The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett
The Rhade is the largest and most important of the ethnic minorities in the highlands of the South, almost indistinguishable from the Jarai, another of the larger groups. As distinct from the ethnic minorities of North Vietnam's mountain regions, who live apart in separate villages, the Rhade, Jarai, Bhanar, Van Kieu, and others form a community of 23 minority groups who live intermingled in the villages of the Hants Plateaux, the highlands which form all the western part of Central Vietnam.
Diem has been making a desperate effort to "tame" them and, when that failed, to "concentrate" them or to wipe them out. There were large liberated areas in these regions during the resistance war against the French. The minority peoples' taste of racial equality, and of the rudiments of education and public health under the resistance administration had insulated them against Diemist tactics. The attempts to force them into "strategic villages" and "model settlements" has been dealt with in an earlier chapter. By early 1962, only four remained of several score "strategic villages" originally set up. In the rest, the minority people broke out, sometimes killing the guards, sometimes taking them back with them to their highland homes.
Diem has tried to copy old French tactics of buying up minority chiefs or seigneurs and the feudal notables who serve them, and then pitting one minority against another and all the minorities against the Vietnamese. For instance, in Dae Lac province, Diem agents on one occasion spread word among the Thuot clan that the Rak Clay clan was preparing to attack and wipe them out. The same rumor was spread among the Rak Clay clan, with the agents offering both clans modern arms. There was a terrific fight with many clansmen killed on both sides, before Rhade leaders were able to find out what really happened and stop the fight.
Along the Cambodian border, it was proven beyond any doubt, Diemist troops, dressed in black peasant garb like "Viet Cong," had raided Khmer Krom (Cambodian minority) villages, killing people and cattle to incite bad relations between Khmer Krom and "Viet Cong." On several occasions, on the bodies of casualties among the attackers, elements of Diemist uniforms were discovered in the peasants' garb.
This sort of trickery often led to unexpected consequences. A gnarled old Jarai warrior, whom I found resting in one of the frontier areas, after relating the usual story of how people from his hamlet had been forced to concentrate with others in a "model" village, told me that a Diem mobile police unit constantly visited the new village and warned the inmates they were suspected of "Viet Cong" sympathies. "We said we knew nothing about the Viet Cong. One day, the officer said: "If any Viet Cong come here, it's your job to catch them and hold them till we came back." We agreed. A day later, some armed 'Viet Cong' in black peasants' clothes came to the village. But we knew they were some of the police troops, sent to trap us. Some of our people had seen them changing clothes. We grabbed them, gave them a terrific beating and tied them up, giving them nothing to eat. Next day the police unit came back and we handed the men over. The officer was very pleased and praised us for our vigilance. But the agents were furious.
"We were getting tired of this unit anyway, massacring people everywhere, and we'd had enough of living like animals in a cage. One day we sent word to the unit that we had captured a big group of Viet Cong. They came in a hurry and we were ready for them. We laid an ambush with our crossbows as they came swarming up a jungle trail. When they rushed into the undergrowth they fell into deep trenches we'd dug, with bamboo spikes at the bottom. We wiped them all out—35 altogether—and got their arms. All of us, from the three hamlets that had been concentrated, went back to the mountains."
It is not easy to buy up the seigneurs these days. Patriots among them played a leading role during the resistance; traitors who collaborated with the French were dealt with. But in general, the role and prestige of the seigneurs had changed. Those who headed the resistance have enormous prestige— among all the minorities, not just among their own group. Those who were merely neutral, have no authority. Those who collaborated are enemies in hiding. The facts of life in the resistance years brought the minorities closer together; the power and prestige of the seigneurs and notables were drastically reduced; suspicions long fostered by the French and local feudal rulers between minorities and Vietnamese melted away; respect for the Vietminh and President Ho was enormous.
