WASHINGTON – Betrayal is an ugly word, but sometimes it needs to be spoken. The Montagnard people of the Vietnam highlands have been betrayed by both friends and enemies, time and again. The betrayal continues.
It’s not a pretty story, and among the names that figure into this is that of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is running for the presidency of the United States.
The Montagnards are a simple mountain people who were pawns in foreign wars that dragged on in Vietnam for decades. They were loyal soldiers for first the French and then the U.S. Special Forces, the Green Berets, during the period from the 1940s through much of the 1970s. Today they are still paying the price for that, and for wanting to be left alone in their high green mountains.
The French dubbed them “Montagnards,” or mountain people. The Americans nicknamed them “the Yards” and loved them both for their loyalty and their warrior spirit. The lowland Vietnamese, both North and South, applied the contemptuous name “Moi,” or savages, to them and have, at various times and under various governments, sought to wipe them out and bury them and their high homeland in a tide of ethnic Vietnamese immigration.
For a thousand years and more the Montagnards, or Dega People as they call themselves, inhabited the Central Highlands of Vietnam, living the lives of hunter-gatherers and slash-and-burn farmers. They would clear small patches of the red laterite soil and for a few seasons grow a bit of grain and manioc and yams. When the soil wore out they moved their thatch-roofed homes on stilts to another place and cleared another bit of ground.
In 1954 the South Vietnamese government under President Ngo Dinh Diem forced thousands of Montagnards into resettlement camps and began a program to resettle ethnic Vietnamese on tribal lands. The communist government of Vietnam, since its victory in 1975, has done much the same thing.
The Montagnards, who once numbered more than 1 million, have dwindled to fewer than 650,000 during a time when the Vietnamese population has more than doubled to 60 million in a postwar baby boom.
I wish I could tell you that the missing Montagnards, who soldiered for our Green Berets, could be found among the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam who have settled and prospered in the United States since the end of the war. But I can’t. No more than 2,000 of the Montagnard have found sanctuary in this country, most in the area of North Carolina around Fort Bragg where the Special Forces headquarters is located.
Many were killed in the desperate fighting that enveloped the Central Highlands during the war. Many more just died, their villages destroyed, their way of life and living likewise destroyed.
In early 2001 thousands of Montagnards demonstrated for freedom of religion and for a return of their land. The Hanoi government sent in soldiers and police to crush them. Many were killed; many were tried and sentenced to prison. More than a thousand fled across the border into Cambodia. In 2002-2003 the Bush administration took almost all of them in and they joined 600 Montagnard resettled in two earlier batches – 200 in 1986, and 400 in 1992.
In 2001 the Vietnam Human Rights Act was introduced in Congress. It tied future U.S. aid to Vietnam to the Hanoi government improving its abysmal human rights record, including persecution of the Montagnards. It passed the House with 410 ayes and only one no. But in the Senate, Kerry locked the bill up in committee and refused to allow it to go the floor for debate and a vote. In effect, Kerry killed the human rights bill.
At the time, Kerry said the measure would not improve human rights but instead would weaken Vietnamese human rights activists and strengthen the hard-liners who oppose U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
My military friends who fought in the Central Highlands alongside the loyal Montagnards carry memories, pain and guilt over the fate of their friends who were left behind when the last helicopters lifted off the roof in Saigon in 1975.
I carry a memory of my own from a hot November morning in 1965 when a battalion of the 1st Cavalry Division marched into a remote Montagnard village east of Plei Me. As we came into the village a toothless old man rushed out, hurriedly buttoning his old French army tunic, clutching a tattered little French flag. He thought his old comrades had finally come back to get him.
They never came, just as we will never come. The only question is whether the Vietnamese can somehow be persuaded to allow the Montagnards to survive as a people in what is left of their mountains, now heavily logged and denuded.
Betrayal is an ugly word, and an even uglier memory.