Defending Human Rights in the Central Highlands of Vietnam

A Debt Too Far






Carlos R. Messer Jr., Major, USAF

A Research Report Submitted to the Faculty

In Partial Fulfillment of the Graduation Requirements

Advisor: Dr. Michael Weaver

Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama

Distribution A: Approved for Public Release; distribution unlimited.
April 2008

The views expressed in this academic research paper are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense. In accordance with Air Force Instruction 51-303, it is not copyrighted, but is the property of the United States government.


DISCLAIMER ………………………………………………………………………………………………………..i





INTRODUCTION ……………………………………………………………………………………………………1

WHO ARE THE MONTAGNARDS? …………………………………………………………………………………2

FRENCH INVOLVEMENT IN INDOCHINA………………………………………………………………………….4

MONTAGNARD SUPPORT FOR THE FRENCH……………………………………………………………………6

U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN VIETNAM………………………………………………………………………………….9

MONTAGNARD SUPPORT FOR THE U.S. ………………………………………………………………………12

MONTAGNARDS UNDER COMMUNIST RULE……………………………………………………………………14

USING THE DIME …………………………………………………………………………………………………15


List of Illustrations
Figure 1. PMSI Borders -1946………………………………………………………………………………..8


The general idea behind this research paper was to highlight an area of the Vietnam War that is often neglected, but has relative significance for future U.S. military involvement abroad. The Montagnard situation in Vietnam is an excellent example of how large, hegemonic states exploit minority indigenous populations for national interests and then withdraw when those interests become unattainable. I chose this issue to not only associate the reader with the Montagnards, but to also serve as reminder that there can be long-term consequences for those allies left behind to fend for themselves.

This is particularly relevant today considering that the United States supports minority indigenous populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As a reader, you should come away with more questions than answers about long-term obligations of the United States in regard to the Montagnards. I would like to thank Dr. Michael Weaver for his valuable insight on the Vietnam War and his weekly presentations on a wide variety of Vietnam-related issues. Additionally, I would like to recognize Dr. Paul Brezinski for his guidance and assistance with the editing of this paper.



This case study of the Montagnard tribes of Vietnam provides a compressed history of the Montagnards from 1857 to present with an emphasis on the French-Indochinese War and then the Vietnam War. Initially, a working knowledge of the Montagnard tribes is required and provided via primarily anthropological sources. This is crucial to highlight the differences between the Montagnards and the mainstream Vietnamese population. With the introduction of missionaries to Indochina, the French influence on the Montagnards became evident. As France tried to re-establish its colonial rule after WWII, the Montagnards supported the French against the Viet Minh. The question is, why did the Montagnards support the French and vice versa?

After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and subsequent withdrawal form Vietnam, the
Montagnards turned to the U.S. for support. Once again, why did the Montagnards choose to support the U.S. and what did the U.S. gain by supporting the Montagnards? The final section of the paper discusses the DIME (diplomatic, informational, military, economic) instruments of power and how these can be brought to bear in regard to the current Montagnard situation. The conclusion is intended to ask the reader whether or not the U.S. has any obligation to the Montagnards in lieu of the Vietnam War support or the current Montagnard plight. It is an open-ended question by design, but either answer has its own set consequences.


The Vietnam War, as far as U.S. involvement is concerned, is a well documented chapter of American history. There are volumes of literature dedicated to the military’s role in the war, the political failures associated with the war, and the less than ideal outcome of the war. Within this plethora of documentation, a reader will find only a handful of anthropological information concerning Vietnam prior to 1975. It is within these references that the name Montagnard will appear with much frequency.

For the sake of simplicity, the term Montagnard (French for mountaineer) is used as an all-encompassing word to describe various ethnic minorities within the central highland region of Vietnam. These groups include the Bru, Pacoh, Katu, Bahnar, Rhade, Jarai, Cua, Hre, Sedang, Rengao, Halang, Jeh, Monom, Roglai, Stieng, Sre, Chru, Maa, Nop, Mnong, Kayong, Lat, Cil, Hroy, Rai and Koho. The story of the Montagnards is very similar to that of numerous other indigenous populations who were conquered and exploited by one colonial power or another.

However, what is unique about the Montagnards is their relationship with their French colonial masters and their subsequent association with the U.S. These relationships are central to this paper and thus create a question that has yet to be answered. Does the U.S. government have a moral (or any other) obligation to the Montagnards in regards to their current situation in Vietnam? To adequately construct a response, it is important to explain who the Montagnards are and why both the French and U.S. governments supported them.

Additionally, it is equally relevant to understand why the Montagnards themselves supported their French colonial masters and later the U.S. military during their respective occupations of Vietnam. This question of responsibility addresses the obligation of an occupying power that utilizes an indigenous population for its own interests, but is then forced out of the occupied country (or voluntarily withdrawals).

The result is an indigenous minority left to fend for itself against the victor. The focus of this paper is intended to highlight the plight of the Montagnards, but may in fact offer some valuable lessons regarding the use of indigenous populations to further U.S. interest-based involvement in other parts of the world.

Who Are the Montagnards?

Prior to any discussion of the Montagnards and their involvement with the French and U.S. governments, it is crucial that the reader understand exactly who the Montagnards of the
Vietnamese central highlands represent and how they are uniquely different from the ruling majority in Vietnam. Two thousand years ago, the Montagnards settled along the coast and fertile valleys of southeast Indochina.

Over the centuries, other cultures gradually filtered into their homelands. First, the Cham people expanded their kingdom throughout the coastal lowlands and the Mekong Valley. Later, the Chinese ancestors of today’s ethnic Vietnamese migrated south along the coast of the South China Sea. Together, these ambitious and expanding cultures forced the Montagnards deeper and deeper into the highlands. This isolation aided their survival and created a cleavage between the two cultures.

For the Montagnards, man and society are embedded in nature and dependent upon cosmic forces. In the highlanders’ world of forested mountains, sweeping, plateaus, and valleys through which numerous rivers flow, each ethnic group over time worked out its adaptation to nature and shaped its society. This evolutionary process resulted in a unique social structure that was very different from the Vietnamese in the low land areas.

