Monday, March 11, 2013


A 'rong' house of the Jarai ethnic group, in Vietnam's highlands today
I’m riding in an SUV, an hour south of Pleiku in Vietnam’s highlands. As we pass through a government owned rubber plantation, the paved road runs out. We continue on, bumping along on a dusty, orange colored dirt road.

Watching the villages as we pass, I notice a distinct change in architecture.  I see some houses built in a more traditional style, raised up on stilts. Then I notice one house unlike all the others. We pass a tall, impressive wooden building with a very high, steeply sloped roof. Spikes with ethnic symbols protrude from the crest of the building, like lightning rods.

“That rong house,” my guide tells me. A rong house is a traditional highland building that is the center of ceremonial and cultural life in the village. This means we’ve entered Jarai territory.

Our driver slows, and we finally pull to a stop at the base of a low hill. I head for a dirt road leading upwards, and I’m surprised to see women’s underwear and a bra hanging from an overhead tree. My 

An old torn sandbag, left behind on the old base
guide tells me that this is from a local hill tribe. She says that when there is an older single woman hoping for a husband, she’ll hang those in a tree to improve her chances for marriage. That has to be one of the more amusing superstitions that I’ve ever heard.

Continuing up the hill, I learn why my driver didn’t drive me up any further. The earth here is almost like sand. What isn’t covered by grass or brush is a very fine, orange colored volcanic dirt.  It’s so fine, that the dusty orange earth is staining the cuffs of my pants as I walk.

Further up the hill, I find torn sections of brown burlap sticking up out of the orangey ground. “Here sandbags,” says my guide. These mark where old trenches and bunkers used to be. 

1960's view of the Green Beret's base of Plei Me (Photo: US Army)
This was a former US Special Forces camp, known as Camp Pleime.

Unlike the thousands of troops that were based on the sprawling Camp Enari in Pleiku, Pleime sheltered only a small detachment of specialized American troops. A Green Beret team operated here with ARVN soldiers, and 350 local Jarai militiamen. About 100 of the Jarai's family members also lived within the base.

This remote former Vietnam War era base, is now little more than a scrub covered hill. There used to be a cement blockhouse left here, but the government tore it down 10 years ago. There were also many shell casings scattered across the surface, but they've all been picked up by locals to sell for scrap. Like Camp Enari, there are few traces left of the former base that occupied this site.

In 1965, a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) attack here at Pleime, marked the beginning of a very bloody campaign that came to be known as the battle of Ia

Map showing Special Forces Camps (click to enlarge)
Drang. The attack at Pleime became a siege, and the battle in this region ragedoff and on for more than a month. Most of the heaviest fighting occurred only some miles west, towards the Cambodian border. Thousands died. The battle became immortalized in the 2002 Mel Gibson film, "We Were Soldiers". 

I step off the dirt road, but stay by the paths, as there are still some landmines around. The Vietnamese military had done a major search to remove mines around Pleime back in the 1980’s, but they didn’t locate all of them. Some locals were injured by old mines only two years ago.

Continuing up the path I pass a couple old bomb craters, and reach the top of the hill. I can see for miles around; this was a good location for an outpost. Looking at the surrounding scrub growth, I see that the top of the hill is fairly flat. This is where the Hueys would have landed.

In Pleime the battle highlighted the latest innovation in warfare: the US Army’s use of helicopters. After the NVA cut off the main road I had used to get here, they tightened their siege. But choppers were able to fly right over them, and bring in supplies and reinforcements by air. Among them was a certain Major Charles Beckwith, a near legend in the Green Berets. They survived, Pleime was held, and the siege was broken.

It’s sad to know that hundreds of young men died here, fighting over what has now become nothing but an insignificant, remote, scrubby patch of land. Pleime is now

Vietnamese memorial at Plei Me today
guarded only by pepper plants, and cashew trees. 

Out front on the road near a small memorial, stand two government propaganda signs. They claim that in their 'glorious victory', that the communists killed 2,974 enemy troops in this battle, and that 1,700 of them were American. As often happened 
throughout the war, both sides exaggerated the numbers of enemy dead, while minimizing the numbers of their own. But in the case of Ia Drang, reversing the numbers would be more accurate. By the end of the fighting for the valley, although hundreds of Americans and ARVN were dead, the number of NVA casualties was far higher. For the first time in South Vietnam, the NVA were on the receiving end of devastating B-52 bomb strikes.

One of the only accurate ‘facts’ on the historical sign, is the date listed for the start of the battle, which was October 19th, 1965. After the siege was broken, it would be years before Pleime actually fell to the NVA. This was long after the hard nosed Green Berets had already left.

I look through an official English language government tourist booklet, that mentions Pleime. Among other things, they claim that the NVA won the battle through, “post encircling & re-enforcement beating”. Their version of the truth was about as good as their translation. You’d think that they would at least translate their propaganda into English that could be understood.

I head back down to the road, and a cart pulled by two oxen goes by, carrying a Vietnamese couple, and bags of produce. I get back to the main road, and head for the only two houses on the former base.  These belong to homesteaders, and their lighter skin gives them away as Vietnamese, not Jarai. Through my guide I ask them where they’re from, and she translates their reply, “they from North Vietnam.”

