University of Hawai'i Press
  • Indigenous Peoples and the Vietnamese Revolution, 1930–1975

There are currently more than 300 million indigenous people in the world, about half of them in Asia. In the twentieth century, they have engaged in political and armed struggles to maintain their traditional cultures, lifestyles, and ancestral lands. Their rights have only recently been acknowledged by some states and international organizations, notably the United Nations Organization (UNO). Despite growing international attention to the plight of indigenous peoples, they remain threatened with extinction by political, economic, and cultural forces controlled by the dominant groups of the states in which they live. Lands, mountains, and forests that had long provided indigenous peoples with food, shelter, and security are being integrated into the larger national and international economies, their resources exploited and exhausted. In the words of a UNO publication: “Often uprooted from their traditional lands and ways of life and forced to fit into prevailing national societies, indigenous peoples face discrimination, marginalization, and alienation. Despite growing political mobilization in pursuit of their rights, they continue to lose their cultural identity along with their natural resources. Some are in imminent danger of extinction.” 1 [End Page 353]

In addition to feeling the effects of these general trends occurring throughout the twentieth-century world, Vietnam’s indigenous peoples have faced the traumas of a revolution that spawned two international conflicts, the First (1946–54) and Second (1960–75) Indochina Wars. In the course of these upheavals, Vietnam’s indigenous peoples, particularly the highlanders of the northern and central mountains and plains, were forced to see their homelands serve as battlegrounds between forces whose goals had little relationship to their concerns. 2 This paper addresses the role of Vietnam’s indigenous peoples during the Vietnamese Revolution (1930–75), with emphasis on the highland peoples of northern and central Vietnam. 3

The interactions between the Vietnamese and the indigenous peoples on Vietnamese-dominated lands may be conceptualized as a “civilizing project,” which anthropologist Stevan Harrell defines as follows:

a kind of interaction between peoples, in which one group, the civilizing center, interacts with other groups (the peripheral peoples) in terms of a particular kind of inequality. In this interaction, the inequality between the civilizing center and the peripheral peoples has its ideological basis in the center’s claim to a superior degree of civilization, along with a commitment to raise the peripheral peoples’ civilization to the level of the center, or at least closer to that level....[T]he civilizing center draws its ideological rationale from the belief that the process of domination is one of helping the dominated to attain or at least approach the superior cultural, religious, and moral qualities characteristic of the center itself. 4

Harrell focuses on the Confucian, Christian, and Communist “civilizing projects” mounted by Chinese states and Western missionaries with regard to non-Han peripheral peoples in the lands now controlled [End Page 354] by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But this conceptualization also illuminates the interactions between the indigenous peoples on Vietnamese lands and successive Vietnamese states from the nineteenth century to the present: the Nguyen imperial state, the revolutionary regimes of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), and the southern anticommunist regimes supported by the United States between 1955 and 1975.

Let us begin by taking note of the indigenous peoples who inhabited Vietnamese territory and the nature of their interactions with the lowland Vietnamese in Vietnam’s early Nguyen dynastic era (1802–58), before the advent of the colonial regime and the rise of its nationalist and communist opposition. Vietnam’s indigenous peoples may be placed into three categories, based on their regions of habitation, forms of sociopolitical organization, and linguistic classifications. 5

The first group is the non-Vietnamese lowland people, a category that includes the Chams and Khmers, practitioners like the Vietnamese of lowland irrigated-rice agriculture. By early Nguyen times, they were the incompletely assimilated survivors of Indianized lowland empires that had been destroyed or dismembered by the Vietnamese in the course of the Nam Tien (“Southward March,” 1558–1858), which took them from their Red River delta heartland to the Ca-mau peninsula below the Mekong delta. The Chams, speakers of a Malayo-Polynesian language, had built an Indianized civilization in the lowlands of what is now central Vietnam that lasted more than fifteen hundred years until they were definitively defeated by the Vietnamese in 1471. The Khmers, speakers of a Mon-Khmer language, had controlled the Mekong delta as part of a larger Indianized empire before yielding it to the Vietnamese during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. 6

The Viet-Bac mountains surrounding the Red River delta in northern [End Page 355] Vietnam are the homeland of the second and largest category of Vietnam’s indigenous peoples. 7 These are mainly speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages, among whom the Tai-speaking peoples—including the Black Tai, the White Tai, the Tay (formerly Tho), and the Nung—are the most numerous. 8 The Tai peoples migrated to Indochina from southern China during the ninth to twelfth centuries c.e. 9 Some settled in the mountains of northern Indochina and introduced into the area a new type of social structure. 10 Tai villages were subordinated to a larger territorial unit known as the muang, which was under the authority of a princely family. This hereditary elite controlled access [End Page 356] to land, conducted communal religious ceremonies to ensure agricultural fertility, and dominated political life. 11

The mountains of central Vietnam (known as the Annamite Chain in English and Giai Truong Son in Vietnamese) and the high plateaux of southern central Vietnam (called the Central Highlands in English and Tay Nguyen in Vietnamese) were the home of the third category of indigenous peoples. These highlanders, who were among the earliest inhabitants of the Indochinese peninsula, fall into two main ethno-linguistic groups: the Mon-Khmer group, which includes the Bahnar, Sedang, Mnong, and Stieng peoples; and the Malayo-Polynesian group, composed of the Jarai, Hroi, Rhadé, Churu, and Roglai. 12 Having remained largely isolated from the “civilizing” currents of the Indian and Chinese Great Traditions, the southern highlanders developed no supra-village political organization. The focus of their political lives remained the village, which was usually controlled by a headman and a council of elders drawn from the family heads. 13 The village was also the critical economic unit, producing virtually all that its inhabitants needed. 14 It must be emphasized that most of the highland peoples had devised landholding systems, some of which were clan-based, as in the case of the Rhadé, while others followed individualistic or familial lines. They had also developed rules governing behavior, both among the members of the same ethnic group and among members of various groups, for virtually every form of social interaction, including treatment of criminals, settlement of disputes, and inheritance of property. 15 [End Page 357]

The natural environment of the highlands placed limits on the demographic potential of the peoples who lived there. Primary among these constraints is the infertility of the soil relative to the lowlands. Only irrigated rice can be grown regularly in such infertile soil, but mountainous conditions limit this culture to about 5% of the highland territory. The solution adopted by many of the highlanders was the swidden, or “slash-and-burn,” method, known to the Vietnamese and French by the Vietnamese term ray. The vegetation on a portion of land is cut, allowed to dry, and burned. Using the ashes as fertilizer, cultivators can grow dry rice, corn, or other crops for several years before exhausting the soil. The cultivators then abandon the field and rotate to nearby plots; natural growth restores the original field after ten to twenty years, when the cycle begins anew. Among some highland peoples, if the fields were distant from the village, the village itself was moved to facilitate cultivation; villages were also abandoned in the event of epidemic disease or for religious reasons. 16 But the generalized application of the term nomadic—often used pejoratively—is erroneous since most swidden cultivation occurred within a delineated region from a centrally located and permanently fixed village. 17 Another factor limiting the highlanders’ demographic potential compared to the Vietnamese was the prevalence of malaria in the highlands. The clearer, fast-flowing waters of the mountains and high plains provided a more suitable breeding ground for the anopheles mosquito than the murky, often stagnant waters of the lowland deltas. Thus, the lowland deltas were capable of supporting more than ten times as many people per unit of land than were the highlands, placing the highland peoples in a state of demographic inferiority to the lowland Vietnamese. 18

The Vietnamese, also called the Viet or Kinh (Kinh means “capital”) were the only lowland Southeast Asian people whose civilization derived from Chinese rather than Indian influences. 19 The Vietnamese were sinicized during more than one thousand years of Chinese rule (c. 111 b.c.e. to 938 c.e.) and carried this tradition southward [End Page 358] as they advanced from their homeland in the Red River delta toward the Mekong delta. The Vietnamese preference for the lowland deltas is explained with reference to the Vietnamese proclivity for irrigated rice-growing and settlement in compact, densely populated, and sedentary villages that permitted an active political and religious life. It should also be noted that, given the greater incidence of malaria in the highlands, the Vietnamese considered the mountains to be dangerous places with “poisonous waters” (nuoc doc). 20 Given this preference for the deltas and aversion for the highlands, the Vietnamese rarely settled the mountainous regions surrounding the Red River delta or the mountains and high plains of central and southern central Vietnam, leaving them instead to the highland peoples.

As a result of these settlement patterns, Vietnamese imperial power was traditionally strongest in the lowlands and weakest in the highlands. Vietnam’s last independent dynasty, the Nguyen (1802–1945), which ruled through a Chinese-style bureaucracy based in the lowland city of Hue, central Vietnam, was no exception. Rather than attempting to impose its administrative authority directly in the highlands, the Hue court made use of various expedients designed to contain the indigenous peoples in the highlands, secure the nominal allegiance to the crown of the known highlander political or religious authorities, and gain for the monarchy a monopoly on forest and mountain products (rhinoceros horns, elephant tusks, medicinal plants) obtained via tribute or supervised trade. 21 These measures were accompanied by cultural proselytization, by means of which the Vietnamese elite, as self-appointed carriers of Confucian civilization, intended to elevate the highlanders from their allegedly benighted condition as “savages” (man, moi, or tho). 22 Although these arrangements did not usually involve penetrating administrative control, and most of the highland peoples retained their traditional cultures and remained under their local leaders, relations between the lowland Vietnamese and the highlanders were not harmonious. A history of frequent highlander revolts [End Page 359] indicates that the highlanders did not suffer lightly the Vietnamese pretensions to cultural superiority and intervention in their affairs. 23

The Hue court’s failure to integrate the highland peoples into its lowland-based administrative system or to arrive at mutually acceptable relations between Vietnamese and highlanders would plague Vietnamese efforts to resist the colonial conquest of Vietnam by France, which began in 1858–62 with France’s seizure of three provinces in southern Vietnam. As France conquered and “pacified” central and northern Vietnamese territory during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, French officials learned to exploit the antipathy that characterized highlander-Vietnamese relations. The French politique des races was explained by its foremost practitioner, Colonel Joseph Galliéni, the “pacifier of Tonkin,” as follows:

The study of the races inhabiting a region determines the political organization to be established in it and dictates the means to be used in its pacification. An officer who can draw up a sufficiently precise ethnographic map of the territory under his authority is close to having obtained its complete pacification. Every agglomeration of individuals—a race, a people, a tribe, a family—represents interests that are either common or opposed. Hatreds and rivalries exist that we must be able to unravel and use to our advantage by turning some against others, by relying on one to defeat the other more easily. 24

In practice, this meant encouraging highlanders to see France’s conquest of Vietnam as their liberation from Vietnamese domination, thus facilitating France’s mobilization of the highlanders to help defeat Vietnamese resistance to French arms.

