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Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Montagnards' dilemma

The New Straits Times, Malaysia.

THERE is an old Vietnamese legend, widely known in Vietnam and to a lesser extent in Cambodia and Laos, which is worth repeating as it seeks to explain the existing tension in Vietnam between the lowlanders and the highlanders.

The legend goes back to a misty time in the past when the powerful Dragon King of the South fell hopelessly in love, as even powerful men do, with a gorgeous northern fairy whose beauty was known throughout the universe. The Dragon King wooed this pretty fairy and, as happens in all proper fairy tales, he soon married her. What a grand wedding it was and the badly smitten Dragon King, in a moment of total indiscretion, agreed to the dainty fairy's pleas to set up their marital home in the mountains instead of the lowlands.

Those were happy times and a year later the fairy, in true blue fairy style, laid a hundred eggs which within the prescribed time dutifully hatched into one hundred handsome little baby boys. The Dragon King and the fairy, now Fairy Queen, were indeed very happy and could have lived happily ever after.

However, as does happen, the Dragon King soon grew tired of the lofty mountains and yearned for his watery lowland home. He pined every day and every night and locked himself up in his deep sorrow. As the yearnings became stronger, as yearnings often do, he decided to part with his fairy wife and go his own way. He took along with him fifty of his children and left behind the other fifty with his erstwhile estranged wife. They were never to meet again. The hurt was never healed and some believe, not destined to be healed.

Old people will tell you, if you care to ask politely, that the Dragon King and his fifty sons were the ancestors of the main ethnic Vietnamese people.

The fifty left behind in the mountains with the fairy, who incidentally died of a broken heart, were the ancestors of the ethnic minorities, who are collectively referred to as "Montagnards" or "mountain people". Or so they say.

Legends aside, the ongoing friction between the Montagnards who live in the Central Highlands and the Vietnamese Government is no fairy tale. Various human rights and religious groups have in recent months suggested that the situation in the Central Highlands is deteriorating.

Human Rights Watch sounded alarm bells in early January and issued a report accusing Vietnam of "mass arrests, torture and increasing persecution of Christian Montagnards".

The Vietnamese Government has tersely rejected all the allegations as "total fabrication" and has wisely chosen not to go into a media debate on this issue. In this stalemate between the "highlanders and the lowlanders" the reluctant and unappreciated midwife is Cambodia which is now truly sucked into the problem - a problem not of its making. The result is that Cambodia has come under severe pressure from various Western interest groups and lobbies on the one hand and Vietnam on the other.

It cannot be dismissed that Cambodia may end up displeasing one side or the other, or both.

Ironically, Cambodia, vast numbers of whose citizens were themselves refugees in Thailand not too long ago, has presumably succumbed to Vietnamese pressure not to host any refugee camps along the common border or to facilitate the entry of the Montagnards. Cambodia's tough posture was demonstrated in December when a temporary Montagnard refugee camp in Ratanakiri province bordering Vietnam was closed down and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had to move the refugees to Phnom Penh.

In another show of determination, Cambodia also reinforced its northeastern borders and the various checkpoints with Vietnam in early January to stem the flow of the Montagnards, a move which immediately earned the criticism of concerned pressure groups and the UNHCR. There were also reports that Cambodian provincial police were, in the meantime, instructed to recruit more officers to maintain round-the-clock vigilance along the common border. To assist in this surveillance exercise, the Vietnamese Government "generously" donated motorcycles to the Cambodian provincial police.

The international community is aware of this festering problem but has so far been reluctant to be drawn in.

They argue that the issue is strictly an internal problem of Vietnam which they believe Hanoi is well equipped to resolve. The Montagnards and their sympathisers, aware of the international reluctance to be directly involved, are seeking ways to internationalise the problem which they continue to insist is getting worse. To this end the Montagnards have in recent months become more vocal and more determined to capture the attention of the media which they see presently as the best means of persuading the international community to become involved.

Not surprisingly, the latest group of Montagnards who escaped into Cambodia have managed to secure media attention. Unlike previous groups who highlighted religious discrimination as the main problem and were willing to be resettled in third countries, the latest groups highlight the illegal confiscation of their ancestral lands by Hanoi for coffee cultivation and other commercial purposes as the main grievance. What has captured media attention, however, is their insistence that they intend to remain in Cambodia until the UN gets back their land. They have refused all offers to be resettled in the US or elsewhere.

All involved parties are now focused on what will happen to the Montagnards in their refusal to leave Cambodia until their grievances are addressed.

Cambodia, which depends on donor assistance and is concerned about its international image, is playing it as carefully as it possibly can. It does not want to appear unhelpful or harsh in its treatment of the Montagnards. At the same time it would prefer not to unnecessarily upset Vietnam, its more powerful neighbour and old ally. All it wants is to get the problem out of its court.

In this test of wills, it is the Montagnard refugees who are at a disadvantage - they have no resources and limited support, they need funds to be fed and lodged and, worse, they can be repatriated as illegal immigrants as most, if not all, walked in through the border.

Moreover, the various interest groups who support them have limited influence over Vietnam. These pressure groups realise that Vietnam can afford to wait it out and are trying to make the wait as costly as possible.

For the moment this looks like a lost cause for the Montagnards - their grievances will fester on and media interest will decline until the next big incident concerning the group comes to the fore. Unfortunately for the Montagnards, no fairies or dragons have yet come to their help.

The writer was Singapore Ambassador to Cambodia from 2000-2004 and is presently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

SUBMITTED BY: Verghese Mathews on Sat, 12 Feb 2005

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