Adaptation to the mountain country created among them physical and spiritual bonds that gave rise to a common culture – a highlander culture.1 Montagnards are different from the Vietnamese in that they speak languages of the Mon Khmer or Malayo-Polynesian linguistic stocks and physically resemble Cambodians, Malays and Indonesians. Although divided into nearly 40 distinct ethnic groups, Montagnard characteristics have historically set them apart from the Cham and Vietnamese.

In a world centered on small communities, kinship was primary and resources were shared by all. The people respected the integrity of their natural surroundings, and each society had leaders who served as stewards in preserving it. Livelihoods were based on agriculture with rice as the staple crop. Villagers farmed slopes and bottomland within the never-ending cycle of rainy seasons followed by dry seasons that were used to cultivate future farm land. The forests supplied game, wild fruits and vegetables, and firewood as well as hardwood, bamboo, and rattan for their houses, artifacts and wood carvings. Although their religious practices varied, all of the highland people tried to keep in harmony with their deities.

This fact, as will be discussed later, began to change with the influx of missionaries into the central highlands. The highlanders expressed themselves through art, architecture, music, and dance. The highlanders remained relatively distant from the Chinese culture that molded the society of the Vietnamese and others. Cham rulers had some relations with some highland leaders and there was some trade with outsiders. The lowlanders, by and large, regarded the mountain country as remote and forbidding, populated by backward tribes.

The Vietnamese remained in their orderly lowland villages surrounded by paddy fields. Most importantly, the lowland Vietnamese were exposed to various cultures through trade and war that shaped their culture both religiously and politically. The influence of both India and China introduced the concepts of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. These religions, in addition to the ever-present naturalist view of life by the lowland Vietnamese created a unique mix of beliefs that differed greatly from the Montagnards.2 Politically, the lowlanders were exposed to various emperors, colonialism, and later communism.

These, too, distanced the traditional Vietnamese from the Montagnards. As the various kingdoms and dynasties among the Cham, Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese rose and fell, the Montagnards remained geographically separated from the traditional Vietnamese lowlander. “All the while in the background, the mountains, their peaks shrouded in fog, the Montagnards carried on with a relative sense of normalcy.”3
French Involvement in Indochina

Having established the distinct differences between the Montagnards and Vietnamese lowlanders, it is equally important to understand exactly why the French colonial machine decided to make inroads into Indochina in the first place. This set of facts will go a long way in explaining the French relationship with not only the Montagnards, but also with the traditional Vietnamese population. In July 1857, Napoleon III decided to invade Vietnam. The decision was based on two distinct factors, but the first was merely an excuse to justify the second.

In 1856 the Chinese executed a French missionary in southeastern China, and in 1857 the
Vietnamese emperor, faced with a domestic crisis, tried to destroy foreign influences in his country by executing the Spanish bishop of Tonkin. Napoleon III, in effect, was given the religious justification to occupy Indochina. Publicly, Napoleon III rushed to the aid of French missionaries being prosecuted by the Annamites.4

In January of 1857, Napoleon III received a letter from abbey Hue, a former missionary to China, concerning the French interests in Indochina. France was already considering intervention in the region to protect the interests of the Catholic Church, but this particular communiqué sparked new interest. The abbey Hue’s letter crafted both political and religious arguments why France should embark upon a campaign into Indochina. Abbey Hue stated, “The Far East will soon be the theater of great events. If the emperor wills, France will be able to play and important and glorious role there.”5

Abbey Hue proceeds to explain how exactly France can accomplish this feat. France had a claim to territory in Indochina based on an old treaty of 1787.6 Hue claimed that circumstances were now favorable because the population of Annam was suffering under the tyranny of the current regime and would welcome the French as liberators. Direct intervention by France, with the full support of the Catholic Church, would save the French missionaries and ensure the ongoing conversion efforts of the people of Indochina. Ultimately, the validity of the treaty of 1787 was challenged by France’s ruling elite and discounted, but Napoleon III, nonetheless, used the guise of protecting French citizens abroad coupled with the support of the Catholic Church to launch what would become a century-long colonization of Vietnam.

Despite the overt reasons presented by Napoleon III as to why it was necessary for France to make an entrance into Vietnam, the underlying decision was purely imperialistic. France was competing against other European powers for economic and military superiority. Quite simply, France wanted to secure more strategic geographic positions to promote their international trade and capitalism France’s interest in Vietnam was economically motivated and the French thought that the Mekong River could possibly be a gateway to the huge Chinese market. Unfortunately, the Mekong turned out not to be a navigable river to China. To generate the necessary profits to run its Indochinese colony, the French introduced a plantation economy to facilitate rubber extraction and various other exports.

The French also introduced consumer goods such as opium, alcohol, and cigarettes to generate revenues to support the running of the colony.7 ultimately, the long-term industrial development of Vietnam centered around three key basic necessities for the development of modern industry – power, raw materials and labor. The coal deposits in the Tonkin region could potentially supply power for years and the water-power resources of the mountainous central highlands were numerous and untapped. There was a large labor supply, but it was mostly unskilled.

This, in turn, meant that some sort of education was necessary to properly train a potential labor force. Education, as will be discussed later in this paper, is one of the key reasons that the French garnered Montagnard support. It is important to note that the Montagnards, unlike the Vietnamese population, were left relatively undisturbed by the French economic expansion.

Many groups exercised a large degree of autonomy and remained free of French control until as late as 1940. Economically speaking, the French envisioned Indochina as the “jewel in the crown” of France in Indochina and rival the British colonies worldwide.8

Montagnard Support for the French

Although the French had established an economic and political foothold in Vietnam, history tells us that the relationship between the French administrators of the colony and the Vietnamese population was very tenuous. In their quest to create a self-sufficient, profit-making Vietnamese colony, the French were very successful at alienating the common people and creating a corrupt caste system that would ultimately ruin the colony.

