Vietnam War left a painful legacy for indigenous minority that fought alongside U.S.
Here in the windswept, rolling hills of central Vietnam, there are many reminders of the war that ended four decades ago.
Two Soviet-made tanks sit in the village of Dak To as monuments to the men who died retaking the region from U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1972. The flag of the communist Viet Cong guerrillas is painted on roadside walls. Undiscovered land mines remain a hazard.
But for the indigenous minority that Vietnam’s French colonizers named the Montagnards, or “mountain people,” the legacy of the war is especially painful.
They fought alongside the Americans and continue to be regarded as enemies by the Vietnamese government, which routinely subjects them to surveillance, arbitrary arrest, land seizures and other abuses that have been documented by human rights groups.
“Hanoi’s perspective on the Montagnards seems fixed in a Vietnam War-era past,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “Ever since the war ended in 1975, the Montagnards have faced systematic harassment, intrusive surveillance and persecution.”
They say that long ago U.S. soldiers they befriended promised them refuge in the United States, but only about 1,500 of the 70,000 who fought have been allowed in. Recently the Trump administration has deported some of their family members for criminal convictions in the U.S.
The Hanoi government rarely allows journalists or other outsiders into Montagnard areas. This reporter traveled to the region without authorization and spoke with nearly a dozen Montagnard veterans.
Each told a version of the same tale: They were recruited by U.S. Army Special Forces, fought against the North Vietnamese forces, spent years in squalid postwar labor camps, and continue to be persecuted by the government and marginalized by Vietnam’s Kinh majority.
“The U.S. military came to our villages and asked us, ‘Who wants to join and fight the Vietnamese?’” recalled Uoh, a 75-year-old former paratrooper, who, like many Montagnards, has only one name.
“If not, they said, ‘They’re going to come destroy your village and kill your young children.’ ”
The Montagnards make up about 15% of Vietnam’s 90 million people and 70% of its poor. They come from a variety of tribes and speak numerous languages, but they are predominantly Christian, which helped them quickly bond with the Americans.
At least 250,000 Montagnard men died during the war, according to community leaders and historians.
After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, some Montagnards continued fighting while others tried to flee to the United States.
“To go over there, to the U.S., that’s what the Americans promised,” Uoh said. “We hoped the American soldiers would help and guide us to a better life.”
But it would be an additional 13 years before the U.S. resettled any Montagnards. In the meantime, the communists defeated South Vietnamese forces, executed some Montagnards and placed most of the rest in reeducation camps.
When resettlement began in 1986, it was extremely limited and by 1994 had become a trickle as the U.S. government curtailed a program to help people targeted by the communist government. It resumed briefly around 2002.
One problem was that some Montagnards feared the Vietnamese government would target them for persecution if they tried to leave the country, especially for the U.S.
“That’s why I didn’t try,” said Dim, a 71-year-old former paratrooper who lives in Ya Tun, a small village in Ngoc Hoi district that is reachable only by motorbike and requires crossing two rickety bridges.
Vietnam’s government has long sponsored colonization of the coffee-growing region by the Kinh majority, displacing Montagnards from their native land. Many Montagnards have sought asylum in neighboring Cambodia and Thailand, largely unsuccessfully.
Despite the broken promises, Montagnard veterans remain fiercely loyal to their former allies.
Asked whether they regret fighting for the U.S., the veterans proudly stood by their decisions.
“I joined the American military because it was the right way,” Dim said. “It was the right fight.”
Asked about abuses against the Montagnards, a spokesman for the American Embassy in Hanoi said in a statement that the U.S. “raises issues of human rights, religious freedom and adherence to the rule of law with the government of Vietnam at all levels.”
But Ted Osius, who served as the American ambassador to Vietnam until late 2017, said such efforts have had little effect when it comes to the Montagnards: “U.S. leverage with regard to their treatment is virtually nonexistent.”
Montagnards have not been exempted from the Trump administration’s efforts to deport immigrants with criminal records. After years of rejecting the repatriation of Montagnards, Vietnam ceded to U.S. pressure and began accepting them in 2017.
It is unclear how many of the 193 Vietnamese nationals deported over the last two years are Montagnards. One is Chuh A — his last name was assigned by the Vietnamese government — who came to the U.S. as a teenager in the late 1990s with his father, a Montagnard leader who spent nearly a decade in a reeducation camp after the war.
Chuh lived for years as a green card holder in North Carolina, home to the largest Montagnard community outside Southeast Asia, but was deported to Vietnam in 2017 after serving three years in prison for an ecstasy trafficking conviction that invalidated his permanent residency.
He said that when he returned to Vietnam, local authorities promptly interrogated him and demanded money.
“That’s the reason why I don’t want to stay in the village,” said Chuh, who has since moved to Ho Chi Minh City. “I don’t want that harassment from the police.”
For years after the war, many Montagnard veterans held on to hope that their allies would return. Following the advice of U.S. soldiers who befriended them, they kept papers proving they had fought with U.S. forces.
Now they hide those documents from authorities.
One 73-year-old former infantryman said publishing his name would be too risky. But he held up an American military ID.
“Even now, if the government finds this paper, I’ll go to prison,” he said.
Dunst is a special correspondent.
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