The offer by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh Monday to resettle 24 ethnic minority members from Vietnam’s restive Central Highlands might be an act of international humanitarianism toward fleeing refugees.
But the resettlement offer is not a first for the US. And it brings into focus a close relationship now stretching over four decades between the US government and Vietnam’s Montagnard communities, whose members were once the US’s most capable fighters during the war in Vietnam.
Some in these communities were still resisting Hanoi from the Cambodian jungles until as recently as 1992, when about 400 Montagnards were given political asylum and relocated to the US state of North Carolina.
Montagnards comprise ethnic minorities from Vietnam’s Central Highlands, which stretch from Kontum in the northern highlands to Dalat in the south, skirting Cambodia’s border provinces from Stung Treng through Ratanakkiri to Mondolkiri.
Culturally and ethnically different from Vietnamese, Montagnard communities fought with the French colonial administration against the Vietminh in the 1940s. The Montagnards’ alignment with the French was repaid with the granting of a level of political autonomy in the Central Highlands. But following the Geneva Accords in 1954 and the withdrawal of the French from Vietnam, the Montagnards lost their political privileges.
When the US entered the war in Vietnam, the Montagnards were sought out for their jungle survival skills in the strategically important Central Highlands, which split Vietnam’s warring north and south.
Trained by the US Army Special Forces, the Montagnards were renowned for their fighting ability until the defeat of South Vietnam in April 1975.
Fearing retribution as allies of the US, groups of Montagnards fled into the mountainous jungles areas of the Central Highlands and Cambodian border and joined the resistance movement FULRO—a French acronym for the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races.
FULRO continued to fight the North Vietnamese Army and the Hanoi government until the early 1990s. According to a 1998 US State Department report, 201 Montagnards made their way to the Thai-Cambodian border in 1985 and were processed by the US government for resettlement in North Carolina a year later.
In Sept 1992, an additional 398 Montagnard resistance fighters still armed with AK 47s and other equipment were discovered by Paraguayan UN peace keepers serving with Untac in a remote region of Mondolkiri province.
The US moved quickly to airlift the group from Mondolkiri to Phnom Penh, where they were kept at an interim camp on the outskirts of the city for one month before their resettlement in the counties of Guilford, Wake and Mecklenberg in the US state of North Carolina.
A spokesman for the local human rights group Adhoc who remembers the 1992 resettlement of the 400 noted Tuesday the difference in how the government is dealing with the current group of 24 detainees. In 1992 Cambodia was governed by Untac and international obligations to the 400 were honored, he said. Government statements that it must now balance the consideration of international law with that of its neighbors interests should not influence decisions toward refugees fleeing persecution, he said.
While membership in Asean weighs heavily on Cambodia, other members have not shirked their responsibilities to refugees, he added. “Thailand always received the refugees from Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam, and it is a member of Asean also. This is a humanitarian issue. Not a political issue between neighbors,” he said.
A military police official charged with taking care of the 24 detainees at Military Police Headquarters in Phnom Penh said Tuesday that following private interviews on Monday with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the detainees’ spirits have improved markedly.
“They are smiling, talking and are very happy among themselves. We don’t know what they are saying, but they are very happy,” the officials said.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)