Tough Fighters Hanging on in Vietnam




KON TUM PROVINCE, Vietnam —

I.

The remnants of war haunt Vietnam’s Central Highlands. American-sprayed Agent Orange has seared patches of land into indefinite infertility; fields near Đắk Tô city now bearing coffee blossoms and rubber saplings remain littered with bullets, mine fragments, and military radios. A visitor must still tread carefully. Nearly half-century-old butterfly bombs and “jumping jack” mines continue to explode, violently disturbing time’s efforts to forget.

Forty minutes away in Đắk Lắk is an obelisk-like cenotaph commemorating North Vietnam’s war dead, across from which lies a smaller and transgressive shrine to South Vietnam’s own sacrificed soldiers. My guide told me the former memorial, a stone spirit house, bears a two-faced inscription — Dồng sanh lạc quốc — that both affirms and rejects the Hanoi regime’s fashioned history. “We were born in the same nation,” is the politically Hanoi-correct translation, one that celebrates the Vietnams’ forced communist unification, my guide explained before offering the second, which politely rebukes the same event: “We were born and we lost a nation.”

The region’s indigenous people, the Montagnards, took extraordinary punishment during the war, eventually losing not only their nation but also their way of life. Their name, a holdover from French colonialism, translates roughly as “people of the mountain,” and accounts for a swath of Malayo-Polynesian tribes. They are ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and, once as animists but now increasingly as Christians, religiously distinct from Vietnam’s kinh majority. They are also easily singled out for another attribute. Around 70,000 Montagnards fought alongside US Special Forces against North Vietnam, serving as infantrymen, paratroopers, guides, and spies. “The [U.S.] military asked me, and I just joined.” Dim, a 71-year-old former paratrooper, told me. “Everybody joined.”

The Montagnards took part in this effort because they believed the Americans would deliver them some form of political autonomy, or even American resettlement, as some Special Forces promised. But the Montagnards suffered greatly: more than 250,000 of their men died, according to community leaders and historians, and by 1975, 85 percent of their villages were in ruins or abandoned.

Their anguish intensified after the Americans fled and South Vietnam fell, as the victorious communists placed many of them for years in reeducation and labor camps, where without proper food, water, or medicine, they often got sick.

“After the war, the communist government took us and put is in jail, from Pleiku to here, everywhere,” said Uoh, a 75-year-old former paratrooper. “We got abused because of joining [the] US military.”

II.

Vietnam persecutes the Montagnards, namely through systemic harassment, abuse, and intrusive surveillance. State media does little to hide Hanoi’s contempt, instead disseminating brazenly xenophobic reports accusing the Montagnards of religious “evil ways” and politically “autonomous thoughts,” both of which render them targets for official abuse. Some Montagnards allege even graver atrocities, including rape, assault, and purposeful HIV infection. Many, almost always unsuccessfully, continue to seek asylum in Cambodia and Thailand.

“They still watch me, seeing what I’m doing, trying to put me back in prison, because of my tribe, my religion, and being US military,” Uoh told me.

I had to cut my interview with him short after a police confidant warned my local interlocutor that his law enforcement colleagues were “looking for the foreigner” (i.e., me). The Highlands are effectively off-limits for journalists, and I traveled there without authorization.

What Hanoi hopes to hide is its “cultural leveling” — the long-term communist ethnic cleansing — of the Montagnards. As researcher James Minahan writes: “[T]he Vietnamese government has institutionalized the abolishment of the Montagnard way of life.”

The regime has since 1975 resettled about three million kinh into the Highlands, pushing the Montagnards off the central roads — prime commercially friendly real estate reserved now for kinh — and deeper into the hills, where capitalistic opportunities are scarce. The Vietnamese government has also placed state-run coffee plantations, including those financed by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, upon confiscated Montagnard land. Across Kon Tum Province, numerous Montagnards pointed out these coffee fields, each offering me a variation of a similar refrain: “That was once our land.”

“It’s a lot, they’ve taken a lot from us,” said Jong, an 80-year-old former spy. “They’re doing the coffee.”

Despite making up only 15 percent of Vietnam’s population, the Montagnards account for 70 percent of the nation’s poor. When I asked Dim if he and his village of Ya Tun could use assistance, he laughed woefully, his dark pupils sadly shielding themselves behind withered eyelids.

“Yes,” he offered quietly, refusing to make eye contact. “I’m getting old, and the Vietnamese government don’t let me do anything because I worked for the US Army.”

