Thirty-three years after being resettled in North Carolina, Rong Nay — a member of the indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam known as Montagnard — marvels at how far his people have come.
“The majority of the Montagnard came to the U.S., it was very difficult to find how we can adjust our lives. ... Many of us have no English. We have to deal with second language, the culture, the way of life. It’s very, very difficult,” Nay said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But after 30 years, we live here, I’m so proud of the Montagnard people.”
Nay, 74, lives in Cary with his wife. He was among the first 200 or so Montagnard refugees resettled in North Carolina in November of 1986.
The Montagnard fought along U.S. Green Berets in the Vietnam War and spent the next decade fighting for recognition and self-determination in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
Nay was the assistant commander of the Montagnard Resistance Force and Independence Movement. Now he is the executive director of the Montagnard Human Rights Organization. The organization fights for recognition of the Montagnard and two other indigenous groups in Vietnam and human rights in the country.
Nay is one of about 12,000 Montagnard people in North Carolina today with the population largely concentrated in Charlotte, Greensboro and the Triangle, he said. Other estimates put the number between 5,000 and 20,000 in North Carolina.
Montagnard means “mountaineer” or “mountain dweller” in French. France had control of Vietnam from the late 1800s until the mid-1900s.
Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republicans, introduced a resolution in the Senate on Tuesday morning, recognizing the Montagnards and condemning ongoing human rights violations by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Southeast Asian nation’s official name.
Nay said the Vietnam refuses to recognize the indigenous people. In the resolution, he said the Montagnard living in Vietnam are forced to renounce their religion and face oppression — and that American Montagnard have been prevented from visiting the country.
“North Carolina is home to the largest community of Montagnards outside of their homeland in Vietnam,” said Burr, who also introduced a speech into the congressional record in 2016 about the Montagnard. “At their own great risk, these indigenous tribespeople provided critical intelligence and fought alongside our Armed Forces during the Vietnam War.”
The resolution recognizes the Montagnards for their contributions to the U.S. efforts during the Vietnam War and calls on Vietnam to end restrictions on basic human rights, including the right of the Montganards to have freedom of religion, property, movement, ethnic identity and culture and access to an adequate standard of living.
“It’s important we honor the Montagnards who bravely fought alongside American forces in Vietnam,” Tillis said in a statement. “I am proud many Montagnards now call North Carolina home and are a part of our local communities.”
Fighting with the U.S.
The resolution said 61,000 Montagnard, out of a population of 1 million, fought alongside U.S. forces and their Vietnamese allies during the Vietnam War. After the war, some were imprisoned and others discriminated against or oppressed. Many fled to Cambodia.
Some took up arms against the new government. Those were the 213 refugees, including Nay, who first came to Greensboro in 1986.
“The 213 were remnants of 5,000 rebels who took up arms against the victorious North Vietnamese troops when the Vietnam War ended in 1975,” wrote the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 26, 1986 when a crowd of more than 400 and a local high school band welcomed the refugees at the Greensboro airport.
Their numbers had dwindled to less than 300 when they sought asylum in Thailand. American soldiers heard of their plight and lobbied for their resettlement in the U.S., according to the Times article.
“For so long, we have been afraid that we are unknown to the world, that the world has forgotten us. Today, we know that God has taken pity on our people and that we are no longer alone,” Rhama Dock told the Times upon arrival in 1986.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found in its 2019 report that Montagnard face religious discrimination over their Christian faith, including being refused ID cards or birth certificates and facing imprisonment.
Another 400 or so refugees joined the original refugees in 1992, and a thousand more came after 2001, Nay said.
Nay said they originally chose North Carolina for several reasons. Missionaries from the state had been in the region in Vietnam for years and many of the U.S. Special Forces they fought alongside were stationed in the state. Lutheran Family Services, which sponsored them, and the weather reminded them of their homeland.
“Not much snow. Not much cold,” he said. “That’s the reason why we chose here.”
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