Chapter 8: Alliance with the French

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Chapter 8: Alliance with the French

Facing an emergency situation caused by the Communist onslaught, prominent military and political leaders convened at Hịa Hảo village. Huỳnh Cơng Bộ, father of Huỳnh Ph Sổ, chaired the meeting. The gathering decided that the 30th regiment or the Nguyễn Trung Trực Division was to be removed from the Việt Minh-controlled resistance forces, or Vệ quốc đồn. The Nguyễn Trung Trực Division was to remain nominally anti-French in order to sustain the anti-French spirit proclaimed by Huỳnh Ph Sổ when this unit had been formed. The arms of the Nguyễn Trung Trực Division were to be transferred to the Hịa Hảo mobile units, which were assigned to protect the Hịa Hảo followers and cooperate with the French for this purpose.

The congregation also pledged “to sustain the religion and wait for the Founder.” Giữ Đạo, chờ Thầy. The Social-Democratic Party vowed to stick with its anti-French and anti-Communist slogans. The party members were ordered not to collaborate with the French and maintain a network of clandestine cells.

However, the Social-Democratic Party was unable to sustain its anti-French stance. Furthermore, the Hịa Hảo community was no longer able to combat both the French and the Việt Minh. Therefore, on May 18, 1947 the Hịa Hảo commander Trần Văn Sối signed a military collaboration agreement with Colonel Cluzet.

In the immediate aftermath of Huỳnh Ph Sổs disappearance, the French military followed the developments closely and viewed the revived conflict between the Hịa Hảo and the Việt Minh as an opportunity to split the anti-French opposition. Moreover, the French considered the Communists as their principal enemy, while the Hịa Hảo were viewed as rivals of secondary importance.

French military analysts argued that following Huỳnh Ph Sổs disappearance, all Hịa Hảo followers turned against the Việt Minh. Fusier. Le secte Hoa Hao. Jusquen Aout 1945. Cheam, 2548, pp. 5-6. One French source suggested that tension between the Hòa Hảo and the Việt Minh was further fuelled by French military intelligence and Colonel Cluzet, who was a commander in the Western provinces. Herve, M. Les Hoa Hao. CHEAM, No 1937, 1951. However, details of French involvement in the events preceding the April 1947 tragedy are yet to be fully revealed.

In the meantime, facing dramatic developments the government of the “Southern Republic,” or Cộng Hòa Nam Kỳ, remained hesitant and refrained from any direct action. The cabinets inactivity was highlighted in correspondence between defense secretary Nguyễn Văn Tâm and Prime Minister Lê Văn Hoạch. For instance, on May 6 the defense secretary sent memo No 78 and stated that the government must take a clear position. Nguyễn Văn Tâm suggested giving weapons to Hòa Hảo followers so they could defend themselves or otherwise the Việt Minh would exterminate the Hòa Hảo community. On July 9, Nguyễn Văn Tâm once again recommended the urgent distribution of weapons among the Hòa Hảo Self-Defense units not only to help the community to defend the adepts but also to avoid a growing refugee crisis. In memo No 130, Nguyễn Văn Tâm stated that many insufficiently armed Bảo An units were unable to repel the Việt Minh assaults, therefore, thousands of Hòa Hảo followers were fleeing. According to Nguyễn Văn Tâm, it happened in Sa Đéc province where the Hòa Hảo adepts fled to Cù Lao Cát.

Given that Việt Minh officials were obviously implicated in Huỳnh Phú Sổs disappearance, the Communists indicated that a radical decision had been taken. The Việt Minh opted to end all reconciliation attempts and violently eliminate the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community. Correspondingly, Hòa Hảo followers reacted violently. This is how the Hòa Hảo military build up started because the congregation had to defend itself.

It should be pointed out that in case the Hòa Hảo were a political party or military organization, then the adepts would not have needed to cooperate with the French. Well-organized and tightly structured political or military groups were able to defend themselves or disperse among the population in order to survive hostile environment. This is how Quốc Dân Đảng party survived the French reprisals in 1930 and the Communist onslaught in 1946.

Contrariwise, Hòa Hảo Buddhism was a mass religious organization, which was unable to flee or disperse. Therefore the Hòa Hảo mass following of more than one million adherents became the congregations liability as adepts could have become easy targets for the Communist raids. The Việt Minh units burned down hamlets and villages, destroyed stocks of rice and indiscriminately murdered everybody associated with the Hòa Hảo community.

The situation forced the Hòa Hảo adepts to seek weapons for self-defense. The survival of the Hòa Hảo community as a whole emerged as a priority while anti-French pronouncements temporary dropped into irrelevance. The ad hoc analysis suggested arms could have been provided only by the French military.

