The Japanese coup of March 9, 1945, became a turning point of crucial importance in the further militarization of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist movement. In the immediate aftermath of the Japanese coup, Huỳnh Phú Sổ declared that Vietnam “was yet to gain full independence and further mobilization was needed to achieve the national independence.” He also initiated the creation of “The Union For the Independence of Vietnam,” or Việt Nam Độc Lập Vận Động Hội. The idea was to unite all of the countrys nationalist forces in order to resist the upcoming attempts of the French colonial re-conquest.
Furthermore, the Japanese coup gave the Hòa Hảo Buddhist movement a rare opportunity to obtain modern weapons. As some French troops fled and were dispersed throughout the Mekong Delta, they failed to resist the Japanese forces. The French tried to hide their weapons, however, the followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism managed to obtain some small arms and pieces of military hardware. The removal of the French police allowed the Hòa Hảo activists more room for maneuver. Consequently, some Self-Defense units managed to purchase weapons from certain individuals or groups among the Japanese military. Although the amount of weapons obtained was not large, it surely helped to boost the morale of the Bảo An troops. Subsequently, in the wake of the Japanese capitulation in August 1945, some Japanese officers refused to surrender and joined the Bảo An units.
It should be pointed out that following the Japanese coup in March 1945 Hòa Hảo activists no longer feared the French reprisals. Henceforth Self-Defense units operated overtly throughout the Hòa Hảo areas. Not surprisingly, both the Hòa Hảo followers and Bảo An membership expanded rapidly during the summer of 1945. The Self-Defense units were terrorizing the French people and their native collaborators, especially members of the local administration. Not surprisingly, French property was seized, in particular privately owned weapons.
Apart from the overall destruction of the French administration, the Hòa Hảo benefited from a mass political amnesty announced by the Japanese military. In the immediate aftermath of the coup in March 1945, thousands of religious and political prisoners were released from the French jails. Hòa Hảo activists Nguyễn Giác Ngộ and Lâm Thành Nguyên were among the released prisoners. They returned to the Mekong Delta and immediately commenced organizing additional paramilitary units.
Around this time, other Hòa Hảo military leaders - Trần Văn Soái and Lê Quang Vinh - started their accession to prominence. Trần Văn Soái had a fiery temper and a reputation of a violent man hence he was known by the nickname of Five Fires, or Năm Lửa. He was assisted by a newcomer, 22-year-old Lê Quang Vinh, alias Ba Cụt or Third Finger Cut. He earned his nickname by mutilating himself to prove his audacity and guts. Both Soái and Vinh were understood to be somewhat influenced by the traditions of Chinese secret societies, notably the Heaven and Earth Society, or Thiên Địa Hội. Both came from the lower social strata and they shared a life-long hatred of rich landlords and officials.
In March 1945, Huỳnh Phú Sổ welcomed the elimination of the French administration as an opportunity to gain new adherents and strengthen the congregation. However, he warned against excessive violence and acts of personal revenge against French landlords and their local collaborators. Yet despite calls for restraint, many Bảo An units mounted campaigns of intimidation against the rural officials, police and forced a number of village notables to resign. Facing growing violence, many former officials, village chiefs and policemen in the Hậu Giang area had to flee to urban centers.
Subsequently, the French viewed the outbreaks of violence in the Mekong Delta as mere incidents of banditry and anarchy, also seen as a sort of modern analogue of peasant revolts such as Frances Jacquerie. Yet the French failed to recognize that outbreaks of rural violence was also a delayed reaction relative to the previous widespread oppression and injustice by the French colonial authorities. Correspondingly, peasant cultivators perceived these violent acts as justified retribution aimed against their former oppressors.
As the Self-Defense units displaced the French police and administrators, village and district chiefs fled the countryside in droves. Moreover, the district chiefs of Giồng Riềng, Rạch Giá and Trà Ôn, and Cần Thơ escaped to Saigon and filed a number of formal complaints with the Japanese authorities. Notably, they accused Hòa Hảo military leader Trần Văn Soái of committing acts of banditry.
As Huỳnh Phú Sổ escaped French jurisdiction, in 1943, he took part in secret talks with the Caodaists, the Trotskyists, and the members of the Vietnamese Independence Party, or Việt Nam Quốc Gia Độc Lập Đảng. The talks proceeded among Huỳnh Phú So, Trần Văn Ân, the Trotskyist leader Tạ Thu Thâu and the Caodaist leader Trần Quang Vinh. According to Trần Văn Ân, a consensus was reached during these meetings. The nationalist politicians agreed that they needed little more than a tactical alliance with the Japanese because Japan was doomed as it faced the superior power of the Allies.
On March 18, 1945, Caodaists and the members of the Vietnamese Independence Party hold an unprecedented public gathering in Ông Thượng Garden in Saigon. The meeting was designed to celebrate Vietnams independence and the destruction of the French colonial administration. Some 50,000 people attended the meeting. Trần Quang Vinh, Independence Party leader Hồ Văn Ngà and Caodaist military commander Nguyễn Vĩnh Thạnh addressed the gathering. Notably, Thạnh promised that the nationalist paramilitary forces were to be eventually reorganized into Vietnams National Army, or Quân Đội Quốc Gia Việt Nam.
In early 1945 Huỳnh Phú Sổ published a prophecy stating that “Japan cannot finish half a chicken.” Nhựt Bổn không ăn hết nửa con gà. The followers of Hòa Hảo Buddhism interpreted this prophecy as a warning that the Japanese Empire was not going to survive through the Year of Chicken, or Ất Dầu.
However, during the summer months of 1945 members of the Hòa Hảo Self Defense forces still viewed a rifle as a sort of treasure. Trần Thị Hoa, the widow of Lê Quang Vinh, told me in an interview that action to obtain weapons became a starting point of her husbands military career. For instance, when Lê Quang Vinh stayed at the house of Bẩy Mía, a Hòa Hảo follower in Nhơn Mỹ village, his host was detained by a French patrol. However, armed with a 7-mm handgun Vinh, shot and killed two French soldiers, seizing three rifles. Lê Quang Vinh also uncovered a French weapons cache left behind after the Japanese coup, and collected nine rifles.
Nevertheless, the Bảo An units were prepared for more ambitious endeavors. In August 1945, the nationalist forces of the South agreed to form four Divisions of the “Revolutionary Army.” The first division was to include former military and the members of Bình Xuyên; the second unit would have included the Caodaist military units headed by Nguyễn Thành Phương and Trình Minh Thế, trained by Heiho, the Vietnamese paramilitary organizations in the service of the Japanese; the third would have included supporters of Quốc Dân Đảng headed by Nguyễn Hòa Hiệp; while the fourth unit would have consisted of the Hòa Hảo Self-Defense troops.
Therefore, the Hòa Hảo Buddhist congregation accepted to form the “Fourth Division of the Revolutionary Army,” or Đệ tứ Sư đoàn Dân Quân Cách Mạng. Six units of 500 men each arrived in Saigon for military training from the Mekong Delta. The Hòa Hảo force of 3,000 was stationed in Gia Định College of Arts and near Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery. The supplies of food also came from the predominantly Hòa Hảo rural areas. Saigon dwellers witnessed a strange picture of Bảo An units in black robes marching along the streets of Saigon with bamboo pikes.
The plan to form four divisions failed to materialize due to dictatorial policies of the Communists, notably Trần Văn Giàu, head of the Southern Administrative Committee, or Ủy Ban Hành Chánh Nam Bộ. Facing the Communist reprisals, the Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài units retreated into the areas of their predominant control.
The nationalist forces remained inadequately armed. It was understood that there had been no Japanese policy to supply weapons to the Vietnamese nationalists. However, some Japanese officers joined the Vietnamese armed groups. For instance, General Sato, commander-in-chief of 35,000 Japanese troops in Indochina, reportedly allowed Lieutenant Hitomi Watanabe to leave the army with a secret mission of arming the Vietnamese Đại Việt Quốc Dân Đảng faction.
In the wake of the Japanese surrender, Watanabe arranged weapons supplies to this faction, notably the An Điền forces headed by Bùi Hữu Phiệt. Subsequently, An Điền forces allied with the Bình Xuyên and formed the 25th Regiment. Watanabe refused to surrender along with other Japanese troops, joined the 25th Regiment and eventually became known as “Anh Bê.” Later, Việt Minh military commander Nguyễn Bình took over the 25th Regiment and executed Bùi Hữu Phiệt as well as other officers in Rừng Sát Forest. Some surviving officers, notably Hồ Nhứt Tân and Lưu Nhất, fled to the Mekong Delta and joined the Hòa Hảo forces. In the meantime, Watanabes fate has remained unknown so far.