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A Meeting With Mr. Death

Remember the Vietcong suicide bombers who ride their bomb-laden motorbikes to blow up US buildings including themselves? I do. For three years in old Saigon I lived with the threat. One day in Malaysia, I met their leader - "Mr. Death".

Dec 26, 2000

To reach the island of Bidong, off the coast of Trengganu, one has to have a strong boat and a hardy stomach.

It's a perfect penal isle. The long stretch of choppy water keeps it a safe distance from the mainland.

That was why the Malaysian government turned it into a temporary holding place for the tens of thousands of fleeing Vietnamese "boat people" in 1979, four years after the communist victory.

In 1979, four years after Hanoi's conquest, I was given permission by the Malaysian authorities to visit Bidong, when it was holding 27,000 refugees, most of them ethnic Chinese.

Many of them had been traumatised by Thai pirates, robbed, raped and beaten during their risky flight from the communist victors.

A French (AFP) news agency journalist and I (who was then foreign editor of the Straits Times), accompanied by our photographers, were permitted to move around the camp to see how they were treated.

There was only one condition. We were not to accept letters from them to mail to their relatives back home. "They would try. They would beg you," you are not to take the letters out.

The reason was obvious. If word got out, that they could get a temporary foothold in Malaysia, thousand of others would flock there. There would be no end to the plight.

(Without the space, Singapore had to turn them back into the open sea in their rickety boats after giving them supplies.)

Ten-foot waves tossed our boat about, churned our stomachs and by the time of our arrival, whatever food we ate had already come out. We could not walk straight for a long time.

We spent the night there, lying on a hard wooden bench. But it was worth every mosquito-biting minute. I saw a new world, consisted of people who survived some of the worst nature and the cruelty of man could throw at them

It opened my eyes to a new level of hardiness of the war-ravaged Vietnamese.

I soon found out how right the Malaysian official had been about letters. Hundreds - no exaggeration - approached us, begging us, some in tears, to mail letters out for them.

Some had been written long ago, others freshly penned, they had tried with little success every day to get Malaysian boatmen (who bring in supplies) to smuggle out.

We interviewed about seven or eight refugees, took a lot of pictures, to show how they lived (in community style), the makeshift classrooms. Then I met him - and his wife.

It's not very often that journalists could come face to face with the history they covered. I did 21 years ago on the Malaysian island of Bidong off Trengganu.

It was a fascinating epilogue to my coverage of the Vietnam War.

Today, the island is back in its old self. The 27,000 Vietnamese "boat" people who once lived there are gone. Only memories linger.

For me, it will always be the place where I sat face to face in 1979 with a Vietnamese refugee who had done more than most other combatants did in changing course of the war.

One of its most frightening spectres, to me, was urban warfare waged by the Vietcong's "suicide" squad. These are specially trained men and women who were prepared to attack - and die - attacking US and allied personnel in the cities.

Some of them operated in pairs, riding a 100-cc Honda motorbike, scouring the city centres to toss grenades or bombs at their enemies.

(To counter this, the Saigon authorities enforced a law requiring the passenger to sit side-saddle. That way it was harder for the bike to speed in a zigzag manner without tossing the passenger off.)

With powerful explosives strapped around their bodies, these guerillas would ride their motorbikes or drive a stolen jeep straight into a US building or a large military crowd, blowing themselves and their victims up.

Others would operate in pairs as their motorcycles scored the city looking for Americans or Vietnamese policemen and tossing hand-grenades at them.

Imagine a Sunday morning. People dressed in their Sunday best, heading for the park, crowded restaurants and blaring music. Then suddenly - an explosion. You run towards it - and you see the bodies scattered on the ground.

That's urban warfare.

I still recall the blood-splattered names - the US Embassy, the big Bien Hoa US air base, the Victory, the Brinks, the Metropole, all of them major US officers' quarters that were attacked in spectacular fashion.

The South Vietnamese, too, had their share of it. the National Police Headquarters along Tran Hung Dao, Saigon's Tan Son Nhut Airport and the large power station at Thu Duc, were by these urban guerillas.

The impact of these high-profile city attacks overwhelmed the casualties in defeating America's spirit back home because of television. Pictures of bloodied Americans being carried away sap morale more than anything else.

I gradually came to fear and admire them for being so ready to die for their cause. Some of them would have these words in Chinese tattooed on his upper arm: "Born in the north, to die in the south."

Sometimes sitting with a can of coke in my hand at our Reuters office at Han Thuyen near the Catholic Brasalica and the Presidential Palace, I would wonder who these people were.

The answer now came on the island of Bidong in 1979 and he was no less than their leader, the top gun.