On the other hand, the Hòa Hảo movement was not the only nationalist group, which rallied to the French. On January 8, 1947, the Caodaists agreed to collaborate with the French authorities. Their rationale also was an attempt to avoid Communist reprisals. Some activists of the Quốc Dân Đảng and Đại Việt parties also fled to the French-controlled areas or worked at the French offices.

However, a new policy of cooperation with the French was not universally accepted by Hòa Hảo followers. The Social-Democratic Party outlets in the Mekong Delta tried to sustain their anti-French stance. The 30th regiment or Nguyễn Trung Trực Division, headed by Nguyễn Giác Ngộ, declined to collaborate with the French authorities. Another unit of “revolutionary troops,” or Nghĩa quân Cách mạng, under Lê Quang Vinh also refused to co-operate and remained in maquis. However, their anti-French activities attracted little public attention and media coverage while the fast growth of the pro-French Hòa Hảo groups became better known. On the other hand, the French military were keen to crack down on Hòa Hảo dissident groups, which therefore remained in relative obscurity.

The Hòa Hảo community formed a special body, the so-called Supreme Politico-Military Organization, or Cơ quan Quân Chính tối cao. It was headed by Huỳnh Công Bộ, and included chief of the Social-Democratic Party Interprovincial Committee Lương Trọng Tường, Nguyễn Xuân Tăng, Nguyễn Ngọc Tố, Nguyễn Văn Vạn, and former Huỳnh Phú Sổs head of office Mai Văn Dậu.

The Hòa Hảo negotiators put forward the following four points during their talks with the French representatives:

1. In principle, the agreement was supposed to be a military alliance, or liên quân, between the French and the Hòa Hảo, and not a unilateral surrender on behalf of the Hòa Hảo community.
2. The French were to respect in principle the policies of the Social-Democratic Party, notably a planned fulfillment of Vietnams national sovereignty.
3. The French were to respect the political leadership of the Social-Democratic Party over the Hòa Hảo armed units.
4. The French were to respect the religious freedom of the Hòa Hảo Buddhists, the political freedom of the Social-Democratic Party, and not to interfere with Hòa Hảo religious, political and military affairs.

However, the French negotiators rejected most Hòa Hảo demands. During the negotiations, the Hòa Hảo team insisted that their deal would have been a military alliance against the Communist forces, and not a capitulation by the Hòa Hảo. As Mai Văn Dậu put it: “Nous ne pouvons admettere dêtre traités comme RALLIÉS, nous demandons à être traités comme ALLIÉS.”

As the French declined to accept many Hòa Hảo requests, the atmosphere of negotiations became increasingly tense. Notably, at one point Mai Văn Dậu fled his residence in Cần Thơ during nighttime and sought refuge in Hòa Hảo village. The author clearly remembers how lawyer Mai Văn Dậu returned to Hòa Hảo village in black peasant clothes. He claimed that he could have been murdered or detained by the French in case he opted to stay in Cần Thơ. Mai Văn Dậu also acknowledged his failure to convince the French to approve the 4-point platform of the Social-Democratic Party.

The French officers were well aware of their strong negotiatining position therefore, they opted to satisfy some formal demands of the Hòa Hảo in order to please them. Notably, they pledged to carry out the bilateral agreement as a military alliance between the French and the Hòa Hảo. The bilateral deal became known as a military alliance convention.

The Hòa Hảo teams sensitivity to the wording of the agreement was probably caused by the remaining strong anti-French feelings inside the Hòa Hảo community. Hòa Hảo leaders realized that their overnight U-turn from military and propaganda action against “the French colonialists” towards a military alliance with the French did have negative psychological repercussions such as disillusionment, humiliation and confusion among the Hòa Hảo adepts. A subtle difference between “alliance” and “rallying” was used to explain the position of the leadership and deal with widespread confusion among the rank and file adepts. For the same reason even the term “collaboration,” or cộng tác, was not used among Hòa Hảo followers because memories of criminal collaboration between Petains Vichy regime and the Nazi Germany were still fresh among the Vietnamese people. Hòa Hảo leaders also insisted that the “military” alliance involved tactical issues only while the Hòa Hảo movement could maintain its nationalist political agenda.

Likewise, many Vietnamese nationalist groups in the South were equally “wording sensitive” as they rallied to the central government. Notably, General Trình Minh Thế and his Liên Minh army also insisted that they “cooperated,” or hợp tác, and not “collaborated,” or cộng tác, with the government of Ngô Đình Diệm. Nhị Lang, political advisor of the Liên Minh army, argued they had wanted to convince Premier Ngô Đình Diệm and his “adviser” Ngô Đình Nhu that the Liên Minh resistance force was leaving its Bà Đen mountainous hideout as an equal partner and “ally.” Nhị Lang. Phong trào kháng chiến Trình Minh Thế /The Resistance Movement of Trình Minh Thế/. Virginia, USA: Alpha, 1989, p.250.

