Written by Elliot Brennan.
In the second half of the 20th century two of Indochina’s ethnic groups found themselves on the “wrong side of history”. Both supported the US forces in the Vietnam War and against communist insurgents. Both were left behind when the US withdrew, and both were persecuted in the decades that followed. For the ethnic minorities of the Lao Hmong and the Degar-Montagnards, the fall of Saigon forty years ago marked the end of hope and the renewal of a long persecution.
The Degar (also known as Montagnard, a name given to them by the French meaning mountain people, or người Thượng in Vietnamese) are one of the highland minorities in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Christian missionaries – both French Catholic and American Protestant – converted much of this population during the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These links, as well as long-running discrimination against the ethnic minority, allowed for easier alliances to form with French colonial forces and later the US.
In 1946, a decade before France would retreat from its ambitions of empire in Indochina, it drafted plans to carve out territory for the Degar. While the outgoing French government established the Pays Montagnard du Sud (known today as the Central Highlands) to be ruled under the French-installed emperor Bảo Đại, it never fully came to the fruition that the Degar and other ethnic minorities anticipated. That was only made worse when the French gave up Vietnam in 1954.
As the French moved out and the Cold War set in the US picked up where the French had left off. Given that many Degar were Christian, they were some of the first recruited by the US forces in their fight against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. US Special Forces established base camps and airstrips in the Central Highlands controlled by the Degar. To US servicemen, the Degar became known as ‘Yards’ a shortened (and, for US servicemen, easier to pronounce) version of the French name. The ‘Yards’ quickly gained the respect of their US comrades for their prowess in battle and their easy-going humour.
In 1961, Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) were established under a program initiated and funded by the CIA. The idea was to equip ethnic minority populations – including Degar, but also Cham, Khmer Krom and Hoa Hoa, as well as some Kinh – with the required skills to defend their villages in small militias. That program quickly expanded and was transferred to US military control in 1962. From 1963 onwards the operation moved from one of village defence to a more conventional military force where Montagnard recruits were moved to strategic hamlets and areas of operation in the Highlands. More than 40,000 Degar fought alongside US soldiers, mostly in the Central Highlands.
South Vietnamese soldiers, particularly from the LLDB or the special forces, led groups of Montagnards and others in the CIDG. Many of these commanders were cynical about the minority group fighters. However, by 1970 many of the CIDG’s would become Ranger units under the Republic of Vietnam Army.
It is thought that some 200,000 Montagnard died during the Vietnam War and an estimated 85% of villages were destroyed. Following the war, many fled to refugee camps in Thailand, others were imprisoned, some Degar were resettled. Kinh (ethnic Vietnamese) were moved into the Highlands to populate and dilute the Degar influence.
The Degar weren’t alone in being recruited to fight communist insurgents. Across the border in Laos, where mobile Viet Cong and North Vietnamese supply lines were entrenched, the Lao Hmong followed a similar pattern of recruitment and betrayal.
The Hmong, an ethnic people from mountainous regions of southern China, migrated south in the 18th century, many finding their way to Laos and Vietnam. Recruited in their thousands by the French and the US in the first and second Indochina War. Hmong in Vietnam and Laos were then recruited during the Vietnam War to fight against communist forces.
Lao Hmong in northern Laos were courted by Communist forces but largely fought on the side of US and anti-communist forces. Led by General Vang Pao, the ‘Secret Army’, as it was termed, was supported by the CIA. That force was predominately Hmong and tasked with resisting North Vietnamese communist forces following the invasion of Laos. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s it was one of the strongest ground forces fighting against the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao (the communist insurgents in Laos). Its role was crucial in disrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a key supply route feeding the North Vietnamese forces in the South. With a superior knowledge of the jungle terrain they were often called on to rescue downed American pilots.
The withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam saw fall of the Kingdom of Laos government to communist forces, supported by Hanoi. Following the war and the continued discrimination in Laos and Vietnam against minority groups, many Hmong fled the country. Today this is evident in the US, where in the state of Minnesota, Hmong is the third largest language spoken after English and Spanish.
Much advocacy by US Vietnam War veterans helped pave the way for over 100,000 Hmong to resettle in the US. Others were not so lucky, many were herded into detention camps and prisons for long ‘re-education’ and hard labour. Others were tortured or executed. Yet more stayed in the jungles of Laos fighting a low-intensity war against the Laotian government for decades after the war in Vietnam ended. Not until the late 1990s did the US admit that a Secret War had in fact taken place.
In Nelson Rand’s Conflict: Journey’s through War and Terror in Southeast Asia (one of the most intrepid accounts of the groups recent travails) he conveys his meeting with remaining Lao Hmong guerrilla fighters in the jungles of Laos in 2004. The group is still fighting in an off-shoot of the Vietnam War four decades after it ended. Today, a small 100-strong Hmong armed resistance, the Chao Fa, continue this legacy in the dense forests of Laos.
As Saigon fell, next door the Khmer Rouge were readying in the wings to consolidate their power following the departure of US government forces from the Cambodia under Operation Eagle Pull. The withdrawal of US personnel in that country meant there was few places for the Degar-Montagnards or Lao Hmong fighters to run or to seek support.
In the decades that followed, numerous action plans were established to return refugees across Southeast Asia, including Lao Hmong and Degar-Montagnards. Many were housed in refugee camps in Thailand, including tens of thousands of Hmong. The Laotian government in 1989 agreed to a repatriation program for over 60,000 refugees, including some tens of thousands of Hmong refugees. At that time, those that returned faced the same discriminatory policies as before.
In 2006, Human Rights Watch cautioned Thailand in repatriating Hmong refugees back to Laos. The rights group warned that some refugees were likely, after being repatriated, to be harassed by security forces and imprisoned. Previous returnees had gone missing.
Similarly, today, Degar-Montagnards continue to seek asylum in Cambodia from Vietnam citing discrimination from Vietnamese authorities. In recent months, this appears to have increased. Since October last year, dozens of Montagnards have fled Vietnam for Cambodia. Some have been processed as refugees, others, in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, have been returned to Vietnam.
The long tail of the Vietnam War and the resulting Laotian civil war continues today for many of the Degar-Montagnards and the Lao Hmong. Their Vietnam War lasted decades and its effects are still being felt.
Elliot Brennan is a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy and Non-Resident WSD-Handa Fellow with Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies. Image Credit: CC by InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr