The doctrines of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương, notably the concept of the Four Gratitudes, or Tứ Ân, were instrumental in inspiring and strengthening feelings of the national identity among the peasant cultivators of southern Vietnam. Subsequently, the Mekong Delta became a hotbed of numerous anti-French revolts and acts of insubordination. Notably, uprisings led by Trương Công Định, Võ Duy Dương, Nguyễn Trung Trực, Nguyễn Hữu Huân, and Trần Văn Thành should be mentioned. The people of southern Vietnam were arguably less impregnated by Confucian dogmas, therefore they were less subservient to orders from the imperial court in Huế, in particular, and had little respect for any central government in general.
When the Nguyễn Dynasty signed a truce and agreed to surrender three Eastern provinces of southern Vietnam to the French on June 5, 1862, the move sparked obvious anxiety in the South. As Emperor Tự Đức ordered his troops to retreat to the Western provinces, Trương Công Định and Võ Duy Dương refused to obey. Phan Thanh Giản, the imperial delegate based in Vĩnh Long province, tried to convince them to lay down their weapons, but both declined and hence were stripped of their military ranks. When Nguyễn Hữu Huân suffered a defeat near Thuộc Nhiêu, Mỹ Tho, he fled to the Seven Mountains but was detained by Phan Khắc Thân, the An Giang province chief. Nguyễn Hữu Huân was arrested on the grounds of disobeying imperial orders to cease-fire. He was delivered to the French authorities, exiled to Réunion island and finally executed.
From the point of view of the imperial legislation, these leaders and their supporters among the southern population must have been viewed as rebels. They did not wait for orders from the imperial court in Huế but tried to resist foreign intervention using means available to them. It could be argued that the people of the south put the national interests above allegiance to the central government. The southerners had a record of dissidence and lack of confidence in the central government. This culture of dissidence played a role in a violent conflict between the government of Ngô Đình Diệm and the armed minorities of the south in 1955.
It should be pointed out that Vietnam has had a legacy of forming paramilitary units known as “peoples self-defense” forces. It began in the north where self-reliant and self-sufficient rural communities, or làng xã, were supposed to take care of their security on their own. Rural communities in northern Vietnam were often surrounded by bamboo walls while the gates were guarded by volunteers armed with crude weapons. The legacy of communal autonomy was well reflected in the dictum “Imperial law yields to village customs.” Phép vua thua lệ làng.
Unlike the “closed corporate” rural communities of the north, pioneer settlements of the Mekong Delta were of more open character. Many southern villages were built on the banks of rivers and canals, therefore, these communities were difficult to protect, however, the legacy of military settlements, or the đồn điền, system was not forgotten in the south and “peace-time peasants” could easily become “war-time soldiers.” Tĩnh vi nông, động vi binh. This is how the Hòa Hảo Self-Defense forces, or Đội Bảo An, emerged. Initially, these forces were formed to protect those villages, which were inhabited by Hòa Hảo Buddhisms followers. Eventually, the Bảo An forces became an important part of political struggle in the South.
Officially, the Hòa Hảo Self-Defense forces were designed to protect rural communities, combat banditry, theft and gambling, detain perpetrators of various crimes and guard the rice harvest. However, it was widely understood that the Bảo An forces were urgently reinforced on the eve of the Japanese surrender in August 1945. The leaders of Hòa Hảo Buddhism realized that the upcoming fall of the Japanese administration in Indochina was going to spark a general decline of law and order. In many Southern villages, Hòa Hảo adepts were trained in the martial arts. Vương Kim, 1975, p.130-131. Apart from the main Self-Defense forces, there were female units as well.
The French believed that during the years of World War II, the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community underwent a process of intense political radicalization. Since early 1943, Lâm Thơ Cưu delivered a number of verbal messages from Huỳnh Phú Sổ throughout the various provinces of the Hậu Giang area. The gist of these messages was a claim that the French were soon to depart from Vietnam. In the ensuing period, Vietnam was supposed to be liberated and regain its independence. In the meantime, all Hòa Hảo adherents were advised to practice religion in order to avoid the numerous perils of the increasingly precarious situation. Savani, A.M. Notes sur le secte Phat Giao Hoa Hao. Saigon, 1951. Chapitre deuxième. Octobre 1942 - Octobre 1945. Cheam, 300893.
The messages of Huỳnh Phú Sổ reportedly caused a twofold impact with regard to the mass of adepts. Some faith-oriented believers abandoned their everyday occupations, including agricultural works. They left their villages and moved towards the Seven Mountains where they hoped to find refuge. On the other hand, socially pro-active followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism, notably the adherents under 40, joined the Bảo An forces.
Correspondingly, the French police moved to stop Hòa Hảo pilgrimages to the Seven Mountains as well as their social activities. A number of Hòa Hảo activists, including the future general Nguyễn Giác Ngộ, were arrested and held in the Côn Đảo and Bà Rá jails. Some prominent adepts, including Dương Thiện Sứ, Đô and Cừ, died in detention.