These methods were put to the test during the Can Vuong (Support the King) movement, which lasted from 1885 until the turn of the century. As the French increased pressure on the Hue court to implement the terms of the Treaty of the Protectorate, signed under duress in 1884, anti-French mandarins abducted the Ham-nghi Emperor, [End Page 360] took him into the highlands, and proclaimed an anti-French insurrection in his name. Their Confucianist appeals to “support the king” against foreign aggression mobilized support among the Kinh population, but highlanders were unmoved. 25 With superior French forces keeping the Vietnamese insurgents from returning to the lowlands, and with pro-French Tay, Nung, and Tai highlanders along the Vietnam-China border cutting them off from potential refuge and supplies in south China, the insurgents found themselves in dire straits, given how Ham-nghi’s royal predecessors had treated the highlanders on whom he was now forced to rely. Then, in 1888, a Muong follower of Ham-nghi betrayed him to the French, resulting in his capture and exile. 26 Although deprived of their symbolic head, the insurgents killed Ham-nghi’s Muong betrayer and fought on. 27 After 1890 French forces slowly penetrated the upper valleys and mountain ranges. In their pursuit of the insurgents, the French received invaluable assistance from highlander collaborators, with their perfect knowledge of the terrain and adaptation to the environment. 28 Lacking any program for gaining highlander support, the Vietnamese insurgents were increasingly isolated. The last important insurgent leader, Doc Ngu, was assassinated by pro-French highlanders in 1893, effectively bringing the movement to a close, although pockets of resistance held out into the early twentieth century. 29 France’s conquest of Vietnam was thus facilitated by the French commanders’ ability to exploit highlander-lowlander animosities.

Having eliminated traditional forms of Vietnamese resistance, the French carved Vietnam into three administrative units, Cochin China, Annam, and Tonkin; joined them to the protectorates of Cambodia and Laos; and proceeded to exploit “French Indochina” for France’s economic benefit under the authority of a French governor-general based in Ha-noi. The lowland Vietnamese of Cochin China were subject to direct French rule emanating from Sai-gon to the canton level; those of Annam and Tonkin were ruled indirectly via the resident system, which allowed French officials to supervise the actions of the Vietnamese officials functioning within the protected Nguyen monarchy’s administrative apparatus, based in Hue. Rather than extending [End Page 361] these networks into the highlands, France adopted administrative policies that distinguished between the lowland Vietnamese and highlanders. 30 In the northern highlands, where the highlanders were already organized into petty principalities, the French established their authority indirectly via agreements with the existing chiefs, promoting the interests and positions of some, while reducing those of others. 31 The region of greatest concentration of southern Central Highlands peoples was administratively detached from the rest of Annam. This new unit, dubbed the Pays Montagnard du Sud, was ruled directly by French officials, but the customary laws of the various highland peoples were recognized and codified. 32

In the northern and southern highlands, French policy vacillated on two crucial issues: economic development and immigration to the highlands of Vietnamese lowlanders and Europeans. Although some French officials tried to isolate the highlanders from economic penetration in order to protect their cultural uniqueness, the political power of French economic interests often prevailed. From the 1920s onward, rubber, coffee, and tea plantations were founded in the southern highlands, while mining companies exploited the iron ore, coal, and other minerals of the northern highlands. Many of these enterprises were established on land owned by highland peoples. The plantations and mines demanded an infrastructure of roads, bridges, and military posts, for which highlanders were required to pay taxes in cash and perform corvée. Since many highlanders proved unwilling to work for pay on plantations, some areas were opened to Vietnamese immigration. But when Vietnamese immigration proved insufficient, the planters demanded, and often received, the boon of having corvée for highlanders include unpaid plantation labor. 33 When French administrative and economic penetration, coupled with Vietnamese immigration, impinged too heavily on highland peoples, they resisted —either passively, by retreat into the jungle, or actively, by periodic risings against French rule, which were sometimes brutally suppressed. 34 As a result of France’s inconsistent policies, the highlanders’ feelings toward the colonial regime were ambivalent, some seeing it as but another form of lowlander domination, others viewing it as a necessary bulwark against Vietnamese penetration. [End Page 362]

By the early twentieth century, the anti-French sentiment among some highland peoples and individuals presented opportunities for Vietnamese nationalists. 35 Early noncommunist nationalist groups such as the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Vietnam Nationalist Party), unable to surmount or conceal their traditionalist contempt for the highlanders, failed to make sustained efforts to mobilize them. Only the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), founded by Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) in 1930, devised a “nationalities policy” (chinh sach dan toc) intended to turn highlander discontent into an anti-French political weapon. 36

Implementation of the ICP’s “nationalities policy” was complex and difficult, for although many highlanders had grievances against the colonial regime, they continued to resent and mistrust Vietnamese, regardless of ideological persuasion. 37 Nor were the highlanders likely to be moved by propaganda emphasizing the Vietnamese people’s history of resistance to foreign aggression, a mainstay of ICP propaganda directed to Vietnamese. 38 In response, the ICP’s 1930 “Program of Action” promised the highlanders the right to “self-determination” (dan toc tu quyet) in an independent Indochina and called for the abolition of colonial taxation, corvée, and other obligations. 39 Yet the ICP’s actual intentions with regard to the indigenous peoples remained ambiguous as late as the eve of the August Revolution of 1945. Ultimately, the ICP inclined toward aggrandizing the national interests of the majority Vietnamese: the highlanders and other “minorities” were promised the right to found independent states upon liberation from colonialism with the implicit assumption that, given the benefits that the revolution was offering them, they would decline to do so. In Stein Tonnesson’s words, the ICP’s “nationalities policy” [End Page 363] was “not unlike Soviet Russia’s policy of giving all the nationalities of the former czarist empire a right to self-determination—on the condition that they refrain from making use of it.” 40

In addition to promising the highlanders independence from Vietnamese domination after liberation from French colonialism, the ICP worked to overcome their mistrust of Vietnamese. Vietnamese ICP cadres active in the mountains were expected to learn local languages and customs. Ho Chi Minh is said to have learned basic phrases in highland languages, as did other major figures. ICP-controlled organizations attempted to recruit cadres of different ethnic backgrounds and to use them to penetrate and mobilize highlander villages instead of using ethnic Vietnamese for that purpose. 41 Although there is no evidence to show that large numbers of highlanders converted to communism or joined the ICP, the ICP established secure base areas in the strategic Viet-Bac mountains, giving its members access to China while affording them protection from French reprisals launched from the deltas of Vietnam. 42

The ICP was thus positioned to profit from the events of World War II. The German defeat of France and the emergence of the collaborationist Vichy regime by summer 1940 meant that French Indochina could not call upon the resources of metropolitan France to counter Japanese designs. Following Japan’s occupation of Indochina in summer 1941 with the collaboration of pro-Vichy French officials, the ICP organized the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (Vietnam Independence League, or Viet Minh) in spring 1941. Using an army that was initially composed mainly of northern highlanders, the Viet Minh conducted limited guerrilla operations against the Japanese and French but concentrated on carving out a liberated area (vung tu do) in the Viet-Bac and building up its own forces for taking power at war’s end. 43 By June 1945 the Viet Minh controlled six provinces in the highlands of northwestern Tonkin and had begun to extend its influence [End Page 364] throughout Tonkin and central Annam. Following the atomic bombings of Japan on 6 and 9 August 1945, Japan’s occupation of Indochina collapsed, creating a power vacuum that only the Viet Minh was prepared to fill. In mid-August 1945 the Viet Minh’s National Salvation Army, now numbering some 5,000 troops, still mainly highlanders, marched into Ha-noi, where, to the acclaim of the (mostly Vietnamese) crowds, Ho Chi Minh announced the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). 44 Its first Constitution, approved by the National Assembly in 1946, promised “minorities” that their languages and cultures would be protected and that their peoples would suffer no discrimination in the new state. However, the republic’s territory was declared “one and indivisible,” and the Party’s promises of a right to highlander “self-determination” were quietly dropped in favor of a vaguer policy of “autonomy.” 45

In the period between the August Revolution and the advent of war with France in December 1946, the DRV recruited tens of thousands of cadres and soldiers, now mainly from the Vietnamese population, a process facilitated by the Viet Minh’s reputation as the sole nationalist organization to have resisted the Franco-Japanese occupation. France nevertheless decided to reconquer Indochina, mainly to reestablish its image as a “Great Power” after the humiliation of occupation. The (First) Indochina War began on 22 December 1946 and ended on 21 July 1954 with the signing in Geneva of a cease-fire between the DRV and French Union high commands. The most important battles of this eight-year struggle were fought in the highlands of northern and central Vietnam, and often—on both sides—with troops recruited from highland peoples. 46 The Mekong and Red River deltas, where the majority of the Vietnamese lived, were not [End Page 365] major theaters of operations; they were the prizes that would go to the side that won the contest for the highlands. 47 This situation resulted from the Viet Minh’s protracted warfare strategy, adapted to the human and natural geography of the lands claimed by the DRV. Initially too weak to contest French conventional forces in the lowlands, the Viet Minh withdrew to bases in the Viet-Bac, from the relative safety of which it hoped to build up its forces while wearing down the French. 48 In fall 1947 the French launched a massive offensive intended to destroy the bulk of Viet Minh forces and to seize the DRV’s leadership in the heart of the Viet-Bac. French forces mauled the Viet Minh defenders, but most of the Viet Minh’s main force units—and the DRV’s leaders—escaped. Reprising Galliéni’s politique des races, French commanders exploited the northern highlanders’ fears of Vietnamese domination by setting up an “autonomous” Tai federation under a Tai prince named Deo Van Long; a militia of 8,000 highlanders was recruited to help defend it. 49 As smaller scale operations cleared the Central Highlands of Viet Minh troops, the French also promised autonomy to the indigenous peoples there and recruited militiamen (who served under French officers) among them as well. 50

Although the French exploited ethnic hatreds with some success and gained an initial advantage in the highlands, the Viet Minh, by carefully blending propaganda, promises of autonomy, and violence or the threat thereof, ultimately won significant highlander support as well, particularly in the north. The Viet Minh’s wartime propaganda emphasized the abuses that both highlanders and Vietnamese had suffered under colonialism, including corvée, taxes, and loss of land. Ho Chi Minh, for example, appealed for highlander support in the following terms: “Although our country is now independent, the French imperialists still want to steal it from us in order to force us to perform corvée, pay taxes, contribute grain, and plant jute; they want to prevent us from planting our fields and growing rice, to stop us from educating ourselves as in the days of slavery. So we must fight for national salvation.” 51 Another theme was the emphasis on assuring highlanders and other “national minorities” of their right to participate in local and national government and to maintain their traditions and languages [End Page 366] in their regions. To persuade highlanders of Viet Minh’s sincerity, the imminent establishment of “autonomous zones” for the “national minorities” (khu tu tri dan toc) was announced in 1953 at a congress attended by 140 highlander chiefs drawn from 20 different ethnic groups. 52 The Nung general Chu Van Tan and other high-ranking DRV officials of highlander origins explained the Viet Minh’s policies with regard to the highlanders and tried to soothe their fears of Vietnamese domination. 53 Given the colonial regime’s ambivalent policies in the pre-World War II era, when it had alternated between proclaiming itself the highlanders’ savior and exploiting them economically, such policies attracted many highlanders. And, of course, such appeals were judiciously mixed with terror. The French forces—whose power weakened as distance from the deltas increased—were incapable of protecting their highlander supporters, leaving the Viet Minh free to retaliate against them. 54

