- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

Christmas came late this year to the hill people in Vietnam known as the Montagnards, and when it came, it was at the point of a gun and the heel of a jackboot.
The Vietnamese government took the largely-Christian holiday as an opportunity to launch another wave of repression against this largely-Christian minority. Late last week, it pronounced another series of long prison terms on eight Montagnards accused of political crimes, and that was probably just a small part of its offensive Christmas offensive. According to the Montagnard Foundation, Degar Christians (a subgroup of Montagnards) were threatened with fines, imprisonment and execution for celebrating the holiday. Moreover, the Vietnamese government backed up those threats with the mobilization of 600 squads of "fast-deployment teams" of soldiers in the highlands last October.
Tragically, this follows the same pattern of brutal repression that the Vietnamese government has been practicing against the Montagnards since early 2001, when the Montagnards rose to protest the already-serious repression against them. According to an Amnesty International report released earlier last month, there have been many reports of the persecution of Protestants, including arrests of pastors, forced closures of churches and mandated renunciations. Those who do not comply face quick trials followed by ill-treatment and torture. (The Amnesty International report notes mildly, "Whilst there are legal provisions for the role of defenders and the presumption of innocence, however, those provisions appear not to be observed in practice.")
Neither the actual abuses nor their true extent can be confirmed, since the Vietnamese government has not allowed outside observers to make unsupervised visits into the Highlands for some time. However, few reasonable people doubt that they occur.
Yet the real crime of the Montagnards is the fundamentally American one of attempting to flee religious repression and finding a land in which to live and worship in peace. Following their failed protests in 2001, at least 1,500 Montagnards fled to Cambodia in search of asylum. They were initially housed in U.N.-administered refugee camps which were closed last March. While the United States gave sanctuary to over 900 refugees, many of the rest have either been deported back into Vietnam, or have gone into hiding.
It's worth remembering (especially since the communist Vietnamese government certainly does) that the Montagnards have long been friends of the United States. During the Vietnam War, they gave sanctuary to U.S. soldiers and their lives to the U.S. cause more than half of adult Montagnard males were killed fighting alongside American soldiers during the conflict.
In the short term, Washington should pressure Hanoi to end it's holiday repression. In the long term, it should do all it can to offer succor and aid to its friends, the Montagnards.


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