Who are the Montagnards?
The Montagnards (pronounced mon-TUHN-yahrds), are a tribal people, the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, many of the Montagnard tribes formed an alliance with the American military. The US Special Forces soldiers who fought alongside the Montagnards said that they had never met a people so fiercely loyal and courageous. Many of those soldiers are alive today because a Montagnard leaped in front of a bullet or threw their body on a grenade, absorbing the explosion.
That conflict was incredibly costly for the Montagnards. 50% of their fighting-age men died during the war and 85% of their villages were destroyed. After the war, they continued to pay a heavy price as they faced persecution due to their alliance with their American friends and because of their enduring Christian faith. Many of their leaders and pastors faced arrest, imprisonment, reeducation camps, and in some cases, execution.
Persecution continued for many years, causing many of the Montagnard people to flee into refugee camps in Cambodia. Once there, they were able to qualify for third-country resettlement in the United States. Today, more than 10,000 Montagnards call the United States home, most of them living in North Carolina. At the same time, the vast majority of Montagnards continue to live in the Central Highlands. Both groups, the Montagnards in America, and the Montagnards in Vietnam, face challenges unique to their situation.
Challenges the Montagnards Face
Challenges that the Montagnards face in America are numerous. They have been displaced from their home and the only life they had ever known: a life lived out in tight knit extended family units in small villages, and survival by subsistence agriculture. Now, instead, they deal with fast-paced urban life, dealing with the complexities of the English language, and employment in jobs governed by the demands of the time clock.
Their children face the challenge of trying to get the education they desperately need to succeed in this new land, even though the language they hear at school and the language spoken at home are dramatically different. More challenging, the parents cannot help with homework and, indeed, have no grid by which to understand the world their children experience every day.
The Montagnards that remain in Vietnam also have their own set of unique circumstances to overcome. Even though they are the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands and have lived there in the mountains for untold generations, they are a small minority compared to the dominant Kinh Vietnamese, who make up 85% of the population of Vietnam. For centuries the Montagnards lived in seclusion, unaffected by the outside world. All of that changed in the 20th century when Vietnam was caught up in a long civil war between north and south, devastating the Central Highlands and causing widespread upheaval.
Many of the Montagnards were drawn into the Vietnam War through an alliance with the United States military. After the North Vietnamese won the war, and the Americans had gone home, the nation was unified under a Communist government. However, a number of factors contributed to a growing tension between the Montagnards and the Kinh. Among them:
- The relationship that many of the Montagnards had developed with the Americans during the war led to the arrest and imprisonment of many tribal leaders.
- Many of the Montagnard people had converted to Christianity, and the Communist government was officially atheistic. Christianity was especially looked down upon because it was perceived as an “American religion.”
- The Vietnamese government began relocating Kinh refugees who had been displaced by the war into the Highlands. Other Kinh moved there on their own initiative. This influx of hundreds of thousands of new residents brought dramatic change as the Montagnards became minorities in their land, now representing less than 10% of the Highland population.
- The increase in population of the Central Highlands has put pressure on land use as much of the land that was formerly used by the Montagnards are now in the hands of the new residents.
- The Vietnamese government has tried to assimilate the Montagnard people into the nation by insisting that all children be educated in the Vietnamese language instead of the tribal tongues.
- Many of the Kinh looked down upon the Montagnards as inferior, often referring to them with the Vietnamese word “moi,” which means “savages.”
- The Montagnards engaged in a number of protests against the Vietnamese government in 2001 and 2004, resulting in widespread government crackdowns. Since that time, security concerns have led to heightened government oversight and control in many areas of the Highlands.
- Some Montagnard factions continue to agitate for autonomy and the removal of Kinh Vietnamese from the Central Highlands, leading to more intense government control.
Responding to the Challenges
The Montagnards play a unique role in American history, and our nation owes them a debt of gratitude. It is our mission at FOCHUS to play a small part in repaying that debt by offering a helping hand to the Montagnards here in the United States. We do that through:
- FOCHUS Academy
- Private School Partnership
- Empowering Servant Leaders
- Raising Awareness
- Connecting the Generations
At FOCHUS, we are working to bring peaceful change to the Central Highlands. Our desire is to help the Montagnard people find a path forward that recognizes and values their tribal heritage and ethnic identity, but allows them to be fully engaged and growing as citizens in a rapidly changing Vietnam. We believe that the Central Highlands can become a place where the Montagnards and Kinh live as friends and neighbors, demonstrating to the rest of the world the power of forgiveness, reconciliation, and cooperation. We work to accomplish those goals by: