Alphonse Karr’s 1839 statement “Plus ça change, plus c' est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same) is still valid in former Indochina after decades of brutal dictatorships.
As an agent of Moscow, whose loyalty was not to the Vietnamese people but to the World Communist Movement (the Comintern), Ho Chi Minh, announced the establishment of the Indochinese Communist Party on February 18, 1930. The goal was to dominate French colonial Indochina – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – as well as the rest of SE Asia. The Khmer Rouge was also a creation of Ho. Although he died in 1969, the Vietnamese communist party has yet to give up on Ho’s dream, amoeba-like, Vietnam is economically and politically neo-colonizing its two neighboring vassal states – Laos and Cambodia – with regimes that are creations of Hanoi. Hanoi has agreements with both regimes to have “advisers” in every department of government; including those dealing with religion.
The Vietnamese regime is extremely paranoid over organized religion, for it competes with and is in direct opposition to the political religion of communism. The regime's greatest fears are Christianity and Buddhism.
In 2001, Christian Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam held mass demonstrations seeking the right to worship freely. This triggered severe crackdowns by the repressive communist regime that resulted in large numbers of Montagnards killed, thousands of others arrested, tortured and imprisoned, many of whom remain so today. After the protests, thousands of Montagnards fled the brutality and sought asylum in neighboring Cambodia causing an international political embarrassment and change in Vietnam’s communist party leadership.
In case one suffers from the illusion that there is no longer religious persecution, this might wake you up, for the brutal communist Grinches in both Vietnam and Laos have done it again: They’ve stolen Christmas from the Protestant Montagnards, Hmong and other Christian groups, especially those who worship in house churches or outdoors.
Compass Direct reported in 2013 that “communist authorities slammed the doors on Christmas celebrations in two of the Vietnam's largest cities” and in more than 10 provinces, “in what probably was the highest profile move recently to step up persecution of Christians.” Authorities also banned Mgr. Michael Hoang Duc Oanh, the Catholic Bishop of Kontum, from celebrating Christmas Mass with faithful Christian Montagnards. Although the 2014 reports have yet to come in, it is indicated they did it again, given reports from Gialai province. In all likelihood they will again ban the celebration of Easter as well. This year the communist government used the holiday season to pursue a violent crackdown on Montagnards and the Hmong ethnic minority.
In Vietnam, only churches that have a communist-ordained pastor and are registered with and controlled by the government are allowed to conduct modest services to observe Christian holy days. One of Vietnam’s many religious mandates is that to become a pastor or priest and register a church one must first pledge to put the “State” (i.e., communism) before God. Some places go as far as to require the hanging of a large picture of Ho Chi Minh instead of a cross in the appropriate location in churches.
Most Montagnard and Hmong Christians refuse to worship under these conditions, so they hold services in their homes. However, anyone who participates in unauthorized religious activities, including worship in house churches, outdoor prayer services, protests or demonstrations against reprisals is guilty of “undermining Vietnam's national unity.” Minorities with unauthorized cell phones also fall under this category. Violators are subject to ten years or more imprisonment, tortured, and deprived of adequate nourishment and medical treatment that often results in their death.
Technologies provided by U.S. and U.K. companies allow the communist regime to closely monitor cell phones and conversations on land lines of suspected dissidents and advocates of democracy, human rights and religious freedom; especially those used by Montagnards and Hmong Christians. The communists also exercise strict control over the media, Internet, blogs and social-networks, and “violators” are severely punished. In spite of the regime’s terrorist tactics, some still brave reprisals and a smattering of information on abuses ekes out.
Somewhat recently, the author received a dated list of 344 Montagnard political prisoners from the Jarai tribal group in Gialai province who are languishing in prisons and jails under horrendous conditions, primarily for their Christian beliefs and for worshiping in their homes instead of communist-controlled Potemkin churches. The sole legal communist-sanctioned Protestant church in Gialai province for Montagnards to worship in is the Hoi Thanh Tin Lanh Vietnam, presided over by Siu Y. Kim a government-ordained “Pastor” who has often been seen accompanying police raids on Montagnard house churches.
