The Hòa Hảo Armed Forces

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The Hòa Hảo Armed Forces

The Nguyễn Trung Trực army was created in late 1945 when Huỳnh Phú Sổ ordered the creation of the Revolutionary Patriotic Nguyễn Trung Trực Unified Army, or Nghĩa Quân Cách Mạng Vệ Quốc Liên Đội Nguyễn Trung Trực. It included four brigades or chi đội:

· The 1st brigade of Trần Văn Soái, which operated in the Cần Thơ area;
· The 2nd brigade of Lê Minh Điểu, aka Xã Nhiễu, which operated in the Long Xuyên area;
· The 3rd brigade of Lê Phát Khuynh, which operated in the Châu Đốc area;
· The 4th brigade, or phân đội, of Phan Hà, which operated in the Rạch Giá area.

On December 18, 1946, Huỳnh Phú Sổ convened a military congress in the Bình Hòa area, Tân An province. Its agenda included urgent reforms of the Hòa Hảo armed forces. The congress decided to merge the four units of the Nguyễn Trung Trực army into one powerful force, called the Nguyễn Trung Trực Brigade Hậu Giang. Nguyễn Giác Ngộ was named the brigades commander, Lâm Thành Nguyên became the second in command in charge of armaments, lawyer Lê Văn Thu, aka Trần Đức Thu was appointed chief of staff and chief political delegate while professor Trần Kiệt, aka Trương Kế Tự became deputy chief of staff.

The brigade, or chi đội, included some 500 men or three companies, or đại đội, and one special force unit, or phân đội biệt lập:

· The 1st company of Trần Tín Nghĩa, which operated in the Cần Thơ, Vĩnh Long, Sóc Trăng and Bạc Liêu areas;
· The 2nd company of Ngô Trung Hưng, which operated in the Long Xuyên, Sa Đec and Đồng Tháp Mười areas;
· The 3rd company of Lê Hoài Nam, which operated in the Châu Đốc and Thất Sơn areas near the Cambodian border;
· The special force unit of Phan Hà, which operated in the Rạch Giá and Hà Tiên areas.

In December 1946, Huỳnh Phú Sổ appointed Lê Quang Vinh as a commander of the 2nd platoon of the 2nd company. In the meantime, the 1st brigade of Trần Văn Soái was reorganized to become the 2nd mobile brigade.

When Huỳnh Phú Sổ became a “special member” of the Southern Administrative Committee, Nguyễn Trung Trực Brigade became the 30th brigade of the Việt Minh forces. Nguyễn Giác Ngộ, recently released from detention in Côn Đảo, became a commander of the 30th brigade. The force launched a small factory in Hiệp Xương to manufacture arms. Moreover, in late 1946 short-term military courses were organized near Dài Mountain in the Thất Sơn area, where some 10,500 men were trained under the supervision of four Japanese warrant officers who had joined the Hòa Hảo army in the wake of the Japanese surrender.

However, the Đốc Vàng Hạ disaster and the disappearance of Huỳnh Phú Sổ dealt a blow not only to the Hòa Hảo community but also to the unity of the Southern nationalist forces as well. The 30th brigade withdrew from the Việt Minh armed force and transferred its weapons to the Hòa Hảo army and self-defense forces. In late 1947, the 30th brigade was once again reorganized into the Nguyễn Trung Trực army. Nguyễn Giác Ngộ remained its commander, while Lê Phát Khuynh became the second in command and Trần Kiều was appointed chief of staff and chief political delegate.

The Nguyễn Trung Trực army organized a number of courses to provide military training to the Hòa Hảo adepts, notably in Hiệp Xương in late 1947. On the other hand, political courses were launched in Ba Dầu, Long Xuyên in 1948, in Mỹ Hội Đông in early 1949 and in Kiến An in late 1949. The Nguyễn Trung Trực army also assigned officers to Bảo An units so as to organize military training in villages.

In 1949, the French tried to force the Nguyễn Trung Trực army into full and unconditional submission. Facing an all-out assault by the French airforce and riverine gunboats, Nguyễn Trung Trực army retreated into the Cựu Hội area. Nonetheless, the force declined to rally to the French and remained in the maquis.