However, all of these pronouncements by the Hòa Hảo leadership were aimed at limiting damage, which was inevitably caused by the alliance with the French. After years of bloody anti-French struggle and with a background of the Hòa Hảo patriotic ideology outlined by Tây An and Huỳnh Phú Sổ, the alliance with the former colonial masters dealt the Hòa Hảo movement a heavy psychological blow. Moreover, Hòa Hảo negotiators realized that despite polite smiles their French partners, most of them intelligence officers, were unlikely to implement the “equal cooperation” spirit of the agreement.

Similarly, one important point should be clarified here. According to Antoin Savanis book, Visage et Images du Sud Viet-Nam, on March 15, 1947 Trần Văn Soái allegedly rallied to the French and brought his 2,000 men to be stationed in Cái Vồn, Bình Minh near Cần Thơ. Savani A.M. Visage et Images du Sud Viet-Nam. Saigon: Imprimerie Francaise dOutre-Mer, 1955, p.90. This claim is either a misprint or deliberate misinformation and a distortion of history by French intelligence. As a matter of fact, on March 15 Trần Văn Soái accompanied Huỳnh Phú Sổ in a drive to relocate the Hòa Hảo troops from Eastern to Western Nam Bộ. When the Hòa Hảo leader disappeared on April 16, Trần Văn Soái and his troops were still in the Đồng Tháp area.

It should also be pointed out that the Communists repeatedly accused the Hòa Hảo leaders of making secret deals with the French prior to April 1947 in an evident attempt to whitewash Việt Minh atrocities against the Hòa Hảo community. Therefore Savanis claim mentioned above may serve to substantiate the allegations by the Việt Minh. This is why it should be unequivocally stated that Savanis claim was a mistake, unintended or deliberate.

Only in May, Trần Văn Soái decided to remove his 2nd mobile brigade from Long Xuyên and position it in the Cần Thơ area, where he had operated before the Resistance war. Trần Văn Soái realized that he was not properly educated to deal with the French officers, hence, he sought professional advice. Mai Văn Dậu, a lawyer educated in France, was named his personal adviser. He attended a number of negotiation sessions with the representative of General Pierre Boyer de la Tour and Colonel Cluzet.

The agreement stipulated:

1. All Hòa Hảo followers were guaranteed freedom of religion throughout the Western provinces of South Vietnam.
2. The Army of Hòa Hảo Buddhism under the command of Trần Văn Soái, aka Năm Lửa, had a right to defend the Hòa Hảo Buddhist congregation and combat the Việt Minh either unilaterally or in coordination with the French Army.
3. From the administrative point of view, the Hòa Hảo organization was to respect the common legislation, while the legitimate rights of the Hòa Hảo were also to be respected. Hòa Hảo Buddhism had the right to enjoy a representation in district and provincial councils in consonance with the number of Hòa Hảo followers there.
4. The Hòa Hảo was to halt all cooperation with the Việt Minh movement and expel all Việt Minh-affiliated organizations and individuals out of its areas.
5. The Hòa Hảo armed forces would include mobile units of the Social-Democratic Party under the command of Trần Văn Soái. The Bảo An units were to be armed by the respective provincial authorities and were to report to these authorities. All these units would retain their Hòa Hảo officers.
6. The French were to provide weapons and necessary supplies to the Hòa Hảo mobile units.
7. The Hòa Hảo armed forces were to operate independently but they could seek French support in case of any urgent need.
8. The Hòa Hảo armed forces and the French army were to coordinate their actions in case of need.
9. The Hòa Hảo followers and soldiers were to provide intelligence information relative to the enemy troops positions and movements to the military and civilian authorities.
10. Bilateral liaison offices were to be set up in Cần Thơ, Long Xuyên, Châu Đốc, Sa Đéc and Vĩnh Long provinces.
11. The Hòa Hảo armed forces had a brown banner with P.G.H.H. letters.
12. The agreement was to remain effective until the return of Huỳnh Phú Sổ who was supposed to approve the document.
13. No other bilateral agreements could be signed on the local level unless approved by signatories by this agreement.

On 18, May 1947, the deal was clinched and Colonel Cluzet conferred on Trần Văn Soái a rank of general. Whereby some 2,000 Hòa Hảo troops rallied to combat the Viet Minh. However, eventually Colonel Cluzet was called back to France and was reportedly disciplined for signing a far too liberal convention with the Hòa Hảo community. The removal of Colonel Cluzet might indicate that the French authorities had only their own interests in mind and ignored the interests of their negotiation partners as well as tens of million of Vietnamese.
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