In the final days of the Vietnam War in 1975 and immediately following, 1,000,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated from Vietnam and resettled in the United States. And in keeping with a 1960's promise, 150,000 Hmong tribesmen of the US "Secret Army" in Laos were evacuated to our country in 1975. Yet only 3,000 Montagnards, our most distinguished and loyal ally, have reached the U.S.
The Central Highlands of Vietnam is the ancestral homeland of the Montagnard tribes, a peace loving people with an ancient tradition of living in harmony with nature and the cosmic forces. But their great forests and rich lands became a battlefield for communist ambitions and opposing powers, compelling their involvement in two successive wars that raged for nearly three decades.
As Christians, religious freedom was an absolute must. Oppressed as an ethnic minority in their homeland, they sought political autonomy. As communism tolerates neither, they allied first with the French then the Americans. Following the communist victory in 1975, a third war began. This is the story of The Forgotten Army and the aftermath of the Vietnam War for the Montagnard people.
In 1946 France granted political autonomy to the Montagnard tribes over their five Montagnard provinces, known as the Central Highlands. However, the Montagnard tribes were not prepared to capitalize on the opportunity. The French colonial policy of the past was to confine them to low-level positions thus inhibiting their development. Despite 1946 sovereignty grant, this policy went unchanged.
In 1952 the Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai abolished the Montagnard autonomy but allowed them to retain land rights and cultural traditions. Following the Viet Minh communist victory in the French Indochina War, the 1954 Geneva Accords cast the Montagnard tribes under South Vietnamese (SVN) rule.
In 1955 Ngo Dinh Diem was elected president of SVN. He immediately declared the Montagnards, Cham, Khmer, and Chinese within his borders as “ethnic minorities” and instituted policies to assimilate them into the Vietnamese cultural sphere. Diem severely oppressed the Montagnards and resettled nearly a million Vietnamese in the Highlands. The Montagnard tribes were the largest minority and their Highlands strategically significant.
With Y Bham Enuol as leader, in 1958 the four dominate Montagnard tribes (Bahnar, Jarai, Rhade, and Koho) united to form BAJARAKA to peacefully advocate for Montagnard autonomy. President Diem arrested and imprisoned Enuol, his executive committee, and numerous followers.
At the time the Montagnard population in SVN was estimated at 1.5 million. To counter the increasing communist insurgency, Diem allowed US Special Forces (USSF) teams or “Green Berets”) and the CIA to begin training them in village defense and border patrolling. The Americans quickly earned the respect of Montagnards and intense bonds developed.
By 1964 the BAJARAKA movement was turning militant and the Dega Highlands Liberation Front (FLHPM, acronym for the French name) came into being. On September 20, 1964 the FLHPM revolted in the Highlands and killed many SVN officials. Although their safety was never threatened, sympathizing USSF personnel were taken "hostage" to serve as negotiators. The SVN made concessions and released the BAJARAKA leadership from prison. At US insistence the SVN government initiated reforms to restore a variety of Montagnard institutions and regain their loyalty. The Ministry of Ethnic Minorities was created and minorities were appointed as local officials.
During this time, the Cham minority's Champa Liberation Front (FLC) allied with the Montagnard movement. Soon the Kampuchea Krom Liberation Front (FLKK) of the Khmer minority joined. They collaborated under the umbrella organization of Front Unifie De Lutte Des Races Opprimees (FULRO), again chaired by the Montagnard leader Y Bham Enuol. While each of the three fronts was independent with different geographical objectives, together they were perceived as a formidable threat to the SVN control. The immediate objective for all concerned was first to win the war against the communists.
As the SVN leadership evolved, the war escalated and minority allegiance became even more critical. For the balance of the war the relationship between the Saigon government and the minorities steadily improved, and FULRO remained underground.