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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 7, 2011


Not a prayer for US-Vietnam diplomacy
By Scott Johnson

While much has been made of the role leaked confidential United States diplomatic cables have played in the political convulsions now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, there is at least one batch of documents that show how US President Barack Obama's government has willfully looked away from sustained abuses committed by an emerging strategic ally in Asia: Vietnam.
The cables in question, entitled "Vietnam Religious Freedom Update - the Case Against CPC [Country of Particular Concern]", were written in 2010 by US ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak and published by WikiLeaks in January this year. The leaked correspondence which assessed Vietnam's freedom of

 
religion situation blatantly failed to mention the hundreds of Christian Montagnards, or Degar people, currently imprisoned for practicing their religion and the sustained persecution of independent house churches.

The leaked cables dismiss Vietnam's religious repression as "primarily land issues" and that such actions "should not divert our attention from the significant gains in expanding religious freedom that Vietnam has made".

For years, human-rights groups and concerned US Congressmen have complained about Vietnam's abysmal freedom of religion record. The US State Department, keen to foster ties with Hanoi in a bid to counterbalance China's regional rise, has through its silence effectively validated Vietnam's consistent denials about committing human-rights abuses, including its persecution of the Montagnards.

A recent report by rights watchdog Human Rights Watch entitled "Montagnard Christians in Vietnam: A Case Study in Religious Repression" states that "during the last decade, the Vietnamese government has launched a series of crackdowns on Montagnards in the Central Highlands" and "more than 350 Montagnards have been sentenced to long prison sentences on vaguely-defined national security charges for their involvement in public protests and unregistered house churches".

The report notes that the "arrests are ongoing, with more than 70 Montagnards arrested or detained during 2010" and "at least 25 Montagnards have died in prisons, jails, or police lock-ups after beatings or illnesses sustained while in custody".

In 2004, the State Department designated Vietnam as a CPC, which places it on an official watch list punishable by sanctions of nations that habitually commit egregious violations of religious freedom. At the time Vietnam was desperately seeking accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and effectively required Washington's approval through normal trade relations to join the club.

The two sides negotiated to remove Vietnam as a CPC in 2006 after Hanoi committed to improve its rights record and subsequently normalized trade ties. However, soon after Vietnam entered the WTO in January 2007 the communist-led regime reverted to its old repressive ways. Out of diplomatic expediency or embarrassment, the plight of the Montagnards and other persecuted religious groups has since been ignored by the State Department.

In light of the US's deep history with the Montagnards, that blind eye is an act of betrayal. Tens of thousands of Montagnards were recruited and trained by US troops and were loyally served Washington during the Vietnam War. Their bravery in fighting against the communists was legendary, according to US soldier accounts. Over the life of the conflict it was estimated some 100,000 Montagnards fought alongside US troops and at any given time some 30,000 were actively serving. By the end of the war in 1975, an estimated quarter of the Montagnard population, or over 200,000 people, had perished in the conflict.

The survivors were left to face unassisted the victorious communists' vengeance. On taking over South Vietnam, the communists imprisoned and executed the Montagnard's political and religious leaders. The wider Montagnard population was subjected to forced relocations and thousands were condemned to live on some of the country's poorest cropland. The military also deforested the Montagnard's ancestral lands while expanding their logging operations into neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The Montagnards have been deliberately marginalized as losers of the war and survive today in a cycle of crushing poverty.

Disposable allies
Take, for instance, the case of Puih Hbat, a Montagnard Christian and mother of four whose father served with the US during the Vietnam War. On April 11, 2008, in the dead of night, eight security officials bundled her off screaming into a waiting truck that took her to prison. Her crime: hosting Christian prayer services in her longhouse. Tellingly, her name did not appear in the leaked US cable that claimed to assess Vietnam's freedom of religion situation.

Yet the State Department has detailed knowledge of her and hundreds of other Montagnards now in detention. In 2006, John Q Adams, then the State Department's Vietnam desk officer, received a painstakingly detailed report with names and photographs of over 350 Montagnard prisoners arrested for non-violent activities, including merely practicing their faith.

These same prisoners have also been documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). In January 2009, the European Parliament confirmed Puih Hbat had been imprisoned "for leading prayer services for Christians in her house". Sources confirm that US Embassy officials in Hanoi had investigated her arrest.

The leaked cables make repeated mention of the "significant gains" Vietnam has supposedly made on upholding religious freedoms. That assessment includes references to the "registration of scores of new religions" and the "training of hundreds of new Protestant and Catholic clergy".

"Registration" and "training" are in reality codewords for mechanisms of state control over religious congregations. The so-called "new religions" are in fact government implemented programs designed to control how Vietnamese practice their faith. Hanoi has changed only its tactics of repression since being dropped as a CPC in 2006.

Since then thousands of Montagnard Christians have been arrested, beaten, tortured and then released in a deliberate policy to repress house churches from expanding their memberships. Over the past decade, Protestant congregations, many of which meet and pray underground, have reportedly grown by 600%, a statistic that has reportedly alarmed communist officials. By praising the successful expansion of government registered churches, including the Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam, the State Department has effectively legitimized the communist government's oppressive tactics against independent churches.

The USCIRF, an independent US federal agency, has called for Vietnam to be redesignated a CPC every year since it was delisted in 2006. In May 2010, the agency specifically identified Montagnard prisoners as just cause for redesignation.

It stated that "hundreds of Montagnard Protestants arrested after the 2001 and 2004 demonstrations for religious freedom and land rights remain in detention in the Central Highlands. The circumstances and charges leveled against them are difficult to determine, but there is enough evidence available to determine that peaceful religious leaders and adherents were arrested and remain incarcerated."

The USCIRF also said "The State Department's standard for determining who is a religious ‘prisoner of concern' draws an arbitrary line between 'political' and 'religious' activity not found in international human-rights law." In other words, the USCIRF believes that the State Department makes up its own rules of classification when dealing with Vietnam. The leaked cables, meanwhile, show that US diplomats have ignored the fate of Montagnard prisoners while simultaneously praising the ruling communist's intensifying controls over religion.

Puih Hbat and hundreds of other Montagnards languish in prison for practicing their faith while the Obama administration concentrates on building strategic ties with Vietnam's communist regime. While her now deceased father served proudly with US forces against those same communists during the Vietnam War, it's unclear whether he would have sided with the Americans knowing that some 40 years later the US government would fail to acknowledge his wrongfully imprisoned daughter's and other Montagnard's ongoing plight.

Scott Johnson is a lawyer, writer and human-rights activist focusing on tribal peoples from Southeast Asia. He may be reached at scottmfi@hotmail.com.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


A fiery silence in Vietnam (Feb 10, '11)

God and state draw closer in Vietnam (Feb 2, '11)


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