Ya Tun, which sits two hours away from the regional capital of Kon Tum in the remote province of Ngọc Hồi, is reachable only by crossing on motorbike two questionably-stable bridges. Residents do not all have running water. The landscape is — as Michael Herr deemed it to be Dispatches — “unbearably spooky”: flatlands turn suddenly into rolling hills, themselves once the sites of the countless hapless missions that came to encapsulate what is known here as “the American War.”

Ya Tun is nestled in these hills, an orange-gray husk dotted sparsely with vegetation. The river has dried up, Dim told me, because the government recently installed a dam nearby. And when Ya Tun’s residents tried to find some spiritual escape by building a stone church, the government forbade it.

III.

The Montagnards have long pursued political autonomy, often ending up as a result with strange allies. In 1945, they began assisting the French colonizers, with whom they fought against the Việt Minh independence group. The colonizers promised the Montagnards their own independence, and by 1946 created a self-governing state for them: “Pays Montagnards Du Sud Indochinois.”

The French retained Montagnard support through the 1954 end of the Indochina War. But when delegations from France, Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Laos, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam met in Geneva to cessate hostilities, no Montagnards were represented. The convention divided Vietnam into a communist North and republican South, leaving the Montagnards once again stateless.

When the American-backed Ngô Đình Diệm took hold of South Vietnam in 1955, the French withdrew from their former dominion. The corrupt and flawed Diệm subsumed all things French — and all things Montagnard — to further establish a South Vietnamese identity: he eliminated their autonomy and annexed the Highlands; replaced their province chiefs with kinh; absorbed formerly French-led Montagnard battalions into his army, stripping commanders of their posts and forcing soldiers to take Vietnamese names; prohibited the teaching of Montagnard languages; and abolished tribal courts, land, and property rights.

Diệm in 1956 began his own colonization, initiating the resettlement of one million kinh to the Highlands, simultaneously seeking to assimilate the Montagnards into “mainstream Vietnamese society.” His government promptly changed the Montagnard names of villages, provinces, rivers, and mountains to some new Vietnamese analogues.

The Montagnards thus began to organize politically: they wrote to Diệm with their grievances, prompting not policy change but the arrest of Montagnard leaders; protests were met with official oppression. By 1964, the Montagnard movement had morphed into the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO), an organized insurgency group that began military assaults against South Vietnam.

The Americans were by then involved in the Highlands, fighting there alongside Montagnards, including some in FULRO.

“This was ethnonationalism,” former Green Beret William Chickering later wrote. It was “an ideology that gave more dignity and hope to Montagnards than Marxism and was far more appealing to them than a call to unify Vietnam.”

The United States forbade soldiers from supporting FULRO, but Chickering says he and others allowed their indigenous allies to slink off into the jungle with ammunition and weapons. But even the most well-meaning American soldiers fled Vietnam in 1973, abandoning the same allies they still extoll as “fierce,” “pugnacious” and “natural fighters.” Some Montagnards continued fighting without the Americans to no avail, as the Vietnams united under the hammer-and-sickle in 1976. And Hanoi, despite previous promises of Montagnard autonomy, immediately upon unification began resettling even more kinh in the Highlands, furthering Diệm’s damage, also jailing Montagnard leaders. Some of those who avoided arrest fled into the forest, where they joined what was left of FULRO, whose ranks would soon be ravaged by disease and Vietnamese attacks. Some later fled into Cambodia, where they faced hostilities from Phnom Penh’s Hanoi-installed government and the remaining Khmer Rouge.

FULRO continued its lonely fight for years before surrendering to UN peacekeepers in 1992. Of this force that once numbered in the thousands, only 400 remained.

But the Montagnards remaining in the Highlands are still tainted by FULRO’s legacy, in which many say they played no part.

“We didn’t work for FULRO, but the communists think we were,” Uoh, the former paratrooper, recalled, speaking for a group of veterans gathered in Kon Đào, a rural hamlet on the outskirts of Kon Tum City. The war, they said, was a period of chaos in which they sought to seize their autonomy, something they believed the communists would never allow; they thought aligning with the Americans was the best way to achieve this goal.

Instead, this alliance cemented in the communist mind the Montagnards as nationalistically rebellious, rendering them a Fifth Column group requiring repression. Hanoi seems to believe that the Montagnards, if not properly put down, will rebel, disrupting Vietnam’s autocracy.