According to WikiLeaks (id #78561), based on discussions with Kim, the U.S. Embassy and John Hanford, the Ambassador-at-Large of the United States for International Religious Freedom, submitted false reports of alleged vast improvements in religious freedom for the Montagnards. Kim, a known disinformation agent, duped these “useful idiots,“ and their reports resulted in the State Department delisting Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for egregious violations of religious freedom. CPC listing was a diplomatic embarrassment to the Vietnamese government.
Only a handful of Jarai have been released from prison since the list was compiled. The list doesn’t contain names of other imprisoned Christian ethnic minorities from other provinces, such as the Rhade in Darlac, Banhar in Kontum, the Mnong in Ðắk Nông, the Stieng in Binh Phuoc provinces, the Hmong and other tribal groups in Northern and Southern Mountainous provinces. Nor does the list contain names of the Khmer Krom and Cham in the Southern part of Vietnam or others of different religious beliefs, such as Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics who are also imprisoned for their beliefs. A comprehensive list of all those imprisoned for practicing their religious persuasions would make a book.
Vietnam, a nation of 86 million, has 3.6 million Communist Party members, and maintains a police force estimated at 1.2 million, including the Special Religious Police Force (SRPF – Công An Tôn Giáo), one of the largest per-capita special religious police forces in the world. Additionally, there are government-paid forces belonging to the Vietnamese Fatherland Front (VFF: Mặt Trận Tổ Quốc Việt Nam), a state-funded parastatal organization controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party. These VFF thugs, most often led by plainclothes police, are used as enforcers to carry out “spontaneous” actions against targeted groups while giving the communist regime plausible deniability for the property damage, beatings and deaths they inflict.
Although human rights abuses and religious repression against Christian minorities and those of other religious persuasions have not abated, the communist regime has gotten a little smarter, for it stopped the kangaroo court public show trials. Now believers are just quietly arrested and jailed; or “disappeared.” Often their families have no idea if they are alive or dead.
The communist regime’s alleged easing of restrictions on religious freedom is only lip service. Decree 92, the much-heralded amended regulation on church registration that became effective January 1, 2013, was supposed to “clear up and smooth the process.” Instead, house-church leaders say, it has only further slowed church registration; applications are either denied or ignored. A Committee of Religious Affairs official pointed out to church leaders that many provinces still do not have a church registration policy. Thus, local authorities are still allowed to make independent decisions regarding qualifications, what constitutes violations of policy and what punitive actions can be taken. Progress on religious freedom in Vietnam, at least in rural areas, has clearly flat-lined.
For example, according to reports from Gialai province, SRPF Officer Hai arrested and brutally beat Christian Montagnards for worshiping in house churches rather than in Siu Kim’s officially sanctioned church in Pleiku city several miles from their villages; an expensive and lengthy trip they cannot afford.
- In October 2014, in Chu Puh Distric, Siu Suo, Ksor Thit and Rahlan Phit from Hra village; Siu Tel and Siu Hoang from Tai village, Rahlan Dal, Sur B village were arrested and beaten were H’Ba Rahlan (female), Siu Tinh, Rahlan Glel, and Kpa Hit from Tot village, and H’Nhep Rmah and her husband Tol Rahlan of Tao village were all arrested and severely beaten by SRPF Officer Hai. The houses in all villages in Gialia province suspected to be places of worship are under constant surveillance 24/7. Hai also said that celebrating Christmas was banned.
The Vietnamese communists restrict travel to sensitive areas such as the Central Highlands and the tribal areas in the northwest; when allowed access, outsiders are closely watched by the police, and foreigners must always be accompanied by government chaperones (i.e., minders). The regime controls all media and communist officials and their puppet clerics are the only ones allowed to speak to foreign officials and news reporters.
Even so, an undated video appeared on YouTube in mid-2014 showing Vietnamese police beating Hmong Christians and destroying their church in Northern Vietnam. A trickle of information has also emerged through VietCatholic and Vatican news services, and from local NGOs such as Morning Star News (MSN), a 501(c)(3) reporting solely on persecuted Christians).
