A Cross to Bear: The Plight of the Dega in Vietnam

Article excerpt

Vietnam is not easily categorized as a communist state. The country maintains a state-run economy with ever-increasing property and business privatization. It also imprisons dissenters while holding national democratic elections. Vietnam claims to be a democracy, but the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) outlaws the creation of other political organizations and forcibly maintains single-party rule. Such a schizoid national policy results from Vietnam's ongoing transition from a communist oligarchy to a market-oriented society with substantive civil rights. This sociopolitical transition has been painful for the Dega people, an indigenous minority living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and known to Westerners as the Montagnards.

Since the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, government resettlement and independent migration have forced the Montagnards to live with a rising number of Vietnamese settlers, causing increased competition between the two groups over public services and natural resources. The population of the Central Highlands is currently estimated at around four million, one million of whom are tribal people.

Around 300,000 Montagnards practice a form of Christianity known as Dega Protestantism. The Vietnamese government claims that it allows the free expression of religion, but in actuality it maintains tight control over religious appointments and teachings. Independent churches are banned and the state currently allows only six religious groups to practice. Unrecognized churches are often destroyed if discovered. The government claims that independent religious groups foster dissent, which is actually true in the case of Dega Protestantism, the followers of which frequently discuss politics and vent frustrations at religious meetings.

To justify their persecution of the Dega Protestants, the VCP government accuses the Montagnards of undermining national unity under Article 87 of its penal code, which criminalizes "sowing divisions" between the government and the people. The VCP's suspicion of the Montagnards dates back to the Vietnam War, when many Montagnards tried to establish their independence and allied with US Special Forces. While the Dega independence movement all but died out in 1992 with the end of the Front Unifie de Lutte des Races Opprimees (FULRO), a pro-US Montagnard resistance army, the influx of settlers and crackdown on religious dissent created political tensions that climaxed in February 2001. …