In Hanoi I asked an expert on the minority question, who had spent the entire resistance period in the Hants Plateaux, to what extent was it correct that the French had had "roots" and "loyalties" in the minority areas. I had often heard this expressed by former French officers and officials I met in Cambodia. "They had some loyalties among the upper classes of the Rhade and Jarai," he replied. "This was among the old seigneurs, but they never had a whole minority with them. The Americans now also have a few seigneurs with them. But the latter are mostly completely discredited. Because of their cruelty and racism, Diem and his agents are hated and despised; the Americans also for backing them. Diem and Americans have taken over from the French and the old Vietnamese feudalists the term 'Moi.' It simply means 'savage,' but it is still the current term of reference to the minorities in the South."
From the first days of his regime, Diem tried to turn the clock back. A girl from the Ta Oi minority, whom I met in a frontier village north of the 17th parallel, gave me a lurid example of Diem's early attempts to "tame" the minorities and discipline the Vietnamese. She was Kan Djul Pien from Ta Ru hamlet, in the mountainous region of Quang Tri province, not far south of the demarcation line. She had made her way over the mountains from the South and settled down to rice-growing in her new home. A stocky young woman, her story justified the somber expression on her brown face. She wore her national costume, a two-inch embroidered band down the shoulder seams and around the V-neck of her smock; a concentric series of red hoops around her long, black skirt ending in a broad red band at the hem. The main part of her story dealt with what must have been one of the earliest attempts—in 1955—at concentrating minority villages. Although I interviewed her a thousand or more miles away from Nyao Hlung, the Jarai girl mentioned in an earlier chapter, the story was strikingly similar up to the point of concentrating four minority villages from the highlands with one village in the valley.
“I lived in the valley village," she said. "So at least we didn't have to build a new home. But it was awful. There was a military post with 200 troops at the only entrance to the village. They were brutes. They killed and stole pigs and chickens as they liked and you couldn't say a word. They raped the village women and nobody could do anything about it. Everybody, even those of us from the valley, wanted to leave and go to the mountains. One day a big delegation went to the post commander and asked permission for those from the mountains to return to their home villages. Later the same day the troops rounded up those who had taken part. They separated the Vietnamese from the others. That was always their policy—to set one against the other. 'You support those who want to go to the mountains,' the officer said. 'That means you've got Viet Cong ideas. You need some reeducation.' The troops bound their hands behind their backs and marched them off. Days went by and they didn't come back. Six days passed and then a delegation of 41 women went to the post and asked for the return of their husbands and sons. The women never came back either.
"One day I was fishing for shrimp in the river with my mother. We were terrified to find the body of a woman, one of our neighbors; then another and another. We went back to the village afraid at first to say a word except to our very closest friends. But about that time one of our own Ta Oi men came back. He had been grabbed for the Diemist army and served for a while in the local post, but was horrified at what had happened. The men who had been taken away were all shot the same day they were arrested. When the women went to the post, they were told: 'Your men are being reeducated. Go back home. Go back to work.' They didn't believe this. They started to shout; 'Give us back our husbands', 'Give us back our sons.' At this they were tied up and marched to the banks of the river where they were bayoneted to death, then thrown into a deep pool with heavy rocks piled on top of the bodies. The same day he returned, the Ta Oi man who told us went off to the mountains. We never saw him again.
"Life was just impossible. Every day someone was beaten or tortured for nothing at all." This was the period before the minority peoples started to organize and hit back. Diemist agents felt themselves complete masters of the situation in those days; they were very sure of themselves.
Apart from the cruelty and brutality with which everything was done it was also sheer idiocy of policy, Diem's own backwardness, that drove the minorities into opposition. Even in the few schools that were set up in minority areas, teaching was exclusively in Vietnamese. It was forbidden for pupils to address each other in their native tongue. What would it have cost Diem to permit the Khmer Krom, for instance, to have their own schools? There are five or six hundred thousand of them in South Vietnam living for the most part in compact groups, in villages where they form 90 percent of the population. The same with the Chams, a large Muslim minority, descendants of the Champha empire which at one time embraced all of central Vietnam. The leaders of the Cham community in Cambodia have recently petitioned the United Nations, the Arab League, and leading world powers to intervene in what they describe as a "genocidal policy" towards the several hundred thousand Cham Muslims in South Vietnam.
"Our people are massacred and arrested without any reason given at all," said Sar Tou Long who heads the Cham community in Cambodia. "They are thrown into jails and concentration camps, no charges ever made, no trials. Their lands are expropriated, mosques closed or burned down. Where they are open, prayers are controlled by Diem's police; pilgrimage to Mecca is forbidden. Once a Cham is arrested, he is never seen again. They are hounded from place to place, village to village. All they want is to till their fields in peace, pursue their fishing [Chams in South Vietnam as in Cambodia specialize in fishing, their womenfolk in weaving], and live as they have always lived. Where are they to go? Thirty or forty a month slip over the border into Cambodia. We give them what help we can, then they return. Always on the move."
We were sitting on the verandah of a mosque a few miles from Phnom Penh, together with other Muslim dignitaries, including the chief of the mosque, Imam Sarang Youssef.
"It is infinitely worse for our compatriots than it was under the French," said the Imam. "They try and force our people out of villages where they have lived for centuries. They force them to change their names. There are to be no more Abdul-lahs or Mohammeds—only Nguyens and Ngos. All Cham schools are closed; all the Koran schools as well. There is no religious instruction. Our language itself is banned; it is no longer considered a legal tongue in South Vietnam. And Chams are regarded as third class citizens, not allowed to show their faces in the towns. To perform any religious ceremonies, special permission must be asked each time from the authorities. Now our people are really faced with complete extermination, physically and culturally.
"What are we to do about our brothers in South Vietnam?" he asked. "Our fate is linked with theirs; we have one blood, one religion. We feel we have to do everything possible to arouse the conscience of the people everywhere. Maintaining even the rudiments of Cham culture is treason in Diem's eyes. The main relics of our past used to be kept in a shrine at Tourane, the former capital of our empire. Diem has had them removed—to somewhere in Saigon. Nothing is to be left to us."
The Chams were suffering in fact from a four-fold oppression. First, they suffer because they are Chams and Diem is a feudal Annamite mandarin. In the past there were bitter wars between Chams and Annamites. About the time the French invaded Vietnam, the Annamites had launched a genocidal war against the Chams, apparently with the idea of exterminating them altogether. In any case, the Cham leaders I spoke with considered one of the few positive aspects of French occupation that the Chams were saved. But mandarin Diem had taken up the extermination campaign where the Annamite emperor had left off. Secondly, they were Muslims and Diem a bigoted Catholic. Thirdly, they were a minority people and Diem's brand of fascism despises all minority peoples. Fourthly, they live mainly in the frontier areas—in the lower reaches of the Mekong—which Diem was trying to transform into a gigantic no-man's land. In general, the Chams are a passive people who live almost exclusively in their riverside villages and if left to themselves would never have given Diem a moment of trouble. In Cambodia they have complete racial equality with rights to use their own language and to send their children to Koran schools, as long as they also attend the general schools of the government.
"Here we are all Cambodians," concluded Sar Tou Long. "We live with the Khmers as brothers. Any who can afford it can go to Mecca without any hindrance. There is absolutely no discrimination against us."
The Cham leaders begged me to do what I could to present the plight of their co-religionists to the world.
As for the situation of the Khmer minority under Diem's regime, Prince Sihanouk had the following to say on August 23, 1961, in his opening speech at the 11th National Sangkum Congress at Phnom Penh:
"As I mentioned in the beginning of my speech, there is but one black spot in the picture. It is the unhappy and painful lot of our compatriots in Kampuchea Krom.
"We have done all that is humanly possible and we shall continue to do so. But can we hope for miracles when we have against us a country in the toils of civil war... a Government which is no longer master of its internal situation and which obstinately and categorically refuses to recognize that there are Cambodians living in Cochin China? On this pretext it refuses the right of our Government to negotiate with it about the interests and rights of the large Khmer minority in Cochin China...
