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Monday, June 25, 2001

Montagnards still paying for Vietnam War


LOS ANGELES -- It's understandable. Now 85, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in his new book "Wilson's Ghost," is urging that America get involved in foreign crises only under the umbrella of multinational efforts. And you would take that view, too, if you had been the boss of the U.S. Defense Department under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and had led America into its Vietnam nightmare.

But that philosophy -- combined with China's avowed policy of noninterference in other states' internal affairs and Europe's predictable greediness to cultivate the 79-million-strong Vietnamese market -- means that the Montagnards, one of Southeast Asia's venerable highland tribes, will probably be extinguished from the face of the Earth.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it appears, is back to its old cruel tricks. While trying to burnish its image so as to entice foreign investment and trade, it has been hunting down and killing off its Montegnard ethnic minority, largely harmless agriculturists who sided with America during the Vietnam War.

Hanoi, it seems, is terrified of these legendary mountain people. Many are Christians in a largely Buddhist land, and Vietnam is insecure in the face of any organized opposition. When the Montagnards do manage to escape police roundups into Cambodia, the Vietnamese cross that border and hunt them down -- sometimes with the help of Cambodians -- to either slaughter them there or bring them back for severe and sometimes capital punishment.

Not surprisingly, few if any outsiders are permitted into Vietnam's Central Highlands these days." Just when you thought the Vietnamese Communists were mellowing," comments a former high State Department official, "here you have the nasty side of the Vietnamese." That Montagnard persecution manifestly violates international accords unsettles neither Hanoi nor Phnom Penh, where pro-Hanoi Cambodian Prime Minister Hen Sen, save when prodded by international organizations or the U.S., looks the other way.

The Bush administration's State Department has protested the Montagnard persecution, as has the office of Sen. Jesse Helms, the Southern Democrat who, however otherwise bombastic, is right on this anti-Communist issue. And nonpartisan human rights groups, notably the Washington-based advocacy organization Refugees International, are doing heroic work in an effort to stem the mini-genocide.

This current Hanoi government is the hardest to figure in all of Asia -- or at least among the few remaining communist regimes. North Korea, after all, is easy: Pyongyang and its economic system are a complete failure -- end of story. Beijing isn't hard to scope out, either -- it's simply a lumbering conglomerate of 1.3 billion people trying to feed, placate or intimidate its gargantuan population while quietly upgrading its antiquated system into one that's more compatible with entrepreneurial capitalism.

But Vietnam -- now here's a massive contradiction! On one level, change is in the air. Entrepreneurship is flourishing, the people are increasingly capitalistic, and outside investment is returning, along with Vietnamese expats from America, homesick for their beautiful country and deep culture. But then there's that awful government: an old-fashioned Stalinist one, dominated by men long past their intellectual prime. This past year Hanoi had its hands full suppressing large-scale anti-Hanoi riots.

To be sure, America really doesn't know what to do with the contradictions of Vietnam. Under President Bill Clinton, we sought to bury the hatchet of the Vietnam War by opening up trade and easing economic sanctions with a county that has a population larger than either Great Britain or France.

Perhaps moving away from economic engagement in response to this humanitarian tragedy will not much interest America's European allies, entranced by visions of riches. But if McNamara is right in saying that unilateral moves by the United States are a mistake, who or what, then, will save the Montagnards?

For unless Washington does something -- tightens sanctions, protests even more loudly, beseeches European and Asian allies, including China, to do the same -- the Montagnards will certainly die, one by one, until they are no more. What century are we living in?

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.


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