From Colonial to Post-Colonial Rule

The Transformation of Rule in an Important Strategic Area in South Vietnam

by Bac Nguyen Van (Author)
©2019 Thesis 240 Pages


This study is to analyze the transformation of the policies of different political systems for ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands (Vietnam) from French colonial rule to American warfare in the context of decolonization, cold-war politics, and attempts of national state formation. While substantial attention has been given to the pacification tactics, military campaigns, fighting took place in the hinterland battlefield; limited has been bestowed upon the domination strategies adopted over the Central Highlands during the period under review. This work goes one step further by examining the struggle of "the people-in-between" and interpreting policies of the actors those who fought terrible battles to gain the control, legitimize and stabilize their power in this contested space.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Abstract
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations
  • List of Figures
  • List of Table
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • I Introduction
  • 1.1 The Process of Decolonization and the U.S. Containment Policy in Vietnam
  • 1.2 Purposes of Study
  • 1.3 Theoretical Basis of the Study
  • 1.4 Sources and Literature Review
  • Studies conducted by international scholars
  • Studies published in SVN before 1975
  • Studies carried out by Vietnamese researchers during the unification era
  • 1.5 Structure of the Thesis
  • II An Overview of the Central Highlands
  • 2.1 Classification of Ethnic Minorities in Vietnam
  • 2.2 Background Information on the Central Highlands
  • 2.2.1 A Brief Introduction to the Central Highlands
  • 2.2.2 Indigenous Peoples of the Central Highlands
  • As for the number of groups and ethnic names
  • Some key features of each tribal group
  • The Mon-Khmer language family
  • 1 The Pacoh
  • 2 The K’tu
  • 3 The Hré
  • 4 The Dié
  • 5 The Halang
  • 6 The Sédang
  • 7 The Bahnar
  • 8 The Mnong
  • 9 The Cill
  • 10 The Kaho
  • 11 The Maa (Ma)
  • 12 The Chroo
  • 13 The Stieng
  • 14 The Cua
  • The Malayo-Polynesian language family
  • 1 The Jarai
  • 2 The Hroi104
  • 3 The Rhade
  • 4 The Churu
  • 5 The Roglai
  • III French Domination Strategies in the Central Highlands
  • 3.1 The Ethnic Policies in Pre-colonial Times
  • 3.2 French Domination Strategies in the Central Highlands
  • 3.2.1 Primal Contacts between Westerners and Ethnic Minorities
  • 3.2.2 French Surveys in the Central Highlands
  • 3.2.3 The Transformation of the French Domination Strategies from Colonization to Decolonization Era
  • The domination strategies in early colonial times
  • The colonial socio-economic policies in the Central Highlands
  • The ethnic strategies of Pierre Marie Antoine Pasquier
  • The domination strategies of Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu in the context of decolonization in Vietnam
  • 3.2.4 Struggle Movements of the Montagnard Groups against French Colonialism
  • IV The Policies of the First Republic toward Ethnic Minorities in the Central Highlands (1954–1963)
  • 4.1 The U.S. and the Path to Power of Ngô Đình Diệm
  • 4.2 The Formulation of the Diệm Ethnic Policies
  • 4.3 Contents of the Diệm Highland Affairs Policies
  • 4.3.1 Merging the Crown Domain into National Territory
  • 4.3.2 Regarding Political and Armed Policies
  • Concerning RVN military networks
  • The Village Defense Program and the Civilian Irregular Defense Group Program
  • The Land Development Centers and the Agroville Program
  • The Strategic Hamlet Program
  • 4.3.3 As for the Economic Policy
  • 4.3.4 The Policy of Assimilation and Discrimination of the Minorities
  • Regarding the Montagnards
  • As for the overseas Chinese
  • Concerning the Khmer
  • 4.4 Responses of the Minorities to the Highland Affairs Policies
  • 4.4.1 Non-BAJARAKA Political Struggles
  • 4.4.2 The BAJARAKA Movement
  • V The Policies of the Second Republic toward Ethnic Minorities in the Central Highlands (1964–1975)
  • 5.1 The Ethnic Policies of the Military Junta 1964–1967
  • 5.1.1 Historical Background
  • 5.1.2 The Ethnic Strategies of the Military Junta 1964–1967
  • 5.2 The Policies of the Second Republic toward the Minorities (1967–1975)
  • 5.2.1 The Americans and the Birth of the Second Republic
  • 5.2.2 The Ethnic Policies of the Second Republic 1967–1975
  • 5.3 Achievements and Limitations of the Second Republic’s Ethnic Policies
  • 5.3.1 Remarkable Results
  • On administrative management
  • As for economy
  • On social welfare
  • Regarding the judiciary
  • About education
  • 5.3.2 Some Limitations
  • 5.4 The Reaction of the Minorities to the Second Republic’s Ethnic Policies
  • 5.4.1 Political Struggles under the Influence of the NLF
  • 5.4.2 The FULRO Movement
  • VI Conclusion
  • Bibliography