An additional complication for the French officers was their inability, over the long term, to master the political dynamics of competition among highlander groups in the Viet-Bac. Many highland chiefs whose power had been reduced by the French during the pre-World War II era were willing to support the Viet Minh, who outbid the French in terms of promised autonomy for the highlanders. Also, when the French reinforced the power of their highlander allies, they ran the risk of alienating other, rival highland groups, an eventuality that the Viet Minh exploited skillfully. For example, Deo Van Long, emboldened by French aid, began to encroach upon rival Tai leaders and to threaten weaker ethnic groups, such as the Meo. The Viet Minh won the support of these groups by promising that France’s defeat would diminish Deo Van Long and his supporters. Thus, by reinforcing some highlanders, the French often chased the rivals or victims of those allies into the Viet Minh’s arms. 55

Revolutionary recruitment of highlanders was less successful in the Central Highlands, in part because of the brevity of the Viet Minh presence in that area compared to the Viet-Bac, where communists had been active since the 1920s. 56 Yet here, too, the Viet Minh’s promises of autonomy and respect for highlander traditions eventually attracted numerous adherents, as did the policy of returning the lands [End Page 367] of French-owned estates to the highlanders wherever the Viet Minh was strong enough to do so. 57 Ultimately, the Viet Minh attained military dominance in the Central Highlands. During 1953–54 the Viet Minh reduced French-controlled territory in central Vietnam to beachheads around Hue, Da-nang, and Nha-trang, although these operations were largely undertaken with Vietnamese troops recruited elsewhere. 58 Those highlanders who declared for the Viet Minh during the Franco-Viet Minh struggle would prove invaluable in the Second Indochina War. Thousands of these pro-DRV highlanders withdrew to the north after the Geneva Accords. After training in the DRV or USSR, they would be infiltrated into the south to lead the struggle against the RVN. 59

The Viet Minh’s mobilization of the northern highlanders was demonstrated in the battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954). Dien Bien Phu was a fortress built by the French deep in the Tai highlands on the Laos-Vietnam border to block the Viet Minh’s invasion of Laos. The decisive Viet Minh victory there, the repercussions of which drove the French from Indochina, could not have been achieved without highlander troops and porters, who carried weapons from depots in the PRC to the battlefield. 60 Thus, after eight years of conflict, the Viet Minh controlled the highlands of the northern and central regions of Vietnam, while the French controlled the Mekong delta, a shrinking enclave around Ha-noi in the Red River delta, and several enclaves along the central coast. 61 The Viet Minh’s success, particularly in the north, may be largely attributed to its ability to counter an initial French advantage in mobilizing highlanders.

After the Geneva Accords, many Viet Minh troops in southern Vietnam withdrew north of the Seventeenth Parallel, to the zone that had been placed under DRV control until nationwide elections, scheduled [End Page 368] for 1956. Following up on wartime pronouncements, the DRV founded its first autonomous zone, initially called the Thai-Meo Autonomous Zone, on 7 May 1955, the first anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The zone, located in northwestern Vietnam along the China-Vietnam and Vietnam-Laos borders, covered almost 20,000 square miles, nearly one-third of the DRV’s territory. It was inhabited by some 300,000 members of 20 ethnic groups, most of whom were of the Tai and Meo groups. The Thai-Meo autonomous subdivision of the DRV was officially termed a “zone” (khu), which is described as “an echelon of local administration placed under the direct control of the central government”; the provincial level (tinh) of administration, characteristic of lowland Vietnamese regions, was abolished in the zone. The zone was subdivided into districts (chau) and villages (xa). The zone was to be administered by a twenty-four member Administrative Committee composed mostly of elected highlander representatives. 62 And in 1956 a Viet-Bac Autonomous Zone was created in the northeastern corner of Tonkin along the Vietnam-China border, containing more than 1.5 million people. 63

On the surface, the regime had granted major concessions to the northern highlanders, the majority inhabitants of the zones. The residents [End Page 369] of the zones were promised equal rights with the DRV’s other peoples, the right to vote and stand for election to the National Assembly, and the right to participate in the governing organs of the zone. The language of administration was to be the “minority” language wherever practical, and administrative cadres were to be recruited among the “minority” people if possible. Freedom of belief was guaranteed, as was the right to keep or change customs—provided that such changes responded to majority opinion within the zone and were approved by the zone’s “competent authorities.” 64 Yet some scholars have questioned the degree of autonomy enjoyed by the highlanders under this system, as well as their acceptance of it. Bernard Fall points out that, given the DRV’s parallel organization in which Party cadres (most of whom were ethnic Vietnamese) supervise the actions of governmental officials, the “real power the hands of the majority Vietnamese operating as Party or administrative cadres in the mountain zones.” 65 Moreover, the decisions of the administrative committees of the zones remained in the last instance subject to the approval of the national government and the national-level Party structure, both of which were dominated by ethnic Vietnamese. And the ethnic Vietnamese who led the Party continued to conceive relations with the highlanders only in terms of a “civilizing project.” Party documents continued to discuss the highlands in terms of their economic potential for the nation as a whole, criticizing the highlanders for their “backwardness,” “ignorance,” “stagnation,” and “superstition,” which could only be improved via increased contacts with Vietnamese. Any notion that highlander cultures are intrinsically valuable or that lowland Vietnamese might have something to learn from them cannot be found in the official literature. 66 Given this emphasis, one may wonder whether the “minority representatives” in the administrative bodies of the autonomous zones represented the interests of their highlander constituents with regard to the lowlander-dominated [End Page 370] central Party apparatus; more likely, highlanders selected for advancement were those who had identified themselves more with the Party’s “civilizing project” than with their ethnic group. 67

Several policies implemented in the zones by the national government during the 1960s suggest that the desire or ability of the zonal governments to represent indigenous peoples’ interests is suspect. Pro-DRV literature generated during the 1960s continually referred to the alleged benefits to the highlanders resulting from economic and cultural development made possible by continual Vietnamese immigration; likewise, it stressed the necessity of the “settling” of “nomadic” highlanders in fixed villages. By 1968, according to DRV author Viet Chung, more than 800,000 lowland Vietnamese had settled in the highlands; he claims that the settlers were “warmly welcomed” by the highlanders, which is doubtful, given the history of suspicion and mistrust between the two groups. The same author also states that tens of thousands of highlander families had been “persuaded” to settle in fixed villages at lower elevations and to enroll in agricultural cooperatives. 68 Although we have no way of knowing what persuasion was used or whether the highlanders accepted the changes voluntarily, there were scattered reports of armed highlander resistance to the DRV’s authority. 69 And highlander resistance to land reform in the mid-1950s was so intense that Vo Nguyen Giap, in his “Rectification of Errors” speech, was forced to concede that “we failed to respect the customs of the tribes, and attacked too strongly leaders and hierarchical systems.” 70

The main concessions to highlanders within the zones seem to have been the practice of allowing at least some members of highland peoples to participate in local administration, retention of the indigenous language, and preservation of aspects of the indigenous culture, [End Page 371] such as dances, songs, and folklore. The common element in these concessions is their symbolic nature. They represent the indigenous peoples’ most profoundly felt cultural values, and to challenge them would have been deeply resented; further, the resistance aroused would have been disproportionate to the benefits of their suppression, at least in the short run. 71 Meanwhile, Vietnamese economic and political systems, and many Vietnamese people, were progressively introduced into the highland zones. In light of these considerations and with the benefit of historical hindsight—the autonomous zones were abolished in 1976—it may be suggested that, for the ethnic Vietnamese-dominated DRV, zonal autonomy for “national minorities” was never more than a way-station on the road to assimilation. In the context of the interwar period (1955–60) and the Second Indochina War (1960–75), however, the autonomous zones, with their symbolic value and appeal for some highlanders, served the revolution well by keeping highlander dissension in the DRV to a barely perceptible minimum, thus allowing the regime to make the promise of autonomy a staple of its propaganda toward the highlanders below the Seventeenth Parallel, who had no way to verify cadres’ accounts of conditions in the DRV.

South of the Seventeenth Parallel, a different policy with regard to the highlanders was taking shape, one that would have profound implication for the revolution in the Second Indochina War. In 1954–55 the United States created an anti-communist southern regime based in Sai-gon, known as the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), by building on the wreckage of the State of Vietnam, a puppet regime created by France in 1949. Through the RVN and its military, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the Eisenhower administration hoped to “contain” the revolution to the area above the Seventeenth Parallel, which was already controlled by the DRV. One of the RVN’s first acts was to announce that it would not permit the reunification elections to which France had committed itself at Geneva. In response, the leaders of the Vietnam Workers’ Party (VWP), as the Vietnamese branch of the ICP was now called, decided to reunite Vietnam under its authority by force.

The VWP’s ability to re-create an insurgency in the south against the American-sponsored regime was facilitated by the policies of the RVN’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem (1955–63), which created the conditions in which the insurgency could flourish. This observation is particularly germane to the regime’s policy with regard to the indigenous peoples inhabiting the RVN. Indeed, under Diem, the RVN [End Page 372] implemented a “civilizing project” stressing forced assimilation. Georges Condominas suggests that the Vietnamese rulers of the RVN, who had not proven their nationalism by fighting against colonialism and who owed their positions to foreigners, may have felt a need to overcompensate by forcing Vietnamese culture on the weaker highlanders. 72 However applicable this view may be to particular individuals, the RVN incorporated the highland areas as integral parts of the nation, subjecting highlanders to the same laws and administrative structures as lowland Vietnamese. 73 The RVN’s major highland provinces—Kontum, Pleiku, Darlac, Quang-duc, Tuyen-duc, Lam-dong, and Phu-bon—were governed by centrally appointed Vietnamese at the provincial and district levels; these officials levied taxes and tributes—legal and illegal—upon the highlanders, providing few services or benefits in return. 74 In the course of applying these regulations, the RVN’s officials assumed the traditional Vietnamese air of superiority toward the highlanders, calling them “savages” (moi), forbidding them to wear their traditional clothing and hairstyles, and refusing to allow instruction in highlander languages and cultures in the public schools. 75

To promote national security and economic development, Diem began to settle the RVN’s highlands with lowland Vietnamese. He planned to use these settlers—many of whom were Catholic refugees from the DRV—to create a “wall of humanity” along the Vietnam-Cambodia frontier from Kontum province in the north to Ca-mau in the south to block “Viet Cong” (as he called Communists and their supporters) infiltration of the strategic highlands. 76 Between 1957 and 1961, over 210,000 Vietnamese were resettled in centers carved from 220,000 acres in the highlands, on lands that the RVN considered in the “public domain” but which highlanders regarded as their own and necessary for swidden agriculture. Ultimately, the regime planned to open more than 3.5 million acres in the highlands to Vietnamese settlement, but the RVN’s political situation deteriorated before this goal could be fulfilled. 77 The RVN also implemented a Highlands Resettlement Scheme that removed highlander villages, often by force, transplanting [End Page 373] them to regions deemed more defensible by Diem and his advisers. In Kontum, for example, 35,000 highlanders were regrouped in fall 1961, almost half of the total highlander population of the province. 78

