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Six Years Later, Ex-Leaders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Ask the U.S. for Arms to Fight Hanoi

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The irony is painful. More than six years after the last American helicopter took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the long-derided “domino theory” that was invoked to justify the war in Vietnam seems tragically prophetic. Within the last two years, Soviet-backed Vietnamese troops have seized power in Cambodia and taken effective control of Laos as well. Now some of the Indochinese who vehemently opposed the American presence in the region, who cheered when it ended—even some who fought American troops in the jungle—are asking the U.S. for help in that embattled corner of the world. Last week at the United Nations, Secretary of State Alexander Haig addressed their concerns, pledging American influence to get the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. But the three men on these pages—former leaders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos who were against U.S. policies in their region not so long ago—want more than that: specifically, American money and arms. “Perhaps with President Reagan, “as Laotian Prince Mangkra Souvanna Phouma puts it, “there is some chance that America will become concerned about us again. “From their exile in Paris, they spoke to Daniel Burstein of PEOPLE.

A Vietcong leader: ‘We thought we were fighting for freedom’

The highest-ranking defector to the West from Communist Vietnam is Truong Nhu Tang, now 58. He was a co-founder of the National Liberation Front, whose Vietcong army battled and finally brought down the U.S.- supported South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu. Truong personally fought American soldiers, and he was jailed and tortured under Thieu. “They filled my stomach with water and kept pouring more and more water into me until my stomach seemed to burst,” he says. Released in 1967 in a swap for American POWs, he joined the Vietcong in the jungle. “We suffered all the hardships,” he says, “because we thought we were fighting for the true freedom and independence of our country.”

After Saigon fell, Truong took his place as Minister of Justice in the new government, but he was quickly disillusioned. He could find no justice even for his brother, who was sent for “reeducation” to what Truong calls a “concentration camp.” The government tried to keep Truong happy—and quiet—with a car, servants and extra food, and later offered him the job of Vice-Minister of Food. “Having been Minister of Justice in a country with no justice,” he says, “how could I let myself become Vice-Minister of Food in a country with no food?” So, in 1979, he and his wife Rose joined 62 “boat people” on a tiny craft that fought through a pirate attack and a monsoon to make it to Indonesia.

Not long ago he and others formed the Committee for National Salvation to build an armed resistance movement in Vietnam. In talks last year, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang said Peking would support his efforts, and Truong hopes his once bitter enemy, the United States, will do the same. “The Communist dictatorship is worse than Thieu was,” he says. “However bad it was then, things are worse now.”

A Laotian prince: ‘Vietnam will swallow us’

Prince Mangkra Souvanna Phouma, 43, is a member of the royal family of Laos. His father, the country’s neutralist Prime Minister off and on from 1951 to 1975, is now a special adviser to the Laos Communist government. His uncle, the “Red Prince” Souphanouvong, worked with the Communists for years and now is President of the Vietnam-dominated republic. His cousin, the King of Laos, has been under house arrest since 1977.

When Communists took over the country in 1975, the Prince stayed with his father and became a delegate to the People’s Congress that abolished the monarchy. But after it became apparent to him that the Congress was nothing more than the handmaiden of Hanoi, Souvanna Phouma, with his wife and four children, escaped across the Mekong River into Thailand, joining more than 400,000 Laotian refugees—one-eighth of the country’s population.

The Prince, who has opened a public relations and marketing firm for foreign businessmen in Paris, remains a neutralist, but not toward the current government. “I am not against socialism,” he says. “What I am against is Soviet-and Vietnamese-style Communism, the kind that destroys the independence of nations and oppresses the people. If they are not stopped, the Vietnamese will just swallow up Laos until it is no more.” Several anti-Vietnamese guerrilla armies are currently active in Laos, and if they coalesce, the Prince says, he will return to join them: “No true Laotian wants to see our country controlled from outside.”

A former Cambodian PM: ‘Give us a big stick’

By the time Chhean Vam decided to flee Cambodia in 1979, he was too weak from hunger to make it to the Thai border. Instead he and his wife and her mother walked six days to Chhean’s native village. It was empty. The entire population had been wiped out either by the Communist Khmer Rouge or by invading Vietnamese troops. The family hid for five months in the jungle, gathering wild leaves for food, until Chhean was strong enough to walk to the border, where he found friends who helped get them to Paris.

Now 65, Chhean plans within the year to return and join the guerrilla war against the Hanoi-controlled government. “We are not against Vietnam because it is Communist,” he says. “We are against Vietnam’s desire to control our country and all of Indochina.”

In Cambodia’s long-ago days of peace, Chhean was a prominent figure, rising in 1948 to Prime Minister in the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. He left politics a decade before U.S. troops arrived in the region, eventually becoming director of Air Cambodia. He passively opposed dictator Lon Nol, who overthrew Sihanouk with at least tacit U.S. approval in 1970, and he did not think of exile even when Lon Nol was overthrown by the fanatical Khmer Rouge, who emptied the cities, dispersing the population to the countryside. “We worked in the fields,” Chhean remembers. “We collected excrement for fertilizer. We were humiliated but not tortured.” Chhean was lucky. By the most conservative estimates, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died by starvation and execution at the hands of their Khmer Rouge countrymen.

It was only with their overthrow by Vietnamese forces that Chhean sought exile in France, where he is now vice-president of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front. He is trying to forge an alliance of his group with Sihanouk, who currently is in France, and the still active Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Alexander Haig has indicated the U.S. will support such a coalition, but Chhean also wants U.S. arms to protect his followers against another Khmer Rouge bloodbath. “Making a common alliance against the Vietnamese with the Khmer Rouge is like going into a tiger’s cage,” Chhean explains. “We must ask America and other friends to give us a big stick before we enter the cage.” Given the history of U.S. entanglement in Indochina, Americans may be reluctant.