CAMBODIA CORPS, INC.
BY WILLIAM TRIPLETT
In early spring of 1975, as the North Vietnamese Army was making its final push into South Vietnam, leaders of the Montagnard nation met with State Department officials at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The Montagnardsthe tribal mountain people who had fought bravely and loyally for years alongside their American allies against the NVA and Viet Congwanted guidance on what to do once the communist takeover was complete.
“They were told not to surrender,” says Tommy Daniels, a retired Special Forces Vietnam veteran and a member of VVA Chapter 757 in Brookings, Ore. Daniels was not at that meeting, but says he learned about it from a State Department officer who was. The officer said that State wanted the Montagnards to continue fighting a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese after the impending withdrawal of U.S. personnel.
“They were promised American support and materiel,” Daniels says. Congress, however, refused to appropriate additional funding. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, many Montagnards fled their homes in the mountains of the Central Highlands and sought refuge in Cambodia’s northeastern provinces.
In the decades since, Vietnam has done almost all it can to ensure the extinction of the Montagnard people, while the Cambodian government has, at best, reluctantly tolerated them. An ethnic minority that has kept very much to itself, the Montagnard population count is hard to pin down. According to The Vietnamese Revolution and the Montagnards, a book published in 1969, about one million then lived in the Central Highlands. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, headquartered in The Hague, says on its website that approximately one to two million were spread across the Central Highlands and Cambodia in 2008. That number could now be between one and four million. On the other hand, anecdotal reports say the number could be as little as 300,000.
Whatever the actual number, Tommy Daniels and a relatively small group of fellow veterans who started out about fifteen years ago wanting to right a terrible wrong had no idea that the very survival of the Montagnard people in Asia may well depend to some extentpossibly a loton the work they have been doing.
The Montagnards, originally known as the Degars, were among the first inhabitants of the Southeast Asia peninsula, dating back more than two thousand years. They lived primarily along the 17th parallel, from the eastern coastal plains up into the western mountains of the Central Highlands. As other ethnic populations invaded and seized control of territory in the ensuing centuries, the Degar people ended up largely in the Central Highlands. It was the French in the late 19th century who began calling the Degars “Montagnards,” French for “mountain dwellers.”
After the end of the Vietnam War, the communist government launched the equivalent of a homesteading campaign against the Montagnards. They moved Vietnamese settlers into the Central Highlands and granted them parcels of land to farm, hoping to drive the Montagnards out. The government also declared the Montagnards’ religiona form of Christianityto be illegal, thereby providing legal justification to arrest and imprison Montagnards almost at will.
As Human Rights Watch reported in 2011, “Montagnards face harsh persecution in Vietnam, particularly those who worship in independent house churches, because the authorities don’t tolerate religious activity outside their sight or control. The Vietnamese government has been steadily tightening the screws on independent Montagnard religious groups, claiming they are using religion to incite unrest.” As a result, “Since 2001, thousands of Montagnards in Vietnam have fled harsh government crackdowns to Cambodia.”
From 1967-69 Tommy Daniels was a U.S. Army Mike Force commander operating south of the Central Highlands. He knew some Montagnards but not many. He says he didn’t really become fully aware of the Montagnards and their situation until the Reagan administration granted asylum to a group of them trying to leave Southeast Asia. That group eventually landed in North Carolina.
In the early 1990s, more Montagnard refugees were granted asylum and came to North Carolina. Daniels says he joined other veterans of the war who were part of a nonprofit organization helping to resettle the newly arrived refugees. He also began to lobby Congress to pressure the Vietnamese government to stop persecuting the Montagnard people. That effort didn’t get much traction: By then the U.S. government was already talking about normalizing relations with Vietnam.
“When we finally had economic leverage to use on Vietnam, we sold it out for trade,” Daniels says. “Nobody wanted to piss off the Vietnamese.”
In 1999 Daniels was told of some 22,000 Montagnards struggling to survive in a remote province of Cambodia. He decided to go see what was happening, much to the distress of the State Department, he says. “Because of the lobbying I’d done and now I was going over there, I was tagged an ‘activist.’ In fact, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi warned me that if the Vietnamese caught me, they’d kill me.”
