The Y-Bler Buonya Scholarship Fund

Montagnard History

The Montagnards are a peaceful people native to the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where they lived "in harmony with nature and the cosmic forces" for over 2000 years. Secluded from mainstream society, their first contact with the outside world occurred in 1815, when two Catholic missionaries established a mission in the Kontum Province in the Central Highlands. But it was not until the French colonization in the late 19m Century when missionaries more widely explored the highlands to spread Christianity and interacted with the Montagnards.

As tensions in the region intensified between the Viet Minh and the French Colonial powers in the early 1950's, the Montagnards’ future became uncertain. Seeking political autonomy over their ancestral lands and religious freedom to practice Christianity, the Montagnards allied with the French, who eventually betrayed them and submitted their ancestral lands under the control of Bao Dai, a Vietnamese king. After the Viet Minh defeated the French in 1954, the country was divided in two and led by Ho Chi Minh in the north and Bao Dai inthe south, who quickly lost power to Ngo Dinh Diem in the 1955 elections.

The Diem government had a complete disregard for the Montagnard culture and initiated a land development program in 1957, which caused an influx of 850,000 Vietnamese into the Central Highlands and marked the beginning of atrocities against the Montagnards. Not only did the program abolish Montagnard tribal courts and self-governance, it also prohibited the use of Montagnard tribal languages and denied religious freedom. Hundreds of thousands of Montagnards had their fertile farmlands stolen and were forced to relocate to areas of dense jungle unsuitable for cultivation. Even worse, tens of thousands of Montagnards were killed in the relocation process, many of whom were murdered when they refused to leave their ancestral land.

In response to these atrocities, several Montagnard tribes united and formed the BAJARAKA movement in 1957, which as the primary organization fighting for Montagnard autonomy and religious freedom, organized demonstrations protesting the forced assimilation of Vietnamese culture. Fearing unrest in the Central Highlands, the South Vietnamese government violently and ruthlessly crushed the BAJARAKA movement and imprisoned and tortured its leadership. These harsh tactics of the South Vietnamese government caused a few Montagnards to join the National Liberation Front (NLF)—a pro North Vietnamese movement that promised the Montagnards autonomy and religious freedom, but an overwhelming majority of the Montagnards remained loyal to the BAJARAKA movement.

By 1961 the US had a presence in the region and the Central Intelligence Agency began recruiting the Montagnards to fight against the NVA. The Montagnards took advantage of the opportunity to ally with the United States, as they saw it as a chance to gain autonomy from both North and South Vietnam.

The CIA, in conjunction with US Special Forces, armed and trained the Montagnard tribes and formed village defense units throughout the Central Highlands. The Montagnards became the eyes and ears for the US military and saved tens of thousands of American lives. It was not uncommon for a US Special Forces soldier to be assigned two Montagnard soldiers, one to walk in front of him and one to walk behind him. Many US Special Forces soldiers developed a deep affection for the "Yards", as they called them after witnessing their loyalty, work ethic and sacrifices firsthand.

In 1964 the BAJARAKA movement united with two other minority groups-- the Champa Liberation Front (FLC) and the Karnpuchea Krom Liberation Front (FLKK)-- to form the FULRO (French acronym meaning Front Unifie De Lutte Des Races Opprimees) movement. Although the movement had a new name, the goal remained the same—to win political autonomy and freedom. Perhaps one of the biggest regrets of the FULRO movement occurred in 1964, when eager for official recognition, 3000 FULRO soldiers who were working with US Special Forces revolted and took over several villages, killing several South Vietnamese soldiers in the process. Sympathetic US Special Forces soldiers volunteered to be "hostages" and negotiations soon began between the US, South Vietnam, and the FULRO.

Although a US brokered a peace deal gave the Montagnards concessions from the South Vietnamese government, (which were never fulfilled after the Khanh government was overthrown in a coup by Nguyen Caio Ky the following year) the FULRO leadership, led by General Y-Bham Enuol, was granted amnesty but exiled to Cambodia, where they remained for the next decade. With their leadership living in exile, the FULRO was clearly split into two arms—a political arm based in Cambodia and a militant arm working side by side with US Special Forces soldiers.

Relations between the FULRO and Nguyen Cao Ky’s South Vietnamese government improved over the years. Many exiled FULRO members from the 1964 revolts were allowed to return to Vietnam. In January 1969 13,000 FULRO members and their families returned to Buon Ma Thout. Unfortunately, Les Kosem and Um Savuth refused to offer anymore concessions, and put Y-Bham Enuol, FULRO's elected leader, under house arrest in Cambodia to prevent him from striking a deal with the South Vietnamese.

By 1975 the Montagnards had endured heavy causalities, as they lost over 85% of their villages and over 200,000 people. The NVA had overrun Buon Ma Thout and waged a relentless campaign to torture and kill anyone suspected of helping the American forces. Countless Montagnards were jailed, tortured and executed, while the "lucky ones" were brainwashed in "re- education camps". Consequently, the FULRO Army fled into the jungles and continued fighting against the NVA. It was here, when the US promised to give the FULRO assistance if they continued to fight the NVA.

The FULRO faced huge setbacks, however, when the Khmer Rouge assumed power in Cambodia in 1975 and executed anyone perceived to threaten the new communist government. Seeking refuge in the French Embassy in Phenom Penh, the political arm of the FULRO leadership, including Y-Bham Enuol, was extracted and executed in the city's soccer stadium.

Unaware of the executions, the FULRO Army continued fighting in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. With their supplies exhausted, the FULRO Army traveled to Cambodia to seek aid from various Embassies. At the suggestion of the Khmer Rouge, they requested material support from the Chinese government in 1977, with whom they all shared a common enemy -- the NVA.

Since the FULRO Army was based in the Cambodian jungles at the time, the Khmer Rouge required that they act as a middleman in the transaction, and undoubtedly took a substantial portion of the supplies intended for the FULRO Army. Additionally, the Khmer Rouge took many FULRO Army soldiers and their families captive and forced them to act as pointmen for the Khmer Rouge, clear minefields and other unimaginable hardships.

After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, the FULRO Army was able to break ties with the Khmer Rouge and continued to wage guerilla style attacks on the NVA outposts from mobile camps along the Vietnam/Cambodia border. By 1980 they had approximately 7,000 members. To buy supplies, the FULRO Army hunted elephant and sold the meat and tusks to local villages in exchange for small amounts of gold. The day-to-day guerilla style attacks and uncertainty took its toll on the soldiers and families, however.

By 1986, a group of about 200 members of the FULRO movement made a treacherous journey across Cambodia and into a Thai refugee camp, where they contacted friends in the United States. With the help of the US government, the Montagnards were granted political asylum and resettled in North Carolina.

The remaining 400 members of the FULRO movement continued to fight for Montagnard autonomy and religious freedom until 1992, when fully out of supplies, they contacted the UN Transitional Authority Cambodia to request more supplies, but were denied. The United States also denied their request for aid, but offered safe refuge to the United States, which the remaining FULRO soldiers accepted. Many of the same US Special Forces soldiers who fought with the Montagnards in Vietnam played an instrumental role in the relocation process. In November of 1992 the remaining 400 members of the FULRO Army and their families joined the 1986 group and resettled in North Carolina.

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