I Introduction

This chapter firstly introduces the process of decolonization in Vietnam after the Second World War. The author then discusses the U.S. foreign policies towards Asia during the Cold War, notably the doctrine of Military Rollback applied in the Korean War (1950–1953) and the Containment Strategy pursued in the Vietnam War (1954–1975). The following section explains the reasons, for which I choose the transformation of domination strategies in the Central Highlands from pre-colonialism over colonialism to post-colonialism under the decolonization, cold-war politics, and process of national state formulation in Vietnam as the topic of my Ph.D. thesis. In the remaining parts of this chapter, the purposes of the study, theoretical basis of the study, the issues of sources and research methods, review of the literature, and finally the structure of the dissertation will be presented.

1.1 The Process of Decolonization and the U.S. Containment Policy in Vietnam

During the decolonization and cold-war times, there was a region located south of the 17th parallel of Vietnam, to that the French and their successors, American strategists devoted particular attention, the Central Highlands. The area was also home to the majority of ethnic minorities in South Vietnam.1 The Central Highlands’ strategic location together with profound changes in the national and international politics was the root of remarkable transformations in the domination strategies of different political regimes.

Looking back at the pre-colonial times, throughout the process of cultural contact, the Việt people referred to the areas spreading from the western Quảng Bình to the west of Bình Phước and Tây Ninh provinces as Trường Sơn - Tây Nguyên (Long Mountain - Highlands), (also Rừng Mọi, Rú Mọi - the Forests of the Savages). The central feudal courts considered the region “land of evil spirit forests and poisoned water” (Vietnamese: rừng thiêng nước độc) and, therefore, expressed very little interest in it.

←21 | 22→

In contrast to the preconceptions of Vietnamese feudal aristocracy, since the late nineteenth century, French colonial tacticians highly appreciated the Central Highlands’ position. With a central-Indochinese location and an exceptional altitude, the Central Highlands was seen as “the roof of Indochina” which played a strategic role in controlling not only Vietnam but also Laos and Cambodia2. In French official records, this area was referred to as the Chaine Annammitique; commonly known as Annam Cordillera or Annamite Chain. Since 1950, under the pressure of the emerging decolonization trends, also aimed to split minority regions from the Vietnamese society the French formed an autonomous zone called Domaine de la Couronne or Domaine de la Couronne du pays Montagnards du Sud-P.M.S. (Crown Domain) (Vietnamese: Hoàng Triều Cương Thổ)3 and put it under the rule of former Emperor Bảo Đại. Being given a statut particulier (special status), the Crown Domain thenceforth belonged to the French Union but not a portion of the State of Vietnam (Thọ 1970, 92–95).

