United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races
|French: Front Uni de Lutte des Races Opprimées
Vietnamese: Mặt trận Thống nhất Đấu tranh của các Sắc tộc bị Áp bức
English: United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races
Participant in Vietnam War, Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia
|Ideology||Cham, Degar and Khmer Nationalism|
|Leaders||FLC leader: Les Kosem
FLHP leader: Y Bham Enuol
FLKK leader: Chau Dera
|Headquarters||Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia|
Front de Liberation des Hauts Plateaux (FLHP)
Front de Liberation du Champa (FLC)
Front de Liberation du Kampuchea Krom (FLKK)
|Allies||People's Republic of China
Kingdom of Cambodia (1953–70)
Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea
Kingdom of Cambodia (1975–76)
South Vietnam (ARVN)
North Vietnam (VPA)
Socialist Republic of Vietnam
The United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO, (French) Front Uni de Lutte des Races Opprimées, (Vietnamese) Mặt trận Thống nhất Đấu tranh của các Sắc tộc bị Áp bức) was an organization within Vietnam, whose objective was autonomy for the Degar tribes. Initially a political nationalist movement, after 1969 it evolved into a fragmented guerrilla group which carried on an insurgency against, successively, the South Vietnam and Socialist Republic of Vietnam regimes. FULRO fought against both the Communist Vietcong and anti-Communist South Vietnamese at the same time, being opposed to all forms of Vietnamese rule. China, Cambodia, the United States and some French elements were the primary supporters of FULRO.
BAJARAKA - precursor of FULRO
On May 1, 1958, a group of intellectuals headed by a French-educated Rhade civil servant, Y Bham Enuol, established an organization seeking greater autonomy for the minorities of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. The organization was given the name BAJARAKA, which stood for four main ethnic groups: the Bahnar people, the Jarai (Gia Rai people), the Rhade or E De people, and the K'Ho people.
On July 25, BAJARAKA issued a notice to the embassies of France and the United States and to the United Nations, denouncing acts of racial discrimination, and requesting government intervention to secure independence. In August–September 1958, BAJARAKA held several demonstrations in Kon Tum, Pleiku, and Buôn Ma Thuột. These were quickly suppressed, and the most prominent leaders of the movement arrested: they would remain in jail for the next few years.
The early 1960s were to see increasing military activity in the Central Highlands; from 1961, American military advisers had assisted in setting up armed village defence militias (the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, CIDG).
In 1963, after the 1963 South Vietnamese coup to overthrow Ngô Đình Diệm, all the leaders of BAJARAKA were released. In an effort to integrate Degar ambitions, several of them were given government posts: Paul Nur, vice-president of BAJARAKA, was appointed deputy provincial chief for the province of Kon Tum, while Y Bham Enuol, the movement's president, was appointed deputy provincial governor of Đắk Lắk Province. By March 1964, with US backing, the leaders of BAJARAKA, along with representatives of other ethnic groups and of the Upper Cham people, established the Central Highlands Liberation Front (French: Front de Liberation des Hauts Plateaux, FLHP).
The Front rapidly split into two factions. One faction, advocating peaceful means, was led by Y Bham Enuol. A second, led by Y Dhơn Adrong, advocated violent resistance. From March to May 1964, Adrong's faction infiltrated the border with Cambodia and set up at the old French base, Camp le Rolland, in Mondulkiri Province within 15 km of the Vietnamese border, where they continued to recruit FLHP fighters.
In the meantime, the regional ambitions of Cambodian Head of State, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, had led to an effort to coordinate the operations of various separatist groups operating within South Vietnam and in the Cambodian border areas. Contact was made between Adrong's faction of the FLHP and two other groups:
- The Cham Liberation Front (Front de Liberation du Champa, FLC) led by Lieutenant-Colonel Les Kosem, a Cham officer in the Royal Cambodian Army (FARK).
