This article is seventh in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of Southeast Asian Catholics in the United States, and how the Church might better serve their pastoral needs. The article was submitted by Mr. Pierre M. K'Briuh, a Montagnard pastoral minister from Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The central highlands of Vietnam are the abode of the Montagnards who not long ago lived in a world that they themselves evolved and sustained. Anthropologists, as well as evidence from the 19th and 20th centuries have determined that the Montagnards are the indigenous people of the highlands. The name "Montagnard" is not an ethnic name but comes from the French for "mountaineer" or "highlander."
The Montagnards are divided between two language families, the Mon-Khmer (now spoken as minority langauges from Burma to North Vietnam, and as the majority language of Cambodia), and the Chamic division of the Malayo-Polynesian family. There are thirty-nine different Montagnard ethnic groups, with each group speaking a distinct language. The Montagnards remained aloof from the Chinese great tradition that molded the society of the Vietnamese, and also from the Indian influences diffusing eastward that brought civilization to the Cambodians and the Lao.
The Montagnards' world is centered in small communities where kinship is important and everyone shares resources. Leadership is well defined, and moral order is expressed in systems of justice wherein respect for the individual provides a counterpoint to the prevailing concern for group survival. The Montagnards try to keep in harmony with their deities by heeding signs and performing propitiatory rituals that are similar in pattern. They farm the slopes and bottom land within the never-ending cycle of rainy season, and fields planted or fallowing. In the nearby streams, they draw water, wash clothes, bathe, and fish. The surrounding forests supply them with game, wild fruits and vegetables, and firewood as well as barwood, bamboo, and rattan for their houses, artifacts and wood carvings. Also, each group has its own classical form of art, architecture, music, and dance.
The first Catholic mission to the interior of the highlands came with the French in the 1850s. Protestant American missionaries (Christian and Missionary Alliance) first arrived in the 1930s. The Communist unification of Vietnam in 1975 resulted in the expulsion of overseas clergy and severe persecution of all churches for some years. Evangelical religion has spread rapidly via lay conversions. Most Protestant Evangelical refugees and immigrants to the United States came from the Darlac province. Three congregations of the Christian and Missionary Alliance exist in North Carolina, where the overwhelming number of Montagnards have been settled, plus two independent Bible congregations.
Under French colonial rule, the Montagnards were taxed and forced to do corvee labor in French pulbic works projects such as "penetration routes" to open the region to economic exploitation and initiate a process of ecological damage, clearing the forest for rubber, tea and coffee plantations. To preserve the colonial rule, the French exploited the Montagnards' desire for independence by using the central highlands as a political pawn in their "divide-and-rule" strategy. In 1946, the French High Commissioner signed an order creating the Federal Government for the Highlander Populations of South Indochina, which appeared to give a measure of autonomy. In 1950, the French government's order proclaimed the Crown Domain of the Highlander Country under the authority of Bao Dai, the last Vietnamese king. This order included "special regulations" guaranteeing the Montagnards "free evolution in accordance with their traditions and customs."
The Geneva Conference of 1954 brought an end to the Indochina War. On July 21, delegations met from France, the United States, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, Cambodia, Laos, Bao Dai's State of Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam to decide on political and territorial entities. The borders had been established by the French and there were large areas within them where the Montagnards lived and historically never known Vietnamese rule. The Montagnards had no representative at this meeting and consequently no voice in their own fate. The highland people were classified as "ethnic minorities" in their own mountains.
The 1957 Land Development Program was designed by President Ngo Dinh Diem to obtain the dual goals of developing the highlands economically and bringing "modernization" to the Montagnards by resettling massive members of lowlander Vietnamese in the region. The Montagnards practiced "shifting farming" wherein the fields are rotated while the villages remain sedentary. Ignoring this practice, the Diem government described the people as "Nomadic," so as to provide a rationale for seizing land on which lowlander Vietnamese were settled. At the same time, the Diem government banned instruction in highland languages and abolished tribal courts.