In the meantime, Nguyễn Giác Ngộ remained in contact with nationalist politicians in Saigon, notably Phan Khắc Sửu and Trần Văn Văn. Eventually, Nguyễn Giác Ngộ accepted the Bảo Đại solution and rallied to the government in Saigon. Finally Nguyễn Trung Trực army was reorganized and renamed the 55th and the 63rd regiments of the National Army, these units were mistreated by Ngô Đình Diệms government. On June 19, 1956, the 63rd regiment was dissolved along with a number of other former Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài units.

In 1947, the Hòa Hảo armed forces included some 3,000 men. However, the congregations military might have expanded rapidly and by early 1955 there were roughly 30,000 Hòa Hảo soldiers and members of paramilitary units. Also in early 1955 the Hòa Hảo military leaders Nguyễn Giác Ngộ, Lâm Thành Nguyên and Lê Quang Vinh followed Trần Văn Soái to become full generals. All of them represented the lower strata of southern society, hence, they were popular among masses of soldiers and adepts. On the other hand, the political perspectives of these leaders were largely limited to the areas under their immediate control, therefore, they proved unable to operate as leaders of nationwide politics. Correspondingly, although the Hòa Hảo military leaders succeeded in removing the Việt Minh forces from the Western provinces, they failed to achieve any visible political success, which would have matched the numerical strength of the 2-million Hòa Hảo community.

However, the Hòa Hảo forces did achieve considerable results in pacifying the Mekong Delta provinces. Between 1947 and 1954 no Việt Minh forces were able to infiltrate the areas under Hòa Hảo control. After 1951 the road of some 120 kilometers from Cần Thơ to Tân Châu near the Cambodian border was open for traffic and no military convoys were needed to guarantee security. Moreover, when the Việt Minh troops were evacuated to the north in the wake of the 1954 Geneva agreements, the Communist soldiers demanded a French military escort and concealed their Việt Minh banners as they moved through the Hòa Hảo areas.

The Hòa Hảo armed forces acquired weapons from different sources. They captured arms from the Japanese, French and Việt Minh units. The Hòa Hảo shops manufactured crude weapons and limited amounts of handguns. The French military supplied some weapons to the Hòa Hảo units as well. On the other hand, the Hòa Hảo officers purchased weapons from the National Army units. Illegal arms were also available on the black market where M36 rifle could be purchased for 4-5,000 piasters and an American machine gun for 10,000 piasters. The Hòa Hảo factories were unable to manufacture ammunition; yet, they also made semi-legal purchases and managed to gather large stocks of ammunition.

Roughly all Hòa Hảo soldiers wore black guerrilla uniforms. The French supplied the Hòa Hảo army a limited number of regular uniforms mainly to be used during military parades.

It should be pointed out that in the urban areas outside of Hòa Hảo control, notably in Saigon, the movement was largely viewed in negative terms. Urban merchants were forced to pay “taxes” when doing business in or transporting goods through the Hòa Hảo areas. Many merchants viewed the practice as outright extortion. Moreover, many absentee landlords fled to urban areas while their land holdings were seized by the Hòa Hảo units and distributed among the adepts. Therefore these landlords viewed the Hòa Hảo followers with a definite negative bias - as thieves who had seized their property. On the other hand, the Hòa Hảo adepts also sensed the hostile attitudes of the urban society; hence, they tended to oppose the central governments in Saigon.

In the provinces under the Hòa Hảo control, military and civilian authority often belonged to one leader. Typically, it was a high-ranking officer of the Hòa Hảo armed forces. Sometimes these province chiefs were in charge of religious affairs as well.

The Hòa Hảo basic armed units, infantry companies, greatly differed in size. Some companies had only 50 men while other included up to 500 soldiers. The numerical strength of the companies largely depended on sources of funding available in any given area. Many commanders of the Hòa Hảo companies rose from the ranks of ordinary soldiers. Since a Hòa Hảo company typically was in charge of security and anti-Việt Minh operations in several villages, companys commanders personally knew members of nearly all households in their areas.

The Hòa Hảo army enforced strict disciplinary rules. Deserters from the battlefield and Việt Minh spies were executed, while perpetrators of minor crimes were imprisoned by the Hòa Hảo authorities.

