General Nguyen Binh died in a hail of French bullets 50 years ago when Vietnamese, Cambodian and Lao nationalists fought side-by-side against French colonialism in Indochina.
Ambushed by French forces on that fateful day in 1951, the Vietnamese general’s remains were lost for almost five decades.
But in remote Stung Treng province, locals still remembered where they buried the Vietnamese general, who was passing through Cambodia on an ill-fated journey from southern Vietnam to Hanoi.
In February, 2000, Nguyen Binh’s remains were exhumed from their Cambodian resting place and returned to Vietnam.
The repatriation marked the unofficial beginning of a five-year plan to recover the remains of other Vietnamese soldiers who, for over four decades, fought and died on Cambodian soil.
It was a proud moment to finally bring home one of the country’s renowned generals, said Chu Dong Loc, press attache at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh.
“In the battle against the French, they died. Then in the battle against the US army here, they died. Then in the battles with the Khmer Rouge, many more [Vietnamese] died here,” he said.
“We know that there are remains scattered in every province….So it will require a huge cooperation between both sides.”
The process of finding and repatriating the remains of Vietnamese soldiers who went missing in action on Cambodian soil is politically sensitive, given the history of conflict between the two countries. But it has already begun, following the signing of a joint plan of action by the two countries in May.
So far, teams of Vietnamese officials have searched for the remains of soldiers in Takeo and Kampot provinces, said Sieng Lapresse, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Cambodian authorities are reviewing a Vietnamese proposal to search in Svay Rieng province next.
The Vietnamese have not said how many soldiers they have recovered, Sieng Lapresse said. But the main concern from the Cambodian side is avoiding the friction that might accompany the reappearance of Vietnamese military representatives on Cambodian soil.
“So far, so good,” Sieng Lapresse said of the effort. “We have no problem cooperating on a humanitarian mission.”
Cambodian authorities have taken several measures to placate those who might be worried by the presence of Vietnamese officials, Sieng Lapresse said.
The joint plan of action states that Vietnamese search teams may not exceed 70 people, and a verbal agreement limits them to no more than 20, he said. Cambodian authorities have also forbidden the teams from carrying firearms or explosives.
“We will fully ensure their security. Provincial police will be at the site,” Sieng Lapresse said.
Vietnamese authorities estimate that as many as 22,000 Vietnamese soldiers have been killed in action on Cambodian soil, Sieng Lapresse said. About 9,000 of those soldiers died near the Vietnamese border, he said.
The search is entirely funded by the Vietnamese. Their search teams lack the advanced technologies or the budget that the US has used to search for their war dead since the US MIA program began in 1992. But in many cases they have more detailed maps than do the US teams, Sieng Lapresse said. The Vietnam government aims to complete the effort by December 2005.
Tea Banh, co-minister of defense, says the Cambodian government committee assigned to work with US MIA searchers will also work with the Vietnamese government, mostly on simple military protocol.
“It is normal. Troops killed in another country should be allowed take those bodies back,” says Tea Banh.
The Vietnamese government will attempt to bury the recovered soldiers in their home provinces, said Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung. Others may be buried in soldiers’ cemeteries.
But the Vietnamese plan to find remains of soldiers doesn’t extend to all fighters. Asked if the government has any intention of tracking down the remains of South Vietnamese soldiers, Nguyen Duy Hung said: “That is a different matter.”
US Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Smith, Detachment One Commander of the US Joint Task Force Full Accounting mission, recalls that when US MIA investigators discovered the remains of a South Vietnamese soldier while searching for the remains of US soldiers in Snuol district, Kratie province, Hanoi wasn’t interested in their return.
Some Cambodians are skeptical that the Vietnamese will have much success finding missing soldiers. RCAF Major Meas Phat, a former paratrooper who led troops against the Vietnamese during the 1980s in the forested no-man’s land which separates Thailand from Banteay Meanchey province, says the Vietnamese sentiment is understandable, but the plan is not practical.
Meas Phat recounted fighting on the border which at times replicated WWI trench warfare. The Vietnamese, supported by artillery and tanks, favored headlong attacks on resistance positions, forcing the Cambodian fighters to retreat deep into Thai territory.
“Sometimes we buried the slain Vietnamese soldiers, if we had time,” says Meas Phat, who claims he witnessed the burial of dozens of Vietnamese troops in a decade of fighting on the border.
Attempts to find those sites today would be impossible, he says. Land mines still litter the areas where the fighting took place and the physical characteristics of the forests have changed so completely it would be impossible to find a burial site by memory.
Meas Phat said he would cooperate to find the sites if asked by the Cambodian government. However, he still has reservations over the return of Vietnamese military to Cambodia, even an MIA team.
“People will be worried the Vietnamese would do something else in Cambodia. Maybe they will try to investigate our troop strength and our equipment,” says Meas Phat.
Heng Samrin, former head of state of the Vietnamese-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea and now deputy president of the National Assembly, says the same cooperation that has been extended to find US war dead in Cambodia must also be extended to Vietnam.
“We do not hesitate to find the bodies of the Vietnamese. This is the same as the Americans have done here,” says Heng Samrin.
“Now we have peace. There is nothing to worry in the Vietnamese coming back to Cambodia.”
(Reporting by Richard Sine, Phann Ana, Thet Sambath, Kevin Doyle)