From Academic Kids

The Degar (referred to by French colonists as Montagnard) are the indigenous people of the central highlands of Vietnam. The term Montagnard means "mountain people" in French and is a carry over from the French colonial period in Vietnam. In Vietnamese, they are known by the term thượng (highlanders) or the derogatory term mọi (savage) (both of these terms can also be applied to other minority ethnic groups in Vietnam). Thượng is the Vietnamese adaptation of the Chinese "Shang" (上); while, mọi is an indigenous Vietnamese term. Montagnard is the term, typically shortened to "Yard", used by U.S. military personnel in the Central Highlands during the Vietnam War.

Before the Vietnam War, the population of the Central Highlands, estimated at between 3 and 3.5 million, was almost exclusively Degar. Today, the population is approximately 4 million, of whom about 1 million are Montagnard. The 30 or so Degar tribes in the Central Highlands comprise more than six different ethnic groups who speak languages drawn primarily from the Malayo-Polynesian and Mon Khmer language families. The main tribes, in order of population, are the Jarai, Rhade, Bahnar, Koho, Hmong, and Stieng.

Originally inhabitants of the coastal areas of the region, they were driven to the previously uninhabited mountainous areas by invading Vietnamese and Cambodians beginning prior to the 9th century AD. Physically, the Degar are darker skinned than the Vietnamese and do not have epicanthic folds around their eyes.

Although French Catholic missionaries converted some Degar in the nineteenth century, American missionaries made more of an impact in the 1930s, and many Degar are now Protestant. Of the approximately 1 million Degar, close to half are Protestant, while around 200,000 are Catholic. This has made the Degar suspect to Vietnam's Communist Party, particularly during the Vietnam War, since it was thought that they would be more inclined to help the (mainly Protestant) American forces.

In the mid 1950s, the once-isolated Degar began experiencing more contact with outsiders after the Vietnamese government launched efforts to gain better control of the Central Highlands and, following the 1954 Geneva Accord, new ethnic minorities from North Vietnam moved into the area. As a result of these changes, Degar communities felt a need to strengthen some of their own social structures and to develop a more formal shared identity.

In 1950, the French government established the Central Highlands as the Pays Montagnard du Sud (PMS) under the authority of Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, whom the French had installed as nominal chief of state in 1949 as an alternative to Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam. When the French withdrew from Vietnam and recognized a Vietnamese government, Degar political independence was decimated. However it is not just the Degar's aspirations for greater autonomy that have led the Vietnamese government to crack down on the Degar.

The Degar have a long history of tensions with the Vietnamese majority that is comparable to the tensions between American Indians and the population of European descent in the United States. While the Vietnamese are themselves heterogeneous, they generally share a common language and culture and have developed and maintained the dominant social institutions of Vietnam. The Degar do not share that heritage nor do they have access to the country’s dominant institutions. There have been conflicts between the two groups over many issues, including land ownership, language and cultural preservation, access to education and resources, and political representation.

In 1958, the Degar launched a movement known as BAJARAKA (the name is made up of the first letters of prominent tribes, compare to the later Nicaraguan Misurasata) to unite the tribes against the Vietnamese. There was a related, well-organized political and (occasionally) military force within the Degar communities known by the French acronym, FULRO, or Forces United for the Liberation of Races Oppressed. FULRO’s objectives were autonomy for the Degar tribes.

Missing image
A US Army Ranger trains Degar guerillas

The 1960s saw contact between the Degar and another group of outsiders, the U.S. military, as American involvement in the Vietnam War escalated and the Central Highlands emerged as a strategically important area, in large part because it included the Ho Chi Minh trail, the North Vietnamese supply line for Viet Cong forces in the south. The U.S. military, particularly the US Army’s Special Forces, developed base camps in the area and recruited the Degar, roughly 40,000 of whom fought alongside American soldiers and became a major part of the U.S. military effort in the Highlands. The Degar’s legendary bravery and loyalty earned them the respect and friendship of the U.S. Special Forces as well as sympathy for the Degar struggle for independence.

Thousands of Degar fled to Cambodia after the liberation/fall of Saigon, fearing that the new government would launch reprisals against them because they had aided the US Army. However, in Cambodia, they soon suffered much more brutal treatment under the Khmer Rouge. Back in Vietnam, the government did carry out retributions, by imprisoning or executing nearly all prominent Degar tribal leaders. In addition, the Vietnamese government has steadily displaced thousands of villagers from Vietnam's central highlands, in order to use the fertile land for coffee plantations.

The Degar population has decreased by nearly two-thirds in only 32 years, due to very high death rates (especially among the male population) and low birth rates. This has prompted several human rights organizations to argue that the Degar are subject to an ongoing and continual genocide by the current Vietnamese government.

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