Struggle Around Buon Me Thuot
Buon Me Thuot is a strategic centre in Dak Lak, a key area of the Tay Nguyen (Western Highlands) or Hauts Plateaux, as the French call the area. A vast area with plateaux suitable for airfields, Buon Me Thuot is near enough to the borders of Cambodia and Laos to make it of vital importance, a fact that U.S. military men in Saigon had not overlooked. After Saigon, Buon Me Thuot is the second most important military centre. It is also has the biggest concentration of ethnic minorities in southern Vietnam — mainly the Rhade, Jarai and M’Nong.
Tran Dinh Minh was Vietnamese but had lived in the Tay Nguyen for 14 years, since the age of 14, having volunteered for service there because he was too young and small to bear arms in the anti-French war, though he had served as a ‘liaison agent’ from the age of 13. He had adopted the tribes’ people’s customs, their food, language and dress, having practiced the three ‘withs’ policy of “work with, live with, eat with,” as advocated by President Ho Chi Minh. He knew the general area, knew the people and was trusted by them. He was a child of the revolution.
His whole family was wiped out in Quang Nam in the early stages of the anti-French war. After volunteering for work in Dak Lak, he learnt five of the tribal languages and was adopted as a ‘son’ by several of the tribes. His fiancée was arrested and killed by the Diemists; several of the tribes, when I met him, were competing to find him a suitable mate. He was the ideal man for the task in hand — but it was a tall order to be sent alone, with one pistol, to encircle Buon Me Thuot with NFL bases. That was in December 1960, in the same month the National Front was formed. B. M. Thuot, as the name is usually written on maps, was the headquarters base for the 4th Diemist army corps, a division plus one regiment. Within a few days, Tran Dinh Minh had recruited some old friends, three Vietnamese and four tribesmen, each of whom had a sheath knife.
“Our main job,” he told me, “was to establish ourselves in the hearts of the people. That is the only way we recognise of establishing a base. But it was difficult to do anything at all without arms. One day, we ambushed a Diemist lorry; but there were no arms, only uniforms. We carried off as many as we could. At first I was very disappointed, then I had an idea. B. M. Thuot was encircled by ‘agricultural settlements’ to which Vietnamese ‘suspects’ from the plains had been exiled to carve out rubber and coffee plantations for the Diem family. Each of these was controlled by a military post set up within the settlement itself. Why not try and use the Diemist uniforms to infiltrate and capture the arms from a post?”
Just after dusk one evening, clad in Diemist officer’s uniforms, they stopped a truck that had just emerged from one of the ‘agricultural settlements’ and was heading towards B. M. Thuot. The driver proved to be friendly, told them the exact layout of the post and agreed to drive them back in. Since they were in Diemist uniform, the sentry at the gate let them through.
“We drove straight to the captain’s quarters,” Tran Dinh Minh related, “and found him sitting on a bed, playing a guitar, some of his soldiers dancing western style to the music. Their guns were piled up in a corner and we grabbed them and the captain simultaneously. We explained that we were from the NFL, ordered the captain to assemble his men, get them to lay down their arms immediately and then listen to a statement on Front policy. Otherwise he would be killed on the spot. The rest of the platoon came out of their barracks, piled up their arms and assembled in the garrison square. Our men seized the arms and took up appropriate positions, while I talked to them. Long before I had finished, the soldiers were with us.”
The garrison troops were peasant conscripts, like most of the Diemist troops. All 29 joined up and offered to help organise a meeting of the settlement inmates, although there was another military post only about a mile away. Altogether 2,700 people gathered. “They could hardly believe their eyes and ears when they saw and heard us,” Minh told me. “People actually wept for joy when we explained who we were. Over 400 young men begged to be taken into our ranks, but as we only had the 30 weapons just captured and had no real base or supply system, I accepted only 75 of the toughest and most decided. I promoted my seven raw recruits to squad leaders on the spot and put the new men under them. We had driven into the settlement, a force of eight with one pistol and seven knives. We moved out with 112 men, a submachine gun and 28 rifles.”
Around B. M. Thuot, forest and plantations alternate in checkerboard fashion. At the time Minh started operating, there were 11 French plantations around the city with 5,000 Vietnamese workers and six ‘agricultural settlements’ with 25,000 Vietnamese from the plains. Minh succeeded in setting up bases in all of them.
Minh and the ‘armed propaganda teams’ he formed soon developed united action between Vietnamese and tribes’ people against a common oppressor. And it was no more difficult to organise the plantation workers than it was the exiles and tribes’ people; Minh being far too good a tactician, however, to use his control over the rubber workers to the detriment of the French plantation owners and managers. It was he, and not Saigon, who on behalf of the NFL, collected their taxes with the tacit understanding that if the French behaved correctly, there would be no labour troubles. By the end of 1961, Diemist control had been removed from the agricultural settlements and the military posts were eliminated.
The Americans by this time were very concerned with the situation; they still had big plans for B. M. Thuot. In documents captured by the guerillas there were hints that it should be developed as a last-ditch bastion in the event of a threat to Saigon. Underground arms depots and a complex of installations and fortifications had been built. The new plan was to concentrate as many of the tribal people as they could in ‘strategic hamlets’, another wall to take the ‘first shock’ of Viet Cong attacks, as it was put in the captured documents. According to the plan, the agricultural settlements were to be brought under control again and the inmates as well as the tribes’ people in the strategic hamlets would be armed to defend themselves against the Viet Cong. These were the new instructions that came with direct U.S. intervention at the end of 1961.
Buon Ea Nao, a village less than 3km from B. M. Thuot, was selected as the main camp for concentrating the minorities and instructing them in the use of U.S. weapons. Every village was supposed to send its elders for political indoctrination and ten able-bodied men for military training to protect themselves against ‘wild beasts’. Ybih Aleo, the most authoritative leader of the 37 minority groups in the Tay Nguyen and himself from B. M. Thuot District, a grizzled and grey French-trained military veteran and vice president of the NFL, told me that the Diemists avoided saying they were to be armed against the Liberation Front or Viet Cong because they knew any derogatory remarks would have alienated the tribes’ people. “It was a clever line,” Ybih AIeo said. “It took into account the fact that the Diemist troops were completely discredited because of their atrocities against the people.”
I heard a more detailed account from an elder of one of the villages.
“This American spoke Rhade and called himself Eay (Father) Teo,” recounted the elder. “He said he was a ‘new’ American and that the ‘new’ Americans were against the ‘old’ Americans who helped the Diemists hurt our people. ‘We will help you become really independent,’ he said. ‘But you must not help either the Diemists or the Viet Cong. We will give you everything you need and you will come into new homes we will help build. Cloth, rice, salt, bicycles, and arms to defend yourselves against any evildoer — we will give you all these.’
“We were confused. We knew the Americans help Diem; now others come and say they oppose him. This ‘new’ American looked just like the ‘old’ ones. He seemed to be a military man but was dressed like a French priest. But he said he was not a priest. ‘I am sent by Christ to help you, but mine is the ‘new’ religion of the ‘new Americans.’
“‘You see’, said this Eay Teo, “it is this way. The ‘old’ Americans and the Diemists behave like cats. The Viet Cong is the mouse. If the mouse smuggles itself into your paddy, the cats come to kill the mouse. But in doing this they also harm your paddy. But if you block the mouse coming into your paddy, you can block the cat also; no harm will be done by either cat or mouse. We will give you weapons to deal with both.”
“Our people talked this over but we were all suspicious. We did not want to be concentrated; we did not want their weapons. So we said, no concentration and no weapons. We have always defended ourselves in the old way. Eay Teo was very angry. ‘If you refuse to take arms and the ‘old’ Americans and Diemists come to kill you, it is your own fault,’ he said.
The village refused both the concentration and the weapons. In a few days more than a thousand troops came to their area. Five villages were burnt and 20 people, mainly children and old people, were killed.
“Our tribes’ people were ordered to go to B. M. Thuot again and to be ready to accept concentration,” he continued. “Over a thousand of us assembled and our hearts were heavy. Diemist troops surrounded us with their arms pointed at our backs. Eay Teo was there, the governor of the province and the chiefs of all the districts.
“‘Either you agree to concentrate immediately or the troops will be sent against all your villages tomorrow,’ said Eay Teo.
“We were all sad. Everyone looked at the ground for there seemed no hope. But then the old man, I Bru of Buon Dju village, climbed onto the platform of a hut and started to speak. He was old, nearly 70, but everyone knew him: ‘We tribes’ people,’ he said, ‘always lived with our forests and brooks and trees. Now you want to lock us up, away from our trees and forests. In that case we will slowly die. Now you have your troops and guns around us. Better pull the triggers now so we die all together.’ The district chief strode up to him: ‘If you disagree with the government, the Americans, you old fool, you will all be killed. And if you continue to speak like that you will be killed first, now.’
“‘If you are killed,’ shouted old man I Bru, ‘you lose your villa, your plantation, your ne car, your beautiful women. If I am killed, I lose this only,’ and he snatched off his loin cloth, threw it in the face of the district chief and stood there naked, his chest thrust out to receive the bullets. There was tremendous excitement. Everyone rushed forward to save the old man, shouting, ‘No concentration! No concentration!’ Officials were swept off their feet and the soldiers made their guns ready. Then Eay Teo spoke up again, trying to smile but his lips were twisted. ‘Why all the noise? Why all the excitement?’ he said. ‘We invited you to hear your opinions. Now you may go home.’”
That night, troops came from a nearby post, dragged the old man off and killed him. Next day people from 20 villages met to honour the old man. The tribes’ people took a pledge that they would carry on the fight as the old man had done and it was agreed that only when there was no more forest and the brooks had dried up would the Rhade people allow themselves to be concentrated. Despite this, some of the villages near B. M. Thuot were soon fenced around and turned into strategic hamlets.
“Though they could fence in our villages, they could not fence in our hearts,” the elder concluded. “They belong to the revolution.”
Life on the Reservation
The incident with I Bru took place at the end of 1961 and by February 1962 a partial economic blockade was in place. The first step was the stopping of salt supplies. Local ofcials ordered the tribes’ people to halt rice-growing and cultivate jute instead — the Americans could supply rice more cheaply. About this time, according to Ybih Aleo, the Diemists started planting ‘Gibbs’ and ‘fountain pen’ bombs in the minority villages, apparently as a reprisal for the traps with which the tribes’ people were defending their homes and cultivation patches. The first was a tiny at pressure mine, about the size and shape of Gibbs’ tooth powder tins. The second were shaped like Parker fountain pens. Raiding parties, which found hamlets empty when they arrived, would conceal Gibbs bombs everywhere, under a bed or table or a cooking pot or the bamboo strips that served as a oor in the tribes’ people’s huts. The fountain pen bombs were strewn around in the grass and a child picking one up would have his or her hands blown off.
“After an enemy raid and the people returned to their homes, there were explosions, cries and groans until late at night,” Ybih Aleo said. From that period, February to March 1962, it was also forbidden to beat gongs or drums, because the Diemists suspected these were signals to the Viet Cong.
Life for the tribes’ people gradually took on the pattern of that of the Red Indians in the reservations the Americans devised for those that survived the wholesale massacres of the 19th century. Normally the tribes’ people leave the village in time to get in a full day’s work at their fields between sunrise and sunset. The new regime was imposed to prevent contacts with the Viet Cong in the forest. There was no place to keep cattle within the barbed wire perimeter, so these were abandoned to the tigers. Inter- village visits to celebrate each others’ feasts, the most popular form of social intercourse among the tribes’ people, were banned. Even though the men only wore loincloths and the women only ankle-length skirts, they were submitted to the indignity of being searched as they left and entered the stockades. Hunting was finished; what could you hope to hunt within a kilometer of the village?
After a major effort by the Diemist regime in 1962, the area immediately surrounding B. M. Thuot — including the agricultural settlements — was brought back under Saigon’s nominal control, but it was obvious from all I could see and hear, that the tinderbox situation was the real one.
