Vietnam’s “hidden” war on Christianity just rumbles along, and on March 13, the communist authorities demolished one of the first Christian churches built in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. While religious persecution is nothing new to Vietnam, the significance of this demolition is particularly symbolic because the church was more than a historical landmark. The large stone Church at Buon Ma Thuot for the last 34 years had been deliberately closed by Vietnam’s security police, and yet, all those years, the church remained a powerful symbol to the local indigenous Christians.
Unfortunately, the church was also an unwelcome reminder for the communists who had murdered a number of Christian missionaries near the grounds in 1968, and a reminder of the very movement the government is trying to eliminate. This movement, so hated by Hanoi, is nothing other than “independent” Christian house churches.
Thus, in the dead of night, with security forces keeping watch, heavy machinery came and brought the historic church toppling down. Word of this spread, and in mourning the loss on May 1, some 90,000 Degar Montagnards from 375 villages stopped everything and prayed for three days and nights. Security forces responded by making dozens of arrests of these tribal Christians, threatening them to cease their religious activities.
This repression against Christians in Vietnam is decades old, and it was in 2004 that the U.S. State Department first added Vietnam to the “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) designation, the official “watch list” of nations that commit serious religious persecution. Potentially, CPC designation involves sanctions being imposed on such countries. However, after negotiations with Hanoi, the CPC designation was removed as the communist authorities “promised” to undertake religious reforms, including stopping forced renunciations of faith, an actual policy directed against tribal Christians.
Today, however, the question remains whether Vietnam ever intended to honor such reforms and whether the State Department conveniently accepted Hanoi’s dubious promises in order to gain trade, military and diplomatic relations. If the State Department did so, it is clear the Degar Montagnards - who were America’s loyal allies during the Vietnam War - have been relegated to little or no importance. U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael W. Michalak recently rejected calls by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to put Vietnam back on the CPC watch list. He cited that there was not enough evidence of religious persecution.
Yet we know the European Parliament confirmed a Degar Montagnard woman named “Puih Hbat” was arrested in April 2008 for leading prayer services in her house. Not only did the Europeans confirm that this woman had been sentenced to five years imprisonment for this “crime,” but also that this very information had been given to them by U.S. Embassy officials. “Puih Hbat” is a 42-year-old mother of five children, and her family fears that she may have been killed in custody.
It wouldn’t be the first Degar Montagnard killed by Vietnam’s security forces, and it wouldn’t be the first such killing acknowledged by the State Department. In fact, the State Department has confirmed the killings of Degar Montagnards such as “Y Ngo Adrong” in 2006 and “Y Ben Hdok” in 2008. They also reported that killings of tribal Christians by Vietnam’s security forces on Easter 2004 reached casualty figures at least in “double digit figures.”
If the imprisonment of “Puih Hbat” and the above killings are not evidence of persecution, what then of the hundreds of confirmed Degar Montagnards now rotting in Vietnam’s jails? Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the USCIRF all report that hundreds of Montagnards are currently imprisoned under Vietnam’s authoritarian laws. These laws are vaguely defined as crimes of “undermining state unity,” which, in reality, means the Degar Montagnards were imprisoned for crimes relating to religious freedom and free speech.
The evidence today suggests that not only is religious persecution continuing in Vietnam, but also that Hanoi has merely changed tactics in persecuting Christians. Since being dropped from the CPC designation in 2006, hundreds - if not thousands - of Degar Christians have been arrested, beaten and threatened in what appears a policy to repress the house churches from expanding membership. It is estimated that during the past decade, Protestant congregations have grown 600 percent in Vietnam, a statistic that has greatly alarmed communist officials.
Today, “forced renunciations” have been replaced by control mechanisms - namely, torture, beatings, imprisonment and killings. Instead of forcing Christians to renounce their faith, Vietnamese authorities force Degar Montagnards to join “government-approved” churches, such as the Evangelical Church of Vietnam - South (ECVN-S), where Christians can be watched, controlled and, if need be, arrested and imprisoned like “Puih Hbat.” In other words, “You can be a Christian, but you must be our Christian.”
Persecution is nothing new to the Degar Montagnards, and when the Vietnam War ended, the communists unleashed a brutal revenge against them that reads like a blueprint for ethnic cleansing. It started with the execution and imprisonment of their leaders and pastors. The Degar Montagnards were also subjected to forced relocations and driven off their ancestral lands. Today, they have been pushed into a life of poverty, and their once-great forests virtually clear-felled by logging companies. In the words of Human Rights Watch, “The Montagnards have been repressed for decades.”
The Vietnam War saw an estimated 40,000 Degar Montagnards serving with American forces at any one time, and by the end of the conflict, some 200,000 of these people, a quarter of their population, had perished. The late Ed Sprague, former U.S. Special Forces soldier and Foreign Service officer, who served with the Montagnards for seven years, summed up their role stating, “There was a dual love - we loved them and they loved us, and they saved a lot of American lives.”
In Washington today, however, the Degar Montagnards have been conveniently forgotten. The historical role they played in the Vietnam War, their sacrifice and their loyalty to the United States are practically unheard of. Only a few members of Congress have ever raised their issue, and the Obama administration seems about as interested today in hearing about Degar Montagnards as the communists are in Hanoi.
On June 8, the United States and Vietnam held a joint “Political, Security and Defense Dialogue,” and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Greg Delawie stated, “The Obama administration has placed a strong emphasis on engaging with and listening to our partners in the region.”
Of course, there was no mention of America’s former allies, the Degar Montagnards.
Scott Johnson is a lawyer, writer and human rights activist. He co-writes the Powerline.com blog.