especially the Green Berets, knew them much better than I did because they were valuable allies in the war against the communist north. Today, the Montagnards are known as "the Forgotten Army" and they have become the wards of an American organization known as Save the Montagnard People with their own Web page: www.montagnards.org. The organization claims that "following South Vietnam's surrender [in 1975] we deserted our most dedicated ally of the Vietnam War." Unlike our government, these servicemen remember the Montagnards and the risks they took on behalf of American fighters in Vietnam. Our own government ought to do the same remembering. I would also recommend obtaining the Human Rights Watch 200-page report entitled "Vietnam's Repression of Montagnards: Land Grabbing, Church Destruction and Police Abuse in the Central Highlands" at www.hrw.org.
It is time for the United States to re-examine its policy of past neglect and reckless disregard of those who fought for freedom theirs, and therefore, ours. I'm thinking also of the East German construction workers who, in June 1953, revolted against Soviet domination, and the Poles and Hungarians who revolted in October 1956 in the belief that the Republican call for "rollback" (containment, the argument went, was treason) meant help for the crushed peoples of central and eastern Europe. And a victorious United States stood by while Saddam Hussein, after his defeat in the Gulf War, gassed the Iraqi Kurds and tried to exterminate the Shi'ite peoples in southern Iraq. In light of such a sorry record, a policy reconsideration is essential, particularly as we undertake a new kind of war against a new kind of enemy.
The Montagnard issue is very much alive as U.S. military forces occupy a war-torn Afghanistan, a land which still has not found the magic formula for creating a modern society out of the Northern Alliance/Pashtun clans and one which could easily fall into a new civil war inspired by what remnant of Osama bin Laden's forces still remain hidden in the country's honeycomb of caves.
In an immediate sense, the United States could inspire future allies by doing what it can for the Montagnards to rescue them from Vietnamese tyranny. Presently, Western journalists, foreign diplomats, U.N. and unofficial human-rights monitors are barred from entering Vietnam's Central Highlands, except on strictly controlled Potemkin tours. In February 2001, several thousand (the exact number cannot be ascertained independently) members of indigenous minorities organized a demonstration in which they called for independence for their five provinces, return of ancestral lands and, above all, for religious freedom. According to the Human Rights Watch report, Vietnam responded to this demonstration with an overwhelming show of force. Hundreds were arrested by the communists whom HRW accuses of "sometimes using torture to elicit confessions and public statements of remorse by protest organizers." Religious meetings, especially those of evangelical Protestantism, were targeted.
The Montagnard problem is really one that could be dealt with if pressure were applied on Hanoi, which is seeking desperately needed economic assistance from international lending agencies and private investment. We should do what we can to help our friends.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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