The September 8 demonstration of the Hịa Hảo Buddhists in Cần Thơ came as a turning point in the development of Hịa Hảo political involvement. For the first time, the adepts raised “anti-dictatorial” slogans. In other words, the followers of Hịa Hảo Buddhism protested the dictatorial policies of the Communist regime in Vietnam within days of its inception. The incident deeply affected the situation in the Mekong Delta as well.
In fact, tensions between Hịa Hảo followers headed by Huỳnh Ph Sổ and Communist activists loyal to Trần Văn Giu first surfaced during the meeting in late afternoon September 7 at the Trade Unions headquarters in downtown Saigon. As Trần Văn Giu came under fire and was forced to give up the post of Committees chairman, the meeting went ahead in a very precarious atmosphere. Around 9 PM, Giàus assistant Lý Huê Vinh brought in a cablegram, which alleged that “Hòa Hảo followers rebelled in a plot to seize Cần Thơ.” Giàu hit the table in an apparent indignation and rudely demanded Huỳnh Phú Sổ to clarify the situation.
Huỳnh Phú Sổ argued that it was a peaceful demonstration approved by the local administrative committee. However, the demonstration was designed to voice protest against the French colonialists as well as “dictatorial policies,” an obvious euphemism aimed against Giàu. Though Huỳnh Phú Sổ pledged to refrain from violence in Cần Thơ, he also accused Trần Van Giàu of making secret deals with the French. Moreover, Huỳnh Phú Sổ refused to tell his own followers to disband.
Presumably, Huỳnh Phú Sổ ordered the organization of the demonstration in Cần Thơ in order to support the position of the Unified Front in its confrontation with Trần Văn Giàus faction. It was also designed to show Hanois envoys, Hoàng Quốc Việt and Cao Hồng Lãnh, the real state of mind of the people in the Mekong Delta. The demonstration was organized by Huỳnh Phú Sổs trusted supporters, who also sought and received approval from the Cần Thơ administrative committee headed by Professor Trần Văn Kéo.
The demonstration of some 20,000 people came as an unprecedented event for the provincial town of Cần Thơ. In fact, the protesters did not have any anti-Việt Minh slogans but demanded to give arms to the people in order to combat the French “colonialists.” However, they also demanded the removal of “rotten” elements from the Administrative Committees. This particular request was clearly directed against Trần Văn Giàu, who was accused of collaboration with the French secret police.
Not surprisingly, Trần Văn Giàu had a personal agenda in this conflict therefore he ordered to subdue what he declared “a coup attempt” in Cần Thơ. However, claims of the Hòa Hảo alleged intention to stage a revolt and take over Cần Thơ in fact amounted to little more than Trần Văn Giàus allegations. The Hòa Hảo protesters were unarmed and could not have had any plans to remove the Việt Minh administration in Cần Thơ, which still had some armed units at its disposal. In fact, Trần Văn Giàu used the August 8 demonstration as a pretext to launch a massive campaign of reprisals against Hòa Hảo Buddhism. Since most media outlets were controlled by the Việt Minh, the story of an alleged Hòa Hảo coup attempt was widely circulated while the Hòa Hảo followers were unable to oppose the Communist propaganda and spread their part of the story.
According to eyewitnesses accounts, on September 7, scores of Hòa Hảo followers wearing black peasant robes moved towards Cần Thơ. They either walked from Cái Răng, Bình Thủy and Vĩnh Long or traveled by riverboats along the Bassac River, and the Cái Răng and Cái Khế canals. Though there were members of Bảo An among the protesters, they did not carry any weapons and just brought some food and fresh water supplies with them. Moreover, the demonstrators did not enter the Cần Thơ city limit and remained in the suburbs.
Nevertheless, on September 7 the Việt Minh administration in Cần Thơ imposed a state of emergency and a curfew. The authorities also mobilized their police, paramilitary and Avant-Guarde Youth units. The administrative committee held an urgent meeting and invited the Hòa Hảo representatives, Nguyễn Xuân Thiếp, Trần Văn Hoành and Huỳnh Thạnh Mậu. The authorities demanded a stop to the protest and the withdrawal of the demonstrators. The Hòa Hảo leaders strongly disagreed and argued that it was a peaceful and pre-approved demonstration, hence, there was no point to stopping it. The talks stopped as both sides contacted their respective leaders in Saigon and sought further instructions.
On the morning of September 8, gunshots were heard in the area of Bắc Cần Thơ Bridge and Cái Răng road. Then the authorities announced that Hòa Hảo followers had tried to cross the Bassak River and storm the city. However, when Avant-Guarde Youth units moved towards the river to repel an alleged Hòa Hảo assault, they found no Hòa Hảo adepts there. In the afternoon, the authorities announced that the Hòa Hảo followers had been quelled.
In truth, the Việt Minh police shot at the protesters, killing and wounding a number of adepts. The unarmed Hòa Hảo followers were unable to resist and fled in disarray.
On September 9, the Cần Thơ authorities held a meeting and Trần Văn Kéo announced “a victorious repulse of the Hòa Hảo assault.” He also strongly denounced the Hòa Hảo followers, accusing them of plans “to seize Cần Thơ.” Subsequently, scores of Hòa Hảo activists were arrested and Cần Thơ municipal prison did not have enough space to accommodate all the detainees.
Moreover, the Communists aimed at destroying the Hòa Hảo command and control institutions by physically eliminating high-ranking officials of the congregation. Notably, the Việt Minh police arrested Nguyễn Xuân Thiếp, Trần Văn Soáis eldest son Trần Văn Hoành and Huỳnh Thạnh Mậu, the younger brother of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. On October 7, the Communists decided to stage a public execution, and the scene was the Cần Thơ stadium.
In fact, the Communists moved to provoke a civil war as many Hòa Hảo activists were arrested and killed throughout the Mekong Delta. Notably, in Trà Vinh the Việt Minh arrested Chung Bá Khánh, Đỗ Hữu Thiều, Vỏ Văn Thời and Lâm Thành Nguyên. All were thrown alive into the Bassak or Hậu Giang River with their hands tied. Only Nguyên managed to untie himself and had a lucky escape.
The Communists also launched a campaign of reprisals in Long Xuyên and Châu Đốc, the provinces with predominantly Hòa Hảo populations. However, the Hòa Hảo Self Defense units resisted with equal violence and tens of thousands of people died in the ensuing battles.
Prophet Huynh Phu So, In front of Hoa Hao headquarter on Miche, Saigon 1945