Daniels made it safely to Montagnard villages in northeastern Cambodia. He met and talked at length with village leaders and saw the plight of a dirt-poor, largely illiterate people who had helped the U.S. so much during the war. He estimates there were actually about 100,000 Montagnards in the area. “That figure was later confirmed by the first Cambodian census,” Daniels says.
Additional asylum for that many people didn’t really seem possible, Daniels recalls. Moreover, “To me, only there in northeast Cambodia could the people truly survive.” The following year, in 2000, Daniels and two friends who were also special ops vets established Cambodia Corps, Inc., a nonprofit devoted to preserving the indigenous Montagnard people and their culture.
Some basic public health needs had to be addressed immediately. Securing an NGO license from Cambodian authorities, and working with grants from global health organizations and the Australian governmentbut without U.S. government supportCCI focused on digging deep wells in the villages and providing water pumps and filters. Previously, villagers had had to drink dirty water from shallow, hand-dug wells that tended to dry up after the rainy season ended. In addition, CCI built a water storage tower, toilets, and showers, and bought and installed a generator to supply electricity.
The future of any people, of course, is their children, but schooling for Montagnard children was another problem. “The Cambodian government supposedly had been giving them a boarding school, but it was basically functioning as an orphanage, a homeless-kid shelter,” Daniels says. “The Montagnards have no birth control, and they can’t afford big families. So what happens is, the oldest kid gets pushed out.” With no home to return to after class, these kids essentially become residents of the school.
“The conditions in the orphanage were just terrible,” Daniels says. “We had a doctor examine the kids, and most all of them had intestinal parasites.” CCI brought in medical treatment. Once the children’s health improved, CCI concentrated on helping them with their studies. After a few years, as the first group of Level 12 studentshigh school seniors, in effectneared graduation, questions arose: What would happen to them? What opportunities were there for them in the villages? Where could they go and what could they do in a region that largely didn’t want them?
CCI hit upon the idea, which has now become the organization’s core objective, of sending high school graduates to college and paying all costs for room, board, and tuition. But it would not be a total free ride for the youngsters: They had to agree that, after receiving their degrees, they would return to their villages and apply their new expertise toward helping their people.
The soon-to-be high school graduates were excited about the prospect of going to college and eagerly pledged to fulfill their end of the bargain. There was just one problem: CCI was running out of its initial grant money. Fortunately, several other veteransincluding VVA membersstepped up, big time. Bill Farrell was one of them.
During 1966-67 Farrell was a captain leading a company with the 3/26 Marines in the Phu Bai area. After being sent to Army Special Forces training and jump school, he was assigned a scout roleposing as a sergeant, complete with appropriate dog tagsin Khe Sahn. He was told essentially to infiltrate seven different U.S. intelligence outfits, including a husband-and-wife CIA team, operating in the area and working with Montagnard units. These intel outfits reported back to their headquarters in the rear, which then disseminated the information to military units in the field.
“But that took time, and by the time we got the intel, it was old,” Farrell says. His mission was to short-cut the intel communications chain to get fresh information.
Farrell quickly met and became friends with Montagnards. “They were so welcoming,” he remembers. “They were so willing to work with us,” and not just for the money they were paid. Montagnards had long suffered at the hands of the Vietnamese, even before the country was partitioned. “They thought that by helping us, they might get their country back,” Farrell says. Montagnards often penetrated enemy-held territory to rescue downed pilots, as well as wounded soldiers and Marines. By the time Farrell left Vietnam, he had developed a deep and abiding affection and admiration for his Montagnard allies.
Flash forward to 1998, when Farrell, having settled in Oregon and joined Chapter 757, got a call from Y-Jut Buonto, a former Montagnard commander who had worked with the intel outfits in Khe Sahn, although he and Farrell had never met. Buonto was living just one state away, in Lynnwood, Washington. “He said it had taken him twenty-three years to find me, but he’d finally found me,” Farrell says.