By the end of 1944, Huỳnh Phú Sổ became increasingly suspicious over the motives of the Japanese military authorities. He ordered his followers to resist police harassment and tried to communicate with the Chungking-based “Annamese Government in exile.” The Japanese authorities restricted the movements of Huỳnh Phú Sổ but proved unable to contain his growing influence throughout the Mekong Delta. Huỳnh Phú Sổ also initiated yet another important stage in the progress of the movement, namely its militarization, as he ordered creation of Hòa Hảo paramilitary units. At the beginning, they were deployed as simple village patrols. Subsequently these units became known as Hòa Hảo Self-Defense troops.
Initially, the Bảo An forces were armed with self-made crude weapons and a limited number of obsolete rifles. However, these units became a sort of nucleus, which eventually brought into being the Hòa Hảo armed forces. Commandant De Malleeray. Conference aux officiers du cours des Forces suppletives. 08/05/1949.
Moreover, the French believed that, since late 1942, Huỳnh Phú Sổ not only allied with the Vietnam Restoration League, or Việt Nam Phục Quốc Hội, but also supported financially this nationalist anti-French party. There were rumors that the leader of Hòa Hảo Buddhism was supposed to attend the Tokyo International Buddhist Congress on July 4, 1943 as a representative of South Vietnam. Huỳnh Phú Sổ was also expected to meet with the exiled Prince Cường Để in Tokyo, or even escort him back home. However, these claims, rumors and expectations never materialized.
On the other hand, the French estimated that, unlike the Caodaists, Huỳnh Phú Sổ never gave the Japanese his full support because the leader of Hòa Hảo Buddhism arguably foresaw that the Japanese Empire would not have lasted long. Fusier. Le secte Hoa Hao. Jusquen Aout 1945. Cheam, 2548. According to Colonel Soreau, the Japanese military failed to exploit the followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism as was the case with some adepts of Caodaism. Contrariwise, the Hòa Hảo leadership was aware of Japans inevitable defeat and used its ties with the Japanese military in order to create and strengthen its own armed Bảo An forces. Colonel Soreau. Le Problème Hoa Hao. De 1941 à Aout 1945. Cheam, 21218.
Between 1942 and 1945, Hòa Hảo activists developed a command and control system sui generis. The orders of Huỳnh Phú Sổ were transmitted verbally by the most trusted disciples who had joined Hòa Hảo Buddhism since its inception in 1939. They served as a link between Huỳnh Phú So and his headquarters in Saigon and the masses of adepts in the Hậu Giang area. This command and control system required very little amount of documentation, hence, it was less vulnerable to possible French police raids.
Furthermore, Huỳnh Phú Sổs informal envoys served as his delegates on the district level. The delegates operated in direct contact with the Hòa Hảo village cells, therefore, no intermediaries were required to sustain reliable communication. On the other hand, local Hòa Hảo Administrative Boards, or Ban Trị Sự, set up communication departments, or Ban Liên Lạc. Local employees of these departments were perfectly aware of all developments in their respective areas hence these messengers were able to provide efficient and reliable communication and intelligence. Although Hòa Hảo runners mainly used riverboats or bicycles, they still proved capable of guaranteeing timely and secure delivery of orders from the movements leadership.
Even though Huỳnh Phú Sổ was unable to leave Saigon due to the Japanese restrictions, his disciples recruited on his behalf. Correspondingly, the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community expanded rapidly during World War II. These recruitment techniques were notably effective in areas with pre-existing Hòa Hảo communities.
The Self-Defense units were designed to protect the Hòa Hảo communities from external pressures. Leaders of local Bảo An units were selected among trusted adepts. They were called Đoàn trưởng Bảo An and were supposed to possess a considerable moral authority among co-religionists, as well as some knowledge of martial arts, or outstanding physical and moral strength.
However, the community needed Self-Defense units to protect itself from hostile outsiders. Among themselves, the adherents relied on trust and did not bother to put doors on their houses to guard their belongings. Mutual solidarity was evident in areas with large Hòa Hảo populations. Village and community solidarity also allowed the peasants to pool their resources for major endeavors such as the creation of Self-Defense troops. Yet the Hòa Hảo communities evolved into social relationships, which limited the admission of outsiders. Those within the communities were protected by Bảo An, but outsiders were virtually enemies.
Moreover, the creation of Self-Defense units also became an instrument of strengthening village solidarity. As the leaders of local Bảo An units enlisted younger adepts, the latter did not hesitate to volunteer. Female adherents also volunteered, hence, separate units were created to accommodate them. Peasant black robes became the Bảo Ans uniform.
Every afternoon, the volunteers gathered to practice martial arts. Initially, they were mainly armed with bamboo pikes and stakes. However, they were also keen to acquire blades and daggers though these weapons were not so easily available and their possession was subject to heavy penalties according to French colonial legislation. Moreover, as steel was in short supply in rural areas, some daring Hòa Hảo volunteers endeavored to remove steel rods from the French-build bridges throughout the Mekong Delta. Subsequently, the steel bars were used to manufacture self-made blades. Self-Defense troops were equipped mostly with knives and other crude weapons. They were mainly concerned with patrolling Hòa Hảo villages.
Typically, after a year of training in a martial arts village, youngsters became hardcore members of Bảo An units. From this moment they were prepared for armed action. Moreover, the Hòa Hảo Self Defense forces had a high combat spirit and the volunteers were ready to face an enemy armed with superior modern weapons.