From 1954, in the American perspective, the Central Highlands was an area of utmost strategic importance not only for the control of entire Indochina but for staving off the development of the Communism in Southeast Asia. Learned from French and American strategists, SVN military officials also highly appreciated the defensive position of the Central Highlands4. As a part of the of nation-building process, soon after taking power, pro-American president of SVN, Ngô Đình Diệm enacted Decree No. 21 on March 11th, 1955, officially merged the Crown Domain into Central Part of the State of Vietnam and terminated privileges of the French and Emperor Bảo Đại there. Also since then, the Highlands were no longer entitled to autonomy as they had been before, and the Montagnards were identified the minorities in their own country (MDEM, 1972, 6–7). In the following years, the strategy of pacification was implemented ←22 | 23→extensively through various active programs to “win the hearts and minds” of the ethnic minorities and stabilize the situation in the Central Highlands. During the Republic of Vietnam (RVN)’s existence (1954–1975), the area was known in Vietnamese as Cao Nguyên (High Plateau) or Miền Thượng, Xứ Thượng5 (Highland Region), while Americans referred to it as the Central Highlands (Trình, 2007a, 1)&(Giang & Ánh, 1974, 43–4)&(Hickey, 1982a, xiii)&(Salemink 2002, 1–2).

As World War II ended in August 1945, a different war began - the struggle for decolonization launched by colonies of the colonialism all over the world in which Southeast Asia was considered the hottest front. This context created the most significant features of the modern history of Southeast Asian nations: the endeavor of decolonization and process of nation-building (Goscha & Ostermann 2009, 1–2). Regarding this issue, interested readers can see more in: (Tonnesson 1991), (Goscha 2007), (Goscha & Ostermann 2009), (Gungwu et al. 2005), (Devillers 1962, 1969), (Marr 1997), (Baten 2016), and so on. For some more details, the French colonialists, under the auspices of the British, quickly re-invaded Indochina after the national governments of the peninsula’s states formed and proclaimed independence in 1945. The French ambition to reestablish its colonial rule was the direct cause of the First Indochina War, which lasted nine years (1946–54). The same situation came with Indochina, just two days after the surrender of the Japanese Army, Sukarno proclaimed Indonesian independence on 17th August 1945 and was selected as the country’s first President6-7. However, soon after its founding, the Indonesian national government continued to face the return of the Dutch, with the support of the British. Thanks to its persistent fighting spirit and skillful diplomatic policy, Indonesia was officially recognized by the Dutch as an independent state by the end of 1949 (Hùng 2007, 13)&(Gungwu 2005 et al., 69–81). In Malaysia, the British carried out efforts to unify the governance of the colonial Malaya in a kingdom called the Malayan Union 1946 that consisted of all British colonies in the Malay Peninsula, except for Singapore. Because of being strongly opposed by the Malayans those who rejected a weak and obsolete Malayan monarchy and ←23 | 24→the granting of citizenship to the overseas Chinese, this union then was soon dissolved and replaced by the Federation of Malaya in 1948. With the Federation of Malaya, autonomy for the monarchs of the Malay states was restored under the protection of the British. After that long struggle, Malaya finally officially achieved its independence on 31st August 1957 (Baten 2016, 290) & (Gungwu et al. 2005, 91–116). Regarding the Philippines, this country was rapidly involved in the founding of the United Nations in October 1945, soon after the Allies defeated Japan. July 1946, the U.S. recognized the Philippines as an independent country through the Treaty of Manila (Molina 1961)8. In the following years, communist uprisings broke out in rural areas but finally were suppressed by the government of President Ramon Magsaysay. With regard to Burma, late 1944 Allied troops launched a series of attacks leading to the end of Japanese rule in the country of Burma in July 1945. There was a fact that while numerous Burmese fought for the Japanese as members of the Burma Independence Army, many others those who mainly were ethnic minorities followed the British Burma Army (Fellowes-Gordon, 1971)&(Gungwu et al. 2005, 39–68). The two National Armies of Burma and Arakan fought with the Japanese from 1942 to 1944 but turned allegiance to the Allied forces in 1945. After a long period of uncertainty and division due to a dispute between political forces, in 1948, Myanmar became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma9.