The Hòa Hảo armed and paramilitary forces included three types of personnel:

· Professional well-armed soldiers who were employed to guards outposts, patrol the assigned areas and execute other types of military operations.
· Bảo An units where only one rifle was available for three or four men. They guarded villages and supported larger military operations.
· Civilian volunteers, including both men and women. They secured the transportation of ammunition and food supplies towards the battlefield. They also volunteered to join Bảo An units in case of need.

Correspondingly, when Hòa Hảo armed units became detached from mass peasant support, these units typically felt disoriented and isolated. Like any other peasant army, Hòa Hảo soldiers did prefer not to move, let alone fight, in areas far away from their native villages. This is why the Hòa Hảo communitys territorial expansion was slow as the Hòa Hảo armed forces usually had limited objectives and were reluctant to fight outside their areas of control.

In has been argued that Hòa Hảo military success reached its zenith sometime between 1951 and 1953. However, beginning from early 1954 onward Hòa Hảo soldiers began showing signs of weariness and indifference.

Since the Hòa Hảo units had previously allied with the Việt Minh and fought together against the French for some time, they knew the Communist guerrilla tactics and maneuvers well. For instance, the Việt Minh put great emphasis on propaganda efforts. As Hồ Chí Minh put it, “propaganda is 50 percent of the revolutionary work.” Correspondingly, in the wake of any battle the Việt Minh sent in so called “armed propaganda units” so as to propagandize the local population.

Moreover, if the Việt Minh units were forces to retreat during the daytime, they typically returned in the night just to show the people that the Communists were still around. Furthermore, the Việt Minh officers were keen to brainwash the local population and convince them that the Communist temporary retreat was not a defeat but a victory. This tactics worked against the French who typically vacated the area after daytime military operations.

Hòa Hảo officers were well aware of the Việt Minh operational patterns and worked out some counter-measures. For instance, in the wake of any military operation the Hòa Hảo force overtly withdrew from the area while in fact leaving some special troops behind. Việt Minh intelligence reported that the enemy was out and then the Communist propaganda units returned. Returning Việt Minh units were then ambushed by the Hòa Hảo special forces. As a result, the Communists were often dealt heavy casualties.

In fact it was “insurgents vs. insurgents” tactics and Hòa Hảo units employed it very effectively. As the Việt Minh changed their tactics, the Hòa Hảo introduced appropriate innovations as well. Both the Hòa Hảo and the Việt Minh military officers knew the areas of their operations well. However, the Communists usually had only intelligence networks in the Mekong Delta while the Hòa Hảo movement enjoyed mass support there. Due to mass peasant support the Hòa Hảo successfully relied on “insurgents vs. insurgents” tactics.

The French military estimated that, by 1954, the Hòa Hảo armed forces included some 30,000 armed soldiers. However, the French authorities formally recognized just a fraction of this force according to a number of officially supplied firearms. Moreover, the French argued that the Hòa Hảo military leaders deliberately kept the bulk of their armed forces unregistered. The French officers pointed out that many of the Hòa Hảo soldiers wore guerrilla-style black robes, which made it difficult to differentiate them and the Việt Minh units.

Theoretically, Hòa Hảo infantry companies should have consisted of 100 soldiers. However, in reality these companies typically included 150-200 men. Extra personnels were often considered as a sort of reserve and these self-styled reservists were assigned to provide intelligence, communication and logistics.

The French were reluctant to help what they viewed as the unrestricted expansion of the Hòa Hảo armed forces. Therefore, French military authorities supplied the Hòa Hảo forces with limited amount of firearms and ammunition. Moreover, the French never gave the Hòa Hảo army any modern types of weapon and just provided second-hand firearms.

Since the start of the First Indochina War, the French Expeditionary Corps formed auxiliary forces, where Vietnamese nationals served under French officers or warrant officers from the French African colonies. Eventually, as their numerical strength increased the French military reorganized the auxiliary units as Forces supplétives. The Vietnamese typically joined these forces not in a pursuit of any ideological goal but largely seeking material security. These auxiliary soldiers were paid a servicemans stipend, provided uniforms and occasionally were in a position to profit from their position of power.

Although the Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài armed units were also viewed as Forces supplétives by the French military, the religious armies joined the French for ideological reasons. They opted for a lesser evil and decided to ally with the French in order to combat the Communist threat.