- In southern Vietnam’s Binh Phuoc province where Stieng Montagnard Christians make up a large part of the population, authorities are trying to force the consolidation of congregations of long-established village churches into the legally recognized state-controlled Evangelical Church of Vietnam-South. Authorities began by outlawing crosses in and on village church.
According to MSN, “inciting social hostility has become a key way government officials try to contain, or at least slow, the growth of Christianity among ethnic minorities in rural Vietnam.” Usually, VFF “thugs are used by the government as ‘spontaneous’ enforcers and reported as fellow villagers.” The following incidents took place in the northernmost region of Vietnam, noted for the prevailing violence against ethnic Hmong Christians who are a particular target of communist officials.
- On Feb. 26, in neighboring Dien Bien Province, VNFF thugs beat a Christian family – including Hang Thi Dia their 9-year-old girl – and drove them from the village. Public Security officers Hang Da Sinh and Cu Ninh Vang recruited the mob from outside the village and took them to the home of Hang A Khua and ordered Khua and his family of nine to immediately recant their Christian faith and revert back to the practice of ancestor worship. Khua refused, and the officers ordered the VNFF thugs to attack the family. They did so vehemently, swinging short lengths of electrical cable at both adults and children, who sustained large welts and bruises. The thugs were then ordered by officers Sinh and Vang to ransack the house. They took valuable legal papers (e.g., birth certificates and health insurance policies), foodstuffs and personal effects; then demolished their house. Finally, after three hours of abuse, the officers announced the confiscation of the family’s rice fields and that the family was permanently expelled from Dien Bien Dong District. They then incited the mob to chase them away. The family is now living in the forest without a home and according to Khua ”day after day we do not know how we will live or where we will end up...”
- In adjacent Son La Province, in Phu Yen District, Christian Thao A Say reported four Hmong Christian families in March were similarly threatened. The four families’ formal affiliation with the legally-recognized Evangelical Church of Vietnam-North (ECVN-N), did not spare them; commune officials told them that Christianity did not exist in their village of Suoi Cu. They were told by Mr. Tuyen, chairman of the People’s Committee of Huy Tan Commune, that “You cannot believe in Christ – if you do, you and the other families who do must leave this village!” VMFF thugs incited by authorities threatened to destroy the Christians’ homes and kill them unless they recanted. On March 25, as a further warning, thugs barged into Say’s home and began beating him and his wife with chairs, kicking and punching them, and then drug his wife, Vang Thi Mua, out to their yard by her hair.
Hanoi has agreements with its neighbors to provide “advisors” to all government agencies, including those dealing with religion. Hanoi fears that Hmong Christians in Laos and Vietnam might unite and coordinate activities with Montagnards in an attempt to force change in religious policies toward them.
- According to The Wall Street Journal (Silent Night in Laos, 01/08/2015), “Intensified religious freedom violations directed against ethnic Laotian and Hmong Christian believers are increasingly violent and egregious, with independent religious ceremonies and Christmas celebrations Believers have been arrested, tortured, killed, or have simply disappeared.” It is well known that the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has absolute control over the press and civil society; nevertheless, some human rights advocates believe that the Christmas crackdown on Hmong Christians was coordinated with Hanoi.
- The Voice of the Martyrs reports that on Sunday, Jan. 18, Mennonite Pastor Nguyen Hong Quang and his associate pastor were brutally beaten by five men, assumingly VNFF thugs, in broad daylight near the Bible College in former Saigon that Quang founded and still leads. The five men attacked the pastors without provocation, hitting them in the head with bricks and rocks until they collapsed to the ground. The attackers continued their assault even after the pastors were on the ground, kicking them repeatedly. Both pastors were taken to an emergency room for treatment. Pastor Quang suffered a broken nose, broken ribs and injuries to his teeth and jaw. And of course, no arrests have been made in the assault.
Since the pre-Christmas crackdown, scores of Christian Montagnard have fled the terror in the Central Highlands to hide in the jungles of Cambodia’s northeastern Rattanikiri province in hopes of gaining asylum and religious freedom. However, they are between a rock and a hard place for there is a considerable presence of Vietnamese “advisors” in Rattanikiri who pay Cambodian border police “bounties” reportedly in excess of a month’s pay for every Montagnard captured and turned over to them for deportation and imprisonment in Vietnam. How many groups arrived, and how many have been caught and deported is unknown for the numbers arriving are confusing and those deported go unreported.