“Montagnard anger at losing customary lands to ethnic kinh settlers from the lowlands and military-connected plantation companies is treated by the authorities as counterrevolutionary acts,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told me. “Almost everything the Montagnards do is interpreted by the Vietnam government through the filter of historical political hostility, even though the war has long been over.”

IV.

When that final FULRO contingent surrendered, they had a particular final destination in mind.

“They don’t have many friends,” the UN Refugee Agency representative said at the time, issuing incidentally perhaps the most accurate assessment of the Montagnards’ position in the world. “They have made up their minds that they want to be resettled as a group in the United States.”

These Montagnards likely chose the United States because of the closeness felt between their community and the Americans. Green Berets continue to praise the Montagnards’ loyalty, sense of duty, and Christianity, contrasting their valor with the ungratefulness of the American public. The Montagnards with whom I spoke described their American counterparts similarly.

Hoa, a 78-year-old former spy, lit up when I asked him about his former allies, so much so that he, his hazelnut-hued face filled with an ear-to-ear grin, repeated again and again the one English word he remembered: “Texas! Texas! Texas!”

The overwhelming majority of these Montagnard fighters never reached the United States. While interviewing some of them, I had to clarify, often repeatedly, that neither I nor my government had inherited this promise, and that I was not a savior offering deliverance in the form of an American life, but was there only to meekly report.

“To go over there, to the U.S., that’s what the Americans promised,” Uoh told me. But when the Americans decamped Vietnam in 1973, they took no Montagnards with them; it would be an additional 13 years before the United States opened its doors to them. This limited resettlement began in 1986, and by 1994 had been reduced substantially, as the United States suspended the program, which resumed briefly in 2002.

Some of the Montagnards with whom I spoke applied for resettlement and were denied, often because they had missed the deadlines. Given that most foreign diplomats and aid workers are not allowed into the Highlands, it’s unsurprising that many Montagnards never knew these vital bureaucratic details. An additional impediment was communist retribution. Dim never applied for resettlement because he feared being found out and subsequently tortured or imprisoned: “That’s why I didn’t try.” In sum, only about 1,500 of the 70,000 US-allied Montagnard soldiers made it to the promised land.

“We fought alongside them from 1962 until 1973. We loved them,” former Green Beret Jim Morris wrote in 2003. “Over that decade half the Montagnard men of military age died in our service. This fact has not escaped the North Vietnamese. They have stolen the lands of the Montagnards and done everything in their power to obliterate their culture.”

He added: “In 1968 there were 2,000,000 Montagnards in Vietnam, and now there are 750,000 and dropping. They are in hell. We left them in hell.”

V.

Montagnard-American writer H’Rina DeTroy, the child of a Vietnam War refugee, remembers as a child seeing her people only in a single issue of National Geographic — one, she writes, that portrayed them as “unreadable supporting characters to the Americans” and, ultimately, as “savages or preliterate, modern-day hunters and gatherers.”

“I had never seen our faces or names in television, movies or books. School texts had a few passages on the Vietnam War, and I understood vaguely that my mother came to the United States from that,” she writes. “But nothing on the Montagnards. Besides this issue of National Geographic, we were unseen.”

And while some Green Berets still advocate for the Montagnards, this veterans’ voice has long-gone unheard, echoing only faintly if at all in the halls of American power. In spring 2019, I asked the American Embassy in Hanoi to comment on the Montagnards’ position: their press shop, echoing almost a half-decade of American unseeing, offered a blasé statement on human rights that could not even muster the use of the word “Montagnard.”

“The United States raises issues of human rights, religious freedom, and adherence to the rule of law with the Government of Vietnam at all levels,” a spokesperson told me.

This lacking condemnation is perhaps because the United States and Vietnam cooperate on trade and security, with the former viewing the latter as a regional bulwark to China, and the latter grateful for the designation. There is some discord on Vietnam’s abysmal human rights record, but no recent administration has deemed the issue reason enough to downgrade relations. The relationship is “a burgeoning partnership,” and one that the United States is not willing to risk on behalf of the Montagnards. According to former US Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, American leverage regarding the Montagnards’ treatment “is virtually nonexistent.”

But while the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations at best forgot the Montagnards, the Trump administration has somehow managed to brush them off anew.

Montagnards in the United States have long been unofficially exempt from deportation. Hanoi, ostensibly considering them undesirable, for years refused to issue the travel papers required for their deportation; the United States allowed them to remain there. But Vietnam in 2017 acquiesced to US pressure and began accepting Montagnard deportees, all of whom are the children of US-allied soldiers, and are being forcibly returned to the country from which they fled, and one in which they will be persecuted.