Unlike other units of the Forces supplétives, the Hòa Hảo forces enrolled conscripts in the armed forces of their own. The Hòa Hảo army had no French officers. There was only the French liaison mission, which worked with the Hòa Hảo office of the commander-in-chief.

Therefore, the Hòa Hảo armed forces enjoyed far reaching autonomy in various aspects of military activities, including organization, operational control, distribution of weapons, enrollment and manufacturing of small arms. Furthermore, the Hòa Hảo community was able to operate media outlets of its own and carry out political activities, which did not necessarily coincide with the French policies.

Moreover, the Hòa Hảo forces differed from other contemporary paramilitary forces in Vietnam. Although Trần Văn Soái, aka Năm Lửa, Nguyễn Giác Ngộ, aka Quản Ngượt, Lâm Thành Nguyên, aka Hai Ngoán, and Lê Quang Vinh, aka Ba Cụt, all had different backgrounds, all emerged from the lower strata of society and had little, if any, education. They can not be compared to the commanders such as Colonel Leroy of Unités Mobiles de Défense des Chrétiens, or UMDC, and Major Nguyễn Ngọc Lễ, commander of the Việt Binh Đoàn paramilitary force in Central Vietnam.

The Hòa Hảo military leaders and other paramilitary commanders had different sources of legitimacy. The authority of Hòa Hảo commanders emerged from the mass support and strong faith of the Hòa Hảo followers. Contrariwise, Leroy and Nguyễn Ngọc Lễ were appointed officers. Leroy reported to General De La Tour, while Nguyễn Ngọc Lễ reported to the imperial delegate Phan Văn Giáo. Moreover, the UMDC was funded from the Bến Tre provincial budget and Việt Binh Đoàn was funded from the government coffers of central Vietnam, while the Hòa Hảo forces were to be self-sufficient.

The French viewed finances as an obscure aspect of Hòa Hảo activities. Fusier. Le secte Hoa Hao. Jusquen Aout 1945. Cheam, 2548, pp. 5-6. The French stipends provided regularly to supplétifs forces covered roughly one fourth of the Hòa Hảo
military personnel. During the early years of the Hòa Hảo military build-up, security was often provided to merchants and other affluent people in exchange for some financial contribution while another source of funds came from well-to-do adepts. This however was done on ad hoc basis and could not be viewed as a regular source of income.

Eventually, the Hòa Hảo adepts organized village and district congregations that collected general local taxes. The money was used to build and sustain local self-defense forces that would protect congregations from Việt Minh attacks. According to French estimates, the Hòa Hảo military leaders realized that their strength was firmly based in mass support among peasant cultivators, therefore, they did not charge exceptionally heavy local taxes. Moreover, the peasants willingly paid local taxes Ibid. to Hòa Hảo officials as they anticipated a return on their investment via security and protection.

Although it has been argued that the money was available among the southern peasants to finance a major movement such as the Hòa Hảo Buddhist organization, this source of funds was hardly sufficient to sustain sizable armed forces. Therefore, Hòa Hảo military leaders launched a number of commercial enterprises such as rice mills, fisheries, and factories to produce bricks and fish sauce, as well as riverine transportation companies. All of these ventures were doing outstandingly well because they were de facto tax exempt and nobody was willing to compete with Hòa Hảo-backed business ventures.

The Hòa Hảo military also solicited “voluntary contributions” from affluent urban dwellers. They set up a number of gambling houses for non-believers on the fringes of the Hòa Hảo areas. The Hòa Hảo units also charged passing boats and sampans various “taxes and fees.”

It has been repeatedly stated in a variety of historical sources that the Hòa Hảo armed forces engaged in a number of illegal activities, notably robbery and extortion. However, it should be pointed out that the Hòa Hảo units were forced to become financially self-sufficient. The Convention of May 18, 1947 did not include any financial clauses. Although during 1947-1948, the Hòa Hảo armed forces expanded rapidly due to an urgent need to secure the areas under Hòa Hảo control, the French provided no budget to support these vital operations.

For instance, in 1954-1955, servicemen of the Forces supplétives and subsequently the Vietnamese National Army received monthly stipends of some 1,000 piasters while the Hòa Hảo regular soldiers were paid a mere 150 piasters per month. In the meantime, Hòa Hảo forces had superior combat capabilities compared to the National Army as the western provinces of the Mekong Delta remained among the most secure areas in wartime Vietnam.

It might be argued that the French military deliberately denied financial assistance to Hòa Hảo troops with a twofold aim of keeping the pacification of the Mekong Delta at a low cost and discrediting the nationalist credentials of the Hòa Hảo armed movement by forcing them to become financially self-sufficient.

Not surprisingly, as Hòa Hảo military commanders undertook some measures to secure the financial viability of the movement, these measures adversely affected the interests of many people. For instance, landowners were unable to collect their rents as the Hòa Hảo units seized tenants paddies. Subsequently, these landlords repeatedly accused the Hòa Hảo community of robbery. Similarly, merchants and other businessmen such as owners of rice mills and riverboats, who operated in the Hòa Hảo areas, often complained of being subject to “safety taxes” by the Hòa Hảo armed units. The Hòa Hảo military leaders allegedly raised a fortune for their religion by charging rich landlords and merchants huge sums to destroy pirates. These biased views, as well as the obvious difference between the rural and urban mentality, determined a largely negative perception of the Hòa Hảo movement by a wide strata of contemporary urban society in Vietnam.

Of course, some members of the Hòa Hảo forces did capitalize on their positions of power for their personal enrichment. However, the vast majority of Hòa Hảo soldiers remained in poverty and did not profit at all, though they were summarily accused of involvement in rackets and extortion.

It is noteworthy that the Hòa Hảo movement actually carried out an egalitarian land reform as the land holdings of rich landowners were seized and distributed among village cultivators. This is why the peasants willingly paid local taxes as they were able to place their long-run faith in the credibility and viability of the movement. Moreover, some Hòa Hảo tax money was used to claim and put into production abandoned land, which was then rented cheaply to believers. The income from such rentals, in turn, supported the supravillage organization. As community funds helped to finance agricultural improvements, peasants, who belonged to the Hòa Hảo congregation became free from their former total dependence on landlords. By these means, the Hòa Hảo leadership acquired enormous power in rural areas while the landlords soon lost their influence.

Local government officials also detested the Hòa Hảo institutions, which had displaced courts as adjudicators of contested and abandoned land. Hòa Hảo leaders refused to obey the orders of the province and district chiefs appointed by the government. Moreover, these local officials were unable to travel throughout the areas under Hòa Hảo control without the prior permission of Hòa Hảo leaders.

The Vietnamese officers of the Forces supplétives also did not view their Hòa Hảo counterparts as their equals because the Hòa Hảo officers had little, if any, education and military courtesy. The French-educated Vietnamese officers considered the Hòa Hảo forces a peasant army.

Needless to say the nation-wide Communist propaganda quickly capitalized on widespread anti-Hòa Hảo feelings. Even the anti-Communist refugees who fled to the south in the wake of the Geneva Agreements in 1954-1955 also had biased views relative to the Hòa Hảo community.

It might be argued that the Hòa Hảo community did not completely lack political allies. Primarily, they were groups and movements, which represented rural cultivators and had similar aims. Notably, the Hòa Hảo movement allied with Caodaism, which mainly stood for an underrepresented rural strata. The Hòa Hảo congregation also had close relations with the Quốc Dân Đảng, Duy Dân, and Đại Việt parties, the Vietnam Restoration League, or Việt Nam Phục Quốc Hội, the Bình Xuyên and the Trotskyists.

Unfortunately, most of these organizations were held from dominant positions in Vietnams political life. All these movements adhered to their nationalist priorities, therefore, their members became victims of Việt Minh reprisals. This is why the organizations mentioned above became natural allies of the Hòa Hảo congregation.

Moreover, many anti-Communist refugees from the north opted to cooperate with the Hòa Hảo community and the Caodaist movement. Many refugees joined the Caodaist army as officers. However, the Hòa Hảo did not accept these individuals, hence few refugees from northern and central Vietnam joined the movement. Contrariwise, the Hòa Hảo congregation helped the Quốc Dân Đảng, Duy Dân, Đại Việt parties to operate in Hòa Hảo areas. Notably, the Quốc Dân Đảngs Lê Ngọc Chấn became a trusted friend of Lê Quang Vinh.
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