This hostility towards the French by the Vietnamese is well documented, but why did the Montagnards not subscribe to the anti-French sentiment sweeping Vietnam? More specifically, why did the Montagnards support the French in Vietnam during the French-Indochinese War that began in 1946? The answer to these questions partly lies in the distinct differences between the Montagnards of the central highlands and the Vietnamese majority that were previously discussed. More importantly, Montagnard support for the French stemmed from a belief that the French could provide the one thing that Montagnards most desired: autonomy. Within this idea of self-government and independence, the French also offered education and the potential to build a military force capable of defending the central highlands against numerous domestic enemies. The French, unlike the Vietnamese, had appealed to the Montagnards sense of nationalism and self worth.

Rather than alienate the Montagnards as backwards savages, the French gave them an opportunity to stake a claim in a rapidly changing Vietnamese landscape. The French-Montagnard connection, although very complex, was really quite simple to understand from both a French and Montagnard perspective. From a French point of view, the Montagnards made up a sizable portion of Vietnam’s population that could support French efforts to industrialize many of the most remote sections of Vietnam.

Additionally, in true colonialist fashion, the French could divide and alienate the population of Vietnam under the “divide and conquer” model and thus more easily manage one of its most lucrative colonies. It made perfect sense considering the historical distrust and disdain by the Montagnards towards the Vietnamese and vice versa. Unlike the French, however, the Montagnards had little interest in economics or colonial rule. The Montagnards were nationalists in a sense that they sought recognition of the central highlands as an autonomous region that was self-governed, self-sufficient, and self-defended.

For these reasons, the Montagnards sought to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by the French government. Given the fact that the Montagnards were considered second-class citizens by the Vietnamese and had no rights under Vietnamese law, the French provided hope for an independent future. The first item on the Montagnard nationalist agenda was the quest for political autonomy that effectively freed the tribes from outside governmental intervention. More specifically, cooperating with the French offered the Montagnards the promise of educational opportunity and military service which could manifest itself into government representation and ultimately self-rule. The realization of this goal manifested itself beginning in early 1945.

With the defeat of Japanese forces that had occupied Indochina since 1940, the French government sought to reestablish itself as the colonial proctor of Vietnam. The French were not expecting the Viet Minh, who had successfully battled Japanese forces during WWII, to rise up in protest to the resurgence of French colonial rule. Taking advantage of the ill will between the Vietnamese and the Montagnards, the French began recruiting Montagnards for what would become the French-Indochinese War (1945-1954).

This was, in fact, the opportunity that the Montagnard leaders had been seeking. During the war, the French recruited thousands of Montagnards, including teenagers who would form the backbone of the central highland defenses. At its peak, the French officially fielded the Battalion de Tirailleurs Montagnards du Sud-Annam (BTMSA -South-Annam Montagnard Tirailleurs Battalion) and approximately thirteen additional battalions of armed Montagnard militia to fight against the Communist Viet Minh Figure

1. PMSI Border – 1946 forces throughout Vietnam.9 Due to the fierce loyalty of the Montagnards and their commitment to defeating Communism in Vietnam, Admiral Georges d’Argenlieu (French High Commissioner for Indo-China) created an autonomous Montagnard state with the May 27, 1946 signing of the Pays Montagnards Du Sud Indochinois (PMSI) – Country of the Montagnards of South Indochina (Attachment 1).

The ordinance gave the Montagnard people a “statute particular” granting self-governance and the ability to leverage existing military forces for self-defense. The actual territory is outlined in Figure 1. Unfortunately for the Montagnards, this new found independence would be short lived. In 1949, the French created the Associated State of Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai to foster cooperation with the Vietnamese.

In 1950, the French classified PMSI as a “crown domain” directly under the control of Bao Dai. The Vietnamese king suppressed Montagnard autonomy and instituted land reforms designed to allow Vietnamese citizens to acquire and populate Montagnard land. By 1972 there were nearly 450,000 Vietnamese living in the central highlands, compared with about 30,000 in 1953.10 Montagnard independence officially ended in 1954.

The French forces were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 and were forced to the bargaining table with Ho Chi Minh’s Communists. At the Geneva Convention in July 1954, the French-Indochina War was declared over. The convention was attended by delegates from France, Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, the Republic of China, Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam.

The French did not allow representatives from PMSI to participate in the convention. Subsequently, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries and the French withdrew all forces. Under the new Saigon regime, Montagnard independence was not recognized and the military forces were disbanded. This status would not change until the arrival of U.S. forces in 1961.

U.S. Involvement in Vietnam

In stark contrast to the French intervention in Vietnam, the U.S. involvement had nothing to do with economics and everything to do with the fear, or perceived fear, of Communism. America’s involvement in Vietnam began in 1950, but the origins of the Vietnam War can be traced back to the end of WWII and the French effort to reassert its dominance in Indochina. France had exercised control of the region since the late 19th century and resentment against this rule by the Vietnamese people was widespread.

The Vietnamese nationalist movement emerged because of this colonialism and a desire to be free of any foreign control.11 one of the leaders of the nationalist movement was Ho Chi Minh, a Moscow trained Communist, who founded the Vietnamese Independence League (Viet Minh) during WWII to fight the Japanese. In September 1945 the Viet Minh proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), with Ho as its president; and in March 1946 this new government was recognized as a free state within a French union.12 The French government did not support this declaration and by December 1946 the war between the French and the Viet Minh had begun. When the French-Indochina War broke out, the U.S. was faced with a serious dilemma: It had to choose between aiding the French and thereby violating anti-colonial beliefs, or aiding a nationalist movement that just happened to be Communist.

The U.S. “at first tried to remain neutral. It did not help the French or Viet Minh.”13 The U.S. sided with the French only after the Chinese formerly recognized the Viet Minh in 1950. Despite large amounts of U.S. aid, the French position in Vietnam continued to deteriorate. The U.S. administration began to perpetuate the “domino theory” that symbolically placed Vietnam at the head of a row of countries that would potentially fall in succession if Communism prevailed in Vietnam. Thus, in order to block the possibility of Communist expansion, both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations supported the French forces in Vietnam. “The justification offered for this policy was not that we wished to strengthen colonialism but rather that a military success by international Communism be avoided.”14 By 1954, U.S. aid to the French was at its peak, but French popular support was at its lowest point.

