Col. Harry Summers Jr.

Twenty-two years ago last week I was among the last Americans "helilifted" off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, as our South Vietnamese ally fell to the North Vietnamese Army's 22-division cross-border blitzkrieg. To most Americans that war is ancient history, especially after the Clinton administration's normalization of relations with what is now known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the April 10 Senate confirmation of former Air Force POW Pete Peterson to be the U.S. ambassador to Hanoi. But for 31 ethnic Nung Vietnam War asylum seekers and their families in Hong Kong, including several who served as security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, that war is still chillingly real, for their very lives now hang in the balance. The Chinese government, which will assume sovereignty over Hong Kong on June 30, has demanded that all Vietnamese asylum seekers be returned to Vietnam before they take over.

Death sentence

For the Nung, that would mean almost certain death, as the Vietnamese authorities are certain to levy the same "blood debt" on the returnees they previously levied against other Vietnamese and ethnic minorities who served with U.S. Special Forces units. Not only did the asylum seekers serve the U.S. combat and security services during the war, they concealed it from the communist authorities after the war by seeking asylum abroad. As Wanyong Lai Austin, an American legal counselor from Refugee Concern Hong Kong who is working for their admission to the United States relates, chilling evidence of their very real danger came during April visits to the detainee centers in Hong Kong by Vietnamese officials. They confronted the Nung with the details of their service with U.S. forces from data they had received from the Hong Kong Immigration Department files and "promised to continue the interrogation in Vietnam." The communist authorities harbor a particular animosity toward the Nung, and they have not forgotten and not forgiven them for their role in the war. As Vietnam veterans know full well, the Nung were among the toughest fighters in Vietnam. Fiercely anti-communist, these ethnic Chinese tribesmen were among the first to be recruited by Army Special Forces to serve as bodyguards and as commandos in their mobile strike teams. Vong A Sach, for example, was recruited by U.S. Special Forces in 1964 and served with a long-range reconnaissance unit operating in the Laos and Cambodian border areas until 1968 when he was transferred to a South Vietnamese Ranger unit. Another refugee seeker, Moc Manh Cuong, served in the U.S. 5th Special Forces Strike Force Command from 1965 to 1970.

'Backbone of training'

According to Army Special Forces Col. Charles M. Simpson III who wrote about them in his 1983 history of the Green Berets, it was the Nung "who provided the backbone of training, the defensive capability, and the element of stability on patrol that made the difference between success and failure." But, he went on to say, "they posed some problems, too, because they attached their loyalty to the Americans rather than to the Vietnamese." And now they are paying for that loyalty. The Hong Kong government refused to recognize them as refugees. That lack of recognition barred them from U.S. refugee relocation programs that helped settle others who had worked with the American forces in Vietnam. Earlier this year the High Court in Hong Kong considered a test case of five of the Nung asylum seekers who challenged the decisions barring them from refugee status. The trial ended on March 31, but a verdict has be handed down. Even if the verdict is favorable, however they and their compatriots would have to face another refugee determination process. As Austin points out, "Many of them protected U.S. personnel in Vietnam through the fall of Saigon.... The U.S. should now protect them from suffering punishment resulting from that service. It should recognize the dangers they face if returned to Vietnam and issue them visas to go to the States." The U.S. owes a "blood debt too, and it's time we repaid it.

copyright: Los Angeles Times Syndicate