This influx of Vietnamese and forcible resettlement of highlanders revived highlander-lowlander hostility. In early 1958 some highlanders organized the Bajaraka movement and drew up a charter outlining grievances and demands for autonomy from the RVN. In response, Diem imprisoned the movement’s leaders. 79 In Quang-nam province, several highland peoples, including the Cor and Hré, were in a state of open rebellion in 1957–58 in response to atrocities committed during the RVN’s Anti-Communist Denunciation Campaign, which many officials applied ruthlessly in the highlands, given their traditional contempt for indigenous peoples. 80

In contrast to the DRV’s organization of autonomous zones, which respected symbolic aspects of highlander culture and utilized highlander administrators, the RVN had opted for forced assimilation. One can only conclude, as did Pentagon analysts, that the RVN, by providing the highlanders with causes and a focus for their discontent, “facilitated rather than hindered the subsequent subversion of the tribes by the Viet Cong.” 81

The VWP was quick to capitalize on the highlanders’ alienation from the RVN. The VWP’s proxy in the RVN was the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLFSVN or NLF), founded on 20 December 1960 by “stay-behind” and returned Party cadres acting in response to plans approved by the Third Congress of the VWP, which had been held in Ha-noi that September. It would be guided by the southern VWP members, who received orders via the Party hierarchy [End Page 374] based in Ha-noi. The following year, the NLF spawned other politico-military organizations: a military force, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF); and a supposedly independent political party called the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP), which was but the VWP’s southern branch under another name. The NLF was a front, designed, like the Viet Minh, to bring into the revolutionary movement a wide range of groups: peasants, religious sects, intellectuals, non-Vietnamese ethnic groups, and people who were not communists but who would accept—knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly—working with VWP members toward the immediate goal of smashing the RVN. 82 Mobilization of highlanders was given a high priority since People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) commanders had identified the highlands as essential for securing north-south communications from the DRV to the RVN, as well as access from the Truong Son and Central Highlands to the RVN’s coastal deltas and movement from one delta to another within the RVN. 83

The Party’s mobilization of the southern highlanders was facilitated by the Viet Minh’s penetration of the area during the First Indochina War. As noted above, several thousand highlanders had followed Viet Minh units north to the DRV. After training at the Central Minorities School in Ha-noi, they were infiltrated into the south during the late 1950s and early 1960s, along with Vietnamese returnees. In conjunction with “stay-behind” Vietnamese cadres, and with the help of sympathetic highlanders, some of whom were veterans of the anti-French struggle, they began to spread propaganda and found bases in isolated areas. 84 Through the radio station Voice of Vietnam, the VWP also spread its message among the southern highlanders, broadcasting in three highlander languages, Rhadé, Bahnar, and Jarai. 85 As in the First Indochina War, the Party’s message in the Central Highlands emphasized political and cultural autonomy for highlanders, praising the DRV’s autonomous zones and promising like arrangements for the southern highlanders after victory. 86 Based on such appeals, Party cadres organized highlanders to resist the RVN.

Thus, even before the NLF’s formal organization in December 1960, [End Page 375] Party cadres had been involved in anti-RVN risings in the highlands, particularly those in Quang-ngai province, alluded to above, where “liberated zones” including more than fifty villages were founded in several districts along the ridge of the Truong Son. The movement’s headquarters was in northern Tra-bong and Son-tay districts, which linked with existing bases in Kontum and Quang-nam provinces. In the course of the year, a revolutionary apparatus was established at the provincial level. 87 Thus, the Central Highlands of the RVN played much the same role in the launching of the Second Indochina War as the Viet-Bac mountains had in facilitating the August Revolution and the First Indochina War: at a time when Party cadres were increasingly subject to imprisonment or execution in the deltas, relatively secure base areas were built in the highlands. 88

When the NLF formally appeared in December 1960, it quickly built on the existing highlands’ networks via broad political appeals to the highlanders. Point VII of the NLF Program announced the movement’s professed intentions with regard to the highlanders:

To ensure the right to autonomy of the national minorities. To set up, within the framework of the great family of the Vietnamese people, autonomous regions in areas inhabited by minority peoples. To ensure equal right[s] among different nationalities. All nationalities have the right to use and develop their own spoken and written language[s] and to preserve or change their customs and habits. To abolish the U.S.-Diem clique’s present policy of ill-treatment and forced assimilation of the minority nationalities. To help the minority peoples catch up with the common level of the people by developing the economy and culture in the areas inhabited by them, by training skilled personnel from people of minority origin. 89

In May 1961 the NLF organized a congress attended by twenty-three highlander representatives and chaired by Ibih Aleo, a Rhadé who was a vice chairman of the NLF Central Committee Presidium. At its [End Page 376] conclusion, the NLF announced the formation of a Committee for Autonomy for the People of the Western Plateau (Uy Ban Dan Toc Tu Tri Tay Nguyen), which, under the guidance of NLF cadres, set up an autonomous zone in the region the next year. 90 It is doubtful that highlander NLF operatives or officials such as Ibih Aleo exercised real power in the autonomous movement or had significant influence on NLF policies generally; more probably their organizations were controlled behind the scenes by the Vietnamese operatives of the VWP and NLF. 91 Still, this arrangement allowed the NLF to position itself as the defender of highlander cultures and languages against the RVN’s forced-assimilation policy, a stance the NLF exploited in mobilizing highlanders.

Although it is hard to measure how influential such NLF initiatives were in winning highlander support compared to other factors—including the use of terror to eliminate or intimidate opposition—the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated in 1961 that half of the highlander population of the Tay Nguyen were NLF sympathizers, if not outright supporters. 92 The same view was asserted by Condominas, who observed that the NLF operated freely in the highlands because it enjoyed the sympathy of most highlanders—a situation that, as he notes, was facilitated by the poor performance of the NLF’s competition, the RVN officials. 93 Other scholars have argued that, given the depth of many highlanders’ mistrust for all Vietnamese, the NLF’s political initiatives were unsuccessful, and terror was the prime instrument of NLF control in the highlands. These scholars point to the migration of more than 100,000 highlanders to areas held by the RVN during 1961–62. 94 While it is undeniable that terrorism was used extensively by the NLF in the highlands, such arguments do not adequately weigh other factors that contributed to highlander migrations to RVN areas—notably, forced relocation by ARVN or American units, bombing and strafing of highlander villages and farmlands, use [End Page 377] of defoliants, and general insecurity in the countryside. One cannot assume that all refugees who fled NLF-controlled areas did so solely to escape NLF terrorism. 95

In May 1964 the VWP moved to consolidate its political inroads into the highlands by incorporating the region in its overall military-administrative framework for the south. 96 Many of these bases would remain under NLF control throughout the war, facilitating infiltration of personnel and supplies into the RVN and movement of PLAF and PAVN units throughout the highlands, into the central coastal deltas, and southward into the Mekong delta. 97

In part because of its highland bases, PLAF “main force” troops grew rapidly, expanding from around 17,000 in 1961 to 34,000 in 1964, complemented by about 72,000 village and regional forces by the latter date. 98 In 1961 the PLAF stepped up attacks on RVN officials and small ARVN units, driving them out of much of rural Vietnam; by year’s end, the insurgents controlled most of several coastal and Mekong delta provinces, in addition to their highland redoubts. 99 The Kennedy administration’s response was to increase aid and advisory programs to the RVN, while introducing counter-insurgency programs aimed at winning popular support for the RVN via self-defense and civic action. 100 Two programs were emphasized: the Strategic Hamlet program, operated mainly by the ARVN, which involved resettling lowland Vietnamese in fortified villages so as to isolate them from the NLF; and the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program, which involved the mobilizing, training, and leading of highlanders by the U.S. Army Special Forces in conjunction with ARVN Special Forces. 101 [End Page 378]

Beginning in 1961, the American Special Forces operatives attempted to penetrate highlander villages in much the same way that NLF cadres did: Special Forces members learned highlander languages, wore their clothing, participated in their rituals, and observed their taboos. 102 In addition to payment for participating highlanders, the program provided funds for building schools, dispensaries, and wells; American volunteers from the International Volunteer Services (IVS) supplemented Special Forces teams in implementing agricultural or educational projects. 103 Like the NLF, Special Forces groups resorted to coercion or terror to obtain compliance when necessary. Wilfred Burchett reports that pro-NLF highlanders told him that Special Forces operatives threatened their villages with forcible relocation to be carried out by the ARVN if they did not join the program. 104 And William Rust confirms that Special Forces teams sometimes used the “stick” of ARVN if the “carrot” of material and social benefits proved ineffective. 105 Condominas also reported cases of torture inflicted by Special Forces operatives on Mnong Gar highlanders to punish them for communicating with relatives in NLF-controlled zones. 106 Highlanders who joined the program were armed and trained in village-level self-defense; some were organized into larger strike forces that protected groups of villages in a given area; yet others were used for surveillance of infiltration routes or on commando raids. The program grew rapidly in its early years: from the original fifty Rhadé of Darlac province who enrolled in 1961 to more than 40,000 highlanders by 1964, operating out of twenty-five fortified outposts known as CIDG-Special Forces camps. 107 Although the CIDG program contested the NLF for control of some highland villages and assembled a sizable irregular force, the program’s military significance should not be overestimated. NLF infiltration centers and base camps in the highlands were harassed but not destroyed by CIDG operations. Further, the CIDG camps themselves were under almost constant attack by PLAF units during 1964–65. The overall political-military control of [End Page 379] the highlands by the NLF/PLAF was not seriously challenged and may even have been reinforced during this period. 108

Despite the Special Forces’ recognized capability to mobilize highlanders for anti-NLF/PLAF activities in the Central Highlands, the CIDG program failed in its political goal of generating positive popular support for the RVN among highlanders. Indeed, many highlanders joined the program because of their desire to protect their ethnic identity and seek highlander political autonomy against all Vietnamese, RVN as well as NLF, as a former CIDG member admitted to IVS volunteers Don Luce and John Summer. 109 The opportunities for obtaining military training, equipment, and organizational experience provided by the American Special Forces allowed some highlanders to manifest their anti-RVN sentiments in new ways, as shown in the anti-RVN revolts that took place in some Special Forces camps during 1964–65 under the aegis of the highlander political organization Front Unifié de Lutte de la Race Opprimée (FULRO). 110 In the words of Frances FitzGerald, by the time of the FULRO revolts, “the montagnards were divided between tribes that supported the NLF and tribes that, largely because of the work of the American Special Forces [End Page 380] and the CIA, claimed their independence from all Vietnamese authorities.” 111