"We hope that the opinion of all nations considered civilized will one day take pity on the 600,000 Khmers in distress in Cochin China... deprived of all the rights enjoyed by all minorities in all countries of the world, beginning with those in China and the USSR."
The sort of conditions the Prince was referring to were those described by the refugee bonze at the Phnom Den pagoda, referred to in an earlier chapter.
In the "Blue Book" which the U.S. government published to justify in advance its armed intervention in South Vietnam, in the section dealing with the alleged horrible consequences of a unified Vietnam there is this passage (p. 51): "Promises of 'autonomy' for minority peoples would be forgotten except by the disillusioned highland tribes themselves. Absolute political control would rest with the Communist party..." As the implication is that "autonomy" is attractive to the minority peoples, one might well ask why the Americans have not pushed Diem into creating autonomous zones for the Chams, Khmers, and the minorities of the Hants Plateaux areas. It would seem to be a more effective way of winning loyalties than napalming villages to force the occupants into concentration camps.
Autonomous Zones have been set up in North Vietnam. The Thai-Meo Zone was formed on the first anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu victory, the Viet-Bac Zone on August 19, 1956. I can recommend nothing better for Diem and his U.S. "advisers" than to make a careful study of what has been done there. It is a matter into which I probed very deeply in my talks and travels in the North. I visited the headquarters of both Autonomous Zones at Son La and Thai Nguyen, respectively; went to dozens of villages of the various minorities; visited their schools and institutes, and spent many hours at the Committee for National Minorities in Hanoi. I am convinced that the bold and imaginative handling of the minorities' problems in North Vietnam is one of the great achievements of the government. It could be a model not only for South Vietnam, but for many other older established governments in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
The minority population of the North amounts to 2,563,-209, or 14.8 percent of the total population. They hold 16.5 percent of seats in the National Assembly, which makes the overall policy decisions on minority questions. In the Viet-Bac Autonomous Zone, 72 percent of all administrative personnel are drawn from the minorities; in the Thai-Meo Zone the figure is 49 percent. In every ministry of the North Vietnam government there is a section which deals with minority problems, and all the way down through the administrative departments places are reserved for minority representatives. There are Minorities Committees of the National Assembly and of the Central Committee of the Lao Dong party, to initiate policies in the specific interests of the minorities and to control their application.
Policy from the time of the August revolution. written into the 1960 Constitution, laid down that all Vietnamese citizens are equal before the law, and racial discrimination or contempt would be punished as violations of the law. The advance towards socialism must be accomplished by "mutual aid" between all nationalities, taking into account the different characteristics of each. These were not just dry words on paper. All policies from land reform to foreign trade took these "differing characteristics'' and "racial equality" into account. Neither money nor effect was spared in selecting and training personnel from the minorities for places in local, provincial, and central government jobs. During my travels I met people from the minorities at every level, from top ranking generals to factory managers and local party secretaries. I also found constant care, often priority treatment, for the minority peoples everywhere. In an interview with the Vice-Minister of Education, for instance, I found him deeply concerned over the fact that most of those still illiterate were from the minority peoples, despite the fact that a tremendous job had been done in general in education.
"It is just not good enough," he said, "that there are still 800,000 illiterates in our country between the ages of 12 and 50 and that most of them are among the minority peoples." He mentioned that in three provinces, however—Hoa Binh, Lang Son, and Cao Bang—illiteracy had been abolished.
He went on to say that a major problem was the absence of a written language or as in the case of the Thais, of a uniform written language. Textbooks have now been written in the languages of the major minority groups. Later, if the minority groups wish to, they will be able to study Vietnamese as a second language. It was through these methods that illiteracy has been ended for the Thais, Meo, Thi, Nung, and Muong— by far the biggest groups, together forming a majority of the population among North Vietnam's 63 ethnic minorities.
