Language policy and religion in Vietnam

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue May 8 14:29:24 UTC 2007

U.S. State Department: Off Course on Human Rights In Vietnam?


Dear fellow activists and supporters:


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. 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

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

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 Vietnams 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, U.S. Consulate, Ho Chi Minh City, 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.


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