- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

BANGKOK — 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 the past three years, Ly Tong was sentenced in late December to seven years in prison for hijacking a small plane in Thailand before scattering thousands of anticommunist leaflets over Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

Ly contended he didn’t use force to get control of the plane and thus wasn’t guilty of hijacking.

The Nation, an English-language newspaper here in the Thai capital, reported two weeks ago that Thai officials would inform their Vietnamese counterparts of the trial’s outcome at a joint Cabinet meeting in Hanoi.

Last week, the Nation reported the meeting had taken place, adding that under an agreement with the United States, Ly would be transferred to U.S. custody to serve the balance of his sentence in his adopted homeland.

Hero to exiles

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 the communist government of Vietnam considers Ly a “dangerous international terrorist.” The Cuban government, which also has been the target of an aerial leafleting, considers him either a “madman, unhinged, drugged, or a vulgar mercenary.”

Ly says he doesn’t care about bouquets or brickbats. All he wants is to fight communism.

“I try to contribute my part because I am a freedom fighter,” Ly told the Associated Press late last year before he was sentenced in Rayong, a 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 Ronald Reagan.

Shot down in 1975

During the war in Vietnam, Ly flew an A-37 Dragonfly attack plane in support of U.S. forces. He was shot down in 1975 during 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. He eventually was granted asylum through the U.S. Embassy in Singapore and moved to New Orleans.

But Ly couldn’t give up his war against communism.

He made his first protest flight over Vietnam in 1992 after he wrested control of a commercial jetliner that took off from Bangkok by claiming to have a bomb and forced the crew to fly him over Ho Chi Minh City.

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 planning 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 him after the flight but released him without charges, although Ly had to surrender his 2-week-old pilot’s license.

That 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, Ly took over as pilot and headed for Ho Chi Minh City again, flying low over the city to dump anticommunist 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 on behalf of the “Global Alliance for the Total Uprising Against Communists.”

“They have to free me because I have committed no crime,” Ly insisted in the AP interview. “I did nothing wrong. All the charges like the hijacking offense were fabricated.”

Charged with hijacking

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.

Ly twice has staged hunger strikes at the Thai prison where he has been held since his arrest — first to protest the charges against him, and later to demand that the United States invade Iraq to “liberate an oppressed people.”

His escapades have earned him celebrity status with Vietnamese living abroad, many of whom fled their country when the communist government took power in 1975.

Ly’s court hearings in Rayong were attended by dozens of Vietnamese emigres flying 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 Dustin Hoffman movie “Papillon.”

Praised by refugees

Vietnamese exiles “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 before Ly’s sentencing. “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.”

Plans more missions

Asked what he planned to do if he was released, Ly grinned and said he would “just go back to America and plan for another mission.”

Early last month, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, told the Miami Herald she was sad and disappointed at the long prison sentence imposed on Ly in Thailand, calling him a local hero for Miami.

“I met the courageous Ly Tong after his flight over Havana,” she told the Herald, “and it is a shame that this advocate of freedom must serve years in prison for trying to expose the evils of communism.”

The first Hispanic woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana and came to the United States with her family fleeing communism when she was 7 years old.

From combined dispatches

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