"For a long time," continued the Vice-Minister, "under the local feudalists and then under the colonialists, the mountain peoples were completely neglected as far as education was concerned. Now our policy is to have the mountains catch up with the plains in the shortest possible time. An enormous effort still has to be made. It is contrary to policy that the greatest proportion of illiteracy should still be in the mountains. And it is not at all right that the young people of the mountain areas who have completed general education should constitute only two percent of students at the higher educational establishments. Two years ago, we set up special secondary schools for teachers' training, agriculture, and medicine in the two autonomous zones, but we still have no higher educational establishments. This is a big weakness in our work which must be corrected." And he revealed that at that moment—it was the end of February 1962—a conference was in session to cope with the problem of speeding up educational facilities for the minorities.
The attitude of the Ministry did not come from any compulsion to compete with the South, since there was no competition from Diem's regime on this score. The problem was being tackled on its own merits. The Khin majority people accepted as their solemn duty the task of helping the minority peoples catch up with them—to pay off old debts incurred not by them but by feudalists and colonialists.
At the time of the ceasefire, the minority peoples in North Vietnam were 95 percent illiterate, as they are today in the South. A start had been made during the resistance years. But this was enough only to give people a taste. The business of fighting the war was too all-demanding. Territory changed hands too often. Among some groups like the Lolos and others, illiteracy was 100 percent. But by the end of 1962, it would be wiped out completely among the valley and plains-dwellers. If in the 1955-56 school year there were 60,000 pupils among the minorities, there were over 200,000 in the 1961—62 school year. Nearly 2,000 were studying in various technical schools. In all of North Vietnam prior to the ceasefire there had been only two university graduates among the minorities. In the 1961-62 school year there were 378 minority students at Hanoi University and 125 more studying in the Soviet Union. Eighty-one students, including four women, had graduated from universities as engineers, doctors, and pharmacists. So there was no real reason for the Vice-Minister of Education to feel too downcast. But he was not measuring progress by either the past or the South.
At the Central Committee for National Minorities, Vice-President Duong Cong Hoat of the Tay minority, a quiet-spoken, slim man with a gentle demeanor that masked deep undercurrents of energy, put some of the problems in perspective.
"Take the Lolos for example," he said. "They had taken a vow never to study, never to leave their villages to work anywhere else. There was an economic reason for this attitude. The Lolo live on the mountain summits. They were slaves of the Tay—my people. In fact the Tays and Lolos were both slaves, but in differing degree, of the Tay seigneurs. All the land, all the animals in the forest and fish in the streams belonged to the seigneurs. Part of anything a Tay grew or part of anything a Lolo hunted or fished belonged to the seigneurs. But the hunters and fishermen for the most part were the Lolo. They brought their tribute down from the mountains or had to have it available on demand. The seigneurs had every interest in keeping them there to continue paying tribute. So it was they who spread the dogma that the Lolos should never leave their villages, should never study. This was a problem we had to face.
"We first attracted a handful of courageous ones and after giving them just a bit of education, we sent them back to their villages for a visit. 'You see,' they said to their elders. 'We've been studying a bit. We're not dead. There's nothing so terrible about it.' Then they would return and we would give them a simple administrative job for a while. Back again to the village: 'I've been working in an office. You see—I'm alright.' Gradually they got a taste for study and working outside their own villages. The pioneers attracted others and now Lolos are as keen as any other minority on study and on seeing the world outside their own mountain tops. In that way, too, we were able to train teachers to go back into the Lolo villages and give them a start in education.
"Another problem we had to face was the age-old mutual suspicions between the peoples of the mountains and the Delta, the minorities and the Khins. This was dealt with in many ways. They came together at work sites, building the new roads that were pushed through in the minority areas, on state farms and co-ops. Our Committee started organizing visits of delegations to Hanoi and the Delta. They would come and look at such things as factories for cigarettes and matches and see that the townspeople labor for things the minorities need. They would visit a plywood plant and see what valuable things could be made from the trees they were used to burning down to clear their hillside cultivation plots.