The years 1964–65 also witnessed the escalation of the war by the DRV and the United States. As a result of “fateful decisions” made by the VWP in spring 1964, its efforts in the RVN were expanded via the increasing infiltration of PAVN units. These larger forces were intended to take on the ARVN by engaging in positional warfare and attacking major cities, provincial capitals, and eventually Sai-gon itself. Although cadres and soldiers had been infiltrated from the DRV before this time, these had mainly been regroupees, southerners by origin who had gone to the DRV in 1954–55. With the supply of regroupees exhausted by 1964, PAVN regulars began to infiltrate in large numbers. 112 Recruitment of southerners into the PLAF also continued, and PLAF local and regional units were increasingly turned into larger and more mobile “main force” units, which, along with the more heavily armed PAVN units, took the offensive. As a result of these decisions, the areas under revolutionary control expanded dramatically in 1964, and a stable “liberated zone” emerged, extending from the Central Highlands to the outskirts of the Mekong delta. By 1965 the revolutionary forces controlled more than half of the total land area of the RVN and almost half of its people. 113

For its part, the Johnson administration, frustrated by the ARVN’s inability to resist the PLAF/PAVN, increased direct U.S. involvement, including using American advisers at all levels of the RVN administration, increasing U.S. economic and military aid to the RVN, bringing in American combat troops, and pressuring the DRV via air power. U.S. troop strength rose from 80,000 troops in 1965 to more than 500,000 in 1968. Together with the ARVN (which grew to 600,000 by 1966) and allied third-country forces, the pro-RVN forces enjoyed an almost three-to-one manpower advantage over the PLAF and PAVN units operating in the south. 114 American troops began to “search [for] and destroy” the PLAF/PAVN main-force units, while the ARVN [End Page 381] focused on “pacification,” destroying the NLF infrastructure in the villages and bringing the villages under RVN control. The basic strategy of the American commander, William Westmoreland, was to produce “attrition” by using superior mobility and firepower. 115 Westmoreland’s strategy resulted in a stalemate in the RVN by mid-1967. The U.S. forces “won” almost every encounter, in the sense that the NLF/PLAF generally broke off contact first, experienced higher losses, and rarely held positions that the U.S. forces were determined to take. Still, U.S. forces were incapable of gaining permanent strategic advantage through these means. Revolutionary forces usually escaped with the bulk of their forces intact; and the Americans, unable to occupy territory seized, often removed the local people to refugee camps; destroyed PLAF/PAVN structures, tunnels, and equipment; and abandoned the areas, after which they were reoccupied by revolutionary forces. 116 Although U.S. forces did kill or capture many PLAF/PAVN soldiers, the PLAF/PAVN never lost their capacity for offensive action. The PAVN remained operative in the Central Highlands, and PLAF guerrillas continued to mount ambushes and plant booby traps almost everywhere else. Despite high “body counts,” revolutionary forces were always able to make good their losses and maintain cohesiveness and morale. The PLAF continued to recruit southerners, and based on the continuing PLAF/PAVN presence in the Central Highlands, the DRV sent men down the Ho Chi Minh Trail faster than U.S. firepower could kill them. 117 During this period, the United States also launched a bombing campaign against the DRV and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Due to defensive measures and self-imposed limits, the bombing did not significantly slacken the movement of troops and supplies over this lifeline, nor did it break the resolve of the VWP leadership. 118 Tactical bombing was also used in the RVN territory itself, ultimately making the RVN the most heavily bombed state in world history. 119 The result was only a stalemate between the PAVN/PLAF forces, which could not hope to expel the Americans militarily, and the U.S. forces, which could not destroy the revolutionary infrastructure or decisively weaken its military forces. 120 [End Page 382]

The stalemate was broken by the PAVN/PLAF’s Tet Offensive of spring 1968 and the concomitant growth of antiwar sentiment in the United States—a development that chased Johnson from office and led his successor, Richard Nixon, to implement “Vietnamization” in 1968–73. Vietnamization involved building ARVN to unprecedented levels, creating a force of over 1 million troops, while increasing bombing of the DRV and “widening the war” into Cambodia and Laos to attack infiltration routes. 121 Given the weakening of the PLAF during the Tet Offensive, the major conventional confrontations of this period were between the Vietnamese conventional forces, the PAVN and the ARVN, the latter still backed by American airpower. 122 This new face of the war was typified by the PAVN’s 1972 Spring Offensive out of the Central Highlands near Kontum, which seized the entire province of Quang-tri until the advance was repelled by American bombing. 123 Finally, with American public opinion in its majority against the war, the United States and the DRV signed the Paris Accords of 1973, bringing about the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Congressional legislation prevented further direct U.S. involvement and limited the aid that the Nixon administration could supply to the RVN. Although the RVN still had the physical means to defend itself (over 1 million troops against a combined 230,000 PAVN and PLAF troops in the south), it was plagued by poor leadership and troubled by the psychological impact of desertion by its major ally. 124

In fall 1974 the VWP decided that the Central Highlands would be the main battlefield in the coming offensive to take the south. Tactical surprise was facilitated by the disaffection of highlanders in the RVN’s irregular forces (now called Regional and Popular Forces), who began to defect en masse from their ARVN officers. 125 A faction of FULRO active among the Rhadé reportedly entered into a temporary anti-RVN alliance with the NLF. 126 Thus, local highlanders did not betray the PAVN buildup in the area. The heavily defended highland city of Ban Me Thuot fell easily to the PAVN, in part because RVN President Nguyen Van Thieu precipitously issued an order to retreat from the highlands entirely, a maneuver that he termed “lightening the top to keep the bottom,” meaning that he intended to sacrifice the [End Page 383] northern RVN to strengthen his hold on the Mekong delta. 127 Evacuation would have been difficult in any circumstances, but it was exacerbated by the lack of preparations. When the orders to abandon the Central Highlands reached ARVN troops, confusion, panic, and desertion resulted, and what could have been a local defeat turned into a rout with wider implications. 128 On 14 April 1975, with its opponent verging on collapse and U.S. intervention unlikely, the VWP launched the Ho Chi Minh Campaign, which brought PAVN tanks into downtown Sai-gon and ended the Second Indochina War on 30 April 1975. 129

The effects of the Second Indochina War, particularly the 1964–75 “big unit” period described above, were devastating to the Central Highlands and their inhabitants. Of the million or so highlanders inhabiting RVN territory in 1967, nearly a third were killed or died as a result of starvation, illness, or other causes related to the war efforts of both sides. 130 Throughout the 1964–75 phase, U.S. Army/ARVN forces held the major highland cities and provincial capitals (Ban Me Thuot, Pleiku, and Kontum), with the PLAF/PAVN active throughout their hinterlands. 131 Revolutionary forces used B-40 rockets to ambush civilian buses and trucks in the highlands; the rockets were also used against recalcitrant highlander settlements. 132 In one incident that occurred in December 1967, revolutionary forces used Soviet-made flame-throwers to attack the highlander hamlet of Dak-son in Phuoc-long province, leaving more than 250 dead and 50 wounded. 133 In their pursuit of PLAF/PAVN units, U.S. and ARVN commanders used fighter-bombers that, intentionally or accidentally, often destroyed highlander settlements, fields, or persons; B-52 bombers, used massively in the highlands against PAVN troop concentrations, particularly during the Tet Offensive of 1968 and Easter Offensive of 1972, were even less discriminating and more destructive. 134 The American use of defoliants, intended to eliminate forest cover and nutritional resources needed by revolutionaries, also destroyed the [End Page 384] productivity of tens of thousands of acres of highlanders’ lands. 135 And according to interviews carried out by Gerald Hickey in 1972, many highlanders were killed or debilitated by the effects of defoliants containing dioxin, the toxic element in Agent Orange. 136

In addition to the highlanders who lost their lives or health in the war, many more were forced to abandon their homes and lands. It has been estimated that, in the ten-year period from 1961 to 1971, more than two-thirds of all highlander settlements were forcibly relocated at least once—some repeatedly. 137 For example, more than 100,000 highlanders were made refugees by U.S. and ARVN forces during 1967 alone. In April 1967 more than 8,000 Jarai highlanders were forced from their villages in western Pleiku province and relocated to the Edap Enang resettlement area near Pleiku city. The stated purposes were to deny revolutionary forces the labor power and nutritional resources of the Jarai, to bring the Jarai under the military supervision and administrative control of the RVN, and to create a “free fire” zone along the Cambodia-Vietnam border to interdict movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail at a point where it turned into Vietnam. 138 In many cases, forcibly relocated highlanders died of exposure, disease, or starvation in hastily prepared and inadequately provisioned camps; sometimes the survivors evacuated the camps and tried to return to their homes. 139

The VWP’s consolidation of power below the Seventeenth Parallel after its “Great Spring Victory” in April 1975 did not bring better times for Vietnam’s highlanders. Quickly forgetting their promises of autonomy, the victorious revolutionaries have shown little compunction about protecting highlander cultures, instead manifesting every intention of bringing Vietnamese-style socialism, as well as massive Vietnamese immigration, into the Central Highlands, as they continue to do in the northern highlands.

In April 1976, when the PAVN’s provisional military management committees in the south gave way to civil government under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV, as the country was renamed upon reunification), it became evident that the promised autonomy for the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands, a fixture of NLF propaganda [End Page 385] since the 1960 Declaration, would not be implemented. 140 Later in 1976, the much-touted northern autonomous zones were abolished, administratively transformed into standard provinces with no special status. 141 In 1977 the SRV announced programs for accelerated economic exploitation of the Central Highlands, to be facilitated by immigration of more than 10 million people, mostly ethnic Vietnamese from the overcrowded northern and central deltas. In addition to relieving overcrowding in the deltas, the program was to open more than 12 million acres of land for cultivation of industrial crops in the Central Highlands. 142 The SRV also announced plans to step up efforts to compel 1.5 million highlanders (northern and central) to settle in fixed villages at lower elevations, where they would practice sedentary cultivation of industrial crops and sell the proceeds to the state. 143 Although the grandiose goals announced in 1977 were not fully realized because of the SRV’s economic problems, official statistics show that more than 250,000 highlanders from central Vietnam were resettled in the years after 1975 and that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese were established in the Central Highlands. By 1980 more than 52% of the inhabitants of the Central Highlands were ethnic Vietnamese, with migration from the deltas continuing. The new provincial, district, and village authorities in the region are overwhelmingly outsiders, mainly ethnic Vietnamese. 144

Although information regarding the SRV’s cultural policies in the highlands is scarce, the available evidence suggests that assimilation to the Vietnamese majority is the regime’s goal in this regard as well. A visiting Western journalist reported in 1992 that the official language of instruction for school children in Pleiku was Vietnamese, which puts the region’s highlander children at a disadvantage since only a few of them understand it. 145 A former FULRO member who resisted the SRV during the 1980s described the regime’s linguistic policies in this way: “They try to erase our language and force us to speak Vietnamese. There is no teaching of our language in the schools [End Page 386] and our young people do not know how to read or write.” 146 All the while, the regime’s official publications continued to discuss highlander culture with a paternalism tinged with contempt. The main message was that the highlanders’ “backward mores,” “retrograde customs,” and “superstitions” were at last giving way before the civilizing influence of Vietnamese socialist culture. 147 One can only conclude that in the symbolic domain of culture as well as in the political and economic spheres, the new rulers of the Central Highlands are following the same basic policies as did the American-supported dictators in Sai-gon—a “civilizing project” involving forced assimilation of highlanders to Vietnamese culture.

