|The author with Fulro leaders in Phnom Penh, April 1973.|
A War of Their Own
New York Times | 9 June 2017
In the spring of 1967, I was a 22-year-old Special Forces lieutenant at a hilltop base in Vietnam near the Cambodian border. My soldiers were Montagnards, people native to the highlands and ethnically distinct from the lowland Vietnamese, whom they saw as colonialists intent on taking their land and changing their way of life. They were almost all members of a rebel organization called Fulro, a French acronym for the United Liberation Front for the Oppressed Races, dedicated to driving the Vietnamese from the highlands. Its base was somewhere beyond the border, beyond the ancient Angkor road, beyond the rivers that all ran west, glinting beneath the haze.
We were a special reconnaissance unit, with no Vietnamese commanders, which is what had attracted the Fulro firebrands to work with us as scouts and as a battalion reaction force. I commanded the latter. Strict orders had come down from Gen. William Westmoreland forbidding American soldiers to support Fulro because we were “not in Vietnam to support rebellion against the South Vietnamese government.”
This made sense, but many soldiers like me disobeyed. Not only were the Montagnards our protectors and comforters in the ghastliness of the jungle, but their cause seemed just, echoing the civil rights movement back home. When my battalion’s ammunition and weapons began to disappear, I looked the other way.
By 1956 the Montagnards had banded together politically, forming a movement to resist Vietnamese settlement in the highlands. In 1964 this movement morphed into Fulro and began assaults against the South Vietnamese. By 1967 popular enthusiasm for the cause was at its height. Naked 4-year-olds in remote hamlets chirped, “I am Fulro.”
The movement’s visionary leader, Y-Bham Enuol, was widely believed to converse with spirits as well as with Charles de Gaulle. Pythons were said to coil beneath his bed. Thousands followed him to Cambodia, including families, who camped in its forests. This was ethnonationalism, 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, a point ignored by those who portrayed all Montagnard soldiers as mercenaries.
Sadly, Fulro’s birth in 1964 was the beginning of the end of Montagnard agency. By embracing revolution, which required sanctuary outside Vietnam’s borders, Fulro accepted Cambodia’s suffocating embrace. Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, like Charles de Gaulle in France, still hoped to persuade America to pull out of Indochina. Sihanouk apparently thought that supporting Fulro would cause trouble for South Vietnam, and thus for the United States.
Sihanouk’s chosen instrument was a Cambodian Army colonel, a Muslim Cham named Les Kosem. The Cham were a disdained minority in both Cambodia and Vietnam, fishermen and river traders who long ago conquered Angkor and plied the southern seas from China to Arabia. From an early age Kosem had been fiercely determined to restore Cham glory by clawing back territory lost over the centuries to the Vietnamese. Though fantastical, this was not impossible, with war looming. With some historical and linguistic justification, he considered Montagnards to be “highland Cham,” and the entire central highlands to be part of ancient Champa. He saw the Montagnard cause as his own and co-opted it. Dignified and thoughtful, he nevertheless had a touch of monomania to him, a bit of Captain Ahab.
Fulro’s first rebellion in 1964 against the South Vietnamese bore Kosem’s stamp, and perhaps that of France. By being deliberately violent, it set Fulro on a path of no return. But by 1966, Sihanouk had begun to fear Fulro for its coup potential. He assigned Kosem to a much bigger task elsewhere and let Fulro rot.
The failure of a second rebellion deepened the division between moderates who preferred to negotiate with Saigon and die-hards who still hoped to win autonomy through fighting. Seeing that their leader, Y-Bham Enuol, was leaning toward negotiation, young militants engineered a coup in 1968, sending the older leader onward to house arrest in Phnom Penh and disarming his followers. Thousands of moderates trekked to Vietnam and integrated into society, leaving only the militants — about 200 Montagnards and young intellectual Chams — at Fulro’s forest base in eastern Cambodia.
In March 1970, Sihanouk was deposed, replaced by a pro-American general. In May, the remaining Fulro militants, including some wives, found themselves on a hill under attack by North Vietnamese soldiers.
For two nights they fought off ferocious assaults but, recognizing that a third would be their last, slipped away in small groups before daybreak. Making their way by night across 100 miles of forest, they evaded the North Vietnamese for two weeks with little food or water. By homing on the sounds of battle, they finally linked up with invading Americans. The Chams, town-dwellers and new to war, had lost almost half their number, the Montagnards none. For 800 years, Montagnard and Cham had been allied against the slow, inexorable march of the Vietnamese. This was their last stand.
The surviving militants were absorbed into the Cambodian Army. The Montagnards were put across a river in defense of Phnom Penh, also under siege. With time, the North Vietnamese withdrew, pushed back by American airpower (the Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge, were still organizing in the provinces). Thus for the next three to four years, life was relatively normal in Phnom Penh itself. The Montagnard leaders moved into the city, sharing two villas and sending their children to school, some for the first time in their lives. The elder leader asked passing reporters to help him get to America.
In 1973, I was one of those reporters. I had left the Army to finish college, and then pursued pre-med studies, but Fulro’s mystery called, and I wangled a press card as a stringer for Harpers. Fulro’s spokesmen, three young militants, were candid about their revolution being stalled. Cambodia, now allied with South Vietnam, could no longer be used as an anti-Vietnamese platform.
Two years later, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Once again the Montagnard soldiers encamped across the river from Phnom Penh had to escape at night, this time neck-deep through swamps, back to the city. Eligible for diplomatic asylum, they gathered their wives and children and took refuge in the French Embassy. But, as those who saw “The Killing Fields” will remember, the victorious Khmer Rouge scoffed at the concept of asylum and demanded the expulsion of everyone without a foreign passport.
On April 21, 1975, some 150 Montagnard men, women and children marched out of the gate into the maw of utopian evil. Many observers noted their calmness and dignity, unique on that day. Only hints exist as to what happened then. It is likely that most were killed.
Two men got out before Cambodia plunged into the abyss. One was the Cham, Les Kosem, sent on a diplomatic mission the week before; he died a year later. The other was one of the three militant spokesmen I had met, Y-Bhan Kpor, who was undergoing military training in the United States. I had become one of his sponsors, and had to break the news to him that the Montagnards had been expelled from the embassy.
After several years, he set off on an odyssey to find his wife and children, and we lost contact. Some 30 years later, I received an email from an anthropologist in Cambodia. Y-Bhan was looking for me. I went to Cambodia and found him farming the red-dirt highlands, alone.
It had taken him 18 years to get back to Cambodia. Along the way he bottled Coca-Cola in Atlanta, worked as a nightshift foreman in a Tulsa, Okla., tire factory, tracked down witnesses in Paris who had been in the embassy, and languished in a Malaysian refugee camp. In Cambodia he joined the legions searching for the missing.
He found the ex-Khmer Rouge general who had taken Phnom Penh and spent successive nights drinking with him till dawn, but gleaned nothing significant. Any information that he did gather was dubious, hallucinatory (“A Khmer Rouge soldier made your wife sing before killing her”), and more painful than silence. After three years of that, he gave up.
Recently Y-Bhan tried one more time to find his family, with the help of Cambodia’s truth commission, publishing a list of the Embassy Montagnards, with 78 names, mostly children, specifying how old each individual would be today. It went out twice, nationwide, but he got no response.
Y-Bhan and his fellow militants were right about their people’s future. The Montagnards did lose most of their land to the Vietnamese and have lost much of their way of life. In retrospect, the militants were right, too, in believing that little could be done to stop this, not even siding with the Communists, short of fighting for a country of their own.
William H. Chickering, an emergency physician, is completing a book about Fulro.