Lighting the darkness: FULRO’s jungle Christians
Vietnam Era Renegade Army Discovered
By Nate Thayer
(This story appeared in the Phnom Penh Post and as the cover story in the Far Eastern Economic Review. I discovered, in the remote Northeastern Cambodian jungles along the Ho Chi Minh trail along the Vietnamese border, an army literally lost in time. Eventually all 398 FULRO fighters and families were given political asylum in the U.S., after the high pressure intervention of their former U.S. army special forces comrades learned they were still, 17 years after the Americans withdrew, fighting the Vietnam War. They are all now settled in the U.S., mostly in North Carolina.
Friday, 25 September, 1992
By Nate Thayer
MONDULKIRI, Cambodia – Accompanied by a chorus of crickets and the steady drumming of rain on the leaf roofs of their huts, scores of Montagnard fighters and their families gather in the jungle darkness each night to pray and sing.
Having long ago fled ideological restrictions in Vietnam for a religious sanctuary deep in the forest, the soldiers are members of FULRO–the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races-which has fought for a separate homeland in Vietnam for their hill tribe people since 1964.
Lamps fueled by chunks of slow-burning tree resin give light to the few shared tattered bibles and hymnals as Christian songs of worship echo through the otherwise uninhabited forest. Familiar gospel hymns are sung in the tribal dialects of the mountains.
For many at FULRO’s scattered guerrilla bases, the ability to pray freely was a main motivation to flee their villages in Vietnam’s central highlands 17 years ago.
“The communists will not let us pray. They say that Christianity is an American and French religion, so we came to live in the jungle,” said Lt.-Col. Y Hinnie. “In our land under the communists, people pray at home secretly or in the rice fields. They cannot worship together like we do in the jungle. Here we are free.”
Each of the five jungle encampments in the FULRO rear base area have an Evangelical church, while there is a lone Catholic church in the main guerrilla camp. Nearly 40 people share a single bible for the daily Catholic Mass and at weekend services. The church consists of pews of wooden logs lined neatly in a clearing, a towering rough-hewn cross behind the altar.
Similar Evangelical churches, cut into clearings surrounded by 30-meter high hardwood trees, are packed with more than 350 worshipers for the daily two-hour evening service and brief early morning prayers. Each church has its own pastor, and worshipers bring large green leaves as hassocks to kneel on the damp forest floor.
These believers are the legacy of Christian missionaries who lived in the Central Highlands until 1975, when the last of them were expelled by the current government in Vietnam. Many of the missionaries had mastered the local dialects, translating Bibles and hymnals into the region’s Rade, Jarai and Koho languages.
The guerrillas also tune into weekly radio sermons delivered in their native languages by a powerful shortwave radio station in Manila operated by the Christian Missionary Alliance.
A guerrilla congregation reels off the names of “their” missionaries like a litany: “In Pleiku, Mr. Long and Mr. Fleming and in Dalat, Helen Evans, she is from America too. Ken Swain from Darlac, he preaches in our language on the radio every Saturday now.”
FULRO officials say some of the missionaries’ involvement with the Montagnards went beyond simply bringing the scriptures to the area. They said some of them were active in the waning days of U.S. involvement in the early 1970s in running guns to the guerrillas.
Following the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975, FULRO leaders say, the communists set about systematically dismantling Christian churches. Many of the Montagnards’ religious leaders were arrested and killed after the communist victory in 1975, they say.
“They take our pastors, preachers and Christians and put them in jail,” said FULRO’s military Commander-in-Chief Col Y Peng Ayun. “We don’t hate any one man because we are Christians, but we can never trust the communists,” he added.
Two prominent Montagnard pastors from Ban Me Thuot, Y Ham Nic Hrah and Y Lico Nie, died in the early 1980s after many years of harsh conditions in prison, according to the guerrillas. “Here, we worship no matter what,” said Pastor Budar Su Khong, 52, from Dalat. “Jesus said ‘Come to me whoever is tired, and I will bring you rest.’ We are very tired. Please take a message to Christians in other countries to pray for us, and we will pray for them.”
Vietnam War Era Renegade Army Discovered In Mondulkiri
By Nate Thayer
Abandoned for years by their own leaders and former foreign military backers, an anti-Hanoi Montagnard army based in northeast Cambodia has 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.
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.”
When two correspondents 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 reporters, hungrily seeking information. “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 deadly snakes.
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 potatoes 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 Vietnamese regimes.
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 you.”
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 captured.
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 said.
“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.”