For historians, the Montagnards are a “righteous minority in their own homeland”. Poverty, deforestation, intensive agriculture and pollution are the most critical emergencies. Despite the persecution, the Church offers material and spiritual support and offers many social and charitable activities to them.
Hanoi (AsiaNews) – "If I could advise the government, I would point out the inadequacy of some social policies and laws on land ownership," said Mgr Michael Hoàng Đức Oanh, bishop emeritus of Kontum (in the homonymous province in central Vietnam), in a meeting with the faithful of the Archdiocese of Saigon.
For the prelate, "People must be respected and their opinions heard. However, even though the authorities say that 'only the people can protect the country', this does not happen."
The Diocese of Kontum is located in the Central Highlands, a region that includes five provinces in central Vietnam: ắk Lắk, Đắk Nông, Gia Lai, Kon Tum and Lâm Đồng.
The Catholic community in divided in some 40 distinct ethnic groups, including the Bahnar, Jơrai, Sê Đăng, Rơgao, Yơling, and the Kinh, ethnic Vietnamese, who make up about 50 per cent of the more than 290,000 members of the diocese.
The Degar (children of the mountains) – Montagnards (Highlanders) in French, Người Thượng (people of the mountain) in Vietnamese – are a group of mostly Catholic ethnic minorities who represent the poorest segment of the population.
In addition to economic hardships and poor health conditions, they must also face attacks on religious freedom. For the Degar, this is a permanent situation that has gotten worse over the years.
The Communist regime has tried to seize their lands by force. Seeking shelter from violence, more and more of them have crossed the border into Cambodia, risking arrests and refoulement.
Thanks to the work of bishops, priests (like the Redemptorists) and lay Catholic, the Church has provided the Degar with material and spiritual support via many social and charitable activities.
Beginning in 1976, when the Communist forces defeated a movement led by Y Bih Alêo fighting for local autonomy, Hanoi pursued policies that targeted these ethnic minorities.
Depending on their "degree of submission", the communist government exercised "strong or light" and "increasing or decreasing" control.
These measures were aimed at national defence and border protection. In fact, they were designed control the Central Highlands rather than improve the lives of their communities. Over the years, land and villages were "collectivised" and living conditions became increasingly wretched.
For young people, education became a pipe dream. The local rate illiteracy is 60 per cent, the highest in all of Vietnam. Every year, the number of high school graduates is low. Most children from ethnic minorities have to give up their education early to find work or farm the land.
In more than forty years, Vietnamese authorities have moved more than three million people from the Red River Delta and 70,000 tribals from the Northern Uplands into the Central Highlands.
Deforestation and intensive farming have turned the territory upside down. And these are not the only threats to the survival of the Montagnards.
Widespread pollution of water resources due to unrestrained industrialisation and the lack of government environmental protection has made matters worse.
At the same time, a 1999 Land Law has significantly reduced the amount of farmland for tribal people. Each family can only have 1.2 hectares under concession. This has severely affected the traditional lifestyle.
Grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren have had to split up so they could get more land to farm and fight hunger.
For many historians, the Montagnards have become the "righteous minority in their homeland".