An open letter from Michael Benge
Senior Advisor, Montagnard Human Rights Organization (MHRO)

1 July, 2001

After three months of peaceful protests by our former Montagnard allies over the burning of house-churches (private residences where services are held), lack of food and other human rights abuses, the paranoid Vietnamese communists over-reacted and sent five divisions of crack troops, helicopter gunships, tanks, plus riot and secret police by the thousands into the highlands.

Vietnamese gassed and poisoned Montagnard students and teachers in nine elementary schools. Especially targeted are those suspected to be associated with the Evangelical Christian movement, particularly pastors, Christian laypersons, and youth. Several of those killed and arrested are relatives of U.S. citizens.

The communists also recalled retired military and civilian police, assigning one to each Montagnard house. Thousands of Montagnards were killed, jailed, or simply disappeared, and over a thousand fled toward Cambodia seeking asylum. The Vietnamese communists deployed two divisions along the Cambodian border to intercept the fleeing Montagnards.

For those who made it, the Vietnamese send hunter/killer teams into Cambodia in search of the fleeing Montagnards. Hunted down like animals, bounties for Montagnard "leaders" go as high as $15,000; well over five times the average income in Cambodia.

Over 100 families are known to have been captured and taken back to Vietnam in violation of international law, including Y-Lien Dien, his wife Maria Nam, and five children, who had so-called "UNHCR protection." According to reports emanating from Vietnam, Y-Lien and his wife, Maria Nam, were taken back and tied to posts in the center of Krong Dieng village in Dac Lac province and severely beaten in front of their children and villagers, and left hanging for days.

The government's confiscation of Montagnard ancestral lands to grow coffee for export has led to wide-scale malnourishment and starvation in the highlands. The communist's response has been, "Let your God Jesus feed you from the sky."

On February 8, Y-Luyen Nie, President of the Dac Lac Provincal Council, announced, "We will severely punish Christian believers in the Western Highlands until they will no longer be able to raise their heads." To make their point Vietnamese authorities crucified three members of a church group in Phu Thien, Gia Lai province.

Vietnam's communist party threatened the peaceful protesters warning, "The 1999 penal code prescribes a maximum penalty of death... if convicted of attempting to overthrow the government, or of fomenting riots." "If anyone goes to complain at an official's house or other... offices in connection with a petition or complaint... they will be prosecuted." And, "Anyone who has bad words about state or party cadres... which cause social disturbances or public disorder... will be prosecuted."

Vietnamese communist authorities are preparing a mass kangaroo court for 11 "protest leaders" in Dac Lac, and 48 others in Gia Lai provinces. Seven of the latter are charged with "damaging national security," 20 with "opposing public officials," and 14 with "disturbing public order." At least eighteen will be tried under a death sentence.

Congressional apologists and others supporting business with Vietnam at any cost, claim that milestones in the agreement will ensure Vietnam's compliance to stipulations on improved human rights and religious freedom. However, they conveniently forget Vietnam's continued failure to comply with the stipulation in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment on trade mandating that countries trading with the U.S. must allow free emigration of its peoples.

President Clinton waived this amendment twice, and now President Bush has done it again, even though thousands of qualified ethnic minorities and Vietnamese (many former U.S. employees and concentration camp internees) are not allowed to emigrate.

Many Montagnards, among Vietnam's poorest of the poor, have to pay as much as $35,000 in bribes to get their families out, and many are forced by authorities to include two or three ethnic Vietnamese as family members before being allowed to leave.

A recent survey by the Hong Kong -based Political & Economic Risk Consultancy found Vietnam to be the most corrupt country in Asia.

The U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement is pending Congressional approval; however, I cannot see how in good conscience this agreement can be approved, given Vietnam's genocidal and repressive policies toward the Montagnards and others in Vietnam. The approval of this agreement will signal tacit approval of Vietnam's genocidal policies, religious repression, and other gross human rights abuses.

The Montagnards fought alongside Americans, and died in their place. They rescued our pilots, and saved the lives of thousands of Americans. As a result, over half of their adult male population was killed. Without them, many more American names would be on that somber black granite 
wall -- The Vietnam War Memorial.

Will the U.S. government once again sell out our Montagnard allies to business interests for exorbitant profits from goods made with cheap Vietnamese labor? What is our loyalty worth, the price of a Coke?

Will your voice be deathly silent come Independence Day?

Michael D. Benge, Senior Advisor
Montagnard Human Rights Organization
Ph. (703) 698-8256 or  (202) 5011-3025

The author spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer and worked closely with the Montagnards during that time. Of those 11 years, 5 were as a Prisoner of War. Upon his release in 1973, he returned as a volunteer to Vietnam and continued  his work with the Montagnards. He continues to work with the Montagnards in the United States and on behalf of those remaining in Vietnam as an advisor to the Montagnard Human Rights Organization (MHRO) in North Carolina.

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