He looked like another farmer. He was a soft-spoken, slightly built man with a mustache sitting next to his wife and their seven-year-old adopted daughter. I called him Colonel Bao, which was not his real name.

The story unfolded. It was fascinating. I began to sit up as his words came out in measured phrases as we probed him. His was a tale of 21 years of endless warfare, wounded, running and doing undercover work, fighting.

Some men owe their grandeur to a hard, enduring life of endless dangers and a seemingly indestructible will power. This was one of them. It made Chin Peng's life a luxury by comparison. He got married only a year ago, three years after the war ended. He had truly sacrificed his life for the war.

He was, he said, without any emphasis that he was the commander of the Vietcong Special Force for Zone R (which included Saigon-Bien Hoa-Thu Duc) comprising 300 highly trained men and women who had joined to die.

As I took down what he said, my hand was shaking. My mind raced back to the scene of havoc I encountered outside the old US Embassy near the Saigon river after it was attacked by guerillas. The suicide attackers had rammed their motorcycles straight onto the main gate and set off their bombs, making world headlines.

Here was the man who planned it.

"We spent days watching, gathering information and carried out repeated trial runs in the jungle before we attacked," he said. The Americans later built another embassy somewhere else.

On another occasion, I was awakened by a loud explosion at around 5.30 am when the monsoon rains were lashing Saigon. I thought it was thunder until machinegun fire filled the air. Grabbing a raincoat, I dashed out into the street, ran across a couple of junctions to the sound of fighting.

I saw a huge truck parked in the middle of the road, some 30 metres from an American officers' quarters near the main Tu Do Street. Two dead American MPs were lying on the ground. I hid behind a wall and watched US MPs pour fire into the truck.

When the firing stopped some seven or eight minutes later, it stopped I moved slowly towards the truck with other reporters. Blood was flowing out of it mixed with rainwater.

An MP climbed up and recoiled. In it were seven dead Vietnamese women. The horror of it became known later. They were construction workers on the way to work in the airport and were caught in a crossfire.

They were passing the American building just as two Vietcongs on a cyclo tossed a bomb at it and sped away. Mistaking the truck as Vietcong, the Americans opened fire. The result was disastrous. Again Colonel Bao's work.

He began as a teenage Vietcong soldier and got his first promotion after three years to become warrant officer of the Vietcong army in Bac Lieu, 300 km south of Saigon. In 1962 he was seriously wounded in battle.

He became the city's underground district chief, a civilian job, a deactivation from active duty to allow his wound to heal. When he recovered two years later he returned to the army.

In 1964, he was given command of a regiment of 400 Vietcong troops. Within months he was wounded again during a battle with South Vietnamese troops at Vinh Thuan.

The war began to intensify. He moved to Zone R as head of the special force. His force was also involved in infiltration and collection of intelligence in preparation for the 1968 Tet Lunar New Year offensive.

But his story took an ironic twist. After the communist victory in 1875, he began to feel unhappy with life and now wanted to live in America.

When he made his break, Col Bao was senior regional security and intelligence officer in the southern Mekong Delta. He set off in a boat with others and surrendered his pistol to a Malaysian patrol boat.

Why did he leave after the cause to which he had given his adult life was achieved? He said he was frustrated with the communists for three reasons. Firstly, the socialist dream had failed to give the people a better life.

Secondly, instead of being welcomed as liberators, he found that the South Vietnamese people hated the communists. Thirdly, the northerners took over everything. Southerners like him were not trusted or given any power.

After three years he gave up. Please, he told me, don't use my name or else I would be killed.

Today Vietnam is, of course, a very different country. It's become an Asean member; a new generation has grown up with little recollection of the war and reconciling with its old enemies.

But I can't help wondering where the colourful Col Bao is or what he's doing now. Someday one one will make a film about him

-- (tosu_cs@yahoo.com), February 24, 2005



So phan cua DT Bao,dai loai cung giong nhu nhung nguoi mien Nam bi du di theo bon Vem va sau do da bi vat chanh bo vo.Bon dac cong Sai- Gon nay da giet hai biet bao nhieu dan lanh vo toi vi nhung vu dat bom trong thanh pho Sai- Gon.Han ta la toi do dan toc va cung la nan nhan cua bo may bao luc va tuyen truyen bip bom cua bon lanh dao Bac Cong HN.Hy vong sau mot thoi gian dai dinh cu o cac nuoc DAN CHU,cai dau lu lan cua nhung nguoi nhu vay se duoc mo ra.

-- Lin Ho (Lin@hotmail.com), February 24, 2005.

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