They are always greatly astonished to see trees being converted into useful things in front of their eyes. We show them the Nam Dinh textile mill and they see it not only works for the Khins but that Khins put aside part of the production for just the sort of textiles the minorities need for their national costumes.
"The most impressive thing is the salt plant. Salt is such an important item for the minorities that they consider it as medicine. It was used as a bribe by the French and now is so used by Diem—if you kill or capture a Vietminh or Viet Cong, so many pounds of salt. If a village is rebellious, cut its salt supplies first thing. They tried to make policies with salt. At the plant our minority people see how plentiful salt is for the Delta people and that it could be produced to sell at four sou a pound, but in fact they pay eight sou in order that the minority people can buy it at the same price despite the great transport costs. They never stop talking about this in the villages. The Delta people were subsidizing their salt—a terrifically impressive thing.
"In their visits to Hanoi and other cities, they see how friendly disposed people are towards them. In the past if they came to the capital, they were despised as third-rate people. They were insulted, often beaten up and chased like dogs. Now they really feel they are members of one big family.”
Concerning the proportion of farms in cooperatives, it is about the same in all the minority areas as elsewhere, that is, an average of 80 percent. In the valleys the figure was 100 percent, but progressively less as one advanced towards the mountain summits. One fifth of the co-ops were of the higher type, where all the land is pooled and payment is exclusively based on labor contributed. Duong Cong Hoat pointed to the steady rise in incomes, reckoned in pounds of rice per person. Before Liberation, the annual average was 330 pounds of rice per head, but by 1956 it had gone up to 836 pounds, and for the past three years it has fluctuated at around 1,000 pounds. Even more impressive, is the figure for areas like Dien Bien Phu, where the co-ops were set up early, an average of 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of rice. Famine conditions have completely disappeared in the valleys, and are almost liquidated in the mountains. The days when minority peoples had to subsist on roots and bark for several months a year are gone.
I asked if there was any alternative to the wasteful "ray" cultivation method of burning a different patch of forest every year for hillside paddy or maize and not using the same patch a second time till ten or more years had passed. The Vice—Chairman replied that zones had been established where it was forbidden to burn the forest, and steps had been taken to select the "ray" in rotation so that the best land could be had with the least damage to timber.
"There were all sorts of suspicions to be overcome," he explained. "For instance, the Man minority, before they go to plant a 'ray,' will poke a hole in the ground with a stick and drop in a dozen grains of rice. If they find them disturbed after a few days, or eaten, then there are evil spirits around and another 'ray' must be cleared. Very wasteful. They have another terrible habit. Every Man must celebrate his or her birthday just once in their life. On the selected day, all the domestic animals are killed by cutting their throats, from the buffalo down to the last chicken. Only after one month, can they start stocking up again. But as for the 'ray', there are now plenty of virgin lands lower down the slopes which we help them clear, and they begin using buffalo and ploughs instead of ax and fire, and instead of holes poked in the ground. There are big demands on manpower on the state farms and on construction sites and many of the younger people from the mountains prefer this to old-fashioned 'ray' cultivation. There are also big possibilities opening up for the mountain people to raise cattle, at which they are very expert, and to grow industrial crops which don't need annual re-planting. When we can solve production and distribution of the foodstuffs they need, then the 'ray' will die a natural death."
Some other superstitions harmful to production, even to public health, were explained to me by Hoang No, a Thai member of the Administrative Committee of the Thai-Meo autonomous zone, when I visited its capital of Son La. "In general," he said, "the influence of the sorcerers and geomancers was very strong. They were consulted on everything, from sickness to propitious days for planting rice, building a house or anything else. If anyone fell ill, the sorcerer lays down what sort of animal—even how many—must be sacrificed, according to his estimate of the gravity of the illness. It was very good for him—he got the best parts—but bad for the patient and for live-stock raising."
