On Freedom, Refugees, Immigrants, and a Free Press
“Remember you went to jungle and told the world that we exist”
August 17, 2016
By Nate Thayer
Sometimes in life, we are all faced with challenges to do the right thing. Often, when we are under legitimate pressure from reasonable arguments, we just say “fuck it”, and move on, trying to bury our moral failures when they rear their ugly heads and we cave to weakness, excuses, practicality, or other self-interest. And, often, whether we like to admit it, ignorance and intolerance.
The realities of the drudgery of not upsetting the rhythms of real life often trump courage and doing the right thing, and then we try to blot out our cowardice—censor it from our owns minds because it is too painful or uncomfortable to process.
I know I have certainly done this, and today I was reminded of one time that has haunted me for decades.
I received a message today from a Montagnard refugee here in the U.S. “Hello Nate, how have you been? I am wondering if you still remember the group of three Montagnards that had come to Cambodia and sought for your help. You had let us stay in your office at the Phnom Penh Post?” it read.
“Of course I do. Are you one of three people who stayed in the room on the roof?” I replied.
“Yes, I am. I was the one that was the tallest of the three. One of us has been able to make it here to the U.S., and another one has passed away,” he wrote.
“Oh, I have thought about you a lot. Of course I remember. You were fleeing from political persecution. I have felt terrible for many years that I wasn’t able to help you,” I responded. “I feel like I failed you.”
In 1993, three Montagnards—an extraordinary group of ethnic and religious minorities from the Central Highlands of Vietnam– fled their country and crossed the border into Cambodia to seek sanctuary at my house. To make a long story short, I kicked them out to what I knew was most likely a very ugly fate of death, jail, and persecution.
The three men—fleeing from religious and ethnic and political persecution from Vietnam–had heard that the year before I had helped 300 Montagnards guerrilla army fighters that had taken sanctuary in the jungles of Cambodia, escape and get political asylum in the United States.
It was a bit more complicated than that, but that is the essential truth.
Today, one of those three men sent me a message. He wanted to thank me. I remain discombobulated as to how my actions of 25 years ago morphed into this man’s reaction today.
Here is a partial back story:
In 1992, I indeed had located several hundred Montagnards living in one of the remotest places on earth–many days walk from the nearest village–in the jungles of Mondolkiri province in the far northeast of Cambodia along the old Ho Chi Minh trail.
These armed guerrillas had been fighting the Vietnam War since the Americans fled the country in 1975.
In August of 1992 when I met them—17 years after the end of the Vietnam war–the first thing they asked me was: “where are the guns you promised us?”
FULRO had been fighting the Vietnam War for the previous 17 years, ever since the United States pulled out in 1975. They were abandoned and told by the Americans “we will be back and we will support you and we will provide you guns.” And then the U.S. troops and CIA paramilitary fled from the advancing North Vietnamese communists. FULRO was left behind to defend for themselves.
The American never came back.
Fast-forward 17 years to the jungles of Cambodia.
I was an American and these Montagnards had fought bravely side-by-side with U.S. army Special Forces. Many thousands had died helping my country and my people. They have been fighting against religious and ethnic persecution as Christian minority’s for decades. And they have suffered horribly. And they still do.
The FULRO I met in the jungles did not want to be refugees. They were not seeking sanctuary in another country. They wanted to continue to fight to the last man for the liberation of their homeland. But the United Nations and the world community had no strategic or tactical interest in supporting proxy wars in Indochina. No one was going to give them guns.
This made them very sad. They were faced with only two options—to return to their homeland and face certain persecution at best—or become refugees in an unfamiliar country.
By the time I crossed their path in 1992, they were down to 300 men with guns–the largest weapon being an RPG-40, which had exactly four rounds of ammunition. A few years before, they had 10,000 men under arms. They had all been wiped out, killed by the Vietnamese victors from the North after 1975.
I had heard about this “Lost Army” when an obscure United Nations report came from a remote United Nations Uruguayan army platoon outpost in the middle of fucking nowhere saying: “Four men emerged from the jungle saying they were with some group calling themselves FULRO (The United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races). They wanted us to supply them with weapons to fight the Vietnamese communists. Please advise on how to proceed.”
Nobody knew who FULRO was in 1992, but I did.
I had been following their struggle for years, and I knew indeed that there was a rag tag army remaining in remote parts of Northeast Cambodia. A few years prior, several hundred from this groups had made their way from Vietnam across Cambodia to UN refugee camps in Thailand. They had confirmed that there were several hundred fighters left behind in the jungles along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail.
I contacted these earlier refugees, who were all living in North Carolina, and told them about the message which had come down from the Uruguayan platoon in northeast Cambodia. “We have not heard from them in seven years. We think they are all dead. But if their commanders name is (such and such), those are us,” I was told.
