Montagnard Refugees from Vietnam in Cambodia
July 25, 2001, by Carl J. Regan
She was about forty. Her black hair was pulled straight back and formed a little bun at the back of her head. That had become a customary tribal hair arrangement in the last thirty years. She had a kind, roundish face.
As she began to talk in a clear voice, her brow furrowed and the corners of her mouth turned down. I could not understand all of what she said, although I might have thirty-five years ago. I was once reasonably fluent in her Ede tribal language.
She began softly, telling how the Montagnards, the tribal indigenous hill people of Vietnam, had supported the French in the Indochina War. They had suffered greatly when the French were defeated. She went on to describe the destruction of their villages, their culture, and their land by the US-Vietnam War and its aftermath.
The Montagnards had been America’s most loyal and brave allies, and the victorious Vietnamese Communists had taken their revenge. Her voice was gaining strength as she recited the essential facts of an epic human tragedy. I was all too familiar with what she described.
It was clear why the 300 refugees in the Mondolkiri Refugee Camp had selected her to be one of their four leaders. She was so expressive, so eloquent. She spoke from her heart.
She continued to bring us up to date on the genocide being visited upon her people by the lowland Vietnamese. She described the denial of their right to practice their Evangelical Christian Religion, the seizure of their land, the sterilization of their young women, the denial of health care.
The three other leaders at the table and the thirty or forty refugees who had drifted into the abandoned barn we were using for the meeting began to cry quietly. The five of us who had come half way around the world to Northeastern Cambodia to try and help them, openly cried also.
She concluded by saying that they wanted the Vietnamese to leave their land. They wanted their homeland back.
How could we tell her the truth, that her dream was unachievable in today’s world? We had to be honest. We told her no one could, in good faith, promise what she and her people so wanted. I would like to tell you her name, her home village. I would like to, but I cannot. If the Vietnamese knew that she is a leader, her entire family would be killed.
Five of us had come on this mission. We knew each other from past projects on behalf of our friends. Four of us were American born. The fifth, Rong Nay, was a Montagnard, now a US citizen, who came to the United States in 1986 after escaping Communist imprisonment in 1976. He had fought in the jungles and lived in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. He now runs the Montagnard Human Rights Organization in Raleigh, NC.
Kay Reibold has dedicated the past dozen years of her life to helping the Montagnards. She is director of the Vietnam Highlands Assistance Project, a division of Lutheran Family Services in the Carolinas.
Chuck Woodson and I are Special Forces Veterans of the Vietnam War who served with the Montagnards in that war. We have both been active in several organizations trying to make the adjustment to life in the United States easier for resettled Montagnards.
Mike Benge also worked with the Montagnards during the Vietnam War. He was a civilian USAID worker. He was captured during the Tet Offensive of 1968 and was a prisoner of war for five years. When he was released in 1973, he went back to Vietnam to work with the Montagnards. He still works for USAID, but this trip was not a part of his job.
This trip was a labor of love for each of us. Once you know the Montagnards, you can never forget these brave and extraordinary people. They become “family.” One feels a passion about them. One wants to protect and defend them against the many forces which have destroyed nearly all that is dear to them.
Until 1986, there were only a few hill tribe people in the United States. The surviving remnants of a fighting force of 12,000 came to the US in two groups: 212 from the Thai border in 1986, and 401 from deep in the Cambodian jungle in 1992.
They continued to fight after the US withdrew from Vietnam because our government asked them to. No US Administration in the post-Vietnam era has acknowledged our own government's role in the Montagnard tragedy.
Currently, in 2001, we are witnessing a new exodus. A few of those now fleeing were former soldiers in the US Special Forces-led “Strike Force” or “Mike Force” units. Some were former freedom fighters. All were Christians and most participated at some level in the peaceful protests in the Central Highlands in February and March, 2001.
20,000 Montagnards peacefully protested their persecution and the theft of their land. The Vietnamese response was massive and crushing.