The SRV’s policies provoked resistance from numerous highland groups, including armed struggle led by Special Forces-trained highlanders under the banner of FULRO. The highlanders of central Vietnam have been the most persistent opponents of the SRV since its inception, as evinced by periodic mention in the official press of “enemy activities” and “reactionary elements” active in the Central Highlands. 148 The hill resorts of Ban Me Thuot and Da-lat were off limits to foreigners for security reasons for many years. In 1984 the official SRV press announced that FULRO had been virtually destroyed, but in 1989 it admitted that PAVN troops had been sent to guard a hydroelectric project in Gia-lai-Kontum province “against sabotage by elements of FULRO.” Such cryptic hints of continued insurgency in the highlands continued into the early 1990s. 149 A more precise—if difficult to verify—account of highlander insurgency in the SRV came to light in 1992, when a FULRO unit was discovered in the jungles of Cambodia’s Mondolkiri province by members of the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC). Interviewed by journalist [End Page 387] Nate Thayer, the leaders stated that some 10,000 highlanders had taken up arms against the new regime in 1975. Four years later the PAVN had reduced their numbers by 8,000 captured or killed; short of ammunition, the leaders took refuge in Cambodia, leaving 2,000 members in Vietnam. Initially supplied by the Khmer Rouge—whose common enemies were the SRV and its puppet regime in Cambodia, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK)—the FULRO leaders broke with the Khmer communists in 1992 and remained isolated in Mondolkiri province until discovered by UNTAC. Unable to remain in Cambodia, where they were classified as a non-Cambodian armed force and threatened with forced “repatriation” to Vietnam, they were finally persuaded to surrender their weapons to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees and are being resettled in the United States. Although the movement’s leaders vow to return to Vietnam to continue the struggle for an independent highlander nation, it seems clear that Vietnam’s highlanders, lacking a powerful patron or support from the international community, have little chance of escaping assimilation to the majority culture in the near future. 150

In conclusion, the indigenous highlanders of Vietnam were deeply involved in one of the most tumultuous struggles of our time, the Vietnamese Revolution, and the two international conflicts resulting from it, the First and Second Indochina Wars. During the late colonial period and the First Indochina War, Vietnamese revolutionaries and French colonialists each attempted to dominate the highlands and enroll highlanders on their respective sides. The revolutionaries defeated their French opponents in the highlands, in large part because of judicious use of a “nationalities policy” promising the highlanders autonomy and respect for their traditional cultures and languages. However, the promised autonomy for highlanders in the DRV was only partially and provisionally granted, and this only as a propaganda ploy to influence the highlanders below the Seventeenth Parallel. In the Second Indochina War, the central highlanders in the RVN were again the pawns of two competing powers, this time the DRV and its local proxy, the NLF; and the United States and its client-state, the RVN. Each sought to manipulate the RVN’s highland peoples in order [End Page 388] to gain access to the manpower, local resources, intelligence, and strategic positions of the Central Highlands, while denying these advantages to the opponent. In the course of the conflict, each side used promises and material rewards when possible, terror and destruction when necessary. The resulting political and military struggles proved devastating to the highlanders by decimating their numbers, disrupting their traditional lifestyles, and destroying their lands. Nor did the ending of the conflict bring better times: quickly forgetting their wartime promises, the victorious revolutionaries have shown scant concern for protecting the highlanders’ unique cultures and seem to have every intention of bringing Vietnamese-style socialism, as well as massive Vietnamese immigration, into the areas formerly inhabited almost exclusively by indigenous peoples. Like indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world, but with particular poignancy in the aftermath of revolution and warfare, the highlanders of Vietnam continue to face “discrimination, marginalization, and loss of cultural identity.”

Mark W. McLeod
University of Delaware


1. Indigenous People: International Year 1993: Promoting the Rights of Indigenous People (New York: U.N. Department of Public Information, 1992), n.p. According to the UNO, “Indigenous peoples are descendants of the original inhabitants of many lands, strikingly varied in their cultures, religions and patterns of social and economic organization....But all indigenous peoples retain a strong sense of their distinct cultures, the most salient feature of which is a special relationship to the land.” Indigenous People: International Year 1993: Who are the World’s Indigenous Peoples? (New York: U.N. Department of Public Information, 1992), n.p. Vietnam’s northern highlanders, many of whom migrated to their present lands in the thirteenth century c.e. or later, are included here since they share many of the disadvantages that the indigenous people of the Central Highlands have encountered in their dealings with the Vietnamese majority.

2. Charles A. Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare in the Highlands,” Vietnam Perspectives 1 (1965): 19.

3. By “Vietnamese Revolution” I understand the quest of the Vietnam Communist Party—known as the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) from 1930 to 1951, as the Vietnam Workers’ Party (VWP) from 1951 to 1976, and as the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) from 1976 to the present—to seize and consolidate state power throughout Vietnam; the years 1930–75 encompass the party’s founding in 1930 and its victory in 1975.

4. Stevan Harrell, “Civilizing Projects and the Reaction to Them,” in Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers, ed. Stevan Harrell (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), p. 4.

5. This schema derives from the one proposed by John T. McAlister in “Mountain Minorities and the Viet Minh: A Key to the First Indochina War,” in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, ed. Peter Kundstadter, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967), 2:776–79.

6. The Chams currently number c. 60,000 persons, most of whom live in the lowlands of central Vietnam. The Khmers Krom presently total c. 500,000 and mainly inhabit the delta provinces south of Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese, of whom there were more than 1 million at the beginning of the Second Indochina War, are excluded from this discussion. Although a minority living on Vietnamese territory, they are primarily the descendants of relatively recent immigrants—most trace their ancestry to refugees who fled from China after 1644—and do not qualify as an “indigenous people.” Le Thanh Khoi, Histoire du Vietnam des origines à 1858 (Paris: Sudestasie, 1981), pp. 50–53; Dao Duy Anh, Viet Nam van hoa su cuong (Paris: Dong Nam A, 1985), pp. 18–20.

7. The northern highlanders currently number c. 3 million and are the largest of Vietnam’s indigenous peoples. Le Thanh Khoi, Histoire du Vietnam, p. 40. The question of an appropriate general appellation for the non-Vietnamese people of the mountain regions is thorny and politically charged. In precolonial times, the Vietnamese designated them with pejorative general nouns, all of which connoted “savage” or “slave”: Moi, Tho, or Man. French colonists and scholars first used their own word sauvage but subsequently adopted the Vietnamese moi until political expediency dictated a shift to the neutral-sounding montagnard (mountaineer), which has made its way into English-language scholarship. Vietnamese nationalists (including Communists) who sought to mobilize the indigenous peoples’ support dropped the pejorative moi, at least in public, replacing it with the inoffensive Dong Bao Thuong (Highland Compatriots) or Cac Dan Toc Anh Em Thieu So (Fraternal Minority Peoples). Dao Duy Anh, Viet Nam van hoa su cuong, pp. 18–20. In the English-language literature, they are often designated as “montagnards,” “hill tribes,” and “tribal minorities.” However, the term tribal is problematic since the northern highlanders’ political organizations extended to supra-village principalities, while the indigenous peoples of southern central Vietnam had developed no supra-village political structures. McAlister, “Mountain Minorities,” in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, ed. Kundstadter, 2:776–78. To designate them as “minorities” raises other concerns since “minority” status derives from their (often unwilling) incorporation inside a political unit controlled by a dominant “majority” group. Recently, Hickey has argued that during the Second Indochina War, some members of the Central Highlands indigenous elite developed a generalized “highlander” identity manifested in the self-appellation Ana Chu (Sons of the Mountains). Gerald Hickey, Sons of the Mountains: Ethno-history of the Vietnamese Central Highlands to 1954 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. xv-xviii. I use highlanders as it is convenient, inoffensive, and politically neutral.

8. McAlister, “Mountain Minorities,” in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, ed. Kundstadter, 2:788–89. The appellation Tay is now preferred to Tho since the latter comes from the Vietnamese tho, a pejorative term meaning “people who live on the land.” See Mai Elliot, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Chu Van Tan, Reminiscences on the Army for National Salvation, trans. Mai Elliot (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1974), p. 4.

9. Other northern highlanders are more recent arrivals and have been relegated to the higher elevations. The Meo, for example, migrated into northern Vietnam from southern China during the nineteenth century. Mai Elliot, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Reminiscences, p. 5.

10. Other Tai peoples moved into the lowland deltas and, influenced by Indian civilization, founded kingdoms in areas now included within the states of Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Le Thanh Khoi, Histoire du Vietnam, p. 43.

11. Charles F. Keyes, The Golden Peninsula: Culture and Adaptation in Mainland Southeast Asia (New York: MacMillan, 1977), pp. 74–77.

12. Nguyen Trac Di, Dong-bao cac sac toc thieu-so Vietnam (Saigon: Bo Phat Trien Sac Toc, 1972), pp. 3–10. Their origins remain obscure and are debated among specialists. Some scholars believe that they are the remnants of seaborne prehistoric Malayo-Polynesian and Indonesian settlers of mainland Southeast Asia who occupied the central deltas before being driven out by the Chams and the Vietnamese. Highlanders living in the republic of Vietnam numbered about 1 million by the early 1960s. Joseph Buttinger, “The Ethnic Minorities in the Republic of Vietnam,” in Problems of Freedom: South Vietnam since Independence, ed. Wesley J. Fishel (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1961), p. 101; Georges Coedès, The Making of South East Asia, trans. H. M. Wright (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 22–26.

13. Gerald Hickey, “Some Aspects of Hill Tribe Life in South Vietnam,” in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, ed. Kundstadter, 2:755–57.

14. Georges Condominas, We Have Eaten the Forest: The Story of a Montagnard Village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, trans. Adrienne Foulke (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), pp. 12–14.

15. Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare,” pp. 11–12.

16. Condominas, We Have Eaten the Forest, pp. 12–13.

17. Jacques Dournes, Minorities of Central Vietnam: Autochthonous Indochinese Peoples (London: Minority Rights Group, 1980), p. 12.

18. Pierre Gourou, Les paysans du delta tonkinois (Paris and The Hague: Mouton, 1965), pp. 155–58.

19. Some scholars consider Vietnamese a member of the Mon-Khmer family; others classify it as a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family; still others view it a “hybrid” language, showing features of both. John DeFrancis, Colonialism and Language Policy in Viet Nam (New York: Mouton, 1977), pp. 5–8.

20. Gourou, Les paysans du delta tonkinois, pp. 157–58.

21. Georges Condominas, “Aspects of a Minority Problem in Indochina,” Pacific Affairs 24 (1951): 78–79; Bernard Bourotte, History of the Mountain People of Southern Indochina up to 1945 (Washington, D.C.: Agency for International Development, n.d.), pp. 38–40.

