OPEN LETTER TO HUMAN RIGHTS & DEMOCRACY ADVOCATES – PARTICULAR TO THE THOSE INVOLVED WITH REFORMS IN COMMUNIST VIETNAM
5/8/07 Vietnam (Montagnard Foundation) I write this letter with grave concerns regarding the US State Departments policies in dealing with freedom and democracy issues in Vietnam . In particular concerns involving the State Departments Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) and what appears to be serious problems in their efforts in defending the repressed peoples of Vietnam . It also appears the PRM and possibly others in the State Dept are adopting the same line as Hanoi in trying to claim that Montagnard human rights problems are caused by the Montagnards themselves. I write this letter however, not as a representative of the Montagnard Foundation of which I am an advocate for, (I note that the Montagnard Foundation recently welcomed PRM Assistant Secretary Ellen Sauerbreys concern in visiting the Central Highlands) but from a personal viewpoint as I felt it necessary to convey these concerns to you, given the serious nature of the information. This information is as follows:
Recently on April 26, 2007 the NGO Refugees International (RI) highlighted urgent concerns facing Montagnard refugees in a report titled US Retrenching on Protection of Montagnards. http://www.refugeesinternational.org/content/article/detail/9989. RIs concerns are that the State department is retracting on certain protections stating, The new policy weakens protections for Montagnards, undermines congressional intent, and possibly exposes Montagnards to new problems when forced home. At best they will face additional delay in seeking refugee status. I conclude by saying in regards to this policy it appears refugee issues are indeed being undermined by failures to address the real problems inside Vietnams central highlands and that both Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities have a documented history of persecuting fleeing refugees including arresting and torturing Montagnard men, women and children.
I also received extremely credible information from numerous sources including those working for the US government that in the past serious infractions have occurred regarding high priority refugee cases in the PRM bureau. The information conveyed to me is that a number of high priority ethnic Vietnamese cases were not acted upon and their paperwork was inadvertently or deliberately lost by the PRM bureau. In fact subsequent investigation was apparently undertaken in-house and the evidence pointed to the culprit from the PRM desk of an official who is still working on Vietnamese refugee issues, named Pam Lewis.
I write this with the hope that further high priority cases are not neglected and in light that I recently met with the PRM office at the State Department in March 2007, including Pam Lewis and Kathleen Sheehan, who is an assistant to Ellen Sauerbrey. The meeting overall was quite negative. Both these officials I met with were not particularly sympathetic to Montagnard issues and appeared to not believe that Hanoi was committing serious human rights abuses against Montagnard refugees. They were confrontational in their discussions and both these officials stated openly that the internationally respected NGO Human Rights Watch was not a reliable organization and had been exaggerating human rights violations perpetrated by Vietnamese authorities. Pam Lewis was particularly confrontational and rude during the meeting and appeared to try to bait myself and other Montagnards present, often presenting reasons why the Montagnards do not deserve attention by the US government. She, on this and on other occasions made the remark to myself and other Montagnards that some Montagnards served with the communists during the Vietnam war, indicating the United States thus did not have any reason to assist Montagnards today or that Montagnards should now stop bothering the US State Department.
One extremely disturbing issue which both Pam Lewis and Kathleen Sheehan stated in the meeting was that they agreed with the policy of communist authorities using some means of control over religious affairs concerning house church Christians. They stated in unison that there was nothing wrong with Vietnamese officials imposing language restrictions on house church prayer meetings. When we advised them that Vietnamese officials currently force house church Christians to have pictures of Ho Chi Minh in the church and then that they must speak Vietnamese during prayer services (and NOT speak their native language) they both stated, whats wrong with that? Further discussion on the issue with them indicated they believed there was no reason why Montagnards shouldnt join the government sanctioned church. They did not or could not see any problems with religious freedoms being impinged upon by officials who enforce language restrictions of prayer meetings. I note however, it is also well documented that Vietnamese officials have a history of enforcing religious laws with arrests and torture. Further citizens of Vietnam should be free to speak whatever language they desire during prayer services.
Kathleen Sheehan also described Ellen Sauerbreys recent visit to the Central Highlands and reported that in the seven or eight of the returned refugees houses they visited the only problem they encountered was related to poverty. The implication was that this is the only problem for the Montagnards in Vietnam which actually neglects the long history of persecution of the Montagnards by the communist government. I note that the PRM visit did not include visits to see any of the 350 Montagnard prisoners who are rotting in Vietnam s prisons. I also note the latest State Department Report on Vietnams human rights practices released 4 March 2007 reported an extrajudicial killing of a Montagnard man named Y Ngo Adrong by security police and also stated Vietnam continued to impose extra security measures in the central highlands. The Montagnard Foundation at this meeting with the PRM Bureau also submitted in writing a proposal offering 200,000 dollars of aid for poverty alleviation for the Montagnard “poorest of the poor”. MFI had raised this amount of money and was asking assistance from the State Department, to which Pam Lewis only rudely scoffed at. Information on the ground in the refugee centers also indicates things are not much better as James Nach, NGO Liaison Officer, Refugee Resettlement Section based out of the US Saigon Consulate office (not Phnom Penh) once described the Montagnards as an uneducated bunch who show no effort to educate themselves and when we go out to investigate their complaints, we find there is nothing to it.”
In summary I wish to advise you all of this situation and note the US International Commission of Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has just recommended Vietnam be reinstated on the countries of particular concern watch list (CPC Watch List). The CPC Watch List concerns countries that are the most egregious violators of religious freedom, and I note in particular that the USCIRF is an independent body created by an Act of the US Congress and is not subject to minimalizing the issues due to political concerns or under pressures to grant trade benefits to Vietnam .
In final conclusion I submit that some members of the US State Department simply do not understanding the culture of Montagnard indigenous peoples, namely they do not realize that Montagnards who are struggling against decades of persecution are crying out to help their people, and whether they are house church Christians, Catholics or animists they feel their race and culture is being destroyed. The Montagnard people like other freedom and democracy advocates in Vietnam are a repressed people and there is a wide body of evidence indicating Vietnam is a known authoritarian state which brutally represses dissent within the country affecting all the countrys citizens both ethnic Vietnamese and Montagnard. Should any members of the State Department challenge these statements, I suggest they do so publicly and thus we can permit a full and open debate on this issue. Those concerned with human rights and these issues should also write to their Senators and Representatives and the State Department.
CORRECTION: Please note the witness to James Nach statements below advises that James Nach worked out of the Saigon US Consulate (and not from Phnom Penh