Thirteen regiments with tanks and helicopters were moved in to back-up already large garrisons. Suspected leaders were arrested, tortured and some were killed. Some 10,000 retired secret police (Cong An) were recalled to duty and one or two were lodged in every Montagnard longhouse.
In essence, a quarter of a million souls were placed under house arrest. The story was only told in Asian newspapers. There has been little interest shown in the US by either the news media or government offices.
Our group came to visit with the refugees, to gather facts and to deliver humanitarian aid. Very few members of Congress have shown an interest in the Montagnard tragedy. Among those who have are North Carolina’s two Senators Jesse Helms and John Edwards, House members Dana Rohrabacher of California and South Florida’s Iliana Ros-Lehtinen.
Our group was charged to gather facts for Congress. That official authority was key to our mission. Had we simply gone on our own, we would not have been given free access to the camps. We had the full support of the US Embassy behind us. Ambassador Kent Wiedemann was already sympathetic to the plight of the Montagnards and had previously visited some of the refugees.
Before undertaking the difficult 10-hour overland trip to Mondolkiri in Northeast Cambodia to visit the first of two refugee camps, we were briefed by the Regional Headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Kersi Vaatamoinen and Indrika Ralwatte, senior representatives of the UNHCR Regional Headquarters in Bangkok, explained the delicacy of the situation. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen was under intense pressure to return the Montagnards to Vietnam.
Interestingly, Vietnam is unwilling to accept back any of the four million (4,000,000) ethnic Vietnamese who have fled to Cambodia. More cross the border to refuge every day.
It is the 400 Montagnards in two border camps who can provide detailed information about the ongoing genocide, and thus over whom the government of Vietnam is most anxious to regain control, and to silence.
Even recently returned US Ambassador to Vietnam, Pete Peterson, who is married to a North Vietnamese woman and is generally friendly with the Vietnamese, was never granted permission to visit freely in the Central Highlands. There is so much to hide.
The Defense Attaché in Phnom Penh, Col. Mike Norton, a fiery Vietnam Vet and the ultimate “can-do” airborne soldier, organized our trip and escorted us in both segments. First, the jarring trek overland. Then, after two-and-a-half days at the Mondolkiri Camp, back to Phnom Penh in four-wheel drive.
After a short overnight, he arranged for us to fly to Rattanakiri near the Laos border where a smaller camp with about 60 refugees was located. We were able to interview both the refugees and the UNHCR personnel in both locations, and heard detailed stories of the horrors occurring in the Central Highlands. We filmed a few interviews before the UN personnel asked us to stop. The material was “too damning.”
We assessed the health and welfare situation in the camps. Despite the dedication of the UN workers, conditions were marginal, especially in the larger Mondolkiri camp. People were crowded together in plastic sheet shelters, sharing blankets and sleeping huts.
In one shelter, there was an undiagnosed contagious disease that had affected 12 people by the time we left. There was active malaria and a suspected case of typhoid. What little medical treatment was available to them could only be described as primitive.
Medical personnel from “Medecins du Monde” visited the camp once a week. When we were there, Medecins du Monde had only a male nurse in Mondolkiri, no doctor. Any refugee who was "sick enough" was transported to the Regional Hospital.
The hospital was quite basic, and while we were there most of the medicine in their dispensary was recognized as being that from a donated suitcase-load of pharmaceutical supplies I had hand carried from Miami.
A little Montagnard boy was sent over to the hospital with active malaria. He tested 1+ and was sent back to the camp. The camp director was not aware that a child with 1+ Falciparum Malaria could be dead within 48 hours if not properly treated. I made a note to find anti-malarial medicine on our return to Phnom Penh.
The camps are operated on a day-to-day basis by the refugee leaders. They organize the chores, the division of the sparse food ration, and the building of the plastic sheet shelters. We asked the leaders what they needed most. In both camps they were reluctant to accept our help because they felt guilty about receiving help while their families in Vietnam were still suffering so much.
