March 25, 2008
Status: Indigenous groups
Population: various numbers between 1 – 2 million people
Areas: Central Highlands (55,000 km2)
Language: Austronesian and Mon-Khmer language family
Religion: Animist, but many of them have converted to Christian
Tribal Groups: Jarai, Rhade, Bahnar, Koho, Mnong and Stieng
UNPO REPRESENTATION: Montagnard Foundation Inc.
The Montagnard Foundation Inc. (MFI) is a private, non-profit, non-membership corporation based in the USA. The MFI objective as a liberation movement in exile is to preserve the lives and the culture of the indigenous Montagnard/Degar people. The strategy of the organization is to monitor, restore and safeguard the human rights of the Montagnard/Dagar people.
The Montagnard people inhabit the central western mountains of Vietnam. The total population includes 1.000.000 people. Its history goes back some 2000 years. In that time the encroaching Vietnamese and Cham groups slowly pushed the Degar people from the coastal plains to the central mountains, where they still live today. Historically the Degar culture revolved around small villages and kinship
More than 2,000 years ago, the Montagnard (which is French for "mountaineer") people inhabited and were in possession of most of what is now the 17th parallel in the north of Vietnam to the tip of Ca Mau in the south, and from the eastern coastal plain of Vietnam to the central western mountains ("the Central Highlands"). The Central Highlands includes the provinces of Dalat, Daklak, Pleiku and Kontum.
Historically, the Degar’s world revolved around small villages where resources were shared, kinship was important, leadership was well-defined and moral order was expressed in systems of education and justice that respected individual rights and dignity.
In 192 AD, ethnic Vietnamese occupied the Red River Delta along the coast while the Cham people were found in the Hoanh Son mountain spur. The Chams invaded our northern coastal areas of 1Danang in 875 - but these people would not venture into the Central Highlands which was populated by Degars. The Degar people's southern coastal region remained untouched until the Vietnamese forced the Cham people to flee south to Bien Hoa and Cambodia in 1697. Those Degar people living on the eastern coastal plain were forced to flee into the Central Highlands.
The renowned anthropologist Dr Gerald Hickey stated in his book entitled Sons of the Mountains, "At no point did the Vietnamese in the pre-twentieth century establish hegemony over the highlands". The Vietnamese historically believed the Central Highlands were the abode of evil spirits and the upland streams held the dreaded nuoc doc (meaning "poisoned water") that caused malaria.
For a time, the Degar people, remained insulated in the Central Highlands - hunting, fishing and practising swidden agriculture, and each Degar tribal group developed its own distinct form of art, architecture, music and dance. It is noted that the Montagnard people are presently comprised of over 40 hill tribal groups and are distinct from the hill tribe peoples of the northern mountainous region of Vietnam who are also referred to as "Montagnards".
In 1876, France began exploring the Central Highlands and in 1899 established a small military administrative post at Ban Don. At this time, there was no Vietnamese living in the Central Highlands. In 1918 the French first introduced the Vietnamese to the Central Highlands by way of their Vietnamese servants.
On 27 May 1946, the French High Commissioner, George D'Argenlieu, signed an ordinance that created the Federal Government for the Montagnard people of South Indochina. This Ordinance provided that the Central Highlands ceased to be "under the jurisdiction of the commissariat of the Republic of South Annam". Later, the Central Highlands were designated the Crown Domain of the Southern Highlanders Country and put directly under the control of Bao Dai, the last king of the Vietnamese to rule the court of Hue.
On May 21, 1951, Bao Dai created a special statute guaranteeing the Degar people, "free evolution" in accordance with their traditions and customs. Prior to 1954, the Degar people were allied to the French colonial government in its war against the Viet Minh, the forces of Ho Chi Minh.
After 1954, and the division of the country into North and South Vietnam, the government of South Vietnam facilitated the resettlement of thousands of Vietnamese into the Central Highlands. The South Vietnamese government, among other measures, eliminated the Degar people's tribal courts and forcibly relocated villages from viable farming lands.
In 1957, Degar people formed a peaceful movement called Bajaraka seeking autonomy for their people. In 1958, the government of South Vietnam arrested and imprisoned the movement's leaders. In 1961, the United States began recruiting Degars for military service and 40,000 in total were recruited over the duration of the Vietnam War ("the War").
The Central Highlands was one of the main battlegrounds of the War. Dr Hickey estimates that approximately 85 of the Degars' villages were destroyed or abandoned and that over 200,000 Montagnards died, as a consequence of the War. Today, approximately 500,000 Degar people live in the Central Highlands.
During the War, a new Degar resistance movement was formed called FULRO, which was based in Cambodia and fought against the South Vietnamese government in an effort to gain autonomy for the Montagnard people in the Central Highlands. It is noted that the Montagnards since that time have called themselves Degar people (meaning "sons of the mountain").
After 1975, FULRO continued to militarily resist the Government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam ("the Vietnamese Government") until 1992 when FULRO's last 400 members surrendered to the United Nations in Cambodia.
Mr Ksor who was a member of the FULRO liberation movement since 1964 was sent to the United States by the founder, and leader of FULRO, General Y-Bham Enuol, with a mission of gaining the assistance of the international community for the Degar people. He was directed and empowered by the General to explore every peaceful avenue for the reinstatement of the legitimate rights of the Degar people under international law.
The Degar people's traditional way of life, historical struggle for autonomy and alliances with France and the United States during the War has resulted in their being regarded by the Vietnamese as "moi" or savages and a threat to the internal security of Vietnam. Since the reunification of Vietnam, the Vietnamese Government has committed gross abuses of the human rights of the Degar people.
Until 1992, foreign persons were restricted from entering the Central Highlands. Since then, foreigners, predominantly tourists have been able to access some parts of the region; some areas though are still restricted. Independent organizations like Human Rights Watch have been unable to enter Vietnam to monitor human rights. Mr Ksor, however, has maintained and established links with the Degar people living in the Central Highlands and remains in constant contact with his people by telephone.
In early February 2001, thousands of Degar people peacefully demonstrated in three of the Central Highlands' four provinces. In response, the Vietnamese Government deployed military forces into the Central Highlands and has since systematically arrested, iterrogated, beaten, tortured and terrorized the Degar people. Martial law is now current policy in the region and the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that Degars are fleeing across the border into Cambodia.
1. People, minority and ancestral territory
The Degar people are a "people". The demonstrations in the Central Highlands by thousands of Degar people in February 2001, who called for an end to the systematic abuses of their human rights, particularly their rights to their ancestral territory and freedom of religion, and their right to health, education and self-governance, evidences the Degar people's desire and will to be identified as a "people" with a "common destiny". The Degar people are an ethnic minority - they still live on their ancestral territory of the Central Highlands. However, in many instances tribal groups that have occupied an area of the Central Highlands for generations have been forcibly relocated to another area in the Central Highlands (often insufficient agricultural land in size and quality to feed extended Degar families).