The Montagnard tribes in the Central Highlands were among our most loyal allies in the fight against the communists during the Vietnam War. They fought alongside the U.S. Special Forces in epic battles and rescued countless Americans, including pilots, crews, and aircraft passengers. More than half of the Montagnards’ adult male population was lost fighting for and in the place of Americans. Without their sacrifice, there would be many more names on that somber black granite wall – the Vietnam Memorial.
Today, our former Montagnard allies suffer immense persecution under the communist regime in Vietnam for their religious beliefs. Since the North’s 1975 conquest of the Republic of South Vietnam, it is estimated that two thirds of the ethnic minorities have converted to Protestantism.
They are forced to practice their worship in outlawed house-churches. The Vietnamese leadership is characterized by extreme paranoia and fear of organized religion, for it is in direct conflict with their political religion: communism. Those wishing to be ordained as a pastor must swear allegiance to the communist go
vernment and swear to put “the state” before God. All who refuse are arrested and tortured until they recant their religion, and if they do not, they are imprisoned or “disappeared.” More than a hundred known Protestant Montagnard pastors are languishing in prison under deplorable and inhumane conditions. Despite this, they are not recognized by the Department of State as political prisoners.
More than 350 Christian Montagnard refugees have fled persecution in Vietnam and are seeking asylum in Thailand. Of these, 175 have been granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). However, they will continue to be held in the camps until a third country notifies UNHCR that it is willing to sponsor them. Countless other refugees who have fled religious and other persecution in Vietnam are also seeking refuge in Thailand.
There are frequent raids in the neighborhoods surrounding Bangkok, where refugees try to find a sense of community. According to International Christian Concern (ICC) (The Dispatch, 09/20/18):
More than three weeks have passed since Thai authorities arrested and detained 181 mostly Christian Montagnard refugees on the outskirts of Bangkok on August 28. ICC sources have confirmed that all of the adults were sent to Immigration Detention Center (IDC), while 50 children, including young boys, girls, and infants, were sent to three different shelters.
A local source told ICC that these shelters are not immigrant shelters, but rather shelters designed for Thai children who cannot stay in their homes. These shelters are not prepared to care for large numbers of Children who do not speak Thai, or for breastfeeding children separated from their mothers.
Despite local rights groups’ attempts to visit the children, they have not been granted permission. This means that these children, they have not been granted permission. This means that these children have not seen their parents, nor any familiar faces from local NGOs, for nearly three weeks. Separation anxiety and fear will take a toll on these children’s health with each passing day.
It was heartening to hear secretary of state Mike Pompeo say during Laura Ingraham’s Fox News interview (09/20/18) that he and Vice President Michael Pence “are extremely concerned over Christian refugees who have seemingly been left out of the State Department’s refugee program. Vice President Pence has made this a real priority, to ensure that Christians are being treated fairly and equitably in our processes.” Unfortunately, he was referring to refugees in the Middle East, not Vietnam and Thailand. However, he did add:
This administration is taking religious freedom all around the world, in China and other places, very seriously. Rest assured that the State Department is working to make sure that Christians are not being mistreated, prosecuted, persecuted, or treated in any way that’s unfair as they try to make their way into the United States of America. You’ve seen what the President’s doing with trade, to try and make it fair and reciprocal. What we’re asking of China is to behave in a way that if they want to be a power, if they want to be on the global stage, they have to operate in a way that global leaders have for so often. And frankly, as you point out in the religious dimension, they’ve not done that.
The Vietnamese communists’ war against the Montagnards has never ended. The regime is now implementing a form of cultural genocide against them. As a result, despite Vietnam’s thriving economy, our former allies are denied opportunities of meaningful employment and the government amenities afforded others in Vietnam, such as schooling, medical care, and adequate land to feed their families. The Montagnards have among the highest rates of malnourishment and infant death in Vietnam.
In 1975, as the North Vietnamese communists began their final push to take over the Republic of South Vietnam, Montagnard leaders met with representatives from the American Embassy. The Americans encouraged them to flee to the jungle and continue the fight the communists, promising that if they did, the United States government would continue to support them. One of the most prestigious Montagnard leaders, the director of the Ministry for the Development of Ethnic Minorities, was promised by American deputy ambassador George Jacobson that he, his staff, and their families would be evacuated. In fact, they were abandoned. All those remaining at the Ministry were either killed or sent to the communists’ gulags, AKA “re-education camps.”
Only a small handful of Montagnards were able to escape during the evacuation of Saigon and eventually make it to the United States. However, the Montagnards kept their agreement with the American Embassy. Tens of thousands fled to the jungles bordering Vietnam to continue the fight, only to be killed by the Vietnamese or die of malnourishment or disease when the promised U.S. assistance failed to materialize. They were buried in the jungle in unmarked graves. Nevertheless, the few survived and continued to fight.
In 1986, a group of 212 Montagnard guerrilla fighters and their families – our abandoned allies – emerged from the jungles of Cambodia after 11 years of fighting the communists, fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, and were eventually resettled in North Carolina. In 1992, a second group of 400 Montagnard fighters and their families left the jungle in Eastern Cambodia, after waging 17 years of continued guerrilla war against the communists. They were dubbed the “Lost Battalion.” They were also resettled in North Carolina, not far from Fayetteville – the home of the Green Berets.
To Secretary Pompeo and Vice President Pence: Your policies to ensure that Christians are not prosecuted, persecuted, or mistreated as they try to make their way to America should also apply to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. What’s good for the gander is also good for the geese!
Will America once again abandon its Montagnard allies? The empty promises must stop here!
Michael Benge spent eleven years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer; five as a POW. He is a student of Southeast Asian politics. He is active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the countries of former Indochina and has written extensively on these subjects.