Vigil planned for Vietnamese tribal people

Friday, July 23rd 2004, 1:18 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A candlelight vigil is planned at the state Capitol Sunday by a group helping a Vietnamese tribe that was allied with the United States during the Vietnam War and now complains of persecution.

The Montagnard tribespeople, who are Christians, accuse Vietnam's communist government of seizing their traditional lands and denying them freedom to practice their religion.

Vietnam veteran Arnold Waggoner, who teaches criminal justice at Rose State College, doesn't want the United States to forget these people from Vietnam's Central Highlands.

He is a founding member of Friends of the Central Highlands, organized in 1995 to funnel aid to the Montagnard people. Operating out of Waggoner's home in Yukon, the group has sponsored the education of more than 300 Montagnard children, made 75 agricultural loans to Montagnard farmers and rebuilt 12 Montagnard schoolhouses.

The candlelight visit is to call attention to ``problems the United States left behind in Vietnam,'' Waggoner said.

``We just want to raise awareness of these atrocities and the fact that we're here in the state and doing what we can to raise assistance.''

Some Montagnards have fled to the Cambodian provinces of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri since a crackdown by Vietnam's government in April. Reports indicated some hid in the jungles near the border, suffered from diarrhea and malaria and facing food and water shortages.

In 2001, more than 1,000 Montagnards fled to Cambodia following a massive government crackdown on their protests against religious repression and land confiscation. Many eventually resettled in the United States.

The Montagnards have been persecuted and discriminated against for years, but the mistreatment has escalated as population growth and coffee farming push Vietnamese settlement into the remote highlands, Waggoner said.

About 8,000 Montagnards live in the United States.

Brenda Golden, another member of the Friends of the Central Highlands, said the Montagnards deserve better treatment.

``We will never forget the sacrifices they made to fight with us, to be our allies,'' she said. ``And then we left them behind to fend for themselves.''