The key event that ended the war was the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a fortress town in northern Vietnam, where the French army of 20,000 soldiers allowed itself to be trapped by Ho and the Viet Minh forces. In May 1954 a nine power conference met in Geneva to find a peaceful solution to the French-Indochinese conflict. The delegates were from the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, Communist China, and the French Indochinese states. The agreement temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel, “pending mutual withdrawal of troops, the transfer of population, and the holding of free elections.

The assumption was that Vietnam would then become united and Communist.”15 France soon withdrew form Vietnam, but that did not leave the South open to the Viet Minh. The U.S. moved into this power vacuum and pledged its support to the Ngo Diem government that had been installed by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In turn, Diem pleaded to the U.S. for support in the fight against the Communists.

The U.S. responded to this request because it feared that Southeast Asia might fall to the Communists.16 This sequence of events is the prelude to direct involvement in Vietnam by U.S. personnel. The transition from French occupation to U.S. occupation was complete and the situation for the Montagnards of the Vietnamese central highlands would be directly affected by this change of hegemons.

In 1960, the insurgency in South Vietnam had reached sufficient intensity to alarm the
Government of South Vietnam (GVN) and U.S. leadership. It was apparent then, and evens more so in 1964, that the communist insurgency was gaining momentum in areas that were populated by Montagnards. “There were estimates that over 50% of the rural population of the highlands were Viet Cong (VC) sympathizers.”17 Communist efforts aimed at securing support from the Montagnard minority, which numbered approximately one million, were feared all the more due to the strategic location of the central highland region.

The long-standing animosity and mutual distrust which existed between the Montagnards and the lowland Vietnamese had prevented them from cooperating with one another for the purposes of defense or socio-economic development. Thus, the areas of the central highlands had very little GVN presence. The Viet Cong hoped to step in and fill this vacuum, create operating bases amongst the Montagnards, recruit, and train its insurgents in the isolation and safety of the central highlands. Recognizing the importance of the developing situation in the central highlands, the U.S. government organized the Combined Studies Division (CSD). This pilot program sent a CSD researcher and an Air Force medic to live in the village of Buon Ea Nao for one year.

The result was a negotiated settlement between local village elders and the US military which promised military and socioeconomic assistance in return for support of the GVN. The village elders agreed to support the GVN and deny support to the VC.18 This program would eventually morph into the Civil Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) which encompassed hundreds of self-defended Montagnard villages under the guidance of U.S. Special Forces. This program was also one of the key premises of Montagnard support for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.

Montagnard Support for the U.S.

As mentioned earlier, the Montagnards sought not only national autonomy but also military autonomy in terms of self-defense forces. The CIDG not only served the interests of the U.S. government militarily, but it also gave the Montagnards a military force that had not been seen since the collaboration with French forces during the Indo-Chinese war years earlier.

By 1963, Montagnard village militia numbered just over 43,000 with 18,000 strike force troops. Many of the irregulars were trained at a Special Forces facility at Hoa Cam, near Da Nang and included some 300 trail watchers, 2,700 mountain scouts and about 5,300 Popular Forces troops.19 As the Montagnard forces expanded, so too did the support from the U.S. government in the form of the Green Berets. Initially, there had been only half of one Green Beret field unit amidst the Montagnard tribes and the other half at the training camp at Hoa Cam.

By the end of 1963, the Green Berets had thirty-six field units, four B detachment command elements, and a C Detachment at Nha Trang for command and service support.20 It was this Green Beret support for the Montagnards that solidified U.S. support throughout the Vietnam War and beyond. Because of the mutual respect between the Montagnard forces and their Green Beret advisors, an intense loyalty developed on both sides. This bond still exists today.

While the Montagnards pledged support to the GVN, the Green Berets pledged to never abandon the Montagnards as the French had done years earlier. “In creating a Montagnard army, American officials tended to give substance to Montagnard autonomy and independence.”21 For the Montagnards, this was the word of the U.S. government and served as a promise for military support until victory was achieved. More importantly, it served as the primary method by which the Montagnards could recruit, train, and equip a military force capable of defending the central highlands from both the VC and possibly the South Vietnamese.

In parallel with the potential build up of forces within the central highlands, Montagnard leaders were also pursuing a nationalist political agenda. Armed with the belief that the French had legally granted them independent status under the 1946 ordinance that established the Pays Montagnards Du Sud Indochinois (PMSI), Montagnard leadership pressed the U.S. representatives in Vietnam to guarantee equal Montagnard representation within the GVN.

The U.S. government pressured the Diem regime for Montagnard representation, but Diem refused. However, in November 1961, Diem was overthrown in a military coup and replaced by General Nguyen Khanh. Khanh quickly appointed Y-Bham Enuol, a Montagnard, as Assistant Province Chief of Daklak Province. This marked the first time that a Montagnard tribesman had held a significant political office. Unfortunately, this political position offered little help to the Montagnard repression and lack of land reform by the Khanh regime.

In a final act of solidarity, Y-Bham Enuol and an underground activist group named the Front Unife De Lutte De La Races Opprimee (FURLO) – United Front for the Libertaion of Oppressed Peoples rose up in protest in the U.S. Special Forces camps in Darlak, Pleiku, and Quan Duc provinces, and carried out coordinated gun battles with GVN troops.22 The rebellion was crushed by the government troops and the incident would bring an end to any future representation of Montagnards in the GVN. CIDG operations continued until January 1971, when U.S. Special Forces turned over all Montagnard camps to the Vietnamese Army Rangers.

23 On January 15, 1973, President Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action against North Vietnam. The Paris Peace Accords on “Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam” were signed on January 27, 1973, officially ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.24 On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese Communist forces stormed the presidential palace in Saigon and achieved final victory. This ended another chapter in Montagnard history, but started the nightmare of survival under Communist rule.