After several offers, they finally gave us a modest list. We added items we knew would be of help. Several truckloads of blankets, mats, clothing, pots and pans, soap, toothbrushes, toys for the children and other essential supplies were purchased in the local markets near each camp.
The money came from “Save The Montagnard People, Inc” (STMP). The organization, comprised mostly of US Special Forces Vets who served with Montagnards, holds an annual Memorial Day picnic near Greensboro, NC, for the Montagnards in the US. At this year’s picnic, money from the treasury was allocated to help the refugees.
The members also passed the hat to increase the funds available. In all, about $4,000 was spent on essential items for daily life, plus a little “safety money.”
STMP has provided Community College scholarships to approximately 150 Montagnards in the US and is purchasing land on which the Montagnards will build a cultural center. This trip was the first overseas effort of the ex-Green Berets to help our friends.
Several of the refugee camp occupants are known to have a particularly high cash bounty on their heads. One Montagnard who served with US Special Forces during the war is worth $15,000 USD to the Vietnamese, dead or alive. In Vietnam or Cambodia, that amount of money ia a fortune.
The temptation to sell refugees to the Vietnamese Police -- who operate inside Cambodia -- is indeed powerful, and lethal to bountied refugees.
The situation around Senmonoram in Mondolkiri is the worst. Refugees are afraid to go to the stream to fetch water late in the day for fear that Cambodian Police will grab them and sell them to the Vietnamese.
The police in Rattanakiri are generally following the central government’s policy of protecting the refugees -- for the moment. The fact that any have reached the relative safety of the camps is a tribute to UNHCR personnel who put themselves at personal risk to gather them in.
I met a teenage girl who has been in Cambodia for almost a year. She had been hiding with friendly Cambodians until the camps were established. She, too, rates a very high bounty. Why? For what horrible offense? She was an active Christian in her village! I very much look forward to seeing her beautiful smiling face in church in the United States one day.
Just prior to leaving home for the Cambodia trip, two Montagnard friends asked me to look for specific family members and close friends who had fled their villages during the wave of government repression in February and March.
A married couple residing in North Carolina asked me to look for five family members. I cannot reveal any of their names because they still have family in Vietnam. They were worried sick because it had been over four months since several family members had fled for Cambodia and they did not know if they were dead or alive. It was very heartwarming to find the entire family in a refugee camp and appearing reasonably healthy.
I took the eldest family member into the woods surrounding the camp and put him in touch with his family in the US by my cell phone three separate times. For me, it was one of the most satisfying moments of the trip.
Another Montagnard friend, now living in the US, also asked me to look for two missing people. This man is an old friend. He had served with me when I commanded a Special Forces base at Buon Ya Sup and Buon Brieng in 1963 and 1964.
He had risen to an important government position by the time the North toppled the South Vietnam government in 1975. I can not reveal his name here either because he has a few relatives still living in Vietnam, though most have already been killed. As is not uncommon in brutal police states, his mother was forced to dig her own grave.
When I reached Tokyo on my way home, it was my painful task to send him an e-mail informing him that his friends were not in the camps. His reply brought even more sad news.
About the time we were in the refugee camps, and just after the US Ambassador Pete Peterson was whisked through the Central Highlands on a tightly controlled tour in mid-July, a new and even harsher crackdown had begun.
Every longhouse in every village was searched. Any Bibles or Christian literature was seized. Those who possessed a Bible were jailed, as were the relatives of anyone who had fled to Cambodia. This new wave of terror is ongoing as I write this, and has been confirmed by two reliable sources.
On the advice of Col. Mike Norton, US Defense Attaché in Cambodia, I contacted Dr. Stephan Hoyer of the World Health Organization in Phnom Penh. I visited with him for about an hour between our trips to the two camps. I described the problems we had seen and asked if he could help us buy anti-malarial drugs. He asked me to return in three days, after our visit to the second camp in Rattanakiri.
When I returned, I was thrilled to learn that Dr. Hoyer had already addressed the problem. He had called Jim Kovar, the UNHCR chief at Mondolkiri, and counseled him about the health conditions at the camp. But more than that, he made the camp the first recipient of a new "combined therapy" for malaria that his group had developed. A shipment was sent on Monday, July 23rd.
Our final chore before we left Phnom Penh was to brief UNHCR on our findings. We had several concerns and requests.
UNHCR is charged with exploring three possible solutions for all refugees worldwide. The preferred solution is repatriation. The other two solutions are: settlement in the country of first asylum (Cambodia in this case), and third-country resettlement.
The UNHCR and Hanoi have agreed to seek voluntary repatriation. The UNHCR assured us it would only be voluntary repatriation, and that would be undertaken only after the UN was granted unlimited access to the Central Highlands. Technical diplomatic talks aimed at securing this access are scheduled for July 26th and 27th.
We all doubted that Vietnam would agree. [Off the record, so did most UN officials.] It is also generally acknowledged that Cambodia will not accept the refugees for local resettlement. Therefore, we expressed the obvious request -- that planning for third-country resettlement should be undertaken immediately.
More urgently, we requested that selection procedures for refugee status should be reviewed. The most recent arrivals in Mondolkiri, 103 Montagnards mostly from the Mnong tribe who arrived on July 2nd, are being screened-out in large percentages.
This, despite the fact that they are persecuted Christians and many come from a historic hotbed of resistance to the Vietnamese, a village called Buon Sur Pa. Boun Sur Pa served as a US Special Forces base during the Vietnam War and the village was a historic center of FULRO activity.
FULRO is a French acronym for what was known in English as the Montagnard Liberation Movement, which essentially ceased to exist in 1992 when its last battalion surrendered to the UN in Cambodia.
We emphasized that we did not question the UNHCR’s efforts to fairly apply the standards of the 1951 Convention on Refugees, but that perhaps their knowledge of conditions inside Vietnam was incomplete.
We also explained our qualified reasons for believing that any Montagnards who were not accepted as refugees, and who would be forced against their will to return to Vietnam, might surely be murdered -- though perhaps "executed" would be a better choice of terms as their deaths would be by government sanction.
The UNHCR representative began responding to our requests quite defensively, but then something happened that made me quite proud of our US Government.
Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, who had accompanied us to the meeting, placed the full weight of our government behind one of our more important requests. I prefer not to be specific as to what that request was for now, so that diplomacy can function quietly. I do plan to write Secretary of State Powell to tell him what a great diplomatic team he has in Cambodia.
We left Phnom Penh on the evening of July 20th, both hopeful and fearful. Hopeful -- for the 304 refugees granted “person of concern” or refugee status; and fearful -- for both the group screened-out (denied refugee status) by the UNHCR staff and for the approximately 750,000 Montagnards remaining in Vietnam.
There were over 1,500,000 Montagnards in Vietnam in 1975, at the conclusion of the Vietnam War. With that number reduced by an atrocious 50% in a mere 26 years, I fear the genocide will be complete in another quarter-century unless the world learns about, and stops, the horrible treatment of the Montagnards of Vietnam.
Today, it appears that a Bilateral Trade Agreement is about to be approved by the US Congress. The agreement is viewed as the highest priority by the Vietnamese government, and the US has used the pending agreement to gain Vietnamese cooperation in resolving some POW/MIA issues.
This trade agreement may be the most significant leverage the US has in its negotiations with Vietnam. Its conditional granting has the potential to oblige humane treatment of all its citizens by the Communist government of Vietnam.
Instead, it appears that the miserable human rights record of Hanoi is to be ignored by our Congressional leaders. US business interests want it to get access to dollar-a-day non-union labor, and to have their investments guaranteed by the US taxpayer.
Would the US Congress dare pass a Bilateral Trade Agreement with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam if the American people knew the truth about how that government is prosecuting an ongoing campaign of violent ethnic cleansing upon its own indigenous peoples?
