WASHINGTON (BP)–American religious and government leaders joined Vietnamese refugees and immigrants April 21 in calling for an end to Vietnam’s repression of ethnic minority Christians.
About 250 Montagnards gathered at an outdoor rally on Capitol Hill to protest the communist government’s reportedly violent suppression of Easter demonstrations by Christians in the Central Highlands of the Southeast Asian country. At least 10 Montagnards — the name given to the largely Protestant ethnic tribes in the Central Highlands — were killed and hundreds injured on Easter weekend, based on eyewitness reports included in an April 22 news release from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., told the Montagnards at the rally the action against their people was a “very egregious escalation of the butchery and the hate” by communist leaders.
“They want to stamp out the Montagnard faith,” Smith said. “The government of Vietnam needs to be held to account.”
Smith joined Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., in calling for the State Department to pressure Hanoi to reverse its repressive policy.
In a statement read at the rally, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said such treatment of the Montagnards “violates every standard of civilized behavior.”
“Outrage is not even an adequate word to describe my response to the brutal treatment” by the Vietnamese government, said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It is time for those who cherish religious freedom and fundamental human rights to come to the aid of these oppressed people.”
Thousands of Montagnards attempted to conduct peaceful protests for religious freedom and the return of their ancestral lands in at least two provinces in Vietnam beginning April 10, according to The Associated Press and Reuters. HRW reported that Vietnamese police, working with armed men in civilian clothes armed with machetes, clubs filled with nails, chains, metal bars and shovels, attacked protesters at more than a dozen demonstrations.
The Vietnamese government initially denied that any violence had occurred in the Central Highlands. When officials finally acknowledged the unrest in Nhân Dân, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, they accused “ill-intentioned forces outside Vietnam” of fomenting the protests and blamed the Montagnards for the violence.
Officials have blocked access to the Central Highlands since the violence. The dead and wounded in the Phan Chu Trinh region were quickly moved, and blood on a road was washed away within days, witnesses told HRW. Many of the demonstrators are reported missing, and hundreds of Montagnards have fled their homes, according to HRW. Police also are stationed in the homes of Christians in the region to bar meetings and enforce house arrests, HRW reported.
Cambodia reportedly has tightened security at its border with the Central Highlands to block Montagnards fleeing the Vietnamese government, even though Cambodian King Sihanouk has called on the Cambodian government and the United Nations not to bar them from the country, according to Radio Free Asia.
“We fear that a huge cover-up has likely already taken place,” said HRW General Counsel Dinah PoKempner in a written statement. “The Vietnamese government needs to account for the large numbers of people who never returned to their villages after the demonstrations and are now feared to be dead or detained at unknown locations.”
In a statement released at the Capitol Hill rally, Brownback announced he had written Secretary of State Colin Powell April 20 asking him immediately to designate Vietnam as a “country of particular concern.” CPC designation by the State Department is limited to the world’s most severe violators of religious liberty. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a nonpartisan panel, recommended in February that Vietnam be one of six governments added to five current CPC designees.
Brownback and Land called for Vietnam to open the Central Highlands to humanitarian relief and outside observers. In Land’s statement, read by ERLC Vice President Barrett Duke, the ERLC head called on the Vietnamese government “to give the international community access to these oppressed people so that we might minister to them in their time of need.”
Smith called for Congress to pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act, H.R. 1587, which would bar non-humanitarian aid to that country without improvements in religious freedom and human rights. The House approved the measure last year as part of the State Department reauthorization bill, but it has yet to gain Senate action.
“For those of my colleagues in the House and the Senate who somehow think that the human rights situation, and in particular the religious freedom situation, has somehow been ameliorated and gotten better, this is a significant wakeup call, because there is ongoing, pervasive persecution of the Montagnard and other people of faith by the government of Vietnam,” Smith said at the rally.
Also addressing those at the rally were Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Montagnards who made up most of the crowd at the April 21 rally came on buses from Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh, N.C., a spokesman for the Montagnard Human Rights Organization said. About 99 percent of the Montagnard people who have relocated to the United States live in North Carolina, the spokesman said. The state is also home to Fort Bragg, the U.S. military installation where large contingents of the U.S. Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, reside.
The Vietnamese government’s repression of the Montagnards is based not only on their religious faith and ethnicity, but also on their support of the United States during the Vietnam War. Many of the Montagnards who have fled Vietnam fought alongside the Green Berets.