N.C. Montagnards desperate for information from Vietnam

STEVE HARTSOE
Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. - Vietnamese Montagnards who have settled in North Carolina by the thousands over the last decade were desperate for information Monday, following reports that Vietnam's government violently quashed Easter weekend demonstrations by tribespeople there.

"I've received calls all night and yesterday from family members trying to find out what's going on," said George Clark, president of Randolph County-based Save the Montagnards. "They shot the living daylights out of a bunch of protesters."

Many Montagnards (MON-ten-YARDS; the name is French for "mountain people") fought alongside U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, and 5,000 have resettled in North Carolina, in part to be near U.S. Army Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville.

Save the Montagnards, formed in 1986 by Clark and other Vietnam veterans who hold strong affection for the former allies they call "'yards," helps Montagnards relocate and adapt to life in the United States.

North Carolina's Montagnard population is by far the largest outside the central Vietnamese highlands where the Dega - the name by which they know themselves - have lived for more than 2,000 years.

Since the 1920s, many Montagnards had been converted to Christianity by Western missionaries. After the communist takeover, they say, their land was seized by the government and they were denied freedom to practice their religion.

On Saturday, many were arrested and injured when more than a thousand people took to the streets in Buon Ma Thuot, the provincial capital of Daklak. The event was supposed to be peaceful prayer demonstrations against religious repression and land confiscation.

Vietnam's state-controlled media reported Monday that thousands of people, including ethnic minority groups, celebrated Easter in the Central Highlands provinces of Daklak, Gia Lai and Kon Tum. There was no mention of protests.

The area has been closed off to foreigners.

Vietnam has blamed "overseas instigation" for triggering the protests, as it did after similar mass demonstrations in 2001. Government officials blame the South Carolina-based Montagnard Foundation for organizing both demonstrations.

Kok Ksor, president of the foundation, headquartered in Spartanburg, S.C., denied the charge Monday, saying his group urged people to demonstrate later in the year, when they could be more organized.

"I told my people that and they said they cannot wait ... 'because they are killing us now and we cannot take that anymore,'" Ksor said. "They say they know and they'll take the consequence."

He said children are being arrested and adults are shot if they leave a house.

"I heard they were killing people and throwing them into rivers. A relative of my wife reported 2,000 of our people died since Saturday," Ksor said.

Clark said about 3,500 Montagnards live in the Greensboro area, about 1,200 are in Charlotte and 700 live in Raleigh.

"The Montagnard people are very depressed over it," he said of the news from Vietnam. "All the people are trying to get is the right to live; their land is being taken away from them."