Montagnard refugees shelter under canvas in Mondulkiri.
Y Dlang Ebhar is a nationalist without a nation. A Montagnard tribesman from a village
in Vietnam's DacLac province, he is one of the latest in a decades-long tradition
of Montagnards who have sought shelter in Cambodia.
Y Dlang's present home is a makeshift tent he shares with six other family members.
Under the protection of the UNHCR for the last month, he waits in Mondolkiri with
over 170 other Montagnards in a cluster of temporary shelters for someone else to
decide his fate.
Meanwhile he has time to talk about his problems - it is something he has been waiting
to do for a long time.
"Inside Vietnam we cannot talk about our problems, to journalists, to UNHCR,"
The Montagnards, as the French dubbed the various tribes who inhabit the western
mountains of central Vietnam, have seen their ancestral lands transformed first by
war, and then by a massive influx of outsiders. He is one of many tribespeople who
protested what they say is systematic abuse at the hands of the Vietnamese government
earlier this year. He says his reward has been more systematic abuse.
He says that after he took part in protests in Dac Lac province, the police came
for him, visiting his house after midnight, five nights in a row. Those five nights
he spent hiding in some land he was farming several kilometers away. After the last
visit he gathered his family and headed for Cambodia.
Y Dlang Ebhar is a Rhade, a member of a tribe that speaks a Malayo-polynesian language.
According to Dr. Gerald Hickey, an American ethnologist who spent years studying
tribal cultures of the Central Highlands, the Rhade are thought to have originated
as an island people, and that their folklore contains legends of arriving on the
mainland by boat.
Y Dlang knows these stories only vaguely. Tribal traditions - he says his village
has not held a
ceremonial dance in 10 years - are not cherished by local authorities. "The
Vietnamese say we have no history," he said.
"Well, that's not true," Hickey counters. "The Vietnamese have always
put them down."
Hickey says that this racial prejudice drives a Vietnamese government program of
assimilation which has done more harm to Montagnard culture than the decades of war
that proceeded it.
Montagnard rights groups detail a host of abuses against their people in Vietnam
expropriation of Montagnard land, massive resettlement of ethnic Vietnamese in the
Highlands, destruction of their culture, and repression of religion, especially directed
at Christian tribespeople.
Protests by Montagnards demanding better treatment swept through the Central Highlands
in early February. Many accounts say that the resulting crackdown by Vietnamese authorities
has been harsh, and drew condemnation from Amnesty International and Human Rights
Hickey said that similar demonstrations had occurred in the Dac Lac capital of Buon
Me Thuot in 1958 over much the same issues. "[The South Vietnamese government]
responded in the same way, by sending in tanks and crack troops," he recalled.
"From what I understand the government today has done pretty much the same thing."
The refugees in Mondolkiri say that in the wake of the unrest, large numbers of troops
and police have been deployed in the Central Highlands, and movements of tribal people
are being watched and tightly restricted.
Y Dlang Ebhar says he left Vietnam not to find a new home, but to work for the independence
of his native land. "Ho Chi Minh promised this for us, for Montagnard people,"
he said. "Do you know that?"
He was not exaggerating. The Indochinese Communist Party, formed by Ho Chi Minh in
1930, proclaimed minorities would have the right to "self-determination"
in an independent Indochina the same year.
While the Vietnamese communists would declare "autonomous zones" for tribespeople
in both the north and the south in the 1950s and '60s, Hickey said it was the French
colonists who went the farthest in actually providing a measure of autonomy for the
Montagnards. Ethnic Vietnamese were barred from settling in the Central Highlands,
and the standard colonial bureaucracy was replaced in part by institutions such as
courts which were run following tribal custom.
The departure of the French saw these measures replaced by the imposition of South
Vietnamese law in the Central Highlands, and hastily-planned migration schemes helped
to create the unrest which led to the demonstrations in 1958. But ironically, the
Vietnam War breathed new life into Montagnard nationalism.
From 1960 the American Special Forces and CIA started a program to arm and train
the jungle-savvy tribesmen, forming militia units to fight communist guerillas. By
1964, 40,000 Montagnards had been recruited.
In September of that year a revolt broke out among Montagnards in five Special Forces
camps who had formed the nationalist organization United Front for the Struggle of
the Oppressed Races, or FULRO by its French acronym. The revolt, carried out to demand
political autonomy from the Vietnamese and the right to a standing army among other
things, was quelled by the American military, who convinced the Saigon government
to institute various reforms in favor of the Montagnards.
