Originally published in the The Seattle Times.
Sunday, December 07, 2003
By Daniel Lovering
The Associated Press
RAYONG, Thailand — A former bomber pilot in South Vietnam’s air force hopes he will be out of jail soon so he can resume his maverick battle against communism — one batch of leaflets at a time.
Already locked up for three years, Ly Tong is awaiting a judge’s ruling Dec. 25 on charges that he hijacked a small plane in Thailand before scattering thousands of anti-communist leaflets over a Vietnamese city.
A guilty verdict potentially could bring the death penalty, but is unlikely because Thai courts usually impose capital punishment only for murder and major drug offenses. Ly contends he didn’t use force to get control of the plane and thus wasn’t guilty of hijacking.
To admirers, particularly Vietnamese around the globe, the 55-year-old pilot is a hero for carrying out that audacious mission in November 2000, just before President Clinton became the first U.S. leader to visit Vietnam since the war.
But to the communist government of Vietnam, Ly is a “dangerous international terrorist.” The Cuban government, which also has been the target of one of his aerial leafletings, considers Ly a “madman, unhinged, drugged, or vulgar mercenary.”
For the Thai government, Ly is a nuisance. Some observers here have branded his escapades “pathetic” and dismiss the wiry airman as a “nut case.”
Ly says he doesn’t care about bouquets or brickbats. All he wants is to fight communism, he says.
“I try to contribute my part because I am a freedom fighter,” Ly said recently before a court hearing in this seaside town in eastern Thailand.
“I cannot live my life if people are living in horrible conditions,” said Ly, who carries around a sheaf of certificates and laudatory letters, including an admiring note from former President Reagan.
During the war in Vietnam, Ly flew an A-37 Dragonfly attack plane in support of U.S. forces. He was shot down in the final days of the war and captured by North Vietnamese troops. He escaped a prison camp in Tuy Hoa in 1980 and trekked across Southeast Asia. Eventually he was granted asylum through the U.S. Embassy in Singapore and moved to New Orleans.
But Ly found he couldn’t give up the war against communism.
He made his first protest flight over Vietnam in 1992 after he gained control of a commercial jetliner that took off from Bangkok, Thailand. By claiming to have a bomb, he forced the crew to fly him over Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon.
Ly dumped 50,000 leaflets from the Vietnam Airlines jet before jumping out a cockpit window and parachuting into the city in hopes of leading an uprising inspired by his message. He was arrested and was sentenced in 1993 to 20 years in prison.
After serving six years, he was freed in a government amnesty and returned to the United States — already intent on preparing for more missions against communist regimes.
In January 2000, he rented a plane in Miami and flew over Havana, showering Cuba’s capital with leaflets calling for the ouster of President Fidel Castro. U.S. officials questioned Ly after the flight but released him without charges, although he had to surrender his 2-week-old pilot’s license.
The following November, Ly scheduled a flying lesson with an instructor in a twin-engine plane based at the airfield in the coastal town of Hua Hin, Thailand.
After takeoff, though, Ly took over as pilot and headed for Ho Chi Minh City again, flying low over the city to dump anti-communist leaflets out a window. When Ly landed a few hours later at a Thai navy base in Rayong, police were waiting to arrest him.
He said later that he had bribed the pilot with $10,000 to turn over control of the plane and help him disperse the leaflets, which were signed by Ly for the “Global Alliance for the Total Uprising Against Communists.”
“They have to free me because I have committed no crime,” Ly insisted in the interview. “I did nothing wrong. All the charges like the hijacking offense were fabricated.”
In addition to the hijacking count, Ly is charged with flying an aircraft out of Thailand without permission, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, and with traveling outside Thailand illegally, with a maximum penalty of two years.
His escapades have earned him celebrity status with Vietnamese living abroad, some of whom fled their country when the communist government took power in 1975.
Ly’s court hearings in Rayong are attended by dozens of Vietnamese émigrés who fly in from the United States, Canada, France and Australia to give moral support. Some elderly women wept at his recent court appearance.
Ly, who is single but describes himself as an “international father” for siring three children in different countries, has a butterfly tattooed on his left forearm. It was inspired by Henri Charierre, a Frenchman with a butterfly tattooed on his chest who was imprisoned on Devil’s Island in the 1930s and spent most of the rest of his life breaking out and being captured again — events chronicled in the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman movie “Papillon.”
Vietnamese-Americans “are very proud to know we have Ly Tong in our community,” said Dr. Lo Truong, 56, a former South Vietnamese army doctor who heads a group in Calgary, Alberta, called the Delegation to Support Mr. Ly Tong.
“That’s why we have to travel half the world to visit Ly Tong today,” he said outside the Rayong provincial court. “A lot of people — thousands — want to be present at the trial every time (there is a hearing), but they can’t … so we have to take turns.”
Now Thai authorities will decide whether Ly will be able to take up his cause again.
Asked what he plans if he is released, Ly grinned and said he will “just go back to America and plan for another mission.”