Montagnards under Communist Rule

Because the intent of this paper is to highlight French and U.S. involvement with the Montagnards, the following is only a brief outline of Montagnard life after the Vietnam War. The Montagnard people have endured persecution from the Hanoi regime for over thirty years. Initially, re-education camps in North Vietnam and executions were the norm as the Communists occupied all of Vietnam. This was followed by sweeping land reform that stripped the Montagnards of all ancestral lands and opened the doors for an influx of Vietnamese. “In line with the idea that mountain areas play an important role in national defense, the movement of settlers into sparsely inhabited but strategically sensitive areas is necessary.”25

According to the 2007 CIA Fact Sheet: Vietnam, over 5 million Vietnamese now populate the central highlands. Additionally, Hanoi has long instituted a policy restricting all Montagnard political and Christian religious gatherings.26 A more recent example highlights the ongoing struggle of the Montagnards. In 2001, several thousand Montagnards held a series of peaceful demonstrations in response to the confiscation of their ancestral land and to crackdowns on their freedom to worship.

The Vietnamese government met the demonstrators with force, injuring and arresting hundreds and prompting over a thousand more to flee to Cambodia. Ever since, Vietnam’s Montagnards have been subject to increasing intimidation and violence, a fact that came to international attention during Easter of 2004, when security forces attacked demonstrators killing several–some say hundreds–and wounding many more.27 The combined population of North and South Vietnam was 33 million at the end of the Vietnam War.

There were one million people in the Montagnard tribes. Today, according to a Vietnamese national census, the population has exploded more than 230% to 76 million people. According to these same Vietnamese sources, the Montagnard population remains at 1 million. Western relief workers have a different number. They say the native population is less than 750,000 and still falling. As the Montagnard population dwindles so to does any relief from a sad and violent history.

Using the DIME

The ongoing struggles of the Montagnard people are a major concern for human rights groups around the world, but does the U.S. have a specific debt to pay to this ally from an unpopular war? Is there a moral (or other) obligation to support an indigenous minority population that loyally aided the U.S. in pursuit of national interests abroad? If the answer to this question is yes then how exactly should the U.S. assist the Montagnards in the future? In pursuit of any national objectives, the U.S. should utilize diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) instruments of national power to influence other nations.

The diplomacy component involves formal negotiation with other nations to settle differences. It is the job of the professional statesman to pursue this avenue and diplomacy is most successful when supported by the other instruments of power. The information component includes public diplomacy, strategic communication, and the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information about potential adversaries. The military component encompasses direct military action ranging from peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and nation-building to major combat operations. The use of military power is typically the last resort to conflict resolution.

Finally, the economic component encompasses financial activities that run the gamut from foreign aid programs and market access to imposing trade sanctions. The application of these instruments of power (IOP) can and should directly impact any future relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in regards to the plight of the Montagnards.

Of all the instruments of power, diplomacy is quite possibly the least discussed and most poorly applied instrument with regard to U.S. foreign policy. It is, however, the first step in engaging the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and having any hope of assisting the Montagnards.

After a 20-year hiatus of severed ties, President Clinton announced the formal normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam on July 11, 1995 and the opening of the U.S. embassy in Hanoi.28 Ideally; the U.S. government will leverage this diplomatic angle and apply it directly to the Montagnard situation. First, the U.S. government must openly engage in political exchanges through regular dialogue on human rights and regional security. This dialogue must emphasize equal treatment of the Montagnards and establish cultural zones that allow Montagnards to openly pursue their religion and preserve their unique history.

The current Vietnamese policy of violent crackdown towards Montagnards must be rebuked and highlighted as fruitless. This approach by the U.S. Department of State (DOS) can go a long way in recognizing the Montagnards as a legitimate native society within Vietnam but it serves to soften the bitter relationship between the two peoples within the country. Secondly, the U.S. embassy must recognize the Montagnards as a former ally and seriously consider requests for visas and/or political asylum in the U.S. This action will come to fruition only when the U.S. government passes appropriate legislation.

As of September 2007, H.R. 3096, The Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2007 passed the House of Representatives, was read in the Senate, and was sent to the Committee on Foreign Relations. Below is specific guidance from H.R. 3096:

Title IV: United States Refugee Policy </b>- (Sec. 401) States that it is U.S. policy to offer refugee resettlement to Vietnam nationals (including members of the Montagnard ethnic minority groups) who are eligible for the Humanitarian Resettlement program, the Orderly Departure program, the Resettlement Opportunities for Vietnamese Returnees program, the Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1988, or any other U.S. refugee program, but who were deemed ineligible for reasons of administrative error or certain circumstances beyond their control.29

If passed, this legislation will enable the U.S. diplomatic mission in Vietnam to work directly with the Montagnard people and allow the Montagnards much needed access to the U.S.

Finally, U.S. diplomats in Vietnam should push for the inclusion of Montagnard representation at any bi-lateral talks with the Vietnamese government regarding human rights within that country. This representation will force Vietnamese diplomats to address the issue openly and will open a professional dialogue between the Vietnamese and the Montagnards with the U.S. as a third-party mediator. Until this discussion takes place, the status quo of violent interaction within Vietnam will continue. The use of the diplomatic instrument of power is only the beginning of any U.S. effort to assist the Montagnards and in and of itself is soft power that rarely yields concrete results. Typically, diplomacy works best when used in conjunction with other instruments of power.

Whereas diplomacy offers inroads into negotiations and talks with the Vietnamese government in regards to human rights and the Montagnards, the informational instrument of power has the ability to highlight the plight of the Montagnards on a whole new level. The U.S. government approach to Vietnam in this respect should drastically be increased to include a policy of public diplomacy that emphasizes an American message of freedom and equality.

While diplomacy focuses strictly on relations with foreign governments, public diplomacy focuses on foreign publics through the use of international broadcasting, information programs, exchanges, visitor programs, culture, and various other actions. Arguably, in today’s information-based society, mass communication may be much more effective in the long-term at influencing the politics of other nations.

By highlighting the American ideology of freedom, democracy, and equality, the Vietnamese people will ultimately seek government reform. When this message is accompanied by a policy of treating the Montagnard people with dignity, respect, and justice, it can be one of the most powerful political messages that can be transmitted to the Vietnamese people.

Additionally, a concerted effort to combat Vietnamese propaganda concerning the Montagnards must coincide with any information campaign. Defense against foreign propaganda, deception, and covert political influence operations is typically a much neglected field in the U.S., but many Communist governments like Vietnam actively pursue such options.

