The French gave the myriad and hardy hill tribes of Vietnam a collective name--montagnards, or highlanders--and enlisted them in the doomed effort to cling to Indochina. The Americans, too, sought their aid in the struggle against the red menace. Those who sided with the losers have been eyed suspiciously ever since Vietnam's communists took control of the entire country.
Many of the montagnards have now become suspect for pledging fealty to an even greater power, God. Among Vietnam's 7 million ethnic minorities, conversions to Protestantism have skyrocketed in recent years. One Western missionary who has worked the country for decades estimates the Protestant flock now numbers between 600,000 and 700,000 Vietnamese--a tiny number compared with the country's 8 million Catholics, but a four-fold increase since the end of the war nearly 25 years ago. Around 80% of the new believers, who consider themselves evangelicals, are minorities from 20 of the 54 officially recognized language groups. Missionaries have had their greatest success with the Hmong--one of the largest and poorest of the northwestern hill tribes.
The figures have spooked Hanoi. The assessment of the security forces, says a senior border official, is that if we cannot curb this situation soon, things will turn dangerous in the near future. Part of that worry arises from who is being reached by the Christian message. The idea of a Second Coming resonates especially well among the millenarian Hmong, who have long believed they would be delivered from lives of misery by a returning king. The new creed, known in Hmong as Vang Chu, also replaces a stern lineup of largely unappeasable spirits with a more loving and avuncular god. Vietnamese officials and missionaries vary widely in their estimates of how many Hmong have converted--anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000--but both sides agree the numbers are rising fast. In some areas along the border with Laos entire villages have reportedly converted en masse.
The Hmong occupy a particularly fraught position on the periphery of lowland Vietnamese society. The tribals dominate much of the sensitive border area with China, from whence they arrived in the 19th century. Authorities in Hanoi have not forgotten the role played by those Hmong fighters who allied themselves with the hated French and Americans. Neither have the Hmong forgotten the autonomy they enjoyed under the former, and were promised by the latter. The Hmong have always wanted their own homeland, says Nicholas Tapp, a prominent Hmong scholar. It's fundamental. Vietnamese policy has only exacerbated that demand.
The identity of those pushing the new message only sets off more alarm bells. American evangelicals figure prominently among the dozens of missionary organizations that broadcast sermons to the montagnards on short-wave radio, often in tribal dialect. The more zealous among them have reportedly promised the Hmong that if they accept Christianity, they too will have their own homeland--as well as the wealth for which Americans are envied. Converts can point to concrete improvements in their villages: the frequent and impoverishing animal sacrifices demanded by traditional Hmong animism have been abandoned, and crime, divorce, drunkenness and opium cultivation have all dropped. But the crudeness of the missionaries' appeals allows authorities to paint Protestantism as a Western imposition--one bent upon erasing a fragile tribal culture.
Hanoi's response has been delivered just as bluntly. The propaganda committee of northern Ha Giang province has armed cadres with talking points to rebut Christian proselytizers. Our minority peoples and the Hmong from time immemorial until today have never had this religion, reads a copy of an internal Party document. It is the deception of the bad people who want the Hmong to believe, to lure them into bad ideas, to bring people together so they will quarrel with one another, destroy people's solidarity, and fight against our regime. In some areas converts have been forced to renounce their faith and to rebuild ancestor-worship altars. Missionaries say that in Lao Cai province an assistant police chief forced one Christian to slit a chicken's neck and drink its blood, mixed with alcohol. The man reportedly died soon after. Little wonder, then, that Yen Minh district party chief Le Quang Trieu says that, after a full year of propaganda, his cadres have reconverted only 37 out of 1,112 of the faithful in the district.
In fact, such efforts may end up pushing more Hmong into the arms of the Church. Already some Christian hamlets along the Laos border have taken to posting sentries during weekend services, says Vu Chay Ly, a retired schoolteacher in the remote village of Na U. Thousands of Hmong have fled to Vietnam's Central Highlands, some 1,300 km south, to escape persecution, and their plight has attracted the attention of the U.S. State Department, which has publicized credible reports of persecution of Christian minorities. Protestantism is really an answer to the emptiness in the spiritual life of the minorities, says ethnologist Hoang Quoc Hai. If Hanoi wants to keep the Hmong in the fold, officials will have to give the tribals more to follow than orders.
Reported by Ken Stier/Na U