Many thousands of Montagnards were forcibly resettled along national routes by the government as "a security measure." This prompted leaders to form a movement in 1958 named Bajaraka, reflecting a membership drawn from the major ethnic groups. In an attempt to crush Bajaraka, the government police and military forces moved against it, resulting in the death of many followers being killed and all of its leaders imprisoned. Meanwhile, Hanoi's propaganda stated that its policy was to allow the ethnic minorities to preserve their ethnic identities in upland autonomous zones. In the south, however, the Viet Cong forcibly recruited Montagnards as soldiers, or laborers to work on construction of the Ho Chi Minh trail.
By 1961, the Viet Cong insurgency was creating insecurity throughout the central highlands. This prompted the South Vietnamese airforce to bomb three Montagnard villages, killing many. Then, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) organized a village defense in the same vicinity, with Rhade' Bajaraka assisting in the effort. In 1964, as insurgency was rapidly developing into war, a new Montagnard movement, FULRO, the United Struggle Front for the Oppressed Races, made its appearance with mutinies in five upland Special Forces, with many who had been in the Bajaraka movement. The rebels finally set up their headquarters across the border in Cambodia. .
The Vietnam War became increasingly violent, with the central highlands the scene of large battles. Montagnard villages were bombed by the Americans and South Vietnamese. Also, Communist forces mounted night assaults on Montagnard villages, killing women, children, and the elderly huddled in bunkers. In early 1968, when the Communists mounted the Tet Offensive, it brought fighting into many highland towns. All Montagnards in the Special Forces were transferred to first-strike Vietnamese military units along the Cambodian and Laotian borders where thousands of them died. In March 1975, Nguyen Van Thieu ordered withdrawal of all his forces from the highlands in order to concentrate on the coastal plain. This prompted the North Vietnamese to attack a Montagnard village, and the South Vietnamese airforce to destroy the Rhade' villages. The withdrawal became a rout, precipitating the collapse of the South Vietnamese forces. When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 Montagnards had died. Approximately eighty-five percent of their villages had either been destroyed or abandoned.
Soon after the Communist victory, it became apparent that autonomy for the highlanders was not a possibility. The end of the war did not bring any morning light to end the Montagnards' long nights of tribulation. Since 1975, the Communist government embarked on programs aimed at the destruction of the surviving Montagnards' way of life. These programs have also been causing tremendous damage to the highland eco-system. Little of this dire situation has been reported because travel by outsiders into the central highlands has been carefully restricted so that violations of human rights, and wanton deforestation will go undetected.
The FULRO forces remaining in the rural areas, joined by Montagnards from the South Vietnamese army, the Special Forces, and other paramilitary groups, fled into the jungles. While in the jungles, because there was no name to embrace all the native highland people, the FULRO forces coined the name De'ga to provide an indigenous name covering all ethnic groups; but "Montagnard" still remains in widespread use. Those who survived the war, found refuge in the United States and founded the Montagnard/De'ga Association, Inc., Montagnard Foundation, Inc., Montagnard Catholic Ministry. They had several goals: to bring to the attention of leaders of free and democratic countries and human rights organizations the presecution of Montagnards, to alert environmentalists to widespread ecological damage taking place in the central highlands of Vietnam, to encourage the government of Vietnam to allow relatives to benefit from the Orderly Departure Program to join their parents living in the United States, and to allow Non Governmental Organizations to implement programs to improve Montagnards' health, education, social welfare, and economy.
The rule of thumb in dealing with the Montagnard communities, is to remember that most of their parents and grandparants were illiterate. Consequently, they did not record their births, marriages, or deaths. For example, many peoples' birth certificates will show December 31. Also, it is usual for their children to become their translators. After 1975, the practice of Catholicism became sporadic in the remote areas of the highlands because overseas clergy were expelled, and Montagnard vocations were more or less non-existent. Those who came from Kontum, or Lam Dong provinces proclaim themselves Catholic, but they may need to have their basic religious understanding refreshed. Their children often have not received the sacraments of initiation yet. Although many are legally married according to their tradition, their marriages may need convalidation. They may experience problems with the Sacrament of Penance because most of them do not understand either English or Vietnamese. Finally, although there are some cultural differences among them, the Montagnards bring with them some common values--faith in God, a good spirit, and a desire to start over in life.