A symposium on Vietnam has turned a spotlight on the country’s oppressed Montagnard minority, whose plight has drawn little attention in recent years.
Speaking on a panel at a Sept. 14 event titled “Vietnam Revisited,” Neil Nay, an ethnic Montagnard and spokesman for Montagnards in exile, described their suffering under Communist rule.
The event was held at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., and was co-hosted by the National Archives and the Assembly for Democracy in Vietnam, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocacy group.
An audience of some 250 people, including experts on Vietnam’s wartime history and politics, paid close attention to every word spoken by Nay.
This may partly be because many of us are used to thinking of the Montagnards as a tribal people, best known as fighters who sided with the United States during the Vietnam War. Beyond that, most of us know little.
Nay, on the other hand, is a highly educated electrical engineer and U.S. citizen. He’s fluent in English and possesses a detailed grasp of the challenges that continue to plague the Montagnards.
During the fighting that occurred in Vietnam over a 30-year period between the end of World War II and the fall of Saigon in the spring of 1975, the Montagnards were recruited by all sides and suffered heavy casualties.
According to Nay, the Montagnards lost more than 250,000 men in the many battles that engulfed them.
For a total population numbering between one and two million people, this was a heavy price to pay.
Michael Benge, an expert on the Montagnards who lived in the Central Highlands for six years during the Vietnam War, says that he believes that Nay’s estimate of the losses is credible.
A personal note
I should make clear from the start that this commentator had little first-hand contact with Montagnards during the Vietnam War.
Much of what I knew came from Gerald Cannon Hickey, a respected Saigon-based anthropologist who devoted much of his life to studying various Montagnard tribes.
As a reporter for The Christian Monitor based in Vietnam, I made brief forays into combat zones in the Central Highlands in the early 1970s.
But I never stayed long enough to meet many Montagnards.
I was a single reporter tasked with covering an entire country, and many things were happening in other regions in Vietnam as well as in neighboring Cambodia.
But one of the biggest battles of the Vietnam War occurred in the spring of 1972 when the North Vietnamese deployed Russian-made tanks to attack South Vietnamese Army positions near the highlands city of Kontum, I had to be there.
I remember flying with a colleague into the city, which had had held out but was still surrounded by the North Vietnamese and subject to their rocket and artillery fire.
After spending a few hours walking around the town and interviewing South Vietnamese soldiers and an American advisor, we got out of Kontum.
I didn’t know at the time that U.S.-backed Montagnard mobile strike forces had played a key role in defending the city.
I know now, thanks to the military historian John Prados, who has written that “the strikers were the backbone of the defense that saved Kontum.”
I knew enough, however, to know that during the colonial period in Vietnam, the French referred to many of the highlands’ indigenous tribes as “the people of the mountains,” or Montagnards.
The term Montagnard applied to some 30 hill tribes, each of which had its own language and distinctive cultural heritage.
And on one brief trip made by South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands that I covered in August of 1967, I saw representatives of many of those Montagnard tribes, including the Jarai and Rhade among others.
But Michael Benge explains that the Montagnards had no collective name other than the one imposed on them by the French and later adopted by the Americans.
The Montagnard tribes are mainly of Malayo-Polynesian, Mon-Khmer, and Sino-Tibetan extraction.
Given this background, many of them could be taken for Southeast Asians were it not for their distinctive culture and native dress.
This brings us back to the symposium held at the National Archives last month and the presentation made there by Nay.
Nay filled in many gaps in our knowledge, including important historical background.
For starters, under their colonial rule the French dealt harshly with anyone who opposed them but did allow a degree of autonomy for the Montagnards.
After French missionaries and then officials explored the highlands for decades starting in the 18th century, the French organized 28 diverse tribes into one political unit under the name “Montagnard people of South Indochina.”
But after the French were defeated by the Communist-led Viet Minh in 1954, a newly established South Vietnamese government abolished the Montagnards’ autonomous political status.
The South Vietnamese government headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem banned the teaching of Montagnard languages, burned Montagnard books and documents, and forced the Montagnards to take Vietnamese names.
Diem also resettled some one million Vietnamese refugees throughout the Central Highlands.
Poor South Vietnamese from the coastal regions of South Vietnam and minorities other than Montagnards then streamed into the highlands.
In many cases they seized ancestral tribal lands while providing no compensation to the Montagnards.
In 1958, the Diem government crushed a Montagnard resistance movement.
When President Nguyen Van Thieu took power in 1965, the situation seemed to get even worse, according to Nay.
Many South Vietnamese tended to regard the Montagnards as “Moi,” or savages.
But the Montagnards had a special relationship with the U.S. Special Forces, or Green Berets, who began arriving in the Central Highlands in small numbers in the 1950s, well ahead of regular U.S. Marine and Army divisions.
The Americans and the Montagnards
Many of the Green Berets formed bonds with the Montagnards over the years.
Rebecca Onion, a staff writer for the online magazine Slate, wrote that “the Special Forces and the Montagnards—each tough, versatile, and accustomed to living in wild conditions—formed an affinity for each other.”
Citing Green Beret veterans, she said that their working relationship with the Montagnards “was a bright spot in a confusing and frustrating war.”
The Special Forces provided weapons and training to the Montagnards.
They also organized them into “civilian irregular defense groups” that could move quickly into combat situations as well as detect enemy supplies coming in from North Vietnam.
When the final North Vietnamese offensive of the war began in the spring of 1975, the Montagnards asked for support in resisting the invasion. They had some hope at one point but got no support.
When South Vietnamese Army units, under orders from President Thieu, retreated from the highlands down to the coast of Vietnam, they made no provision to protect most of their Montagnard allies.
