Vietnam War Era Renegade Army Discovered In Mondulkiri
MONDULKIRI, Cambodia-Abandoned for years by their own leaders and former foreign
military backers, an anti-Hanoi Montagnard army based in northeast Cambodia has approached
the United Nations with a plea for protection.
The military combatants of FULRO-the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed
Races-have waged a lonely battle for a separate homeland in Vietnam for their hilltribe
people since 1964.
The recent discovery of the Montagnard army in Mondulkiri province prompted Phnom
Penh's Interior Ministry to inform U.N. peacekeeping forces that unless the group-formerly
given sanctuary by the Khmer Rouge-is disarmed they would attack them.
On Sept. 4 a joint mission of officials from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) and the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) met with the fighters
to discuss their request for sanctuary.
"We have to be very cautious because they may be in danger," said UNHCR
Press Officer Annick Roulet.
Previous discussions with UNTAC military officials at their remote jungle camp near
the Vietnamese border have resulted in conflicting impressions as to whether or not
FULRO troops want to give up their struggle and apply for refugee status or continue
to wage war against Vietnam.
Under threat from the Phnom Penh regime, expelled by the Khmer Rouge, and a thorn
in the side to Vietnam, FULRO is presenting an interesting if not painful dilemma
to U.N. officials in Phnom Penh.
UNTAC-mandated to verify the withdrawal of all foreign forces in Cambodia-may be
obligated to ensure the return of the group to Vietnamese soil if they insist on
continuing to wage war.
But UNHCR-responsible for protecting people with a "well founded fear of persecution"-may
have to offer asylum to the fighters if they are in danger of being sent back to
Vietnam, where they certainly would face imprisonment.
That, in turn, could open the floodgates to thousands of requests for political asylum
from Vietnamese living in Cambodia.
"We have enough problems in Cambodia dealing with the four factions, and now
this army we never even heard of turns up," said one UNTAC military official.
American diplomats in Phnom Penh and U.N. military officials in Cambodia are urging
that UNHCR grant the group refugee status to begin the process of third country asylum,
and give them temporary protection from military attack.
But FULRO Commander-in-Chief Y Peng Ayun and his forces are reluctant to accept giving
up their fight without first getting U.N. protection.
"If we give up our weapons, they will take us back to Vietnam or the Vietnamese
will come get us," Ayun said. "If I go to the U.S., I don't want to stay
a long time there, because I have responsibility to liberate my country."
Frozen in Time
When two correspondents from the Phnom Penh Post visited FULRO's remote guerrilla
headquarters last month, they found an army unaware of the world around them and
desperately seeking instructions and resupply from their leadership.
Col. Ayun and his lieutenants gathered around the Post reporters, hungrily seeking
"Please, can you help us find our president, Y'Bham Enuol?" Colonel Ayun
asked. "We have been waiting for contact and orders from our president since
1975. Do you know where he is?"
Neither Ayun nor his troops, who gathered around to meet the first journalists to
find them since they fled to the jungles after the American defeat in Indochina in
1975, knew that their leader was executed 17 years before by the Khmer Rouge.
They fell silent when informed; some wept quietly.
Situated in a string of five villages carved out of dense forest along a raging river,
the group of 407 guerrillas and their families have no access to even the smallest
luxury items except from fighters returning from Vietnam.
There is no medicine or schools, and many of the soldiers and their families have
only the clothes they wear and rifles. Bamboo huts with roofs of leaves provide shelter.
"The food we get from the forest. The forest belongs to FULRO." said Lt.
Col. Y Hinnie. "We don't have food or medicine, so it is difficult. But with
food and medicine the jungle is a very nice place. We are used to it."
The rivers nearby abound with crocodiles, huge catfish, and fresh water porpoises
and the surrounding jungle-thick with mosquitos-is home to elephants and a host of
The combatants and their families are traditionally rice eating people, but they
are unable to farm rice here with the enemy constantly forcing movement.
A staple of corn, with jungle cucumbers, pumpkins, and hot green peppers are all
they have. For part of the year they survive on poisonous potatos that must be carefully
processed for five days to extract a deadly toxin.
"We must eat it slowly until our bodies get used to it or it will kill you,"
Hinnie said, "But the poison is also the medicine we use to cure snakebites."
Nearby a soldier lay paralyzed from a snakebite he received three months before.
"This tree has the medicine we use for malaria and this one here we can use
to treat diarrhea," Hinnie said, pointing.
The army has no maps or compasses. "But we can guide ourselves by stars and
winds of the seasons. We can tell by which side of the tree is wet during different
months exactly which direction we are going," he said.
Hinnie spoke credible English from his days as a young boy with Christian missionaries,
as well as Khmer, Vietnamese, and French, and several tribal dialects, and translated
for others who spoke in Rade. His skills have given him the title of "the FULRO
Military Delegation's Representative of Foreign Affairs."