22. Tran Van Giau, Su phat trien cua tu tuong o Viet Nam tu the ky XIX den Cach Mang Thang Tam, 2 vols. (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Xa Hoi, 1973–75), 1:74. The Vietnamese elite’s feeling of superiority with regard to the highlanders was shared by nonelite Vietnamese. Indeed, Marr has suggested that a feeling of differentiation from the highlanders may have been a primordial component of the Vietnamese identity, found at the elite and peasant levels. David G. Marr, Vietnamese Anti-Colonialism, 1885–1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 7–8.

23. Bourotte, History of the Mountain People, pp. 59–63. Vietnamese Marxist scholars working in the former DRV or the present SRV present a different, more harmonious picture of highlander-Vietnamese relations in the precolonial era, according to which highlander and Vietnamese felt a precocious sense of national unity, disrupted only by the machinations of the “feudal” and “tribal” leaders on both sides. Such arguments are tainted by the political goal of uniting Vietnamese and highlanders under the authority of the Communist Party and are not based on solid documentation. See La Van Lo, “Thu ban ve viec viet lich su cac dan toc thieu so anh em,” Nghien Cuu Lich Su 91 (1966): 39.

24. Cited in Paul Isoart, Le phénomène national vietnamien: De l’indépendence unitaire à l’indépendence fractionnée (Paris: Librairie Générale de Droit et de Jurisprudence, 1961), pp. 153–54.

25. Mark W. McLeod, “Nationalism and Religion in Vietnam: Phan Boi Chau and the Catholic Question,” International History Review 14 (1992): 668–69.

26. Isoart, Le phénomène national vietnamien, p. 154; Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885–1925, p. 55.

27. Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885–1925, p. 75.

28. Isoart, Le phénomène national vietnamien, p. 154.

29. Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885–1925, p. 75.

30. Peter Kundstadter, “Vietnam: An Introduction,” in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, ed. Kundstadter, 2:678.

31. Keyes, The Golden Peninsula, p. 23.

32. Kundstadter, “Vietnam: An Introduction,” 2:678.

33. Condominas, “Aspects of a Minority Problem,” pp. 79–81.

34. Hickey, Sons of the Mountains, pp. 352–57.

35. Elliot, “Translator’s Introduction,” pp. 8–9.

36. Huynh Kim Khanh, Vietnamese Communism, 1925–1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 276–77. Despite its name and claim to represent the peoples of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (as well as their “national minorities”), the ICP’s membership and leadership were almost entirely Vietnamese. Initially, ICP leaders were divided as to whether “liberated” Indochina should take the form of a (Vietnamese-dominated) confederation or would consist of separate (Vietnamese-dominated) states of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Christopher E. Goscha, “Annam and Vietnam in the New Indochinese Space, 1887–1945,” in Asian Forms of the Nation, ed. Stein Tonnesson and Hans Antlov (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press Ltd., 1996), pp. 121–29.

37. William J. Duiker, The Rise of Nationalism in Vietnam, 1900–1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976), p. 262.

38. Alexander Woodside, “Ideology and Integration in Post-Colonial Vietnamese Nationalism,” Pacific Affairs 44 (1971–72): 495.

39. Duiker, The Rise of Nationalism, p. 262; La Van Lo, “Ba muoi nam thuc hien chinh sach dan toc cua Dang,” Nghien Cuu Lich Su 10 (1960): 68–69.

40. Stein Tonnesson, The Vietnamese Revolution of 1945: Roosevelt, Ho Chi Minh and de Gaulle in a World at War (London: Sage Publications, 1991), pp. 124–25. It is interesting to note a subtle semantic change with great political significance in official Party pronouncements and propaganda tracts. In the early 1930s the Party claimed to support “self-determination of peoples” (dan toc tu quyet); by the 1940s it was merely advocating “autonomy” (tu tri), the term that was finally adopted in the DRV’s 1946 Constitution. Compare Party documents presented in La Van Lo, “Ba muoi nam,” pp. 68–70.

41. David G. Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), pp. 403–405.

42. Duiker, The Rise of Nationalism, p. 266.

43. Huynh Kim Khanh, Vietnamese Communism 1925–45, p. 275. The first units of the Party’s army, initially known as the National Salvation Army, the ancestor of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), were formed in 1941. Early units of the National Salvation Army were mainly composed of highlander recruits and were commanded by Chu Van Tan, a Nung who went on to become one of the PAVN’s senior generals and even served briefly as minister of defense. After the DRV’s founding, he wrote widely on minority affairs and was touted in propaganda as an example of the regime’s successes in this regard. He has not appeared publicly since his arrest in 1979 in conjunction with a crackdown on individuals considered susceptible to pro-Chinese sentiments. Douglas Pike, PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986), pp. 24–25, 352–53. Beginning with the Viet Minh’s founding, the ICP-led movement as well as its armed forces were generally known as Viet Minh by supporters and enemies, a convention I follow here.

44. Huynh Kim Khanh, Vietnamese Communism 1925–45, p. 276.

45. The full text of the 1946 Constitution can be found in English translation in Bernard B. Fall, The Viet-Minh Regime: Government and Administration in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1957), pp. 156–64.

46. Peter Kundstadter, “Introduction,” in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, ed. Kundstadter, 1:55.

47. Bernard B. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968), p. 118.

48. McAlister, “Mountain Minorities,” 2:773.

49. William J. Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1981), pp. 131–32.

50. Condominas, “Aspects of a Minority Problem,” pp. 81–82.

51. Ho Chi Minh, Nhung loi keu goi cua Ho Chu Tich, 6 vols. (Hanoi: Su That, 1958–62), 1:213–14.

52. La Van Lo, “Ba muoi nam,” p. 73.

53. Larry Jackson, “The Vietnamese Revolution and the Montagnards,” Asian Survey 9 (1969): 319.

54. Bernard B. Fall, Street without Joy (New York: Schocken Books, 1975), pp. 271–72.

55. McAlister, “Mountain Minorities,” 2:804–24.

56. Condominas, “Aspects of a Minority Problem,” pp. 81–82. Other scholars have suggested that the southern highlanders were more culturally and “racially” distant from the Vietnamese than were the highlanders of the north, thus inhibiting the work of Communist organizers. While this is plausible, the issue remains open and deserves study. See Duiker, The Communist Road, pp. 184–86.

57. George McTurnan Kahin, Intervention: How America Became Involved in Vietnam (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), p. 99; Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare,” p. 23.

58. McAlister, “Mountain Minorities,” 2:838; Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, pp. 120–28; Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare,” pp. 23–24.

59. Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare,” pp. 23–24. As many as 25,000 central highlanders traveled north, according to Joiner. In The Two Viet-Nams, p. 281, Fall puts their number at about 10,000. Despite this disparity, the political significance of this indigenous highlander cadre for the Party in the Second Indochina War cannot be overemphasized.

60. McAlister, “Mountain Minorities,” 2:829–30.

61. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, p. 128.

62. “Minorities under the Viet Minh,” Eastern World (November 1955): 17. The theoretical basis for the autonomous zones can be found in Stalin’s Marxism and the National and Colonial Question. Vietnamese Communist policy in this regard is comparable to that applied in the USSR and PRC. See Georges Condominas, “Vietnamiens et montagnards du Centre et Sud-Vietnam,” in Tradition et révolution au Vietnam, ed. Jean Chesneaux, Georges Boudarel, and Daniel Hemery (Paris: Editions Anthropos, 1971), pp. 143–44. The “Thai-Meo” appellation was later changed to Tay-Bac Autonomous Zone. Tay-Bac means “northwest” and lacks a specific ethnic connotation. The zones were acknowledged as “integral and inalienable parts of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” in the DRV’s 1960 Constitution but were quietly dropped in 1976 and not mentioned in the 1980 or 1992 Constitutions. See George Kahin, “Minorities in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,” Asian Survey 12 (1972): 580–86; see also Russell Heng Hiang Khng, “The 1992 Revised Constitution of Vietnam: Background and Scope of Changes,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 14 (1992): 221–30. The DRV’s reports on conditions in its autonomous zones were not independently verified by objective scholars during the period under discussion. George Kahin visited the DRV in the course of researching the article cited above, but his knowledge of the zones, as he readily states, was secondhand, based on conversations with officials and reading of documents provided by them. Wilfred G. Burchett claims to have visited the DRV’s autonomous zones as well as the NLF-controlled regions of the Central Highlands of the RVN. However, his glowing reports should not be taken seriously, given the extreme partiality of his pro-DRV/NLF views as evinced in numerous writings that can only be called propagandistic. Wilfred G. Burchett, Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerrilla War (New York: International Publishers, 1965), pp. 153–76; Burchett, The Furtive War: The United States in Vietnam and Laos (New York: International Publishers, 1963), pp. 120–31.

63. Le Thanh Khoi, Histoire du Viet Nam, p. 46.

64. Fall, The Viet-Minh Regime, pp. 65–68; Kahin, “Minorities in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,” pp. 583–84; Condominas, “Vietnamiens et montagnards du Centre et Sud-Vietnam,” pp. 143–45.

65. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, p. 151.

66. Le Quang Ba, “Tang cuong khoi doan ket dan toc, lam cho mien nui mau chong tien kip mien xuoi,” Hoc Tap 1979 (1962): 9–10; Viet Chung, “National Minorities and Nationality Policy in the DRV,” Vietnamese Studies 154 (1968): 10, 18. If one ignores the Marxist jargon in the official DRV and SRV publications on highlanders, they are strikingly similar to those published by official RVN authors on the topic. Vietnamese authors from both sides of the ideological divide emphasized the highlands’ wealth that should be exploited by Vietnamese and the benefits that highlanders would derive from contacts with the more “advanced” Vietnamese. Compare Nguyen Trac Di, Dong-bao cac sac toc thieu-so.

67. Douglas Pike, History of Vietnamese Communism, 1925–1976 (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1978), pp. 112–13.

68. Viet Chung, “National Minorities and Nationality Policy in the DRV,” pp. 18–20. DRV policy statements regarding settlement of “nomadic” highlanders in fixed villages is curious since most highland peoples, even swidden agriculturalists, were not nomadic. Such rhetoric probably means that highlanders are being resettled in regions more easily supervised by DRV authorities and made to practice intensive agriculture on restricted plots (rather than swidden agriculture on extended and rotating plots), thus freeing land for settlement and cultivation by Vietnamese. See Dournes, Minorities of Central Vietnam, p. 15.

69. Carlyle A. Thayer, War by Other Means: National Liberation and Revolution in Viet-Nam, 1954–60 (Winchester, Mass.: Unwin Hyman, 1989), p. 65.

70. Cited in Pike, History of Vietnamese Communism, 1925–1976, p. 163. Tai aristocrats were removed from positions of local power at the same time, either because they had supported the French during the First Indochina War or because they opposed the regime’s later policies in the highlands. Keyes, The Golden Peninsula, p. 24.