FULRO remained dormant as long as American troops remained in the Central Highlands,
but the organization's leader, Y B'ham Enuol, set up a headquarters in Mondolkiri
province and went to Phnom Penh, where he enjoyed a measure of sponsorship from then-Prince
"He was being kind of used by Sihanouk as an anti-American figure" at a
time when US-Cambodian relations were severely strained, Gerald Hickey said. He says
the Prince saw good propaganda value in expressing solidarity with indigenous movements
opposed to South Vietnam.
"He showed up in some of the magazines that Sihanouk was putting out."
Hickey said that when he traveled to Phnom Penh shortly after Sihanouk was deposed
in 1970, he found his former FULRO contacts there wearing Lon Nol uniforms. Most
significantly, a Cham colonel named Les Kasem, whom he'd recognized from the 1964
uprising in Vietnam, was in charge. FULRO leader Y B'ham Enuol was under house arrest.
"[The Cambodians] said that he was going to destroy the FULRO movement,"
"You had some of the young FULRO who were trying to move in and take over. I've
heard people say, 'we don't have unity among the Montagnards who are in North Carolina,'
and I said, 'well, they didn't have unity in Vietnam, either'."
Hickey says that the FULRO lead-ership's decision to remain in Cambodia helped
in the splintering of the organization as the Americans withdrew and FULRO saw a
resurgence. Ironically, he points out, one of these splinter groups made a deal with
the North Vietnamese to not alert Saigonese forces that communist tanks were approaching
Buon Me Thuot in March 1975. The capture of that town was the first thrust in the
"Ho Chi Minh Campaign" which precipitated the collapse of South Vietnam
only six weeks later.
FULRO negotiates a "ceasefire" with UNTAC in August, 1992.
When Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge on April 17, Y B'ham Enuol and his family,
as well as several other FULRO members, sought shelter in the French Embassy.
"They were all taken out," Hickey says, and taken to the Olympic Stadium
and executed there.
However, FULRO's relations with this latest Cambodian regime were only beginning.
As Vietnam was reunited, the communists quietly abolished autonomy for minorities.
The Central Highlands became the target area for the establishment of "New Economic
Zones", the first step in a program to resettle millions of ethnic Vietnamese
in the mountains.
FULRO managed to gather 10,000 fighters to wage a resistance campaign against Hanoi.
The Khmer Rouge and FULRO joined in an uneasy alliance against their common Vietnamese
enemy. By supplying the Montagnard insurgents, the Khmer Rouge had a client keeping
the Vietnamese military preoccupied in the highlands, while their own attacks on
Vietnamese border towns intensified.
During the years of Khmer Rouge rule FULRO cadres were lured to Phnom Penh and died
in Tuol Sleng; despite this, both sides kept up an appearance of co-operation, signing
an agreement for the exchange of information and training in 1977.
In 1978 a FULRO cadre appeared on Radio Phnom Penh, denouncing Ho Chi Minh as a fascist.
The tide turned against FULRO by 1979, however an intensive campaign by the Vietnamese
had reduced their number of fighters to only 2000, and their Khmer Rouge ally was
toppled and fled towards Thailand. The remaining FULRO troops were forced to seek
sanctuary in Cambodia once again.
The Montagnard group fell out of favor with the Khmer Rouge in 1986, a Khmer Rouge
official told journalist Nate Thayer in 1992.
"They had no political vision," the official was quoted as saying. "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."
Only a few remnants of the force emerged from the forest. In 1986, 220 survived a
Cambodia and wound up in a refugee camp in Thailand before being resettled in the
Six years later, another group of 398 Montagnards - fighters and their families -
surfaced in Mondolkiri province and contacted UNTAC peacekeeping troops. They demanded
to speak with their long-dead leader Y B'ham Enuol.
"I told them he was dead," recalls Thayer, who was among the first outsiders
to make contact with them. "They were shocked and did not believe me. Some broke
Contact with former comrades from the US convinced them to surrender and they too
were resettled in the US.
While the dream of continuing armed resistance was difficult for that last band of
fighters to give up, younger Montagnards like Y Dlang Ebhar say they are too well
aware of logistical realities to entertain such notions.
"Not enough food, not enough guns; we have only hands, Y Dlang said. "The
Vietnamese have all the guns to kill us - how can we fight?"
Like the idea of armed revolt, the FULRO name is also dead, Y Dlang claimed. "Now
we have a new name: 'Dega'."
"Dega" is a combination of Rhade words which means "son of the mountains",
and is used to describe the Montagnard peoples collectively, their homelands, and
the organization which carries on their struggle.
"We are members of Montagnard group but we fight by politics - we have no guns,
but we fight."