Back to the case of Vietnam, although the Central Highlands is a secluded area of the country, it was significantly affected by international and regional political changes during the post-World War II period. Since the last phase of the hot war, the subsequent territorial division of Europe among leaders of the U.S., the United Kingdom (UK), and the Soviet Union had been tabled at the Yalta Conference10. The conference then resulted to the division of Europe and the world between the American-led Western Bloc and Soviet Russia-led Eastern Bloc, leading to the Cold War era. The U.S. and the UK sought to ←24 | 25→establish influence by supporting the bourgeois democratic regimes in newly independent nations while the Soviet Union wanted to develop an area of power among socialist satellite states. Because the Central Highlands was believed to hold a strategic geopolitical position for controlling Indochina, even the whole of Southeast Asia, it was chosen as an outpost by both sides in the competition between East and West.

Taking advantage to the Second World War11, Vietnamese people, under the leadership of the Việt Minh Front12, successfully conducted the national liberation revolution and proclaimed independence on September 2nd, 1945. The triumph of the August Revolution in Vietnam is thought to have a substantial impact on the process of decolonization in Asia and Africa13 (Devillers 1988)&(Tonnesson 1991)&(Lâm et al. 2000).

Post-colonial studies, however, extensively point out that despite achieving a proclaimed sovereignty, the influences of colonialism and its representatives were still enormously present in military, political and socio-economic lives of most ex-colonies. We can list out the appearance of the Western countries, for example, the American reoccupation of the Philippines, and the British retaking of Burma, and the French re-invasion of Vietnam, etc. (Tonnesson 2009, ←25 | 26→13–16)14. According to the division of tasks among powers of Allied forces in Potsdam Conference15, the UK and the Republic of China were responsible for disarming Japanese troops in Vietnam; particularly British force would enter to the South while Chinese Nationalist Party army would come to the North (Ninh 2013)&(Devillers & Lacouture 1969). However, instead of helping Vietnam to consolidate its claims for independence, the British colonialists turned to back the French to recapture southern Vietnam16. Regardless the international treaties17 and determined resistance of the Vietnamese patriots, with the collusion of the British, France made its stubborn attempts to reestablish its colonial power in Indochina leading to the outbreak of the First Indochina War in late 194618 (Minh 2000, 1018–19)&(Asselin 2007, 88).

←26 | 27→

Disagreed with French and British efforts in undermining the emerging decolonization trends, the Americans gradually gave up their willingness in supporting colonial regimes19. What Americans actually cared about was how to extend the influence of the U.S., also to stem the development of Communism, not to ensure the interests of the old colonies. Also, the growth of the Vietnamese resistance activities made France increasingly bogged down in its re-occupying war in Indochina and depended on U.S. financial support (Pentagon Papers 1971, 53–75). Both the model of Southern autonomous government20 and the Bảo Đại solution21 which the French tried to establish in Vietnam quickly bankrupted.

Finally, following the massive defeat at the battlefield of Điện Biên Phủ, the French had to sign the Geneva Agreement on 20th July 1954 to restore peace in Indochina. The Geneva Accord officially brought an end to the presence of the French troops in Indochina peninsula and put down French colonial rule there. With Điện Biên Phủ triumph, the Vietnamese people proved there is an exception in conventional war theory that “victory only belongs to the stronger army.” The success of the Anti-French Resistance was considered the first victory of the ←27 | 28→liberation movement within “the third world”, leading to the collapse of imperialism around the world (Hãn et al. 2000, 129).

As recognized by the Geneva Convention, the 17th parallel along Bến Hải River, a natural boundary between Quảng Trị and Huế Provinces, became the demarcation line splitting Vietnam into two temporary regrouping areas. In the attempts of nation-building, while the socialist-oriented political model was chosen in the North, a pro-Western republic was rapidly built in the South. The “temporary demarcation” then would be maintained as the “national border” between “the two Vietnams” in the next twenty-one years. And, though it took nearly 100 years to expel the French, a really peace was not brought about in Indochina.