The U.S. must actively counteract any propaganda that falsely paints a positive image of Vietnamese-Montagnard relations. Until the DOS makes ardent strides towards an offensive information posture, only the Vietnamese message will persist. Only recently have Montagnard rights been acknowledged by some states and international organizations, most notably the United Nations Organization (UNO).

Despite growing international attention to the plight of the Montagnards, they remain threatened with extinction by political, economic, and cultural forces controlled by the Vietnamese government. Although many non-governmental human rights organizations continually publish reports highlighting the Montagnard situation, these organizations are mostly restricted from direct contact with Montagnards by the Vietnamese government.

The DOS has the access and the media outlets to wage an effective information campaign against Vietnamese propaganda in the area of human rights. Without an aggressive approach to the information instrument of power, the Vietnamese and international public will be vulnerable to Communist attempts to distort accurate perceptions of reality and to influence policy that will ultimately seal the fate of the Montagnard people.

In contrast to all of the other aspects of the DIME model, the use of the military instrument of power in Vietnam will spur a whole host of emotional responses. Any direct use of the military to assist the Montagnards or actually facilitate an armed Montagnard insurgency would never pass U.S. public scrutiny nor is it even militarily possible at this moment in history.

Ironically, it just may be the military instrument of power that gives the U.S. government the most bargaining power when it comes to human rights and the Montagnards. Starting in November 2002, with the port visit of the USS Vandergrift, a US Navy missile frigate, to Ho Chi Minh City, the U.S. began a steady military-military dialogue with Vietnam to discuss regional security.

In June 2006, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Vietnam and stated, “In the meetings today [Monday] with the minister of defense, we discussed our mutual desire and their agreement that we should increase the levels of exchanges at all levels of the military, and in various ways, to further strengthen the military-to-military relationship.”30 The U.S. should make great strides in fostering this burgeoning military relationship. The economic impact of such a relationship is obvious and will be discussed in the next section, but the real value of this military-military contact lies in the ability to influence Vietnamese policy through the use of military assistance.

By becoming actively involved in the regional security issues facing Vietnam, the U.S. can potentially create a situation where Vietnam is dependent on U.S. military aid to counter the growing regional influence of China. Vietnam cannot compete with the Chinese militarily, but U.S. military assistance can even the playing field significantly. Additionally, military sales provide valuable intelligence about the capability of the Vietnamese armed forces.

The U.S. can exploit this intelligence through the sale of military goods and the availability of military assistance. If this dependent relationship evolves into full-scale military sales, the U.S. will have the leverage to facilitate policy change within the Vietnamese government and thus address Montagnard human rights issues. As an added side-effect, the increase of military cooperation will further expose Vietnamese military personnel to the American ideology discussed previously.

Any opportunity to educate Vietnamese military leadership under the tutelage of the U.S. military offers long-term benefits. Ultimately, the military instrument of power in Vietnam, as divisive as the subject is, may in fact be the best way to assist the Montagnards.

The final, and most crucial, instrument of power is that of economics. This instrument of power can have an immediate impact if leveraged as a tool to dictate Vietnamese policy towards the Montagnards. U.S. trade with Vietnam has grown steadily since 1992 and should continue to increase. Since 1992, trade with Vietnam has increased by 2000% and includes goods from the following sectors: life science, opto-electronics, information and communications, electronics, manufacturing, advanced materials, aerospace, weapons, and nuclear technology.31 This fact, coupled with the addition of Vietnam to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January 2007, gives the U.S. its best opportunity to engage Vietnam on human rights issues.

The U.S. can choose a number of methods in which to exercise economic power. First, liberal or restrictive trade policies can open up or deny markets that are critical to Vietnam. Lack of access to U.S. markets can be detrimental for developing industrial countries, and many industries worldwide are dependent on U.S. markets. Next, U.S. decisions concerning financial policy have a profound impact on the entire world. Once tied to the U.S. dollar, Vietnam would be impacted directly by U.S. monetary policy.

Finally, the tightening or loosening of U.S. currency has enormous implications throughout the globe. The U.S. has long used foreign aid to entice nations into taking actions favorable to U.S. interests. By the same token, the U.S. can apply economic sanctions against countries that choose to act in “unfriendly” ways. Combined, all of these methods offer the U.S. the opportunity to influence Vietnam in a manner that is not only favorable economically but one that adequately insures that the human rights violations inflicted upon the Montagnards come to a complete stop.

The bottom line when using the economic instrument of power is subtlety. As trade and foreign aid continue to increase between the U.S. and Vietnam, economic pressure needs to keep pace. As the dollar amounts rise, so should the demands on the Vietnamese government to soften the harsh stance on Montagnard civil liberties. If /when Vietnam reaches “favored nation” status economically, then the U.S. will possess the means by which to dictate Vietnamese policy. At this point, the Montagnards should expect meaningful changes to the status quo. It was through military power that the U.S. used the Montagnards, but it is through economic power that the Montagnards can use the U.S. to attain human rights in Vietnam.


Ultimately, the intent of this historical analysis of the Montagnards is to provide insight into the possible outcomes of utilizing an indigenous minority population to further the interests of a large hegemonic power. The situation, as described, is not unique to the Montagnards nor is it something unfamiliar to either the French or the U.S. governments. The French have experienced similar situations in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean while the U.S. dealt with indigenous populations in Afghanistan and Iraq to name a few.

In all of these cases the end result was the same; the occupying power exploited the minority population to further its political interests and then withdrew for a variety of reasons. These minorities, without continued aid, were forced to succumb to the victor and thus be subjected to retaliation for supporting a foreign occupier. This fact should serve as a lesson for future operations by large, hegemonic powers who intend to occupy countries without the support of that country’s [majority] population.

The question of long-term obligation is rarely asked due to the fact that no country goes into a conflict with the intention of not achieving its objectives. However, based on the facts in this paper and the historical track record of both France and the U.S. during occupation operations, perhaps some consideration should be given to the unplanned end state of withdrawal short of victory and how this affects those allies left behind.

In the case of the Montagnards, it can be argued that the French colonial machine did intend to assist the Montagnards in attaining some level of autonomy, but it was always contingent upon a continued French presence in Indochina. However, the French did not include the Montagnards during the Geneva Convention of 1954 and thus reneged on any promises that were made.