By the end of 1963, the Diemists had pulled back to an approximate radius of six miles from B. M. Thuot, and the city itself had been converted into a sort of medieval fortress, surrounded by a series of three, nine-foot high palisades, 20 yards between the outer and second wall, ten yards between the second and third. Inside, the town was divided up into sub-sections, each of which was also walled off. Between the palisades were moats filled with spiked obstacles. Even individual houses were surrounded by spike-filled ditches with a plank leading to the entrance that had to be taken up at night. The main victims were the people themselves, their children, dogs and pigs. The spikes had to be uncovered after sunset and could only be covered again when the gongs sounded at 6am.
At least, this was part of a detailed account given me of life in B. M. Thuot by a journalist who smuggled himself out of the city especially to contact me. “It is a town of fear and terror,” he said. “The authorities are terrified because they know the NFL have their armed forces all around the town and bases inside as well, despite all the precautions; the people are terrorized because the place is crawling with police and agents who are empowered to arrest or kill any ‘Viet Cong’ suspect on the spot. Once a person is arrested, there is never any further news.”
The Jarai Revolt
The great centres of the tribe people of the Western Highlands are, in addition to B. M. Thuot, Pleiku in Gia Lai and Kontum. As far as I could find out, the first act of rebellion in the Tay Nguyen took place in November 1960, among the Jarai in Gia Lai. I heard about it from Rachem H’Ban, a Jarai girl who was 17 years old at the time of the action. She is slight and rather sickly-looking, with a round, olive-skinned face and large holes in her ears from which ornaments had been removed.
“The trouble started when the Diemists came to install a new chief of canton in our hamlet,” she said. “They wanted to use our village as the centre for a ‘strategic hamlet’. We objected to this. The Diemists then started a terror campaign not only against us but all the Jarai in our district. First they came and took away four of our young men. One they killed, a second they kept in prison, the other two they released. When they came back we hardly recognised them; they had been badly tortured. We all met in the roong [community meeting hall] that night to talk things over. Life was becoming impossible. From other villages came news of our tribes’ people being killed, women raped, houses burnt, pigs and buffalo stolen. We decided that to live, we must fight back.”
Two days later, a unit of 11 Diemist troops came very late at night. They forbade anyone to leave the village; they went into every house, collecting knives and crossbows, and then ordered all the young men to present themselves. When they came out, eight were arrested and tied up. The people fought back for hours; the whole hamlet had turned out and formed a circle around the troops. The people had no weapons. The unit chief, a big brute of a man, fired into the leg of one of the captured young men and he fell, blood trickling down his leg. At the sight of blood everyone was furious. Rachem called out instructions in Jarai and the women, who had armed themselves with pieces of rewood from under the huts, jumped at the soldiers. Rachem and two others went for the unit chief, with the first blow knocking his automatic out of his hands, and then they strangled him. Five others had already been clubbed to death, while the rest fled. The tribes’ people now had five carbines, a light machine gun, a pistol and lots of cartridges.
By midday the whole hamlet had fled into the jungle. They took everything they could carry, but had to leave the cattle. Soon afterwards an enemy force of about 200 came and burnt down the village, killing all the buffalo and cattle. Within ten days the Jarai had built a new village.
In the new village, first thoughts were obviously for protection. Like the Kor and Hre people nearly 18 months previously in Quang Ngai, they had moved back into a fairly inaccessible area, but the Diemists would soon learn where. The young men set up a self-defense corps, armed with crossbows, and spent most of their time preparing defenses; digging ditches for spikes and preparing all sorts of other traps along the approaches to the village. The older people were responsible for production. Although the village only comprised 45 houses with a total population of about 800, the Diemists were never able to subdue it. But the main thing was that, following this example, there was a general uprising of the Jarai people in Le Thanh and neighboring districts. It was another illustration of the fact that when repression in any area reached a certain degree of intensity, it only needed a spark to touch off a raging fire.
Ethnic Group Policy
There were many things to learn and know about the customs and mores of the tribes’ people and I wondered whether the mentality of the Saigon regime could ever win their confidence; whether they were capable of such detailed, understanding studies as the Vietnamese liberation cadres had made. I believe it is impossible, and that goes for the U.S. advisers, too. They would have to recast their thinking, adopt other political and social yardsticks. The Americans relied on winning over a few chiefs with baubles of material goods or offers of power. But the tribes’ people are sensitive, with a sound instinct for what is bogus and what is real. It was only after years of living and working together that they started opening their hearts even to those Vietnamese they trusted most.