According to The Phnom Penh Post, Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local human rights group Adhoc, and an associate monitor, criticized the government for arresting a family of five Montagnards – a mother and father, their two young sons, and 9-month-old daughter – on Sunday January 5th. The next day in an interview with Voice of America, Interior Ministry spokesman Sopheak denied reports of the arrest and stated, there are no Montagnards in the province only “illegal Vietnamese immigrants.” Sopheak then threaten Thy by stating that if he didn’t withdraw his assertions, he would be sued. Thy stressed that reports of the arrests on Sunday were true and confirmed by accounts from villagers and activists, and said he would not back down. The threats against Thy once again extended to social media recently as a Facebook account called “Lum Phatsrok,” which Thy alleges is controlled by a senior provincial official, invited ISIS militants to “cut off” his tongue.
The first to arrive was a group of 13 Montagnard Christians who fled after the pre-Christmas crackdown on religion in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and went into hiding from the border police in the jungles of Rattanikiri. Malnourished and ravaged by malaria and dengue fever, after a month an intermediary was finally able to put them in touch with a UNHCR team who took them to Phnom Penh and helped them gain asylum status. Later, three others joined them. Nonetheless, they are still in danger for the Cambodian communist regime is closely allied with and under the influence of its Hanoi patron that insists all Montagnards be returned to Vietnam.
During a trip to Hanoi and Phnom Penh in February 2007, Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, rang the death knell for any favorable U.S. policy toward our former allies. At a press briefing in Hanoi she stated that she believed communist officials, who assured her that the Montagnards enjoyed religious freedom, were not being persecuted and could travel freely to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi or the Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City to voice any grievances. Yes, and pigs can fly too. Sauerbrey then held another press conference in Phnom Penh and told Cambodian communist officials that Montagnards should stay in Vietnam and those seeking asylum in Cambodia should be returned to Vietnam. In 1992, the Cambodian government ratified the United Nations multilateral treaty relating to the Status of Refugees agreeing to allow all asylum seekers access to asylum procedures. Nevertheless, acting on Sauerbrey’s advice and Hanoi’s pressure, the Cambodian regime forced UNHCR to close its refugee camps and the police have relentlessly pursued Montagnard asylum seekers and deported them. In effect, Sauerbrey set the State Department’s unofficial policy toward our former allies that remains in place today.
Even if the Montagnard refugees gain UNHCR asylum status, there is no guarantee they will be allowed to relocate to another country any time soon. More than 150 Montagnards who fled religious persecution in Vietnam years ago are still languishing in Thailand. While some have made it into the UNHCR system there, others remain in hiding: all are caught up in U.S. and Southeast Asian politics. It is unlikely that the US will go to bat for its former allies, as the Obama administration has shown little empathy toward endangered Christians.
Since the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the subsequent installation of a totalitarian communist government, Vietnam has become one of the world’s most egregious violators of basic human rights – including the freedom to practice one’s religion. Human rights groups continually call for investigations into Vietnam’s human right abuses, and the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi frequently vows to investigate these matters, but nothing seems to result.
Now, President Obama is about to give away the farm by granting Vietnam full membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Unbridled trade relations has the disadvantage of conceding the only leverage the U.S. has to pressure Vietnam to cease human rights abuses, make measurable improvements in religious and Internet freedoms, and release political prisoners.
Obama is seemingly following the advice of the Bobbsey twins, Senator McCain and Secretary of State Kerry, who have been the strongest advocates for communist Vietnam. Their rationale is that it’s necessary to coddle Vietnam to stem China’s influence in Southeast Asia. Whoever harbors this pipe dream must have flunked remedial math, given the disparity in their populations. Recently, in a speech to big labor and liberal Democrats who oppose a major new free-trade deal with Asia, President Obama said the “horse is out of the barn” on America losing jobs overseas and that granting Vietnam full membership in the TPP would create a more fair trading system.
And the band plays on.
Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service officer and is a student of Southeast Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom, and democracy for the peoples of the region and has written extensively on these subjects.
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