How to stop today's trails of tears

From Protestant Montagnards in Vietnam to the Copts in Egypt, minority groups face government oppression.

President Bush recently signed into law a bill that will cast a brighter light on a truly deplorable episode in our nation's history – the 1838 removal of more than 16,000 Cherokee Indians from their tribal homelands in the American Southeast to Indian Territory in what is today Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears Study Act will add previously omitted routes to the national historic trail that memorializes the incident and pave the way for expanded scholarship on the state-mandated removal, which led to the deaths of thousands of Cherokees.

While no legislation can ever fully atone for the abuses perpetrated by the US government against native Americans, the new law further confronts this shameful national legacy. We all need to be more active in addressing the persecution of indigenous peoples, as they continue to endure human rights violations throughout the world.

Ethnic minorities such as the Montagnards in Vietnam, the Karen in Burma (officially Myanmar), the Kurds in the four countries they call home, and the Copts and Bahais in Egypt have endured treatment at the hands of their own governments that bears alarming resemblance to the atrocities carried out against native Americans. Complicit leaders in these countries – bent on crippling divergent cultural practices in the name of establishing strong national identities – have overseen denigration of traditional ways of life, forced assimilation, and seizure of tribal lands.

In Vietnam, persecution of the indigenous Montagnard people, who have adopted Christianity in large numbers, continues unabated at a provincial level. Protestant Montagnards are considered a threat to national unity by the Vietnamese government, which has – as made explicit by a recently leaked government manual – authorized the repression of their religious freedom. Monitoring groups report that Protestant house churches (churches that are not officially registered with the government) have been shut down and renunciations of faith have been demanded at gunpoint. Thousands have fled to neighboring Cambodia as a result.

In Burma, even more egregious treatment of the native Karen people is being carried out by a ruling military junta attempting to "Burmanize" minority areas, according to a 2006 State Department report. Consequently, the Karen have been forcibly displaced by the thousands and their villages have been burned and razed.

In the Arab world, oppression of indigenous groups is striking. The plight of the Kurds, who came to Iraq long before the establishment of the modern state in 1920, was highlighted in the Saddam Hussein trial. In 1980, under Mr. Hussein, hundreds of thousands of Fayli Kurds were stripped of their possessions and documentation and forcibly deported to Iran in what amounted to a death march comparable to the Trail of Tears, as they were denied food and water and made to tread through crossfire during the Iran-Iraq War.

In Egypt, discrimination against the Bahai minority and the Copts, an ethnoreligious minority with strong ancestral roots there, has received less attention. The Egyptian government restricts the rights of these groups to practice their faiths through discriminatory laws, as well as intimidation by security forces. State permission is required for the construction or even repair of churches, and adherents have been detained for proselytizing. Religious tensions have manifested themselves recently in attacks on Coptic churches and the government's refusal to grant Bahais official ID cards, without which they lack national citizenship.

Indigenous and ethnic minority oppression is a critical human rights issue that must be addressed as such. Western economic influence can be leveraged to help secure the rights of these vulnerable groups. The US has close ties with Egypt and should make continued economic aid contingent upon greater protection for minorities. It should continue to put economic and political pressure on Burma. And Vietnam's World Trade Organization accession should be leveraged to strengthen government accountability for its treatment of ethnic minorities.

Additionally, the vital monitoring efforts of watchdog groups must be supplemented by beefed-up nongovernmental organizations to ensure that local advocacy is being mobilized. And it's critical that government leaders be held accountable for the actions of officials who ultimately carry out these oppressive policies. These and other tangible benchmarks can contribute to a more effective international response to the suffering of ethnic minorities.

The Trail of Tears memorial is a needed reminder of the impact of discriminatory policies. Let it spur us all to address the violations of indigenous rights and to protect the world's most marginalized peoples.

Kathryn Cameron Porter, whose grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, is president of the Leadership Council for Human Rights.

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