71. Kunstadter, “Introduction,” 1:31–32.

72. Condominas, We Have Eaten the Forest, pp. xiii–xiv.

73. Kundstadter, “Vietnam: An Introduction,” 2:680.

74. Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare,” p. 26; Ta Xuan Linh, “Cuoc dong khoi Tra-bong (28/8/1959),” Nghien Cuu Lich Su 138 (1971): 20.

75. Condominas, “Vietnamiens et montagnards du Centre et Sud-Vietnam,” pp. 142–45.

76. John D. Montgomery, The Politics of Foreign Aid: The American Experience in Southeast Asia (New York: Praeger, 1962), pp. 72–73.

77. Robert Scigliano, South Vietnam: Nation under Stress (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964), pp. 104–105.

78. The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, 5 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 1:312.

79. Thayer, War by Other Means, p. 118. Bajaraka is an acronym derived from the names of four ethnic groups involved: Bahnar, Jarai, Rhadé, and Koho.

80. Ta Xuan Linh, “Cuoc dong khoi Tra-bong (28/8/1959),” pp. 20–21.

81. The Pentagon Papers, 1:255. The RVN’s forced-assimilation policy during the Diem era (1955–63) is best seen as a manifestation of traditional Vietnamese attitudes toward highlanders. Diem’s personality or views should not be emphasized as causal factors in the highlanders’ alienation from the RVN, and his passing changed little in terms of the RVN’s approach to the highlands. In the post-Diem era, the RVN slackened the pace and extent of “Vietnamization” but did not abandon it. Although a Ministry for Ethnic Minorities’ Affairs was created in 1966, it had little influence. While programs for granting land titles to highlanders and for reinstatement of traditional law courts were initiated, they made little progress. Keyes, The Golden Peninsula, pp. 23–25; Gerald Hickey, Kingdom in the Morning Mist: Mayréna in the Highlands of Vietnam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), p. 198.

82. Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp. 28–32, 72.

83. Ban Tong Ket Kinh Nghiem Chien Tranh, Cuoc khang chien chong My, cuu nuoc, 1954–1975 (Hanoi: Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1980), pp. 102–103.

84. Duiker, The Communist Road, p. 184; Jeffrey Race, War Comes to Long An: Revolutionary Conflict in a Vietnamese Province (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 27–30, 80–104; Thayer, War by Other Means, pp. 33–46.

85. Thayer, War by Other Means, p. 56; Ta Xuan Linh, “Armed Uprisings by Ethnic Minorities along the Truong Son. Part I,” Vietnam Courier 28 (September 1975): 18.

86. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, p. 281.

87. Duiker, The Communist Road, pp. 190–93.

88. Race, War Comes to Long An, pp. 100–101.

89. Reproduced in George Kahin and John W. Lewis, The United States in Vietnam: An Analysis in Depth of the History of America’s Involvement in Vietnam, rev. ed. (New York: Dell Publishing, 1969), pp. 464–69. A subsequent NLF statement, The Political Programme of the South Vietnam National Liberation Front, issued in 1969, promised to grant “national minorities” the right to use their spoken and written languages and to “maintain or change their customs or habits.” It also stated the NLF’s avowed intention “to encourage and help [the ‘national minorities’] settle down to sedentary life, improve their lands, develop economy and culture.” It further promised that “in the areas where national minorities live concentrated and where the required conditions prevail, autonomous zones will be established within independent and free Viet Nam.” Cited in Gerald Hickey, Free in the Forest: Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954–1976 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982), p. 166.

90. Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 66.

91. Douglas Pike, Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968), p. 424.

92. Shelby L. Stanton, Green Berets at War: U.S. Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia 1956–1975 (New York: Dell Publishing, 1985), p. 38.

93. Condominas, “Vietnamiens et montagnards,” pp. 144–45.

94. Douglas Pike, Viet Cong, p. 204; Robert Scigliano, South Vietnam: Nation under Stress (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964), p. 144.

95. The Pentagon Papers, 2:708–709.

96. As of May 1963 the NLF divided RVN territory into three interzones (lien tinh): the coastal plain (Interzone I); the highlands (Interzone II); and Nam-bo or Southern area (Interzone III). The Sai-gon-Gia-dinh area comprised a special zone. Under the three interzones were seven zones (lien khu), which were subdivisions of the interzones established to facilitate communication. The Western Highlands Autonomous Zone, a subdivision of Interzone II, was administered by a People’s Autonomous Committee. Pike, Viet Cong, pp. 217–18; Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare,” p. 27; Fall, The Two Viet-Nams, p. 365; Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp. 31, 73.

97. Ban Tong Ket Kinh Nghiem Chien Tranh, Cuoc khang chien, pp. 102–103.

98. Turley, The Second Indochina War, p. 42.

99. Duiker, The Communist Road, pp. 98–99.

100. William J. Rust, Kennedy in Vietnam: American Vietnam Policy, 1960–1963 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1987), pp. 65–66.

101. James William Gibson, The Perfect War: The War We Couldn’t Lose and How We Did (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), pp. 82, 86.

102. Arnold R. Isaacs, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 330–32.

103. Kundstadter, “Introduction,” 1:55–56.

104. Burchett, Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerrilla War, pp. 156–59.

105. Rust, Kennedy in Vietnam, pp. 65–66.

106. Georges Condominas, L’Exotique est quotidien: Sar Luk, Vietnam central (Paris: Plon, 1965), p. 472.

107. William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (New York: Da Capo Press, 1989), p. 59.

108. Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare,” p. 33.

109. Don Luce and John Sommer, Viet Nam: The Unheard Voices (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 69–73. Some Special Forces operatives believed that many highlanders joined the CIDG program because their weapons had been confiscated by the ARVN. The weapons and training offered by the Americans were thus attractive to some highlanders because they allowed them to protect themselves against the ARVN. Francis J. Kelley, Vietnam Studies: U.S. Army Special Forces, 1961–1971 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1973), p. 26.

110. The Special Forces in the CIDG program served under the Central Intelligence Agency’s authority from 1961 to 1964, when the program was transferred to the U.S. Army’s Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). Between 1961 and early 1964, ARVN participation in the program had been minimal, but the transfer of authority to the MACV brought ARVN Special Forces (Luc Luong Dac Biet) into more active control of highlander units, a factor that contributed to the highlander revolts during 1964–65 under the aegis of FULRO, an organization founded by highlander leader Y Bham Enoul and sponsored by Prince Sihanouk, then head of the state of Cambodia. Joiner has summarized the movement’s demands as follows: “In addition to political autonomy...demands ranged from insistence on the replacement of Vietnamese officials in the local government to appeals for representation in the Sai-gon regime, and called for American officers and economic aid officials to replace Vietnamese officers among highlander forces. Other requests ranged from improved medical services and instruction in tribal languages in highland schools, to land reforms to permit tribes to regain lost properties, and to freedom for international travel by highlanders.” Joiner emphasizes that “the settlement [between RVN and FULRO] was not satisfactory to any of the parties concerned. The underlying problems remained untouched, and highlander grievances have since been permitted to continue with only minimal effort by the government to deal effectively with them.” FULRO thus originally represented highlander aspirations for autonomy from the RVN and NLF/DRV, although without abandoning the long-term goal of highlander autonomy or independence, some FULRO factions later allied with the NLF and Khmer Rouge. Joiner, “Administration and Political Warfare,” pp. 32–33; McAlister, “Mountain Minorities,” pp. 837–40; Keyes, The Golden Peninsula, pp. 24–25.

111. Francis FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), p. 239.

112. Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp. 42–47, 57–62.

113. Duiker, The Communist Road, pp. 227–28.

114. Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp. 66–68.

115. Anthony James Joes, The War for South Viet Nam, 1954–1975 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishers, 1990), pp. 108–10.

116. Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 428–29.

117. Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp. 84–87.

118. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975, pp. 387–88.

119. FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 417.

120. Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp. 84–87.

121. Ibid., pp. 125–30, 133–36.

122. Joes, The War for South Viet Nam, pp. 96–97.

123. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975, pp. 704–705.

124. Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp. 166–74.

125. Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of a War, 1940–1975, p. 526.

126. Hickey, Kingdom in the Morning Mist, pp. 205–206.

127. Turley, The Second Indochina War, pp. 180–85.

128. Kolko, Vietnam: Anatomy of a War, 1940–1975, pp. 526–28.

129. Ibid., pp. 530–44.

130. Hickey, Kingdom in the Morning Mist, p. 206.

131. Isaacs, Without Honor, p. 331.

132. Hickey, Kingdom in the Morning Mist, p. 198.

133. Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 245.

134. Hickey, Kingdom in the Morning Mist, p. 198.

135. Isaacs, Without Honor, p. 331.

136. Hickey, Free in the Forest, p. 254–46.

137. Isaacs, Without Honor, p. 331.

138. Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, p. 110.

139. Ibid., p. 180; The Pentagon Papers, 2:680.

140. Dournes, Minorities of Central Vietnam, p. 11.

141. Carlyle A. Thayer, “Dilemmas of Development in Vietnam,” Current History 78 (December 1978): 222.

142. William J. Duiker, Vietnam since the Fall of Sai-gon (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1980), p. 14.

143. Ibid.; Dournes, Minorities of Central Vietnam, p. 15.

144. Richard J. Cima, ed., Vietnam: A Country Study (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989), p. 100.

145. Murry Hiebert, “Victims of Neglect: Lack of Education, Poor Health Plague Minorities,” Far Eastern Economic Review 155 (April 1992): 30–32.

146. Cited in Nate Thayer, “Trail of Tears: ‘Lost’ Montagnard Army Vows to Fight On,” Far Eastern Economic Review 155 (September 1992): 18.

147. The quotations are from official SRV publications from the 1980s cited by Dournes, Minorities of Central Vietnam, p. 13.

148. Pike, PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam, pp. 77–78. There have also been reports of anti-SRV resistance by northern highlanders of the Meo, Yao, and Lolo. During the 1979 Chinese invasion of northern Vietnam in support of the Khmer Rouge-led insurgency against the Vietnam-supported Hun Sen regime in Cambodia, the Chinese reportedly organized anti-Vietnamese guerrilla forces among the northern highlanders of Vietnam and Laos. The northern highlanders’ resistance, and the possibility of its exploitation by the PRC, led to a purge of highlander officers and officials from the PAVN, government, and Party. See Pike, PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam, pp. 352–53; Nayan Chanda, “A New Threat from the Mountain Tribes,” Far Eastern Economic Review 101 (September 1978): 8–11.

149. Nayan Chanda, “The Enemy Within,” Far Eastern Economic Review 155 (September 1992): 20.

150. Nate Thayer, “Farewell to Arms: Montagnard Rebels Prepare for U.S. Exile,” Far Eastern Economic Review 155 (October 1992): 30. Y Bham Enoul, FULRO’s founding leader, used Phnom Penh as a sanctuary until it fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975; the latter executed him at that time, unknown to the highlander insurgents still active in Vietnam. See Nate Thayer, “The Forgotten Army,” Far Eastern Economic Review 155 (September 1992): 16–18.