The U.S., too, promised the Montagnards equal representation in the South Vietnamese governmental process, but these promises eroded as the U.S. situation in Vietnam degraded. Any hope of political autonomy evaporated as the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam. Subsequently, the answer to the question of obligation by both the French and U.S. governments in 1954 and 1973 respectively was answered. At that particular time, neither government felt obligated to the Montagnards.

Is this dilemma any different by today’s standards? As far as the U.S. is concerned, does the government have any obligation to the Montagnards in lieu of the situation over the past 30 plus years? If the answer to the question is yes, then the U.S. should take greater strides to remedy the situation in Vietnam. By utilizing the DIME, the U.S. can actively engage Vietnam in a variety of ways designed to ultimately affect Vietnamese policy toward the Montagnards. By leveraging U.S. hard and soft power in Vietnam, the U.S. can force the Vietnamese government to take positive steps towards human rights and simultaneously fulfill a past promise to the Montagnards.

Additionally, governmental strategists should seriously consider the long-term effects of utilizing a minority indigenous population to further national interests in any future conflicts abroad. Current military operations worldwide could potentially leave other indigenous minority populations to the same fate as the Montagnards. The cultural consequences to these populations can be severe and irreversible. If the answer to the question of U.S. obligation is no, then the status quo can continue with little regard for the outcome.

The U.S. can pursue its interests abroad with a clear conscience and the knowledge that obligation stops when the U.S. military withdraws. However, the reputation of the U.S. and the ability to project power worldwide could be in jeopardy and it should come as no surprise if the same indigenous populations that once supported the U.S. decide to extract some semblance of revenge. Either way, it is a question worth answering.

Appendix A



Chancellor of the Order of Liberation,
Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor,

Pursuant to the decree of August 17, 1945, creating the office of the High Commissioner of France for Indochina and defining the powers thereof;
Pursuant to the decree of August 17, 1945, on the nomination of the High Commissioner of France for Indochina;
Pursuant to the decree of October 20, 1911, defining the powers of the Governor-General of Indochina;
Pursuant to the Federal ordinance of November 1, 1945, determining the provisional conditions for the exercise of legislative and regulatory power in the Indochinese Federation.
The Council of the Federal Government being in agreement,

O R D E R S:

Article 1. The provinces of Darlac, Haut-Donnai, Lang-Bian, Pleiku and Kontum form a special
administrative division which will bear the title “Commissariat of the Federal Government for
the Montagnard Populations of South Indochina”, and cease to be under the jurisdiction of the
Commissariat of the Republic for South Annam.

Article 2. Nevertheless, and on a provisional basis, due to the necessity for liaison between the
civil and military commands, the provinces of Haut-Donnai and Lang-Bian will continue to be
the responsibility of the Commissariat of the Republic for South Annam until such date as is
determined by a decree of the High Commissioner.

Article 3. The Commissioner of the Federal Government for the Montagnard Populations of
South Indochina is directly dependent of the High Commissioner of France for Indochina and is
appointed by him. His powers are, within the scope of the provinces specified in Article 1,
identical to those of Commissioners of the Republic in their respective jurisdictions.

Article 4. The seat of the Commissariat of the Federal Government for the Montagnard
Populations of South Indochina is established at Banmêthuôt.

Article 5. This ordinance shall be published in the official Journal of the Indochinese Federation.

Done at Saigon, on May 27, 1946.
Signed: G. d’ARGENLIEU

Pursuant to Decree No. 1 of July 1, 1949 establishing the organization and functioning of the
public institutions;
Pursuant to Decree No. 2 of July 1, 1949 organizing the statute of the public administrations;
Pursuant to Decree No. 6 of April 15, 1950 the attachment to our person the provinces and
territories inhabited by the non-Vietnamese populations traditionally dependent upon the Crown;
Pursuant to Decree No. 33/QT of April 15, 1950 regarding personnel serving in the provinces
and territories directly attached to our person;
Pursuant to Decree No. 3/QT/TD of July 25, 1950 creating a special administrative division
name Delegation of His Majesty for the Royal Domains P. M. S. “the Montagnard country of the
Pursuant to the agreements of March 8, 1949 and in conformity with the rights of man as
defined in the charter of the United Nations;
Pursuant to the oaths of allegiance sworn to our person on May 31, 1946 in Banmêthuôt by the
representatives of the populations of the Montagnard country of the South;
Pursuant to the wishes expressed by the representatives of the Montagnard populations on May
26, 1950 in Kontum, on June 5, 1950 in Pleiku, on June 10, 1950 in Darlac, on June 26, 1950 in

O R D E R:
Article 1: The non-Vietnamese populations living on the territories called “Montagnard country of the South” (P.M.S.) receive, by this present ordinance, a special statute to be destined to guarantee at the same time the eminent rights of Vietnam and the free evolution of these populations in the respect of their traditions and of their customs. This statute is defined by the following arrangements:

Article 2: The territories of the P.M.S. the Montagnard country of the South, which have always
been dependent traditionally on the Crown of Annam, are and will remain attached directly to
our person.

Article 3: The political, administrative and judicial evolution of the P.M.S. “the Montagnard country of the South” will be conducted in such a manner as to lead, as far as possible, towards a
greater participation by the Montagnards in the management of the affairs of the Montagnard Country of the South “P.M.S.”.

Article 4: The natural chiefs, hereditary or selected by the native populations — councilor of district, of province, representatives of the various assemblies and customary tribunals, chiefs of sectors; of canton, of townships — are retained with their titles and prerogatives as well as in the exercise of their powers.

Article 5: An economic council composed of the most qualified representatives of the agricultural, industrial and commercial interests of the P.M.S. “the Montagnard country of the
South” will be instituted to provide its opinions regarding matters of concern to those interests.

Article 6: The administration of justice will continue to be assured, in matters of litigation where only Montagnards are involved, by the existing customary tribunals or those to be created.
These tribunals will continue to apply the customs particular to each ethnic group concerned.

