Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Monday, November 20, 2006

Montagnards' rights belong at the summit

The following opinion piece by Kay Reibold appeared in The News & Observer on November 19, 2006:

RALEIGH--Make new friends, but keep the old" goes the saying. We hope President Bush keeps the Montagnards in mind this weekend during talks with Vietnam at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Hanoi.

The event includes world leaders and business representatives from more than 20 Asia-Pacific countries. They are to discuss free trade,Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), cooperation on terrorism, bird flu, global warming and the challenge of North Korea.

On this stage of world economics and strategic geopolitics, we hope the president will affirm the U.S. commitment to freedom, democracy, therule of law and human rights. We hope he will also remember the loyal Montagnard tribes people who died side by side with American soldiers in the Central Highlands during the Vietnam War.

Why is this significant at the summit? Because it's an opportunity to publicly acknowledge that the U.S. stands by its allies. That's is a foreign policy message which needs to resonate now and in the future. Our government will stand by its friends. Or do we? And does Congress?

The Montagnards lost over 85 percent of their villages during the war,and close to 100,000 highlanders perished. Thousands of "Mountain People" were executed after 1975 by the Communist government because of their allegiance to the U.S. Thousands more suffered cruelly and died in"re-education" prison camps. The Montagnards lost their beloved Central Highlands during the war years, and many of their kinfolk died who had only wanted to be left alone to govern themselves in peace on their ancestral lands. The Hanoi government has lodged a brutal campaign against the indigenous people to the present day.

The Montagnards believed in loyalty, freedom and their Christian faith. They continue to suffer for their beliefs, as have the Hmong people living in Vietnam's northwest territory.

Vietnam's human rights record is deeply disturbing. The U.S. Committee on International Religious Freedom recently recommended to Secretary ofState Condoleezza Rice that the "Country of Particular Concern"designation be retained for Vietnam because of its continuing persecution of Montagnards and Hmong Christians, Buddhists, the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and others of faith in Vietnam. However, the State Departmentl ifted the CPC designation just before Bush's trip to Hanoi, citing"significant progress" in religious freedom. The State Department insisted there was no connection between lifting CPC and theU.S.-Vietnam Trade Agreement.

Yet hundreds of Montagnard Christians suffer in Vietnam's prisons, arrested since 2001 for merely gathering to pray or protesting for their right to practice their faith. Forced renunciations of Christianity continue, as well as arrests of those meeting in house churches. Otherpeople of faith continue to suffer.

Congress will soon be voting again on PNTR, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Vietnam. This past week the House of Representatives rejected PNTR, though another vote will be forthcoming in December.

Congress should include benchmarks in the legislation to measureVietnam's progress in human rights. This can be an opportunity for Vietnam to make an authentic commitment to reform, transparency and the basic rights of citizens. With improvement in such rights, there may eventually be progress toward the rule of law. Before the agreement is ratified there should be a provision to promote freedom of religion inVietnam, freedom of movement, free emigration, media freedom, freedom of assembly and free expression. These are fundamental political, civic and religious rights that should not be denied to Vietnam's citizens, including the Montagnard people.

North Carolina has the largest population of Montagnards, more than 6,000, outside of Vietnam's Central Highlands. They live principally in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and New Bern. Many members of Congress have taken a stand on behalf of human rights in Vietnam, including North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole. She has spoken out on behalf of religious freedom in Vietnam and has sponsored the first ever-foreign operations funding intended to provide development assistance to Montagnards suffering in extreme poverty in Vietnam.

It remains to be seen if actual benefits will reach the Montagnards. Vietnam complained about humanitarian aid focused on Montagnards as soon as it was announced in the Congressional Record last year -- a revealing commentary on how the government views its indigenous people and their rights for survival.

The Montagnards earned the trust of our country and paid a heavy price. With all the agreements for trade and defense at the Hanoi summit andbeyond, the United States should now do all it can to protect the rightof the Montagnard people to survive.

(Kay Reibold is a recipient of the presidential "Point of Light" award and has been to Vietnam 17 times since 1988. She is a project development specialist for the Montagnard Human Rights Organization in Raleigh.)

Cutline(s): Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai discussed trade issues with President Bush on a visit to Washington in June 2005.


Post a Comment

<< Home