I made my way up to northern Cambodia by UN navy boat because there were no scheduled airline flights to the province then. We were attacked by Khmer Rouge guerrillas along the way who shot up our speedboat. It took us three days to get from Phnom Penh to Stung Treng province—which was still several hundred kilometers from where I wanted to go.
When I arrived at the Uruguayan army battalion headquarters in Stung Treng province, in remote northern Cambodia, I requested a meeting with the Uruguayan battalion commander, a very affable man. “I would like you to give me a helicopter to take me to FULRO,” I said.
The Uruguayan Colonel gave me a long look. “There is no way we are giving you a helicopter to fly to Mondolkiri,” he laughed. “ We have been instructed by UNTAC HQ not to talk to any journalists” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “We are not going to fucking provide you helicopter transport to go off to the jungle,” he said gruffly but with a contradictory smile on his face. “Are you crazy?”
“Yes,” I said. “I am pretty sure more than a few people would say I am a certifiable nut case. But I think these FULRO people have been struggling for many years and they deserve a voice and they deserve justice and freedom.”
The Uruguayan Colonel and I talked for another hour about how fucked up the entire UN Peace Plan was proceeding in Cambodia. At the time, the United Nations Peace Plan had mandated that 4 competing guerrilla armies disarm, respect a ceasefire, and allow the creation for an atmosphere of free and fair elections. That was all pure fiction, as war and conflict and incompetence and corruption raged around everyone.
“You know, all of these four armies are a pain in the ass,” said the Uruguayan battalion commander. “ The only one I have any respect for is FULRO. But the last thing we need is a whole other army to come out of nowhere.”
“Well, Okay,” I said. “ I will rent elephants and make my way to FULRO on my own. It will take me four days. It sure would easier if I could get there by a MI-17 helicopter.”
We parted ways, on very friendly terms, but the UN Uruguayan, who was the commander for that part of Northern Cambodia, told me in no uncertain terms to fuck off. “I like you,” he said when we parted. “ You are a crazy motherfucker. But I like you.”
I was hunkered down at the only hotel in Stung Treng that existed—the former communist party official guesthouse for the province. I was accompanied by a very delightful young Taiwanese lass, who was very charming. But she was not part of the FULRO program.
At about 9:00PM, a Uruguayan army jeep pulled up with an uniformed Uruguayan army captain and his driver. He knocked on my door. “Fuck the elephants,” he said. He then handed me a full Uruguayan army uniform, a pair of sunglasses, and the standard issue Uruguayan army automatic rifle. “You are now a sick Uruguayan army soldier who is to be transported back to his base. Be here at 0600 hours and we will pick you up and you will have a helicopter to take you to FULRO base camp,” he said with a very slight smile. “ Don’t say a fucking word when we get to the airport because you can’t speak Spanish and you are very sick. We will take care of the rest.”
And then he left.
I informed the Taiwanese girlfriend that we would be parting ways at dawn, and she was not happy.
The next morning, I was whisked to the Stung Treng airfield. A Russian MI-17 helicopter was commandeered upon the orders of the Uruguayan army provincial UN military headquarters. Numerous people were jabbering in Spanish to me at the airfield. I played stupid, as I didn’t understand a word of it. Promptly, I was put on a helicopter with two Russian pilots, and we made our way to the jungles of Mondolkiri.
Once over the jungles, I pulled out my map which showed a river where supposedly FULRO had located their command headquarters, about 10 kilometers from the Vietnamese border and more than 100 kilometers from the nearest inhabited village in Cambodia. We flew low over the snaking, winding river surrounded by thick forest. And then below there was a small clearing.
And hundreds of people emerged, many carrying weapons. They had no interest in surrendering.
“We are very happy you have come. We have waited a very long time. Where are the guns you promised us? said the commander.
To make a long story short, within three months, all 300 of the FULRO soldiers were given political asylum to the United States—an unprecedented speedy process for political refugees. Then vice president Dan Quayle became personally involved. Most all now live in North Carolina. I accompanied them back on an airplane from Cambodia to Greensboro, North Carolina. It was a very moving experience for me.
Then fast forward again.
A year later, three Montagnard refugees showed up at my front door in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They were seeking political asylum. They were being hunted down by the Vietnamese government and had very real threats of political persecution and death.
But I am only a journalist. I had no staff. I had no authority. I had no funds. But I am a human being.
The three refugees showed up at the offices of the Phnom Penh Post, where I both lived and worked, and they were clearly in fear for their lives. We—myself and Michael and Kathleen Hayes, the publishers of the only free newspaper in Indochina at the time–took them in. We put them in a semi bedroom on the roof of the Post office
For twenty years, I have felt a burden of guilt for abandoning these three refugees who sought sanctuary in my house. They had fled very real political oppression from Vietnam and showed up at my front door in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, looking for political sanctuary.