I asked him about a curious custom among the Thai, still prevalent when I had visited the region six years previously. Before a young man could marry his betrothed, he lived with her family for anything up to six or seven years and had to prove his worth in the fields. After years of unpaid labor— and unrewarded love—he might be packed off home as "unsuitable." During those years, he could not touch his bride-perhaps-to-be, although he might have the sour reflection of hearing her amusing herself with a lover, while he slept out on the verandah. Hoang No laughed:
"The Vietnamese call that 'eating cold rice and sleeping out of doors'," he said. "But that's ended now. In theory it's completely finished. But in some of the remoter regions, the parents insist that the young man serves at least for one year —or sends a buffalo instead. But in 90 percent of cases now the young people make a free choice. They may set up house on their own, but it is more usual for the bride to go and live with her husband's family. Even if he goes to live with her people, it is as her husband—and no more unpaid labor. Forming the co-ops dealt the last blow to that. It was one of the most pernicious customs of our people, the thing that weighed most heavily on every young man, obviously a form of slavery.
"With the Meo too," he explained, "marriage of 14-year-old boys to girls of 20 and more has also almost died out in the past few years—and a very good thing too.
For the Thai and Lao Lum valley-dwellers, the situation was different. There were no tigers to stalk as hunters; no tribal feuds to pursue as warriors. They had no excuse not to do field work. There was plenty of land to be had. Apart from the paddy fields in the valleys, anyone could help himself to as much hillside land as he could cultivate. It was manpower that counted more than land ownership. So among the valley-dwellers, it was the girl babies who were prized— as future bait for manpower.
"How are the cooperatives going?" I asked. "Wasn't it a curious innovation for the minority peoples with all their old customs? What happened to the landlords?"
"There were no landlords, as such, in the minority areas," he replied. "Here we had a fundamentally feudal society, almost primitive feudalism if compared to the Delta. There it was the landlords who exploited the peasants by land rent; here it was the labor and fruit of the labor of the minority peoples that was exploited by the seigneurs. The latter in theory owned all the lands and forests, all the mountains and valleys, the animals in the jungle, and the fish in the rivers. The seigneurs distributed the land for administrative reasons only. Notables got larger amounts to cultivate, peasants smaller amounts of the rich valley lands. As for the mountain slopes you could cultivate as much as you liked. But land was not transformed into private property. Each peasant had to pay tribute in labor to the notables, in produce or money taxes to the seigneurs; hunters had to give up part of the animals they hunted or fish they caught. Anyone had to contribute unpaid labor any time a seigneur or even a notable wanted to build a house. Girls could be taken off as house-servants as long as the seigneurs wanted them—all their lives even.
"After Liberation the seigneurs by and large disappeared. Many of them fled with the French. Others were deprived of their feudal rights. Land was distributed more equitably for cultivation, without distinction of class. But we did not know enough about conditions to make any big changes. We did not want to disturb the situation too much until we knew it better.
"The government moved very carefully. We did not want any repetition of mistakes made during land reform in the Delta [where there were numerous cases of wrong classification of rich peasants, landlords, etc., and many people were unjustly punished]. We adopted the policy that in measures applied to the minority areas, specific characteristics must be taken into consideration. The line decided on was not that of 'land revolution' but of 'democratic transformation' aimed at ending feudal relations and creating the cooperatives at the same time. It was perhaps more a political task than an economic one. Formation of cooperatives was easy—much easier than in the Delta. There was no private land ownership; there was a strong tradition of communal work in the fields. But had we just formed co-ops and not carried out political education at the same time, the remaining seigneurs and notables would have retained their old influence. It could not have been otherwise. The vestiges of feudal relations were still strong. They would have dominated the coops and ruined everything. So we carried out explanations, aroused the peoples' political consciousness.
"First we had to differentiate between the valley and mountain regions. The class distinctions were clearer in the valleys; there were seigneurs, and notables, rich peasants, poor peasants. In the higher regions, there were mainly working peasants or hunters and a sort of aristocracy. Some of the latter did work or hunt a little—but in general they lived off the labor of others. The aim of the explanations, carried out mainly by the politically more advanced people in the villages themselves during work in the fields or at village meetings, was to make clear the different roles in the past of peasants and seigneurs; who were the exploiters and who the exploited; what was good and what was bad; that the real 'aristocracy' is the people, those who produce by the labor of their hands and because of this the peasants are now masters of the countryside. There were no 'accusation meetings' against the seigneurs and notables as against the landlords in the Delta. There were no executions. Only in a handful of cases where a seigneur or notable tried to organize armed bands to prevent explanation meetings, were any arrests made.