- The Liberation Front of Kampuchea Krom (Front de Liberation du Kampuchea Krom, FLKK), representing the Khmer Krom of the Mekong Delta, led by former monk Chau Dara.
Kosem, the most senior Cham officer in the Cambodian army, had been involved in Cham activism since the late 1950s, and is suspected to have been working as a double agent for both the Cambodian secret service and the French. The FLKK, on the other hand, originated in a semi-mystic, semi-military group known as the "White Scarves" (Kaingsaing Sar) based in the Seven Mountains area (Bảy Núi) of An Giang Province and founded in the late 1950s by a monk, Samouk Seng (or Samouk Sen); this had been supported by Sihanouk as a counterbalance to a republican guerrilla movement operating the same area, the Khmer Serei. Chau Dara was also suspected to be working for the Cambodian secret service.
These contacts were to lead to the establishment of the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO), based on the above groups and the FLHP. The flag of FULRO was designed with three stripes: one blue (representing the sea), red (a symbol of struggle) and green (the colour of the mountains). Three white stars on the central red stripe represented the three fronts of FULRO. A later form of the flag replaced the blue stripe with black.
The 1964 Buôn Ma Thuột rebellion
On September 20, 1964, there was an outbreak of violence by American-trained CIDG troops in the Special Forces bases of Buon Sar Pa and Bu Prang in Quang Duc province and in Buon Mi Ga, Ban Don and Buon Brieng in Darlac Province. Several Vietnamese soldiers were killed and the Americans disarmed, and FULRO activists from the Buon Sar Pa base seized the radio station on Route 14 on the south-west outskirts of Buôn Ma Thuột, from which they broadcast calls for independence. During the morning of September 21, Y-Bham Enuol was quickly abducted from his residence in Buôn Ma Thuột by elements from the Buon Sar Pa group and communiques were issued in his name.
Outsiders advising and assisting the dissident Montagnard was Y-Dhon Adrong, an Ede (Rhade) ex-schoolteacher, two officers of the Royal Khmer Army, Lieutenant Colonel Y-Bun Sur, a member of the M'nong tribe and Province Chief of Cambodia's Mondulkiri Province, and Lieutenant Colonel Les Kosem, a Cham. Another adviser was Chau Dara, a Cham who was ex-monk from South Vietnam's Mekong Delta.
On the evening of September 21, 1964, Brigadier-General Nguyễn Huu Co, the commander of Military Region II, who had flown down to Buôn Ma Thuột from his headquarters in Pleiku, met with several rebel leaders From Buon Enao during which he assured them of his partial support of some of their demands in representations to Prime Minister General Nguyễn Khánh and the Saigon government. Following satisfactory negotiations, General Co requested that the rebel leaders brief the other dissident elements and ask them to peacefully return to their bases and await the outcome of the negotiations. The leaders who had met with General Co the previous night were prevented from briefing the Buon Sar Pa group which, still disgruntled, returned to their Buon Sar Pa Special Forces base, accompanied by Colonel John F. Freund, the US Army advisor to General Co. Colonel Freund's decision to accompany the still dissident Buon Sar Pa group was not authorised by General Co.
The Buon Sar Pa group continued to defy the Vietnamese authorities and most of the CIDG force deserted their Buon Sar Pa base and moved, with their weapons and equipment across the international border and into Cambodia's Mondulkiri Province. Those CIDG troops remaining in the Buon Sar Pa base were threatened by General Co with a sharp military response and Colonel Freund, who had stayed with them, persuaded them to officially surrender to Prime Minister General Nguyễn Khánh. An official surrender ceremony took pace in the mostly deserted Buon Sar Pa base however, this resulted in a loss of face for those dissident Montagnard who had agreed to stand down and await the promises made by General Co during negotiations with their leaders on the night of September 21, 1964.