And then today I got a message from one of them—25 years later. I have spent many a sleepless night of angst convinced that I had let these three people down and that their fate since had been bleak.
From the Montagnards refugee who still is afraid if his name is used his family will suffer in Vietnam:
Hello Nate, how have you been? I am wondering if you still remember the group of three Montagnards that had come to Cambodia and sought for your help. You had let us stay in your office at the Phnom Penh Post?
ME: Of course I do. Are you one of three people who stayed in the room on the roof?
XXX: Yes, I am. I was the one that was the tallest of the three. One of us has been able to make it here to the U.S., and another one has passed away.
Me: I am so glad to hear from you. I always wanted to know what happened to you after you left our house. I have long hoped that life has treated you better than it did when we met. Where are you now? What happened to your other two friends? Tell me about your life, my friend
XXXX: When we have arrived back in Vietnam from your house, I had to spread out everywhere. I went into hiding to another village instead of going back to my own. Since we arrived, we three didn’t meet each other trying to avoid the attention from authorities. I just learned the one who has passed away through another in the USA only.
Me: Where are you now? Are you OK?
XXX: I am in Greensboro, North Carolina. I came to USA in 2003. I am much better. I don’t worry or am afraid any more.
Me: Tell me what happened to you after you left my house? That was in 1993, I think
XXXX: Yes, you have very good memory.
Me: Oh, I have thought about you a lot. Of course I remember. You were fleeing from political persecution. I have felt terrible for many years that I wasn’t able to help you
XXXX: I didn’t have enough money to go back to Vietnam at that time, but I had no choice that and did my best communicate with you in very poor English to ask some money from Kathleen, my heart is broken when I heard she has passed away. She gave us $300.00 for expense to go back to Vietnam. It was scary when I had first made the decision to go back to Vietnam.
Me: Yes. Kathleen–and many of us at the newspaper office–really loved and sympathized you. I felt terrible when you had to leave and go and try to go back to Vietnam. It broke my heart. Kathleen was an angel.
XXXX: Because we were afraid that the Cambodian government might arrest us and no one would help. That was why I made the decision to go back.
Me: You three were just looking to be free
XXXX: But I honor your kindness to offer us a place to stay while we were seeking refugee status.
Me: Please accept my sincere apology for not being successful when you tried to be free from political oppression. That has eaten at my heart for many years. I failed you
XXXX: Yes, Kathleen is an Angel. I told my wife and friend about you and her. To go back to when I left Cambodia, I stayed in Saigon for a year because I thought no one could know my background. But after I heard the Vietnam police were suspicious of me a couple of times based on how I look—they assumed I was Montagnard or Cambodian.
Me: Honestly, I am crying just reading this message from you. I am so sorry
XXXX: No, you were my honorable person that treated us so nice. We had a lot of beneficiary of staying on your office. I can’t return all your kindness to us. After I left Cambodia, in my mind and heart I always remember you, and I am so proud that you had welcomed us and offer a luxury place for us to stay. After for a while I was hiding in another village. I married a woman. She looks like an American Asian.
Me: What happened to you after you left us? How did you end up in America?
Were you in a village in Cambodia or Vietnam?
XXXX: I participated in the non-violence movement to fight for freedom for our people and went to demonstrations. Then the crackdown from authorities. happened I had to hide again and fought my way to the jungle in Busara, Mondulkiri province, Cambodia. Once, I received someone’s kindness again. The UNHCR staff led our group and rescued us from that jungle and set up the first Refugee camp for Montagnards in Mondulki.
XXXX: I had been in a Vietnamese village. I was in a refugee camp in Cambodia from 2001 to 2003.
XXXX: I hope we can meet some where in Greensboro or somewhere maybe convenient for you.
Me: I am listening to every word you write. I am very happy to hear from you. I want to know all about your life since I saw you last. And of course I will meet you. I will come to Greensboro because you were/are an important part of my life. I was afraid you were in jail or dead
XXXX: You are a great, humble person in the world based on what you done in your incredible mission to help my people, so I am thrilled when I am in part of your memory. By your bravery and kindness, you helped the world understand more about the Montagnard people and out struggle against oppression. We appreciate all you have brought us to the light of the world.
Me: No. You are wrong. It is what you did to stand up for your freedom that has made the world a better place. I salute you.
Me: Please tell me what happened to you and the other two after you left my house. I feel very guilty that I failed you and always worried that when you left you ended up arrested or killed. My email is [email protected] and my telephone number in Washington DC is 443 205 9162
XXXX: Yes, you are. Remember you went to jungle and told the world that we exist. You used intelligence and skill in your career to write about us and brought that to the world’s attention.
Me: What are you doing in North Carolina these days? Are you happy?
