sen monorom, Mondolkiri province – Mul remembers his parents burying a Bible and a book on the life of US evangelist Billy Graham near their house in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 1975.
The North Vietnamese had entered the Central Highlands after the fall of Saigon and begun a wave of oppression against the Montagnards that many say persists today, culminating in mass protests during February in Buom Ma Thout.
In 1975 the North Vietnamese found the Montagnards not only ethnically different from the Vietnamese, but predominately Christian. Retribution for the hill tribes’ support of US troops during the war in Vietnam was swift, Mul said, speaking in halting English at this refugee camp a few kilometers from the provincial capital. He and more than 150 other Vietnamese Montagnards have ended up here after fleeing unrest in Vietnam in recent weeks.
After the communist victory, Mul said, the Vietnamese closed all the Montagnard churches in the highlands, and religious books were forbidden. Religious ceremonies are conducted in secret to this day.
“In my country, there is no freedom of religion for Montagnards,” he said. “After 1975 [the government] said that Protestants were CIA or Fulro, that Protestants are struggling against the government.”
While the Roman Catholic Church is allowed to thrive in Vietnam, Montagnard refugees here say they have been deprived of all their places of worship in the Central Highlands.
Mul, like several others here, says he was baptized secretly at night in 1988 near the house of a Protestant pastor in Dak Lak province.
Here in this camp, where the Montagnards have been camped since Friday, prayers can be heard from families and groups as they wake at dawn, and then later in the day at meals and before sleeping at night.
On Monday a group of three women and one man from the Pnong ethnic minority sat under a blue tarpaulin and sang hymns from a religious book they say was given to them by an American evangelical preacher living in the Central Highlands in the 1960s.
Pnong minority member Y Minh produced two other religious books, one in Latinized Radhe and the other in Latinized Pnong (there is no written ethnic dialect), and described how Pastor Richard Phillips gave them to him in 1969.
Y Minh said Phillips preached until around 1974. He taught Y Minh’s mother and father how to be Protestants. Y Minh has named his six-year-old son Phillip after the pastor.
“[The Vietnamese] took all the churches and imprisoned the pastors. They said [Protestantism] is the religion of America. It does not belong to Vietnam, it belongs to foreigners,” Y Minh said.
According to a local source familiar with the hill tribes, Phillip worked in the Central Highlands with the missionary alliance until he was captured by the North Vietnamese in the early 1970s. Before releasing him, the North Vietnamese confiscated Phillips’ complete work of a Latinized form of the written Pnong language. He is believed to be living in the US now, the source said.
The commitment of Montagnards to their fate in this camp shows what may have been a religious conversion decades ago now binds these people together at times of hardship.
Katy Grant, a roving field officer with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recounted how on the first night the group was taken from their jungle hideouts to Bou Sra town, a rumor reached the Montagnards at 4 am that 100 Vietnamese soldiers had crossed the border and were descending on the town.
Rather than flee in panic, the refugees formed groups, some of them kneeling, to recite prayers out loud, Grant said.
A source based in Sen Monorom who has studied Montagnard communities says that the Montagnard’s religious fervor is likely what worries the Vietnamese government the most. “The Vietnamese government equates religious resistance with future political resistance,” he said.
However, the source said the Vietnamese government fails to realize that the evangelical Protestant groups that a majority of Montagnards follow preach that hardships must be encountered before their devotion bears fruit, either in this life or after.
“Their faith is something they protect with their life. It gives them so much in this life and beyond; they will go through very difficult times for it,” the source said.
For the Montagnards their faith is as real as the food they eat, and that is what Hanoi does not understand, he said.
“The communist government cannot understand that, even if they repress these people, their numbers grow. This is a fear for a government, especially one that has a strong ideal of control,” he said.
Mul, who has a younger brother and a daughter whose names were taken from Old Testament figures, said he prays each morning, before he eats or goes on a journey.
His prayers here in the refugee camp are for his relatives still in Vietnam, for his family and friends with him in Cambodia and for his country—the Central Highlands—which he says he hopes the Lord will make free one day.
“I believe that God can help,” he said. “If we do not have the holy Lord, we do not have freedom.”