During the weeks that followed, the Buon Sar Pa CIDG deserters, in their base in Mundulkiri Province, were reinforced by a large number of deserters from the other Special Forces CIDG bases. Y-Bham was named head of FULRO and given the rank of general and named President of the High Plateau of Champa, a sign of the influence on the dissident Montagnard by the Cham advisers, Lieutenant Colonel Les Kosem and Chau Dara.
Several weeks later, Y-Bham's family were quietly taken from his village, Buon Ea Bong, three kilometres north-west of Buôn Ma Thuột and escorted into the FULRO base in Cambodia's Mondulkiri Province.
At the time of the Montagnard revolt, Lieutenant Colonel Y-Bun Sur and Lieutenant Colonel Les Kosem were senior officers serving in the Royal Khmer Army and both were also agents of Cambodia's Deuxiéme Bureau, that country's secret intelligence service. AS well, Colonel Y-Bun Sur was still the Province Chief of Cambodia's Mondulkiri Province. This indicates the likely involvement of the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Colonel Y-Bun Sur was also an agent in France's secret intelligence service at that time, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE). This indicates possible involvement of the French in the revolt.
Although the Americans were unsure who was ultimately responsible for the CIDG men's rebellion, and initially blamed the Viet Cong and French. However, the 'neutralist' Cambodian regime of Sihanouk had probably the greatest hand in events: 20 September 1964 'Declaration', by the Haut Comité of FULRO, contained anti-SEATO rhetoric that bore a strong resemblance to that issued by Sihanouk's regime in the same period. Sihanouk hosted a conference, the "Indochinese People's Conference", in Phnom Penh in early 1965, at which Enuol headed a FULRO delegation.
Lack of progress in gaining concessions led to another FULRO uprising by its more militant faction in December 1965, in which 35 Vietnamese (including civilians) were killed. This event was rapidly suppressed, and four captured FULRO commanders (Nay Re, Ksor Bleo, R'Com Re and Ksor Boh) were publicly executed.
Negotiations and divisions
On June 2, 1967, Y Bham Enuol sent a delegation to Buôn Ma Thuột to petition the South Vietnamese government. On 25 and 26 June 1967, a congress of ethnic minorities throughout South Vietnam was convened to finalise a joint petition, and on August 29, 1967, a meeting was held under the direction of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, President of the National Leadership Committee and Major General Nguyen Cao Ky, President of the Central Executive Committee. By December 11, 1968, negotiations between FULRO and the Vietnamese authorities had resulted in an agreement to recognise minority rights, establish a Ministry to support these rights, and to allow Y Bham Enuol to remain permanently in Vietnam.
However, some elements of FULRO, notably the FLC head Les Kosem, opposed the deal with the Vietnamese. On December 30, 1968, Kosem, at the head of several battalions of the Royal Cambodian Army, and accompanied by a group from the militant FULRO wing responsible for the 1965 fighting, surrounded and took Camp le Rolland. Enuol was placed under effective house arrest in Phnom Penh at the residence of Colonel Um Savuth of the Cambodian army, where he was to remain for the next six years.
On February 1, 1969, a final treaty was signed between Paul Nur, representing the Republic of Vietnam, and Y Dhơn Adrong. These events signified the end of FULRO as a 'political' movement, especially as its previous backer, the Sangkum regime of Sihanouk, was to fall to the Cambodian coup of 1970. However, some elements of FULRO, dissatisfied with the treaty, continued armed resistance in the Central Highlands. These disparate armed groups looked forward to the collapse of the Saigon regime, and had some local cooperation with the Viet Cong, who offered unofficial support such as caring for their wounded.