XXXX: Absolutely, i have happy family here. I have three kids and the oldest one is going to college this Friday. I work for school system like community liaison and interpreter/translator.
Me: Oh! Excellent! Congratulations on your child going to college. I am guessing he or she would not be off to college if you were still in Vietnam
XXXX: Can’t compare if she, my daughter, was in Vietnam and could have a chance to access the excellent education like she does now.
Me: Is America as free as you thought it would be? What are your problems here? Is the United States what you had thought life would be like or not?
XXXX: Yes, it is our dream country. Some time we compare it as paradise on earth. If i was in Vietnam my children won’t be the same and have wonderful life here. I, myself, have an opportunity to taking care my family and have very comfortable life here.
Me: Oh, that brings tears to my eyes. I just remember when you were in my house in Phnom Penh and I felt so terrible as if I had kicked you out to face a life of oppression. You have made me both very happy and very sad today
XXXX: When I was Vietnam, i couldn’t afford a bicycle. Here I can drive a car to go to work. Especially, my wife can learn English and drive the car to go to work.
XXXX: Actually, you have done and given us the privilege to live as we do now. I couldn’t imagine if we were without your help to stay in your office, we would have had some trouble with the Cambodian police or ended some where that I couldn’t come here..”
Me: Kathleen would be so happy to know that you are OK now. And there were many other people who really cared about you somehow getting to freedom. Michael Hayes, who published the Phnom Penh Post, really wanted you three to be given refugee status by the UN. We tried hard to get the UN to make you official refugees, but I remember they said no. Many of us cried the day you left our house. We did not know what would happen to you
XXXX: Yes, we knew all of you cared about us. I don’t know how to explain it, but I know for sure God had a plan for my life and He used all of you as his angels to help people in need like us.
XXXX: As now, i came to USA whole family instead just by myself like that time. Our kids have a bright future ahead.
Me: I am sorry you had to suffer on the way
XXXX: Sara Calm also was one of the those Angels who helped us. She comforted and helping a lot of Montagnards. I read your articles about our people and in the Phnom Penh Post enabling us to be inspired, inspiring me about your hearts toward our suffering. It helps to encourage us to move on.
Me: I will tell Sara that today. She sure did care about you. We all tried our best and I am ashamed we failed you then. But very happy you found the road to some sort of freedom and happiness. I can hardly type through the tears that are clouding my eyes right now
XXXX: Thank you for having me here. Your hard work has made a good outcome but there are so many people who are unfortunate who have ended up in the Vietnam jails. Many of them are my relatives.
Me: We need to give them a voice. I am going to write a story about you and your family. People need to understand the importance of political refugees.
XXXX: Sure, we need someone like you who can help give us a voice for what we have been through–that the oppression from the communist regime has caused to us.
So, next time there is someone who is in need, who has nothing to offer you but headaches, someone fleeing political repression, or any kind of oppression, please remember the Vietnamese refugee XXXX.
He was and is a good man.
And now he is a good American.
And he deserves to be free to live a life of religious freedom and opportunity to send his daughter off to college.
I, personally, am proud to call him my fellow countryman.
XXXX deserves to be free. He deserves to be in America. And he deserves the support of people who welcome those who were once from somewhere else like every one of us was, who are of a different religion, whose skin pigmentation is different, whose language is different, whose culture is different, who has lived through war and unspeakable political oppression.
Refugees are the circulatory system of free countries.
Thank you, XXXX XXX, for coming to my country. It is a better country because of you
ADDENDUM: After posting this story, I received a message from the Montagnard refugee:
XXXX: Hi Nate. I read your blog posting that you just wrote. It is great written blog about Montagnards and me. However, i would like to suggest you cut out the part with my name and my family photo that is included in that article. Be mindful, I am not coward to be public exposed. In contrast, I am worried about the security of my parents and relatives back in Vietnam. I would appreciate if you can delete any reference to my name and family photo and information. Thank you so much.
Me: No problem, XXXX. I will remove your name and picture now. Let’s make sure to stay in close touch
XXX: Sure, please be with me about this because my parents have been harassed by the authorities.
Me: I am deleting your name and picture now. Make sure you let me know that I did it properly. Give me 5 minutes
XXXX: I love your article about FULRO. I like someone like you writing about our struggling. You are only one know all about Montagnards in our most recent fighting.
Me: Your name and picture should be removed now. Although sometimes it is hard to remove photos from Facebook, but I think I was able to delete it
XXXX: Great! Sorry for causing you unease of work. It would have been a perfect article if it wasn’t for the fate of my relatives back in Vietnam.
Me: No problem. I am so very glad you contacted me today
XXX: I was thinking about the ways or chance to talk with you or meet you. I am eager wanting to know how you have been also since we met.