Frozen, Like a Photograph: Injustice in Vietnam’s Central Highlands

I met my uncle for the first time four days ago, arriving with a government-approved translator who drove me by motorbike from the highland city, Boun Ma Thout. There’s quite a stir about our family reunion- not for reasons that I am excited about- since this is the first contact with my mother’s family since she fled Saigon in 1975. Instead, our reunion sparks the attention of the local police because I am a foreigner and my mother’s people belong to the Dega hilltribes-an indigenous minority related closely to the tribal peoples of Cambodia and Laos. In yet another chapter of a fifty-year old struggle for autonomy, the Dega held demonstrations in 2001 and 2004, in Boun Ma Thout. Ever since these protests the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has enforced strict regulations about who is allowed to enter the tribal region.

In February, 2001, several thousand indigenous Central Highlanders converged to peacefully protest the crisis of land confiscation and the increased competition for resources. Scores of Vietnamese had resettled in the Highlands at the encouragement of the government as a means, among others, to assimilate the indigenous population. The plummeting price of coffee, the regions main cash crop, was another contributing factor to the agitation, which rendered many of the Dega destitute. Also, repression of the Dega religion-a blending of traditional animism with Christianity-was a key grievance at the 2001 demonstration but became a central issue to the demonstration in 2004. To both, the response from the government was harsh and often brutal: with the demonstration in 2004, referred to as the Easter Massacre, at least ten Dega tribesman were killed, although many of the Dega believe the number of deaths to be higher.

According to the Vietnamese government, the root of the current civilian unrest is “foreign agitators,” such as Dega political exiles and American vets who encourage the tribes to demand their religious and ancestral land rights. An alliance with the American Special Forces, who relied heavily on the hill tribe recruits for guerrilla fighting against the Viet Cong, is a source of general distrust from the Hanoi government of any American. The daily visits from the police and the mini-avalanche of paperwork that my uncle and I have to complete attests to the sensitivity the authorities have of my presence in the Central Highlands. Still, I am left to wonder how a twenty-three year old Dega-American female barely five feet tall, searching for long-lost family-how is it that the police see me as a threat?

As he reads the documents, old-fashioned black reading glasses balance low and awkwardly on the bridge of my uncle’s nose, ill-fitted to his broad features. Traces of his prior life as a schoolteacher remain in his demeanor, although like many educated South Vietnamese, he was stripped of his professional license when the Communists won the war. He is around sixty years old and his face is gaunt and leathered from countless hours of tending to coffee plants in the tropical sun. His eyes are heavy-lidded with fatigue, tanned yellow and bloodshot, and speak volumes to me about the war, although my uncle was never a soldier. Once he did try to enlist with the American Special Forces but as the story goes, the moment a gun was placed in his hands he threw it down, ran away and hid. Guns terrify me, he explains. This small irony is lost on the Vietnamese government, who placed him in re-education camp for three years because my mother had escaped to America.  

The early morning light shines on the right side of his face, spilling in from a window behind him. An iron grate bars the window, the green paint chipping. At first glance the light is too blinding to look at directly. Slowly my eyes adjust. The grate, I begin to see, is in the form of a peace dove.

Taking cues from my uncle, I got a basic lesson on how to deal with bureaucrats in Vietnam. Offer cigarettes. Light cigarettes. Nod quickly and seriously at what they say. Smile at their jokes. Answer all their questions quickly and briefly. Offer more cigarettes to the other cops who straggle in. Light them. Don’t appear too relaxed. Read and sign the paperwork they give you. Answer the same questions multiple times. Fill out more paperwork. Make sure they are happily chain-smoking. 

I finish filling out all the paperwork and wait for my uncle to read through all of his. I can’t help but feel guilty; I am the reason that he is in the police station, being interrogated once more. A day earlier, he had explained to me that the cops continued to harass him after being released from re-education camp, assuming that his rich American sister had been sending him money to care for her their mother. They hadn’t believed that he too was looking for her. I suspect that they were on order to disregard any explanation he gave, dutifully ignoring the reality that no contact had ever been made. No word ever reached his village that he had two nieces in America– until I showed up on his doorstep. Now, with my sudden appearance, he has to deal with the police again. Am I detecting his rage when he looks at them?

I watch him reading, the peace dove captured in iron and letting the only light into this old, dilapidated room. My gaze wanders out the window. Fifty or so yards away, a young girl stands on a crude ladder reaching up to a small, wooden house erected on stilts-a flood-proof style of housing traditional to the Dega which, with the onset of Vietnamese emigrating to the region,  is becoming rare in the Central Highlands. The girl is looking towards the police station. Her dark skin blends in naturally with the wooden house, against a backdrop of deep green coffee trees. Indeed, the ubiquitous cash crop of coffee has set the Dega on a riskier path of relying on unstable markets, but a harmony seems to still exist with the hilltribes who depend on the land they tend. In a way, little has changed in the last hundred years.

A Vietnamese flag, bright red with a yellow star, mounted high on a pole next to the wooden house where the girl stands, is required in the front of every Dega house since the protests. Earlier, when we drove to the police station on motorbikes, I noticed music coming from a tinny-sounding radio. Up until now I tuned it out, but now my ears pick up the familiar sound of Janis Joplin. The music drifts over from the house where the girl stands. Joplin‘s voice wails, full of metal from weak speakers.

In this small village, it’s not a surprise that everybody knows that I am here; I imagine that Joplin is a salute to me as an American visitor. But then I begin to sense something else. Could it be that I am also hearing that they have not forgotten the war and its battle cry twisted and reinterpreted into Joplin‘s cry? Although I hadn’t yet been born, Joplin‘s throaty wail drops me into the 60’s– a resurfacing of a visceral collective memory of America‘s own battle wounds. I hear rebellion. Repression. Now, however, Joplin‘s scream echoes in the Central Highlands, in the land of my Uncle. Am I hearing their cry for self-determination and freedom-what they can only express to me in whispers, as they glance over their shoulders them to make sure “Charlie” isn’t still listening?  

They are not easily silenced. The Dega, pejoratively considered “backwards” and “primitive,” are the few to exert the democratic tool of peaceful protest, an act considered criminal in this nation. Perhaps this is possible for the Dega because they are brave, and passionate, or because at this point, they have nothing to lose.

The reality for my uncle, stripped of his livelihood as a teacher, a prisoner of a re-education camp-not to mention a survivor of a gruesome war-is that he fears for the well-being of his family. He’s not political or religious. His house is planted firmly on the ground. He worries about the weather and how it affects the coffee, and about giving his family a better life. To him, there is much to lose. 

I sit before my uncle as the scene before me zooms out like a camera, framing layers of circumstance in entirety, overwhelming with significance of what it means to be Dega in ancestral highlands turned into a police-state. My uncle and the papers. The light shining into the dank corners, through the iron peace dove. The little Montagnard girl in the shadow of the Vietnamese flag. And Joplin‘s wail. I reach into my backpack to pull out my camera. But my uncle stops me with a quick shake of his head. Cameras are not allowed here.