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State Dept comments on Montagnards in Central Highlands.

2/14/07 Vietnam (Montagnard Foundation) The inability of the State Department to find in its ranks those qualified or willing to serve in Iraq as part of joint teams, as reported here, raised eyebrows among those concerned about the U.S.’s ability to meet its goals in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Gates told Senators, “If you were troubled by the memo, that was mild compared to my reaction when I saw it.”

There is a deeper inability within State. Its Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Ellen Sauerbrey, raised more eyebrows when in her first trip to Vietnam she denied that Central Highlands people are persecuted.

Hanoi ’s Nhan Dan newspaper, of course, welcomed her remarks:

No punishment or mistreatment were imposed on ethnic minority people from the Central Highlands who have previously fled illegally to Cambodia , said an US diplomat on February 5.

Ellen Sauerbrey, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, made the remarks during a meeting with the press in Hanoi regarding her 6-day visit to Vietnam which began on January 31.

Sauerbrey said all the seven people she has met and talked to, without government officials’ presence, affirmed they were not mistreated or punished when they returned to Vietnam .

The returnees said they were happy to come home and their lives have not been changed since then, she said, adding that these people had no obvious goals to flee the country, they simply followed others.

The US diplomat affirmed that the Government of Vietnam has adopted an open policy for organisations and individuals to come to the Central Highlands and directly meet or talk to the returnees.

Sauerbrey, on her first visit to Vietnam , revealed that she was impressed by the encouraging results of her visit and by the enthusiasm of the Vietnamese people, saying that she witnessed a robust growth of the country. (VNA)

Sauerbrey’s report contradicted every human rights organization, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, certainly not lackeys of the Right. Her inexperience in the area, and quick trip, charitably, led to her absurd comments.

A 27-year State veteran, with deep experience in Asia and with human rights issues, writes to set Sauerbrey straight:

A senior State Department official visiting Vietnam recently told the media that Degar Montagnard returnees had not been harassed by authorities. This was based on her brief meeting with only seven members of Vietnam ‘s Central Highland Degar minority (also known as Montagnards) who were recently repatriated to Vietnam from Cambodia . She also conjectured that their motivation for fleeing Vietnam was economic rather than as a result of abuse of their human rights.

The individuals whom Under Secretary of State for Population Affairs Ellen Suaerbrey met purportedly were part of a group of nearly 2,000 who fled Vietnam since 2001 many from the 2004 Easter crackdown by security officials. Many of those who escaped were returned to Vietnam against their will. Hanoi ‘s mistreatment of these and other Montagnards, notwithstanding its pledge to the UN that arranged the transfer that there would be no retribution, is however, chronicled by many reputable international human rights organizations.

An Amnesty International-USA official testifying before the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus September 14, 2006 stated that Vietnam appeared to be in violation of its agreement with the UN insofar as the Vietnamese authorities had “detained, questioned and in some instances severely mistreated people who sought sanctuary in Cambodia but who were returned to Vietnam.” The official, T.Kumar, Advocacy Director for Asian and the Pacific at Amnesty International-USA, also described human rights abuses related to interference with Montagnard religious activities, freedom of movement and other basic rights.

Another highly regarded non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch has reported that Montagnards who participated in the 2004 demonstrations that led to their flight abroad were beaten and imprisoned, and that some of those sent back from Cambodia were persecuted. The group’s Asia director, Brad Adams, in a statement released February 6, 2007 described Sauerbrey’s comments as difficult to accept. He noted specifically that Human Rights Watch had spoken to returnees “who have been threatened, harassed, and beaten, in Vietnam , after returning from Cambodia .” Adams dismissed the contention by Sauerbrey that Montagnards with whom she spoke were unable to explain why they had fled Vietnam and discounted her claim that they probably had left for economic reasons unrelated to human rights abuse.

Under Secretary Sauerbrey’s comments were undoubtedly welcomed by her Vietnamese Government hosts. Previous State Department statements had been far more candid. The most recent State Department description of the plight of those who fled in 2004 and those who reportedly assisted them noted: “Authorities in the Central Highlands continued to prosecute ethnic minority members whom the government alleged were involved in separatist activities or in helping other individuals illegally cross into Cambodia . Government press reports indicated that at least 15 ethnic minority persons were convicted and sentenced to prison terms of 2 to 13 years. There were credible reports that in at least two instances during the year, one in Dak Lak and one in Gia Lai, some of these persons were held for lengthy periods without trial. One of the individuals reportedly was held and tried in secret.”

Undersecretary Sauerbrey was either unfamiliar with or felt unimportant this record of abuse or the historical context which has prompted international concerns about the Montagnards. An ethnic minority, many of whom are Christian, the Montagnards had strongly supported U.S. troops in the Vietnam War. Their history of rescuing downed US fliers or trapped US ground units earned them a reputation among those of us who fought in Vietnam that is not forgotten. Unfortunately, Hanoi also never forgot nor have they forgave the Montagnards. The Montagnards, for decades have paid a heavy price for their friendship with America as reflected in their plight of deep poverty, a dearth of government services, little of no protection under Vietnam ‘s judicial system and systematic abuse by security officials.

The Hanoi Government’s well documented abuse targeting the Montagnards, which has included torture, has been an impediment to the Bush Administration’s efforts to develop a military-to-military relationship, expand trade ties and otherwise improve bilateral relations. Sauerbrey’s rosy assessment presumably was intended to sway those in Congress and elsewhere who have insisted that Hanoi relent in its abuse of human rights meted out against Montagnards, against other Christian and non-Christian groups and workers as a quid pro quo for improved Washington-Hanoi ties.

Sauerbrey’s trip into the Central Highlands was unusual. Outside monitors, including Embassy personnel from Hanoi , UN officials, journalists, and Congressional delegations are routinely denied access to the area or only allowed to travel under very tight constraints. Amnesty International, among others, have called for unrestricted access to the Central Highlands by independent and international human rights monitors noting that “the lack of such access and the continued crackdown against particularly Christian Montagnards violate the basic human rights that Vietnam is obligated to uphold as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

It is most unfortunate therefore that Undersecretary Sauerbrey used this rare access to the Central Highlands to simply echo the Hanoi Government’s widely discredited claims that it is not persecuting this minority.

In my 27 years of service in the State Department, most of it focused on human rights issues and frequently in states whose Governments sought to hide their abuse of human rights, it was an essential requirement of sound investigation and reporting to avoid the kind of gullibility displayed by Under Secretary Sauerbrey. Such credulity betrays the people suffering serious abuses. It also betrays fundamental principals and values to which Americans as a people and as a government aspires.

Undersecretary Sauerbrey’s brief venture into the Central Highlands and ensuing pronouncements ill-served her country, its values and the truth.

Edmund McWilliams is a retired senior Foreign Service Officer having served 27 Years, of which many were in service in South East Asia . His military service in Vietnam with the US Army at the rank of E-5 dated from January to November 1972

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