I came home with a profound sense of sadness for what is happening to the Montagnards. And, I came home angry.
Angry -- that the Vietnamese can proceed with such vile genocidal policies and that our US Congress, with the exception of a handful of members, quite apparently does not care.
Angry -- that multinational companies are willing to ignore death and cultural obliteration for the sake of corporate profit.
My anger is tempered by the knowledge that those few who know, including the Ambassador to Cambodia, Kent Wiedemann and his staff, are doing what they can. Tempered some also by the brave efforts of the UNHCR staff at the Cambodian refugee camps, though I often found myself frustrated by the stifling bureaucracy of that agency.
I plan to turn my anger into action. I will redouble my efforts to make more people aware of Vietnam’s secret crimes against humanity.
Please help spread the word.
Please demand that your Congressional leaders vote against the pending Bilateral Trade Agreement with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam until such time as that government stops the genocide against the Montagnards and opens the Central Highlands to outside, independent, and unfettered observation.
###Useful Links and info:
© 2001 by Carl J. Regan. All rights reserved.
ACTION ALERT -- Current circumstances -- Urgent -- HOT
US House of Representatives -- Members With Web Sites Directory
Click HERE for a model message regarding the US-SRV BTA. Copy/modify for faxing.
Article from Asian Fortune -- "Tiananman Square in Central Vietnam?"
An open letter to the US Senate Finance Committee by Gregory Stock
An open letter from Michael Benge
Save The Montagnard People (STMP)
Vietnam Highlands Assistance Project
Capitol Switchboard (202) 224-3121
H.J. Res 55 was defeated on the House floor on 26 July, 2001. H.J. Res. 55 called for disapproval of an extension of the waiver to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment for SRV. A "Yea" vote was a vote in support of the Montagnards circumstances by virtue of putting pressure on SRV for humanitarian reforms and assuring free emigration before any favorable trade policies could proceed with the USA. For a full tally of how House members voted click HERE.
Total votes: 415
Total Yea: 91 (21.9%)
Total Nay: 324 (78.1%)
Total Republicans voting: 208
Total Democrats voting: 205
Total Independents voting: 2
Party Yea % of Total % of Party Republican 56 13.5 26.9 Democrat 33 8.0 16.1 Independent 2 0.5 100 Party Nay % of Total % of Party Republican 152 36.6 73.1 Democrat 172 41.4 83.9 Independent 0 0 0
Oddly, a measure that would have to be viewed as unfavorable to big business interests, and at the same time supportive of human rights interests, was most heavily opposed by Democrats -- while the party traditionally accused of being overly friendly to big business at the expense of social concerns, and even mean-spirited toward the downtrodden, Republicans, offered the most in support. Neither major party offered a plurality to champion the cause of basic human rights over corporate profits on this one. But let's hear it for those two Independents!
What went down in the Central Highlands of Vietnam so recently as this past February and March, 2001, and continues to this day, was every bit as brutal as what happened in Tiananman Square back in 1989, and as a nation we're still showing signs of ruffled sensibilities over that one -- and rightly so. Ah, but there were no camcorders or live remotes to catch what happened, and still happens, in the squares and villages of the Central Highlands. Independent news coverage is not allowed in that country with whom our government seems determined to extend favorable trade relations.
Inescapable conclusion -- Less than a quarter of all House Members give a tinker's damn about ethnic cleansing and open genocide of an indigenous minority if it isn't headline news. A significant campaign of phone calls and faxes detailing such genocide by the SRV were issued to House Members prior to the floor debate and vote on H.J. Res. 55. "I wasn't aware" is simply not a viable alibi.
How could it be rectified that common, un-positioned citizens were aware of a historically significant tragedy being imposed upon the minority population of a country with which the USA would propose to do business, and a duly elected US Congressperson was not? [Note: the term "representative" was purposefully avoided here.]
Montagnard Photo Gallery