“That’s right,” says Buonto, who had been strongly advised by American officials to leave Vietnam in the waning days of the war. “I wanted to stay and fight in the jungles as a resister, but they told me it was too dangerous.” He had done too much during the warfrom training 10,000 Montagnard fighters known as “Tiger Men” to leading CIA teams into and along the Ho Chi Minh Trailand the North Vietnamese knew it. They were looking for him during their final sweep through the Central Highlands. He says that with the help of U.S. military police, he and his family escaped their mountain home and eventually made it to the U.S. mainland. Before leaving, however, Buonto had been given Farrell’s name as someone to look up once he got settled in the states.
Buonto had been instrumental in helping the Montagnard refugees get to the U.S. in the mid-1980s and early-1990s. He also had written to the Cambodian government, urging officials to do more for the Montagnards in the northeastern provinces, but to no avail. He rarely even got an acknowledgment.
Buonto asked Farrell if he might make a trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, to see how the resettled Montagnards there, in particular members of his tribe, were faring. “I went,” Farrell says, “and when I got to the terminal in Greensboro, there were lines of Montagnard women there to welcome me. It was the first welcome I’d received since coming back from Vietnam.”
On a subsequent trip to visit the Montagnard community in North Carolina in 2002, Farrell met Tommy Daniels, who told him about the work of CCI. Farrell joined without hesitation. Farrell also talked with his chapter members, and together they started donating money to CCI, right about the time it was in need of cash for its college fund.
Additionally, Daniels and his two co-foundersMichael Lund and Richard Webster (also members of Chapter 757)developed a network of donors. Early on, veterans and their family members accounted for about 65 percent of donations. In the last seven years it’s been 90 percent, Daniels says. His five separate applications for U.S. government humanitarian and educational assistance for the Montagnards have been rejected.
It costs roughly $2,300 a year for a student’s room, board, tuition, and related expenses at a university, usually in Phnom Penh. That’s not much for a college education in the U.S., but for young people in a hostile environment with no moneyand no prospects of getting itthe possibility of having someone else cover $2,300 can be a powerful motivator to do well in high school and be eligible for college. One student among the first high school graduates had such good grades that he qualified for medical school. Another went into engineering; yet another into information technology.
But even getting admitted to a university wasn’t the end of challenges and obstacles. The medical school in Phnom Penh is the University of Health & Sciences, which is supported by France. All textbooks and lectures are in French, which many Cambodians speak. But Montagnards do not. “Our first kid who went to that school really struggled, so we got him French lessons,” Daniels says. Just last year, he adds, that student and another graduated from med school.
In a little over ten years, CCI has raised about $650,000 for education expenses, and thirty-five Montagnards have earned college degrees. They’re doing well, working for their respective villages and communities, says Gary Gregg, another early member of CCI, as well as a Marine Corps veteran and life member of Chapter 757. Since 2003 Gregg has made nineteen visits to the northeastern provinces of Cambodia on his own dime. In fact, all CCI members pay their own way when they go, and no CCI member, including Daniels, receives a salary. Last April, Gregg was in-country and had a chance to catch up with some of the graduates. One is a surgeon, another a civil engineer, and a third is an IT specialist.
“I’ve known them since they were youngsters,” says Gregg. “I watched them grow up, go to school, get diplomas, and some are even married now.”
Despite a fall-off in donations since the 2008 economic recession, CCI soldiers on, focusing mainly now on getting more girls through high school and into college. As in many other cultures, Montagnard girls tend not to get as much attention as boys, and CCI wants to give girls equal opportunities. There are now area boarding schools for girls, but they’re not safe. Cambodian men are known to come at night and try abducting girls. “So we rented a secure house for them to stay in,” Daniels says.
The graduates who are now young professionals are a source of collective Montagnard pride. CCI shares that sense of pride, but Daniels and others feel something deeper. “The Montagnards were a big part of my Vietnam experience,” says Farrell. “They did so much for us. They were so loyal. They were the only people in-country that I felt I could trust.” To be able to give something back to them, especially after they gave so much, has been, as Gregg says, “very personally rewarding. It’s given me a sense of self-worth, and to know that I’ve helped to make a difference in a young person’s life has been very gratifying.”
“The Montagnards were our strongest ethnic allies during the war,” Daniels says. “There’s a real brotherhood there. But our government turned its back on them. This is just a little we can do to help them survive.”
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