It was a tremendous advantage for the NFL that Ho Chi Minh had asked for volunteers in 1945-46 among young people of the calibre of Tran Dinh Minh, Nguyen Han Chung and others I met, to go to the Tay Nguyen area prepared to spend the rest of their lives there. Not only had they sunk their roots deep down into the minds and hearts of the tribes’ people, but they had compiled registers of all clan names and inter-clan relationships. Later, these were of vital importance in extending NFL influence in the Tay Nguyen.
A new era in relations between Vietnamese proper and the minority peoples started during the anti-French resistance war because for the first time the tribes’ people met outsiders who treated them as equals, under the policy laid down by the Viet Minh. They had always been treated as ‘savages’ before and indeed the only term I heard applied to them by Westerners was moi which I took to be a common term for all the tribes. Later I discovered it was Vietnamese for savage.
“In general, we still do not interfere in customs,” I was told by Nguyen Han Chung, a Vietnamese who had spent his adult life among the tribes’ people. “But the minorities are influenced by the way we live. They ask many searching questions. Gradually many of the more damaging customs are dying out.
“Our slogan for them is ‘anti-puppet, anti-imperialist’ and in these they support us with all their hearts. If we have been accepted as brothers, this is because those of us who have lived amongst them for years have tried to grasp and understand their customs and never, never to violate them.
“The only thing is that, as occasion offers, we try and show them why they are unhappy, why their life is miserable. At rst they answer that it is ‘the will of God’. Bit by bit we have showed them that it is not that. They argued that ‘God seated the tribes’ people and ordained that they should be unhappy, that they should be slaves’. So they are liable to eat up all their rice in feasts after the harvest, slaughter their cattle for ritual and starve for the rest of the year. ‘It may appease the Gods,’ they would say, ‘and in any case the tax collector would get it.’
“We explained that it was not God, but in the old days it was the French who made them give up all the fruits of their labour in taxes, or took them away for unpaid labour for months on end. Now it is the U.S. puppets. Maybe after some weeks they come back, having thought it all over. They ask many more questions and the day comes when they will shout: ‘It’s true, it’s true what you say. Our land is good, the soil is rich, the forest is full of elephants. There are riches all round, but we wear old, tom loincloths. We could live much better.’ When the truth dawns on them, they start to weep a lot at rst and then they get angry.”
A major reason for their miseries for generations past has been the almost complete lack of any medical or public health work. Smallpox and dysentery, their two greatest scourges, have wiped out whole communities in the past. Vietnamese cadres told of many instances of coming across abandoned villages where no one was left to bury the dead. The few survivors had set fire to the houses and fled into the forest. I have talked with Jarai, Rhade and M’Nong tribesmen who have wept as they told of such calamities that they put down to the Gods. Their enemies exploited these superstitions and did everything to encourage them. At first the French, later the Diemists, used planes to drop napalm on dissident villages. Local agents said these were Kim Phiar, the firebird, dropping his excrement because God had been displeased by the tribe’s disobedience. They believed it until the NFL troops started shooting down some of these planes and they found not firebirds but U.S. and Vietnamese pilots inside.
“We feel very moved when talking with the tribes’ people,” said one veteran Vietnamese cadre who had been sheltered by them for many years. “They are so straightforward, so pure in their thoughts and expressions. Once they have given their word, it is for life. They are generous and honest, and prefer to die or endure the most terrible tortures rather than ever betray a friend.”
“Our Kinh brothers brought us life and light in our darkness,” one dignified chief of the Hre people told me. “We will never abandon them.” These were typical observations, variants of which I was to hear time and again in the Tay Nguyen area. The sending, in 1945-46, of cadres to live and work in the Tay Nguyen was not only because of the strategic importance of having guerilla bases in this natural paradise for guerilla warfare, but it was in accordance with a policy of “revolutionary humanism,” as my Vietnamese friends expressed it, to let a few rays of life into the lives of the tribes’ people.
Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist to break the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some of the language in this piece has been changed to reect its modern-day spelling.