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Middle passage

"Middle passage" Continued...

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

Y Phuat Enuol agrees. The 43-year-old Montagnard has been in the United States for a little over a year. Through a translator, Enuol describes the time he spent in prison for speaking out for greater religious freedoms in mass demonstrations by Protestants in 2001 and 2004. As he speaks in Jarai, he points to different parts of his body. The translator explains that Enuol is describing the beatings and torture he endured: a broken knee, two broken ribs, broken jaw, cracked chest, and needles driven into his fingers.

After authorities jailed him again in 2007, Enuol escaped to Cambodia and eventually came to the United States. Now he waits for his wife and seven children to join him, though he says Vietnamese officials are stalling the process for their paperwork to leave the country. In the meantime, he speaks with his wife only sporadically, convinced that local authorities have tapped the phones. What he does hear isn't good: Local police harass his wife and berate her during mandatory community meetings.

Enuol says that government control extends to local churches and that Vietnamese reports of religious freedom are propaganda: "The truth is, the Montagnard religion in the Central Highlands is never free."

After USCIRF officials visited Vietnam in May, commissioner Michael Cromartie testified before Congress that the group had documented detention of religious prisoners, severe restrictions on independent religious activity, and a government policy of intimidating new converts and suppressing the growth of religious groups.

Cromartie also testified about some improvements, including the release of some prisoners and more toleration for public worship in urban areas. The commissioner attributed those improvements to the State Department's CPC designation of Vietnam from 2004 to 2006, but he said conditions had deteriorated since the United States removed the country from the list. Cromartie says the department should return Vietnam to the list this year. He disagrees with Michalak's assessment that there isn't enough evidence.

Some members of Congress agree. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., introduced an amendment to a Foreign Relations bill that called on the State Department to return Vietnam to the CPC list. "Some have seen positive steps in Vietnam, but frankly, I don't see it," said Royce. "Religious freedom remains under attack."

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., is leading efforts to pass the Vietnam Human Rights Act, a resolution that details human-rights abuses and that would tie non-humanitarian foreign aid levels to progress in improving human-rights conditions. Back in July, 37 senators signed a letter demanding the release of Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest who's been imprisoned a total of 17 years since 1970.

It's not clear what impact the congressional pressure will have on the State Department, though as a senator last February, Barack Obama wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, asking the State Department to reevaluate its position on Vietnam in light of ongoing religious and human-rights abuses. USCIRF has called on President Obama to exert the same pressure now.

In the meantime, refugees continue to trickle into the United States from the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Aid organizations like Lutheran Family Services and World Relief help many Montagnards resettle. Rong Nay of the Raleigh-based Montagnard Human Rights Organization (MHRO) helps too. A Montagnard himself, Nay leads the group's efforts to help with immigration and reunification for Montagnard families, as well as other refugee groups. The group also brings attention to human-rights issues in the Central Highlands.

Nay says if the State Department doesn't put Vietnam back on the CPC list, "the situation in the Central Highlands will worsen." He says he understands U.S. concerns over defense and trade agreements with Vietnam, but hopes that U.S. officials "will parallel those concerns with human rights."

Kay Reibold, the group's project development specialist, says keeping Vietnam off the list won't help the country-or its citizens-in the long run: "You're sending the wrong message if you keep reinforcing bad behavior."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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