After the fall of South Vietnam
On April 17, 1975, the Cambodian Civil War ended when the Khmer Rouge communists - then in a political alliance with Sihanouk, the GRUNK - took Phnom Penh. General Y Bham Enuol, Lieutenant Colonel Y-Bun Sur, and some 150 members of the militant FULRO faction were, at the time, under house arrest in the compound of Colonel Um Savuth of the Khmer Army located near Pochentong Airport. They left the compound and sought refuge in the French Embassy. The Khmer Rouge forced the senior French diplomat to hand the group, men women and children, over to them. They were then marched to the Lambert Stadium then on the northern edge of Phnom Penh where they were executed by the Khmer Rouge along with many officials of the Cambodian regime; the remaining FULRO guerrillas in Vietnam, however, were to remain unaware of Enuol's death.
After the Fall of Saigon and the collapse of the South Vietnam government, it was suggested that the United States continue to support FULRO in its struggle against the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Several thousand FULRO troops under Brigadier General Y-Ghok Niê Krieng carried on fighting Vietnamese forces, but the promised American aid did not materialise.
FULRO continued operations in the remote highlands throughout the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, but it was increasingly weakened by internal divisions, and trapped in an ongoing conflict between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese. Despite this, in the early 1980s there was a peak in this second phase of the FULRO insurgency, possibly with active material support from China, who benefited from the conflict as part of its ongoing standoff with Vietnam. Some estimates gave the total number of FULRO troops in this period at 7,000, mostly based in Mondulkiri, and supplied with Chinese armaments via the Khmer Rouge, which was by this point fighting its own guerrilla war in western Cambodia. However by 1986 this aid had ceased, a Khmer Rouge spokesman stating that while the tribesmen were "very, very brave", they had "no support from any leadership" and "no political vision".
Following the cessation of supplies, the bitter guerrilla warfare would however in time reduce FULRO's forces to no more than a few hundred. In 1980 a unit of over 200 fighters was forced to split off and take refuge in Khmer Rouge on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1985, 212 of these soldiers, under the command of Brigadier General Y-Ghok Niê Krieng and Pierre K'briuh, moved across Cambodia to the Thai border where Lieutenant General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, then Commander of the 2nd Royal Thai Army advised them that the Americans were no longer interested in fighting the Vietnamese. General Chavalit advised them to seek refugee status through UNHCR. Once this was granted they were moved to North Carolina in the U.S.
In August 1992 journalist Nate Thayer traveled to Mondulkiri and visited the last FULRO base. Thayer informed the group that FULRO's president Y Bham Enuol had been executed by the Khmer Rouge seventeen years previously. The FULRO troops surrendered their weapons in October 1992; many of this group were given asylum in the United States. Even at this late stage, they only decided to give up armed struggle when they finally heard that Y Bham Enuol had been executed in April 1975.
- White, T. Swords of lightning: special forces and the changing face of warfare, Brassey's, 1992, p.143
- Dommen, A. J. The Indochinese experience of the French and the Americans, Indiana University Press, 2001, p.615. The Kaingsaing Sar were similar to the Hòa Hảo, in that they evolved from a religious group to an armed nationalist one.
- "Tiger Men: An Australian Soldier's Secret War in Vietnam" by Barry Petersen.
- Christie, C. J. A modern history of Southeast Asia: decolonization, nationalism and separatism, I B Tauris, 1996, p.101
- Fenton, J. All the Wrong Places, Granta, 2005, p.62
- Whereas the Vietnamese government still maintains FULRO negotiated an uneasy allicance with the Khmer Rouge in this period, pro-Montagnard groups state that men were in fact kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge to serve as porters and clear minefields
- O'Dowd, E. C. Chinese military strategy in the third Indochina war: the last Maoist war, Routledge, 2007, p.97
- Jones, S. et al, Repression of Montagnards, Human Rights Watch, p.27
- Nate Thayer, "Forgotten Army: The Rebels Time Forgot", Far Eastern Economic Review, September 10, 1992, pp. 16-22.
- Nate Thayer, "Montagnard Army Seeks UN Help,�? Phnom Penh Post, September 12, 1992.
- Nate Thayer and Leo Dobbs, "Tribal Fighters Head for Refuge in USA,�? Phnom Penh Post, October 23, 1992.
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