Homes of Vietnamese settlers, on what used to be Jarai land
Families like this are fairly common in what is now called Gia Lai province. In 1976 the communist government encouraged Vietnamese settlers from the north to move here and work on government rubber plantations. Although hill tribes made up the vast majority of the highland population, Vietnamese from the north began moving here en masse. With their American protectors gone, the Jarai and other ethnic groups who had fought on the US side lost a great deal of land, much of which still hasn’t been paid for.

There are 54 different minority ethnic groups in Vietnam, totaling more than 12 million people. Most of them suffer discrimination from ethnic Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese dominated government. The constitution is supposed to guarantee equal rights for all, but that doesn’t always carry over into daily affairs. Domination of the hill tribes by the Vietnamese has been going on for centuries, and in recent decades it has even worsened. Interestingly, ethnic minorities were actually better off when Ho Chi Minh was still alive. In North Vietnam, the Montagnards had zones of autonomy, but once Ho died, the communist government took their autonomy away. Many people belonging to these ethnic groups still don’t consider themselves Vietnamese.

Having seen enough of Pleime, we get back into our SUV, and head back towards Pleiku. Driving back along the dirt road, we pass a small herd of cows on the road. They are being herded along by a young Jarai boy, who I’m surprised to see is riding one of the cows bareback. I didn’t know it was even possible to ride a cow like a horse.

I’d like to stop here and talk to some Jarai villagers, but my guide is less than enthusiastic. In parts of the highlands, Vietnam requires all foreigners visiting minority villages to visit only with a permit. For the same reason, I’m driving out here with a government tour guide. An official publication calls the province, “the fertile land for the exploitation of tourist services”. That’s a good one. There’s plenty of exploitation going on here, but it has nothing to do with tourism, and the Montagnards aren’t happy about it. The reason that permits are required, is because there’s still conflict between the hill tribes and the government. When the war officially ended in 1975, government security forces moved in to assert their power across the highlands. Thousands of Montagnards had already been displaced during the war, and now they were losing their land. Suffering from discrimination, their communities were forced into socialism, threatening their traditional cultures. Those who objected were imprisoned and beaten. The situation of the hill tribes became desperate.

View from Plei Me. Hill tribe militias continued fighting the Vietnamese, years after US forces left.
So thousands of Montagnards, who had already been trained by the Green Berets, went back to war. They joined FULRO, a French acronym meaning United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races. Formed years earlier, this guerilla group fought the French, then the South Vietnamese, finally taking on the communists. FULRO fighters took a page from the NVA’s play book, by taking shelter across the nearby border in Cambodia. Ironically, the Vietnamese communists had fought for victory using guerrilla warfare, now they had a new guerrilla war fighting against them.

Virtually unknown to the outside world, armed resistance by FULRO continued on and off for years, all the way until 1992. The last survivors eventually surrendered their weapons to UN soldiers who were stationed in Cambodia. By that time, their fighters were almost out of ammunition, and their numbers had shrunk from 5,000, down to 400. This last group of holdouts was given asylum by their former patrons, the USA. They then resettled in North Carolina.

That wasn’t the end of the highland hostilities. In 2000, hill tribes outside Pleiku were demonstrating for more rights, some even demanding independence. There was some violence in the streets, but with security forces keeping out the press, the number of Montagnards killed or injured isn’t known.

In 2001, loss of ancestral forests led to protests across not only Gia Lai Province, but also Daklak Province to the south. Tensions had been building over religious restrictions for some hill tribe Christians, and another spark of the demonstrations was the arrest and subsequent beatings of two Christian brothers in the area. All three of the major hill tribes were involved. Roads were blocked, vehicles were overturned, and a post office and telephone building were damaged. The violence spread to Pleiku. All foreign journalists were barred from the region, so the number of deaths from the government crackdown was kept secret. 

An oxcart passes through the former Plei Me Special Forces Camp
In 2004 during Easter Week demonstrations violence erupted again, and an unknown number of Christian highlanders were killed and injured by government forces. Besides using firearms, Vietnamese police captured many protestors using electric shock batons. By now protests had earned attention from Human Rights Watch, which stated, “Vietnam’s policy of repression of Montagnard Christians is only fueling the unrest.”

Hundreds fled across the border to nearby Cambodia, only to find they faced possible deportation to Vietnam, and lengthy prison terms. Under pressure from the Vietnamese government, Cambodia denied asylum to the Montagnards, while preventing UN refugee officials from giving them access, a violation of international law. When more Montagnards fled to Cambodia in 2008, A Montagnard Christian named Y Ben Hdok was beaten to death in police custody.

In recent years, sporadic arrests and persecution have continued. While keeping a lid on information related to human rights, the government is attempting to keep away outside influences. One result is less tourism in the highlands than there is in other provinces. Unfortunately for the Montagnard peoples, the oppression goes on. Since government policy in this region is unlikely to change, it’s only a matter of time before there is unrest in the highlands once again.

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