With the South Vietnamese Army collapsing around them, the Montagnards were left to fight on their own.
In the end, many Montagnards felt betrayed by the United States, as they had been by others.
From a helicopter I witnessed the South Vietnamese retreat from the highlands, with snipers and artillery attacking convoys of troops and civilians as they made their way to the coastal city of Nha Trang.
In his book The Hidden History of the Vietnam War, John Prados sums up what happened to some of the Montagnards whom American advisors in the highlands had hoped to get safely to Nha Trang so that they could be evacuated.
Ed Sprague, a senior U.S. advisor in the highlands who knew Montagnard leaders well, arranged to get some 2,000 Montagnards to Nha Trang.
But much to Sprague’s lasting regret, the Montagnards stood on the beach waiting for an American ship that never came.
The Montagnards under Communism
The Communist government of North Vietnam had included the right for highlander autonomy in its founding platform in 1960.
But once the Communists defeated the South Vietnamese in the spring of 1975, that promise was ignored, and life became much worse for the Montagnards.
The Communists executed some Montagnard leaders while others died in prisons or “reeducation” camps.
They also imposed severe restrictions on the Montagnards, limiting their cultural rights, education, and employment opportunities.
Getting any news from most Montagnard-populated rural areas became difficult.
In the years 2001 and 2004, however, the Montagnards made headlines when thousands of them openly protested religious repression and the confiscation of their ancestral lands by the Communists.
Many Montagnards had converted to Christianity and refused to renounce their beliefs even when subjected to torture.
Some of the protestors also dared to call for self-rule or autonomy.
Soldiers and police arrested hundreds of activists and in some cases opened fire, killing a number of protestors.
Escaping from Vietnam
Most of the Montagnards who succeeded in escaping from Vietnam and reaching the United States crossed the Vietnamese border into neighboring Cambodia and then moved on into Thailand.
And most of these refugees, some 12,000, now live in North Carolina.
This is partly because they had maintained links with the U.S. Special Forces, which are headquartered in Fort Bragg, N.C.
And many of the American missionaries who lived and worked among the Montagnards during the Vietnam War were were missionaries from the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church and the Lutheran Church, who brought Christianity to the Montagnards.
But escaping from Vietnam was not easy.
The Cambodian government captured many of the Montagnard refugees and sent them back across the border into Vietnam, where many of them were arrested and then brutally tortured.
In a report published in June of 2006, the monitoring group Human Rights Watch (HRW) detailed the brutality.
In response to international concerns, the Vietnamese government then took a few steps to address the highlanders’ grievances.
The government pledged to provide each low-income household in the Central Highlands with at least 200 square meters of housing land.
And it announced that it would temporarily suspend government-sponsored migration by Vietnamese lowlanders to the region.
But despite pledges by the government to stop monitoring or closing down Montagnard religious services, HRW found in 2006 that Vietnamese officials in some parts of the highlands had continued a crackdown on religious rights.
In some areas, the government banned large Christian gatherings unless they were presided over by officially recognized pastors.
In 2009, however, the Montagnards gained considerable attention when, at great risk, they protested Chinese-supported bauxite mining projects in the Central Highlands.
The Montagnards remaining in Vietnam today have at least three strikes against them.
First, many of them sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War.
Second, they dared to protest openly for land rights and in some cases against Communist rule.
Third, many had converted to Christianity.
And despite imprisonment, torture, and harassment, many Christian pastors and their followers refused to renounce their religion.
Nay summed up the current situation this way:
“The present-day government of Vietnam imposes severe restrictions on the ability of members of its Montagnard indigenous peoples to exercise their cultural rights, to use their native languages, to obtain an education, and to secure reasonable employment opportunities.”
He notes that today some 30,000 Vietnamese students have come to the United States to study.
As far as he can determine, not a single Montagnard from inside Vietnam is among them.
Persistent poverty challenges today’s Montagnards, just as it does the members of many other ethnic minorities.
A World Bank study published in 2013 showed that ethnic minorities make up roughly 15 percent of Vietnam’s population but account for some 70 percent of the country’s extreme poor.
The government has undertaken a number of poverty reduction programs, some of which have been supported by the European Union.
Those who escaped
The good news for some Montagards is that they made it as refugees to North Carolina, where, according to Nay, most have been given a warm welcome.
Moreover, Nay says, most of the adult Montagnard refugees in North Carolina have found employment there.
In July of last year, North Carolina Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis drew up a resolution recognizing “the heroic actions of the Montagnards, who fought loyally and bravely alongside United States Special Forces in the Vietnam War.”
Following the “Vietnam Revisited” Symposium held at the National Archives in mid-September, a group of Montagnards joined a rally outside the U.S. Capitol Building on Sept. 28.
The rally was organized by the Rev. Nguyen Cong Chinh of the Council of the Peoples and Religions of Vietnam and co-sponsored by U.S. Congressman Alan Lowenthal of California.
Nguyen Cong Chinh, an evangelical pastor, had ministered to ethnic minority communities in Vietnam, including Montagnard prisoners and their families
The Vietnamese authorities sentenced Chinh to 11 years in prison in 2011, but he was released after nearly six years thanks to the efforts of Lowenthal, Congressman Ed Royce of California, and others.
One of the speakers at a reception held in the Congressional Auditorium on Capitol Hill was Nay’s father, Nay Rong, who is the executive director of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization.
A total of some 200 to 250 people turned out for the rally, and of that number some 170, or more than half, were Montagnards who came from Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh, North Carolina.
In recent years, the Montagnard leaders in exile have learned how to better communicate their story, as evidenced by their turnout and statements made at the rally on Capitol Hill.
Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.