But his knowledge of world events is spotty. "We would like you to take a message
to U Thant," he said, referring to the former U.N. Secretary-General. Asking
about the cold war, he said, "I hear that President George Bush now contacts
with the Russians."
He is charged with listening to the shortwave radio each morning, tuning in VOA,
BBC, Christian radio, and Radio Vietnam to keep the group abreast of foreign developments.
Hinnie told amazed fighters of the fax machine: "You take a letter and put it
in a telephone and it comes out in one minute in America," he explained.
The Forgotten Army
A number of soldiers appeared to introduce themselves in English as having fought
with the Americans.
"You are the first foreigner I have seen since 1975," said Bhong Rcam,
47, "The Americans usually call me Tiny."
Like many of the fighters of FULRO, he worked with the U.S. Special Forces during
the Vietnam War. After the U.S. withdrawal he was jailed by Hanoi, before joining
FULRO in the jungle in 1976.
During the Vietnam War FULRO was supplied with millions of dollars of U.S. equipment,
and before that, used as allies to further the objectives of the French and various
When the North Vietnamese launched decisive offensives in March 1975, FULRO leaders
say that senior U.S. officials in Saigon promised continued support for the Montagnards
and pledged to covertly support their fight.
Well equipped with American weapons and promises of more as South Vietnam crumbled
in the spring of 1975, FULRO waited for the Americans who never returned, eventually
re-grouping in the jungle.
"The Montagnard people and the Americans are like one family," said Lt.
Col. Hinnie. "I am not angry, but very sad that the Americans forgot us. The
Americans are like our elder brother, so it is very sad when your brother forgets
FULRO continued to launch attacks on Vietnam for four years after the U.S. withdrawal,
fielding a fierce army of 10,000 fighters. But by 1979 they were running low on ammunition
and had suffered huge casualties, with more than 8,000 of their fighters killed or
In 1979 FULRO abandoned their bases in Vietnam and moved to the jungles on the Cambodian
side of the Vietnamese frontier, switching to underground networks and small guerrilla
strikes in their four regions of operations in Vietnam-Quang Duc, Darlac, Pleiku,
and Kon Tum.
Previously given sanctuary by the Khmer Rouge in areas under their control, FULRO
was expelled from Khmer Rouge zones in January to a remote area of Mondulkiri province.
Khmer Rouge officials in Phnom Penh say they had given FULRO sanctuary since 1979,
despite having fallen out with their leadership in 1986.
"They had no political vision. Their fighters are very, very brave, but they
had no support from any leadership, no food, and they did not understand at all the
world around them," said one senior Khmer Rouge official.
Col. Ayun complained bitterly of the treatment of his people by the Hanoi government.
"My people suffer terribly under the Vietnamese communist regime," he recounted
from a thatched hut in the forest. "They came and took our land, and made it
theirs. They try to erase our language and force us to speak Vietnamese. They have
taken our fertile land and forced us to the bad land.
"They say they have come to build progress for my people, but they have come
to kill, arrest, and oppress my people."
For many at FULRO's scattered guerrilla bases, the ability to pray freely and practice
Christianity was a main motivation to flee Vietnam. Each of the five villages in
the FULRO area have an evangelical church, while there is a lone Catholic church
in the main guerrilla camp.
"The Communists will not let us pray," Col. Hinnie said. "They say
that Christianity is an American and French religion, so we came to live in the jungle."
Col. Ayun requested to meet with the American ambassador to seek advice on whether
his group would get the aid he said was long promised and to seek proof of the death
of their leader.
"We are the troops of President Y Bham Enuol," he said.
"If he has died, we want proof from the United Nations. The Americans had a
whole plan for Indochina. I want to meet face to face with the American ambassador.
I have a plan for the future, and they should know clearly our position for the revolutionary
struggle. We want to know whether they will help us or not."
But the chances of U.S. support for Ayun and his forces are dim, and FULRO faces
a whole new series of difficulties.
Montagnard leaders now living in the U.S. appealed to Col. Ayun to give up the fight.
"Due to unfavorable circumstances, I suggest it is time to stop fighting, to
find different ways to reach our ultimate goal," said Pierre K'briuh in a recent
message to the FULRO fighters.
K'briuh is a leader of the former FULRO troops now in the United States and he himself
was jailed by Hanoi until the early 1980s.
"President Y-Bham Enuol and his entourage were executed by the Khmer Rouge in
1975," he wrote.
"Therefore, based on common sense, lay down your weapons and appeal at once
to the U.N. for political asylum to join us here. We don't have any other choice."
Col. Ayun and his troops say that if they have proof that Y Bham Enuol is indeed
dead, they will consider going to the U.S.
"But even if we go to another country, our resistance will continue until we
get our own land, until we get back the land that belonged to us before," Ayun
"I don't want to go to a free nation," he added. "I want to stay here
because this is my battlefield. It is my responsibility. But I have no supplies or
help from free countries."
- Michael Hayes contributed to this report.