Chuh A, the son of an American-allied soldier who spent nearly a decade in a postwar reeducation camp, came to the United States as a 13-year-old in the late 1990s, and like most Montagnards, settled in North Carolina, near their Green Beret brethren’s base at Fort Bragg.

In his late 20s, he served three years in prison for an ecstasy trafficking conviction that invalidated his permanent residency, also known as a green card. He previously did not pursue citizenship, as he believed himself — like all Montagnards before Trump took office — to be undeportable. So when he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2016, while Barack Obama was president and Montagnards were ostensibly unremovable, he assumed he would eventually be released. Instead, following Trump’s election and apparent pressuring of Hanoi, he was deported — after 13 months in ICE custody — to Vietnam in 2017, where he immediately faced police harassment.

Chuh had one question for me when first met in Hồ Chí Minh City: “Why am I here?”

VI.

In January, I attended Chuh’s wedding in Kon Tum, an affair uniting two Montagnard-American children of American-allied soldiers. His wife made the 9,000-mile trip from their former shared home in North Carolina to tie the knot with Chuh, and commit to a lifetime long-distance marriage. Rex, unlike Chuh, is an American citizen, as are their four daughters, who range in age from six to 13; Rex and their children remain in North Carolina.

Throughout the wedding, I was uncomfortably and unexpectedly feted as an American, with men and women of all ages seeking to talk with me. Thanks to my appearance (my whiteness and locally abnormal height) and nationality, I was clearly a commodity: someone for the women to flirt and dance with; for the young men to fraternize with and later friend on Facebook; for the veterans to surprisingly thank and then reminiscence with, as if I had been with them in the throes of war. There was no anger, no frustration expressed to me about the ways in which my country had failed generations of Montagnards. They simply appreciated that my people had once advocated for them, and that one American had returned, albeit empty-handed, to celebrate in their dominion.

In keeping with celebratory tradition, friends and family procured toddler-sized jugs of homemade rice wine, forcing the couple to make the rounds and stop at each jug to guzzle through a straw. At each station, they picked up an object — a chicken leg or piece of candy — meant to symbolically provide them with the necessities for life together, a tradition that like the wedding at large simultaneously ignored but also celebrated Chuh and Rex’s commitment to a lifetime apart.

When the couple had enough of the sour wine, they enlisted friends or family to step in and take on the burden. Chuh, who I had met only once or twice before, grabbed me and commanded that I drink. So I did. Rex, minutes later, had me do the same. So I did. Even Chuh’s 72-year-old mother, Chok Y, soon after issued a similar commandment, and semi-politely chastised me after I failed to guzzle enough wine for her liking. So I drank, again, and as the afternoon turned to dusk and then night, an American, perhaps for the first time in nearly 50 years, imbibed in the Highlands with the Montagnards, offering a few fleeting moments of happiness in a narrative that all in attendance knew would ultimately be bookended by intergenerational broken promises.

Somehow, the Montagnards’ affinity for Americans still runs staggeringly deep, particularly in North Carolina, where the few resettled veterans continue to believe in the country that forsook the majority of their ethnic brethren, so much so that they tried to support the United States’s most infamous 21st-century militaristic venture abroad. “Shortly after the events of Sept. 11, a battalion of former soldiers originally from the Central Highlands of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, volunteered for the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan,” reads a post on a veterans forum. “They wanted no pay. All they asked was for transportation to the region, ammunition and one final condition: that their battalion takes the place of an equal number of American soldiers.”

The request, while commended online by American veterans, was denied, a refusal indicative of the Montagnards’ general relation with the United States. The latter utilizes the former, whose loyalty knows no bounds, when convenient and in pursuit of broader goals, only to brush them off upon mission completion — or as more properly put in the case of the Vietnam War: upon mission exhaustion.

The Montagnards are evidently nothing more in the American consciousness than a historical afterthought, appearing only in our canonized Vietnam War narratives as background “tribesmen.” But to this imperiled community rapidly approaching extinction, America and its attached dreams — of political autonomy and personal freedom — are everything, and perhaps all they have left.

¤

Some of the reporting presented here appeared previously in an article by the author in the Los Angeles Times.

¤

Charles Dunst is an incoming MSc candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics, and a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Atlantic, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy, among other publications. He was formerly based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


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