"Policy was expressed in five principles: 'to be gentle, firm, simple, systematic, and thorough.' These had to go together like the two wings of a bird in flight. If one failed the bird would fall. If we neglected one of these aspects, our program would fall. So towards the peasants the attitude was gentle and simple; towards the exploiters the attitude was firm; education was systematic and thorough. Because of this, democratic transformation and formation of the co-ops went smoothly, hand-in-hand—a peaceful transformation of the countryside which yielded excellent results. The main part of this movement was carried out early in 1961. As far as the valley people is concerned, they have taken to cooperatives as a young eagle takes to the air."
Another important point made by Hoang No was that the political education had wiped out any remnants of traditional hostilities among the minorities themselves and also between minorities and Vietnamese. "Had the minorities been hostile to the Delta people as in the old days," he pointed out, "the large-scale migration to the state farms, opening up the virgin lands, and so on, would have been impossible. You can travel from one end of the Zone to the other [which indeed, I had done] and you'll find nothing but the friendliest relations everywhere."
This was obviously true, you could see it in the market places, in the fields, at the roadside construction sites, everywhere. Vietnamese, Thais, Meos, Mans, and a score of other nationalities worked together in admirable harmony; not only in the Zone, but in lots of other places I visited. Vietnamese were obviously welcome guests in the Autonomous Zones, because the migrants brought with them everything from help in education and public health and improved agricultural techniques to a ready market for the typical products of the minority regions.
The minority peoples I saw visiting Hanoi always attracted much attention in the streets with their beautiful and varied costumes, their silver ornaments and embroidered bags. People seemed to go out of their way to make them feel like relatives on a welcome visit. They certainly gave every appearance of feeling perfectly at home whether in Hanoi or among their own lovely valleys and mountains.
I found the situation the same in the Viet-Bac Autonomous Zone where I travelled widely and talked, among others, with Chu Quoc Hung, a battle-toughened, life-long revolutionary from the Nung minority. His brother, General Chu Van Tan, a famous veteran of the VPA and a member of the Political Bureau of the Lao Dong party, is president of the Zone. Chu Quoc Hung is president of the Administrative Committee of Thai Nguyen province, the capital of which, with the same name, is also capital of the Zone. The Viet-Bac is the cradle of the Vietnamese revolution and it is here that 72 percent of administrative posts are held by the minorities, a handsome recognition of the unswerving support of the Viet-Bac minority peoples for the war of resistance, the protection they gave to the revolutionary bases from which the whole war was directed.
The U.S. State department might take note: Promises of autonomy for minority peoples have not been forgotten in North Vietnam. They have been fulfilled with a respect for human dignity and real freedom that the U.S. government would do well to apply to minorities within its own frontiers —not to mention in South Vietnam. Promises to establish racial equality in South Vietnam and to set up Autonomous Zones for the minority peoples there are included in the program of the National Liberation Front and will certainly be fulfilled—perhaps long before the authors of the "Blue Book" can imagine. The inclusion, among five elected vice-presidents of the NLF, of Ybih Aleo, representing the minorities of the Hants Plateaux, and of Dai Due Son Vong, representing the Khmer Krom, is an additional guarantee of this. The policy of racial equality is already being applied in those areas where, despite the worst the U.S.-Diem armed forces could do, the Rhade, Jarai, Bhanar, and a score of other ethnic groups are living in freedom in their own liberated zones.
South Vietnam will also have its own Autonomous Zones for its long-suffering minorities.
1. The uprising in 1945 against the French when they attempted to reestablish colonial rule at the end of World War II.