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4/6/2011 Vietnam (AsiaTimes) – While much has been made of the role leaked confidential United States diplomatic cables have played in the political convulsions now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, there is at least one batch of documents that show how US President Barack Obama’s government has willfully looked away from sustained abuses committed by an emerging strategic ally in Asia: Vietnam.

The cables in question, entitled “Vietnam Religious Freedom Update – the Case Against CPC [Country of Particular Concern]”, were written in 2010 by US ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak and published by WikiLeaks in January this year. The leaked correspondence which assessed Vietnam’s freedom of religion situation blatantly failed to mention the hundreds of Christian Montagnards, or Degar people, currently imprisoned for practicing their religion and the sustained persecution of independent house churches.

The leaked cables dismiss Vietnam’s religious repression as “primarily land issues” and that such actions “should not divert our attention from the significant gains in expanding religious freedom that Vietnam has made”.

For years, human-rights groups and concerned US Congressmen have complained about Vietnam’s abysmal freedom of religion record. The US State Department, keen to foster ties with Hanoi in a bid to counterbalance China’s regional rise, has through its silence effectively validated Vietnam’s consistent denials about committing human-rights abuses, including its persecution of the Montagnards.

A recent report by rights watchdog Human Rights Watch entitled “Montagnard Christians in Vietnam: A Case Study in Religious Repression” states that “during the last decade, the Vietnamese government has launched a series of crackdowns on Montagnards in the Central Highlands” and “more than 350 Montagnards have been sentenced to long prison sentences on vaguely-defined national security charges for their involvement in public protests and unregistered house churches”.

The report notes that the “arrests are ongoing, with more than 70 Montagnards arrested or detained during 2010” and “at least 25 Montagnards have died in prisons, jails, or police lock-ups after beatings or illnesses sustained while in custody”.

In 2004, the State Department designated Vietnam as a CPC, which places it on an official watch list punishable by sanctions of nations that habitually commit egregious violations of religious freedom. At the time Vietnam was desperately seeking accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and effectively required Washington’s approval through normal trade relations to join the club.

The two sides negotiated to remove Vietnam as a CPC in 2006 after Hanoi committed to improve its rights record and subsequently normalized trade ties. However, soon after Vietnam entered the WTO in January 2007 the communist-led regime reverted to its old repressive ways. Out of diplomatic expediency or embarrassment, the plight of the Montagnards and other persecuted religious groups has since been ignored by the State Department.

In light of the US’s deep history with the Montagnards, that blind eye is an act of betrayal. Tens of thousands of Montagnards were recruited and trained by US troops and were loyally served Washington during the Vietnam War. Their bravery in fighting against the communists was legendary, according to US soldier accounts. Over the life of the conflict it was estimated some 100,000 Montagnards fought alongside US troops and at any given time some 30,000 were actively serving. By the end of the war in 1975, an estimated quarter of the Montagnard population, or over 200,000 people, had perished in the conflict.

The survivors were left to face unassisted the victorious communists’ vengeance. On taking over South Vietnam, the communists imprisoned and executed the Montagnard’s political and religious leaders. The wider Montagnard population was subjected to forced relocations and thousands were condemned to live on some of the country’s poorest cropland. The military also deforested the Montagnard’s ancestral lands while expanding their logging operations into neighboring Laos and Cambodia. The Montagnards have been deliberately marginalized as losers of the war and survive today in a cycle of crushing poverty.

Disposable allies
Take, for instance, the case of Puih Hbat, a Montagnard Christian and mother of four whose father served with the US during the Vietnam War. On April 11, 2008, in the dead of night, eight security officials bundled her off screaming into a waiting truck that took her to prison. Her crime: hosting Christian prayer services in her longhouse. Tellingly, her name did not appear in the leaked US cable that claimed to assess Vietnam’s freedom of religion situation.

Yet the State Department has detailed knowledge of her and hundreds of other Montagnards now in detention. In 2006, John Q Adams, then the State Department’s Vietnam desk officer, received a painstakingly detailed report with names and photographs of over 350 Montagnard prisoners arrested for non-violent activities, including merely practicing their faith.

These same prisoners have also been documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). In January 2009, the European Parliament confirmed Puih Hbat had been imprisoned “for leading prayer services for Christians in her house”. Sources confirm that US Embassy officials in Hanoi had investigated her arrest.

The leaked cables make repeated mention of the “significant gains” Vietnam has supposedly made on upholding religious freedoms. That assessment includes references to the “registration of scores of new religions” and the “training of hundreds of new Protestant and Catholic clergy”.

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