Besides, an adaptation of the Vietnamese legislation, of the French legislation and of particular customs will be sought in view of their application in litigations where Montagnards are involved, either with Vietnamese or with Frenchmen, or with other nationals of the French Union or with foreigners. For this purpose, there will be created a Mixed Study commission charged with:
1/ – establishing a judicial organization project for the High Plateaux;
2/ – pursuing the definition and codification of customs, taking into account their-evolution, jurisprudence, and the necessities of the present.

This Commission may have recourse to the experts and must be within six months of delay to submit the results of their works to our scrutiny. A judicial ordinance will thereafter be promulgated which will determine competent jurisdictions and the legislation applicable in those cases foreseen in the second paragraph of this present article. Until such time as this ordinance is promulgated, the status quo, in these matters, will be maintained.

Article 7: The rights acquired by the natives over landed property are guaranteed them in entirety. In order that these rights to be respected, sales, rentals, acquisitions and in general all acts involving land rights will receive the approval of the administrative authority, after notification to the native leaders and all consultations in conformity with tradition.

Article 8: In order to improve the physical and intellectual conditions of the populations of the
P.M.S. “the Montagnard country of the South”, medical aid and education will be the objects of development plans as extensive as financial possibilities permit. The medical assistance plan will be established in harmony with that which the world health organization could have foreseen for the P.M.S. “the Montagnard country of the South”. The teaching of dialects will be maintained to the full measure to which it is deemed necessary, and will continue to constitute the basis of primary education for the natives. The teaching of the Vietnamese language and of the French language will be conducted according to the conditions ‘specified under the regulations particular to the P.M.S. “the Montagnard country of the South” concerning the transfer of responsibilities in the matter of education. The training of native cadres, especially for military, administrative, medical and scholastic needs, will be the object of a special effort.

Article 9: Obligatory military duties will not be any heavier for the P.M.S. “the Montagnard country of the South” than they are for other parts of the State of Vietnam. Save for those cases foreseen in existing conventions, the Montagnards will not be called upon to serve in military units stationed outside the P.M.S. “the Montagnard country of the south”, and will be assigned with priority to the defense of their own territory.

Article 10: The Director of the Cabinet of His Majesty and the Delegate of His Majesty for the
P.M.S. “the Montagnard country of the South” are charged with the execution of this ordinance, each according to that which concerns him.

DALAT, May 21, 1951
Bao Dai

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Forest: The Story of a Montagnard Village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Translated from the French by Adrienne Foulke; photos, maps, and diagrs. New York:
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during the Vietnam War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

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Estrangres, Memoires et documents, Asie, France, 1857.

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End Notes
1 Gerald C. Hickey, Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954-1976. New Haven,
Yale University Press, 1982.
2 NAVPERS 15991, The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, 25 Oct 1968, 1.
3 Gerald C. Hickey, Sons of the Mountains: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands to 1954. New Haven
and London: Yale University Press, 1982, 291 and 321.
4 Annam (Vietnamese: An Nam) was a French colony in what is now central Vietnam.
5 Memoir of the abbey Huc addressed to the emperor, January, 1857, France, Ministere des Affaires Estrangeres,
Memoires et documents, Asie, XXVII, 288.
6 By the second article of the treaty France promised to send the fugitive king of Annam, Nguyen-Anh, four frigates,
infantry, and artillery to aid him in regaining his throne; and Ngyuyen-Anh promised to cede to Franc the port of
Tourane (Da Nang) as payment (Albert Septans, Les commencements de l’Indo-Chine francais [Paris, 1887], pp. 7983).
7 Charles Robequain. The Economic Development of French Indochina. Translated by Isabel A. Ward. London:
Oxford University Press, 1944, 100-141.
8 Thomas E. Ennis, French Policy and Developments in Indochina, University of Chicago Press, 1936, 113-114.
9 Ian Sumner, Francois Vauvillier, and Mike Chappel, Osprey Men at Arms n. 315 : The French Army 1939-1945,
London: Osprey, 1998, 9.
10 Hickey, Free in the Forest, 253.
11 Paul Lippe, The World in Our Day, New York: Oxford Book Company, 1972, 98.
12 Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, and Daniel Aaron, The United States: The History of a Republic, Englewood
Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967, 835.
13 Richard N. Current, Alexander D’Conde, and Harris L. Dante, United States History: Search for Freedom,
Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1977, 592.
14 Lippe, World in Our Day, 154-155.
15 Vivienne Anderson, and Laura Shufelt, Your America, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964, 964.
16 Henry F. Graff, The Free and the Brave, Chicago: Rand McNally, 1977, 757.
17 RAC T-477, Outline History of the 5th SF Group: Participation in the CIDG Program 1961-1970. U.S. Army
Military Institute. Carlisle Barracks, PA, 28.
18 LTC John J. McCuen, The Art of Revolutionary War, Stockpile Books, 1966.
19 John Prados, The Hidden Story of the Vietnam War, Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1995, 75.
20 Shelby L. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of an American Army: US Ground Forces in Vietnam 1965-1973, Novato,
CA: Presidio, 1995, 157-185.
21 H.W. Brands, The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War, Oxford University Press US, 1993, 81.
22 CMH Publication 90-23, US Army Special Forces 1961-1971, Department of the Army, Washington DC, 1989,
23 Ibid., 154.
24 Peter Church, A Short History of South-East Asia. Singapore. John Wiley & Sons, 2006, 193–194.
25 Xunhasaba, Editorial, Vietnam Courier, March 1977: 12.
26 CIA Fact Sheet: Vietnam,
27 Human Rights Watch Press, “Vietnam: Montagnards Beaten, Killed during Easter Week Protests,” April 14,
28 CIA Fact Sheet: Vietnam,
29 The Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2007, HR 3096, 110th Cong., 1st sess., 2007,
30 VOA News, ”Rumsfeld Moves to Expand U.S. Military Relations with Vietnam, Indonesia,” 5 June 2006,
31 Foreign Trade Statistics, ATP Data-Imports and Exports,

About MHRO

The MHRO mission is To promote the rights and cultural heritage of the Montagnard people in Vietnam, the U.S., Europe, Canada, and throughout the world to live in freedom and dignity, sharing one heart and one vision of freedom. MHRO’s Mission includes refugee protection, family unity, advocacy, and Immigration Services to all refugees. More