The initial reaction of the French colonial authorities to the Hòa Hảo Buddhism and its founder Huỳnh Phú Sổ was to closely monitor the movement and find ways to impede its development. The French secret police came to a conclusion that although Hòa Hảo Buddhism was a religious movement on its appearance, in fact, it was driven by anti-French ideology. Moreover, the French believed that Hòa Hảo Buddhism was somewhat affiliated with sectarian and nationalist groups such as the Cần Vương movement. The French took special notice that some Hòa Hảo prayers mentioned an establishment of a theocratic state under the rule of the King of Light. Minh Vương trị chúng, thế giới bình an - cf. Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Gíao Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, p.175.
The French Sureté believed that a mass movement like Hòa Hảo Buddhism could eventually challenge the position of power of the colonial authorities. The French officials concluded that nearly all secret societies and religious organizations in Vietnam tended to evolve into political movements with an agenda to fight against foreign domination.
An initial practical action of the French authorities was to remove Huỳnh Phú Sổ from Hòa Hảo village. In other words, the French aimed to detach the founder of the Hòa Hảo community from the masses of adepts and their religious center. The French officials presumably expected that as soon as the masses were deprived of their spiritual leadership, then mass pilgrimage to Hòa Hảo village would stop and the movement itself would fall apart.
However, Huỳnh Phú Sổ did not commit any acts which could be interpreted as attempts to incite disturbances or an anti-French revolt. This is why he was simply removed from Hòa Hảo village. On May 18, 1940, a colonial official came and summoned Huỳnh Phú Sổ to report to the Châu Đốc provincial administration. It was an urgent order since Huỳnh Phú Sổ was not even allowed to change his dress. According to the French legislation, all Vietnamese nationals were required to always carry their taxpayers identification cards. Since Huỳnh Phú Sổs casual dress did not have any pockets, he was forced to leave for Châu Đốc grasping his ID. Vương Kim, 1975, p.96.
Huỳnh Phú Sổ spent a few hours in Châu Đốc as all the necessary official paperwork was done. Subsequently, he was transferred to Sa Đéc. This is where the local police chief Bazin stepped in to interrogate Huỳnh Phú Sổ. It was no coincidence that Bazin was put in charge of the “Hòa Hảo affair” because he was an outstanding detective who eventually, became Cochinchina police chief.
During this first encounter with the French colonial police, the interrogators expressed doubt as to whether Huỳnh Phú Sổ was, in fact, the author of Hòa Hảo Buddhist sermons. In response, Huỳnh Phú Sổ immediately wrote an impromptu poem, “Sa Đéc,” which included 12 lines of thất ngôn verses. Since the poem contained no political allusions, Bazin refrained from arresting the author.
On May 23, 1940, after spending five days in Phán Đặngs residence, Huỳnh Phú Sổ was moved to Cần Thơ province. The French authorities ordered him to stay at Võ Mậu Thạnhs residence, a notable of Nhơn Nghĩa village. Huỳnh Phú Sổs exile in Nhơn Nghĩa lasted just two months. Then the French police removed him once again. The police agents discovered that after being removed to a new place of residence, Huỳnh Phú Sổ still managed to gain new adherents there. Therefore, the polices strategy to stop the Hòa Hảo evangelizing proved completely ineffective because the places of Huỳnh Phú Sổs exile inevitably became new centers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism. This is why the French employed a Stalinist method of dealing with their opponents. The authorities subjected Huỳnh Phú Sổ to forced psychiatric treatment, which was in fact a sort of detention.
On July 28, 1940, Huỳnh Phú Sổ was summoned for a psychiatric examination at Cần Thơ hospital. The check up by the French psychiatrist, Dr. Favot, among other topics involved a discussion of Taoism. The interview was carried out with the help of an interpreter, who happened to be a local medical worker called Chi. Đỗ Văn Viễn, another medical worker, was present and later recalled that Huỳnh Phú Sổ complained about Chis inaccurate translation. Hence Dr. Favot concluded that there was a cause to place Huỳnh Phú Sổ in Chợ Quán mental hospital in Saigon.
However, the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism managed to turn this no-win situation into a resonant success. In Chợ Quán hospital Huỳnh Phú Sổ converted one of the hospital wardens and, more important, his own doctor. The warden initially showed a hostile attitude towards the visiting adepts of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. Yet eventually he had his mothers eye disease cured by Huỳnh Phú Sổ and therefore adhered to Hòa Hảo Buddhism.
During his stay in Chợ Quán hospital, Huỳnh Phú Sổ was put under care of a Vietnamese medical worker, Trần Văn Tâm. Initially, Trần Văn Tâm acknowledged that Huỳnh Phú Sổ possessed a superior knowledge of Buddhist doctrines. Subsequently, Dr. Tâm became interested in Hòa Hảo Buddhist teaching and ended up as a devoted follower of Hòa Hảo Buddhism.
Trần Văn Tâms son, Henri Trần Kim Thiên told me in an interview that his parents had been very much impressed by Huỳnh Phú Sổs prophetic gift. According to Thiên, the oracular abilities of Huỳnh Phú Sổ became a main stimulus for his father in his decision to adhere to Hòa Hảo Buddhism.
Presumably, the authorities were unhappy to discover that Hòa Hảo evangelizing continued in the Saigon-Cholon area. On June 5, 1941 the French removed Huỳnh Phú Sổ from Chợ Quán hospital and detained him at Catinat police department for eight days. Then the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism was sent to Bạc Liêu province. The French aimed at separating Huỳnh Phú Sổ from his followers. The Bạc Liêu populace mainly consisted of people of mixed Chinese and Khmer origin in contrast to the predominantly Vietnamese population of Long Xuyên, Châu Đốc and Sa Đéc. Therefore, the French expected that Huỳnh Phú Sổ would have been unable to find a responsive audience in Bạc Liêu.
The police department of Bạc Liêu province put the founder of Hòa Hảo Buddhism under house arrest at a private home of a local dweller, someone called Võ Văn Giỏi. Huỳnh Phú Sổ was prohibited from healing and preaching. He was forced to report to the local police on a regular basis. Huỳnh Phú Sổ was supposed to appear at the police station every Monday. Not surprisingly, he expressed his hard feelings over this coercive treatment in a poem. Đi Trình Báo - cf. Huỳnh Giáo Chủ. Sấm giảng thi thơ toàn bộ. Gíao Hội Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo, 1965. Santa Fe Spring, CA: Văn Phòng Phật Giáo Hòa Hảo Hải Ngoại, 1982, p.361.
Nonetheless, as had happened in the previous locations of Huỳnh Phú Sổs exile, he gained the allegiance of many new adherents, including some prominent people of Bạc Liêu province. In particular, Huỳnh Phú Sổ converted his host Võ Văn Giỏi, as well as Trần Văn Nhựt also known as Dật Sĩ, Huỳnh Văn Nhiệm and Ngô Quang Điều, who was a member of the colonial council.
Yet another important convert was Chung Bá Khánh, who owned sizable landholdings in Bạc Liêu and had been educated in France. According to the Hòa Hảo Buddhist tradition, Khánhs wife was in a Saigon hospital for an appendectomy and Huỳnh Phú Sổ sent her some fruit, which cured her. Hence Khánh adhered to Hòa Hảo Buddhism and became a devoted supporter of the new teaching.
It might be argued that by converting some personnel at Chợ Quán hospital in Saigon, as well as rich landowners and officials in Bạc Liêu, Huỳnh Phú Sổ convincingly demonstrated his ability to gain adherents among different social strata.