The World War II ended, instead of direct control, western powers developed a new strategy of interference in small countries based on the use of dependent governments and cultural encroachment. In Asia, despite the backing of Washington for the Chinese Nationalist Party, the victory of Communist Party led by Mao Zedong resulted to the establishment of the People Republic of China (PRC) on 1st October 1949. This made the U.S. increasingly concern that “Communist force want to dominate Asia under the guise of the nation” (The-Pentagon-Papers 1971, 53–75). After achieving limited success in pursuing the policy of Military Rollback against North Korea in the Korean War, U.S. President Eisenhower changed the U.S. global strategy by propounding Domino Theory; a new strategy aimed to prevent the expansion of the Communism in Southeast Asia. According to the American assumption, “if SVN comes under Communist control, other neighboring nations such as Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, etc., also will come under Communist control and threaten the remaining countries of ‘free world’ like the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand” (Institute 2013, 138)&(H. Jones 2003, 2). The Americans, therefore, believed that after French withdrawal from Indochina it was time to have an elite nationalist leader in SVN to weaken the attractiveness of Hồ Chí Minh. In order to chase that purpose, the U.S. pressured Chief of State of Vietnam, Bảo Đại, to sign the decision of appointment Ngô Đình Diệm as Premier of the State of Vietnam on June 16th, 195422. Three weeks later Diệm officially established ←28 | 29→his government in Saigon with an eighteen-member cabinet (Cooney 1985, 307–314). As the ideological base for the establishment of a pioneering anti-communist outpost in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Containment Policy and Domino Theory, hence, resulted in the American War in Vietnam (also known as the Second Indochina War, the Vietnam War, or the Anti-American Resistance War) (1954–1975).

Right after Diệm came to power, the U.S. overtly declared its intervention into SVN “to prevent the spread of the Communism in Southeast Asia” and “to help Diệm maintaining an active, viable state capable of resisting outside aggression” (Ahern 2000, ix, 14). From that point on Eisenhower administration started supporting directly for the government of Ngô Đình Diệm. In May 1955, Diệm removed all economic, financial agreements which the State of Vietnam previously signed with France; requested the French to shelve the Geneva Accords and to sever diplomatic relations with Communist North Vietnam. Moreover, he withdrew representatives of the State of Vietnam from the French Union and quickly set up an authoritarian regime which we can refrain from describing as deeply corrupt in the South. Backed by the Americans, Diệm then rejected the reunification poll. On 10th May 1955 without caring about the Geneva Convention and the aspirations of national unity of the Vietnamese people he held a referendum to depose the Chief of State of Vietnam Bảo Đại, proclaimed himself as the first president of the newly formed RVN (Ahern 1998, 4)&(Tucker 2011, 95).

On 22nd March 1956, France negotiated with the SVN on withdrawing all French troops out of this country. As a result of the compromise, they then dissolved their Military Command Department in Saigon on 26th April 1956. And, not long afterward, France announced it would quickly withdraw all French Expeditionary Force in this country, avoiding implementing remaining provisions of the Geneva Agreement, including the organization of a unification election in Vietnam (Patti 2008, 744).

←29 |

Nominally, the Americans committed to respecting the Geneva Accords; however, like representatives of the State of Vietnam, they had refused to sign to it. These refusals showed that the U.S. and its satellite state, the State of Vietnam, soon prepared for a plan of dividing the country permanently. Not to sign to the accords would help them avoid carrying out the duties of the stakeholders. Under a pre-preparing scenario, right after taking power, Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm declared the State of Vietnam had no obligation to implement the terms of the Geneva Accords (Ahern 2000, 1)&(Dung 2008, 3). Also, by delaying the unification vote, which had been designed to conduct in the whole country in 1956, Diệm wanted to have enough time to prop up a significant stable government to confront the Communist world. Besides that, the increase of migrants from the North to the South would be able to help to balance the population between “the two Vietnams,” reducing the pressure of failure weighing on the State of Vietnam government.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (November)
Contested space Decolonization Indochina Wars Legitimate domination cold-war politics
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019., 240 pp., 9 fig. b/w, 1 tables

Biographical notes

Bac Nguyen Van (Author)

Nguyen Van Bac teaches modern history and cultural history of Vietnam at the University of Da Lat, Vietnam. He studied at the Faculty of Language, Literature, and Culture - Justus Liebig University Gießen, Germany. His areas of interest include Vietnamese history, Vietnamese cultural history, ethnology, and acculturation among Vietnam and Western countries


Title: From Colonial to Post-Colonial Rule
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241 pages