DEVELOPMENT OF THE NATIONAL HOA HAO POLITICAL APPARATUS
"Before doing anything within our religion or our society
we must think it over carefully and void doing
crazy and absurd things"
Huynh Phu So
The period immediately following the final military action against the sects probably marks the critical point in time where Diem failed in his efforts to form a legitimate government in South Viet Nam . The sects enjoyed great public support among the people in their Province and their combined population was probably close to 20% of the national total . Had Diem been able to incorporate the sects in his government, build on their support base and institute a valid social reform grogram things might have been vastly different in Viet Nam . The scope of this paper does limit a detailed examination of this period but decisions made both by Diem and the United States are so critical that they must be stated without benefit of close analysis . In this writers estimation if the war in Viet Nam is eventually lost it can be directly traced to April 1956 and the period immediately following when Diem formed his dictatorship and the United States unequivocably committed itself and its resources to his backing .
Before this fateful period Diem had envisaged the re-emergence of the traditional Vietnamese society liberally infused with Roman Catholics and Confucian virtues guided by his benevolent administration . He wanted the village to return to its previous place of importance guided paternally from Saigon . This concept was destined for a dismal failure because of Diem's refusal to recognize the root causes of unrest in Viet Nam . To set the stage for these causes one must remember that after the 1954 Geneva accords were signed the people on either side of the 17th parallel had just less than a year to move from one side to the other . The Viet Minh, who had a significant anti-colonial infrastructure in the south, took this opportunity to move some 100,000 agents north, train them in the communist ideology and reinsert them into their villages in the south . In addition, close to one million refugees from the north elected life in the south and moved there . Reportedly there were thousands of Viet Minh agents involved in this mass exodus . Interestingly, it was not until Tet of 1968 that the extent of this infiltration became fully known . In the north Vietnamese Army offensive during that period, and based on a gross miscalculation of local popular support by leaders in the north, thousands of these agents indentified themselves as members of the NLF and appealed to the local populace to revolt against the Saigon Government . Due to this mis-calculation, thousands, of these trained agents were slaughtered or captured by the local military, police, and citizens who did not espouse the doctrine of the Lao Dong Party . In the city of Hue alone there were 5,000 killed or captured .
The reason these agents were accepted back into their communists after being trained in the north was because of the tremendous local support for the Viet Minh against the French aid what was perceived as their puppet government in Saigon - Ngo Dinh Diem . Even after the French finally withdrew from Viet Nam in 1956 the Viet Minh were considered friends of the people and, except in the Hoa Hao, Cao Dai and Binh Xuyen controlled areas, enjoyed ralative freedom of movement and some support of the population .
In spite of massive U.S. aid Diem was unable to expand the small popular support base he had in the country . He quickly perceived that there was no way he could win the election called for by the 1954 Geneva Accords and therefore concluded they must be cancelled, which they were . As American support for Diem increased Vietnamese support for him diminished . Glowing reports from U.S. officials in Saigon on Diem's achievements against communism glossed over his total failure to attack the social problems that were the root cause of his ineffective leadership .
Slowly the evidence mounted that Diem was building a dictatorial regime but his U.S. defenders believed that he went this rout as an expediency in his fight against Communism . It was concluded that even a good dictator would have been acceptable if he had been more effective . More and more Diem became neither acceptable nor effective and with his continued withdrawal unto himself and his small circle of close advisors he made dicisions that removed any remnent of democratic action . Although Diem went through the motions of elections in 1959, 1961, and 1963, they were so well controlled that their outcome was never in doubt . Every candidate for election was a member of Diem's party or an independent with wirm ties to Diem . In addition, the constitution adopted by South Viet Nam in October 1956 was drafted by the Diem grating him exceptionally strong power and authority to rule by decree .
Diem did allow a number of parties to exist in the south including the Hoa Hao Social Democratic Party . But these were parties in name only and existed only in their respective provinces . There were without any voice in the government and were permitted only to camouflage the single party system of Diem and his associates . The official Diem party was the Personalist Labor Party organized and run by his brother Nhu . Admission was restricted to key civil servants totally loyal to Nhu and Diem and whose remain function was to provide information on anyone they were interested in . It also served as a funnel for the tremendous financial graft that flowed Nhu's way . Opposed by the intellectuals, detested by the middle class, and hated by the youth, the Diem government and Nhu's Personalist Labor Party was ruled by the fear and terror found only in a police state .
This, then was the political climate of the time, and once that provoked the comment made earlier that April 1956 marked the invalidation of the Diem regime and when examined by history, may prove to be the most crucial point of the entire drama . It was in April of 1956 that Diem decided to attempt to crush the Viet Minh as he had done the Hoa Hao and other sects . He chose this course of action over one that, properly implementd, would have undoubtedly succeeded - massive social and economic reforms that had been the aspiration of the people when the decided the fight against their French colonial masters . The single social reform attempted by Diem was in the area of agrarian reform . With the number of refugees created by the Geneva Accords there was great need for food and food producing land in the country . Immediately available for distribution was a million acres of abandoned rice land which could provide ample quantities of this asian basic food . On the surface it appears an easy problem to solve . Not so ! Diem's attempt at land reform was a political disaster . Even with considerable early prodding by U.S. advisors nothing was done on the program until 1955 . Then it was carried out too slowly, didn't go far enough, and was beset by the same graft and corruption that tained most of Diem efforts . By 1961, 109,438 peasants, mostly tenant farmers, had received land transfers . While this may sound impressive there were easily one million others still waiting for land six years after the program was started . In addition, the plan devised by Diem bo have the people pay for the land was so ill-conceived that many could not meet their prescribed payments and subsequently lost their land throught default of payment .
And do the one start on socio-enocomic reform measures was doomed to failure almost from the start . The Hoa Hao, who were in a defeated status with little or no authority outside their own local area, contributed nothing to Diem's government because they were not asked . Indeed, they were prohibited from participation since they were regarded as gansters rather than a political-religious organization . Diem failed to realize that the sects could potentially be guided to an acceptance of the government and possibly even to its active support . This would at least have broadened the base of popular support which Diem sadly lacked . Diem did allow the Hoa Hao Social Democratice Party to exist but it was not allowed to exercise any influence whatsoever .
But the Hoa Hao was not content to remain as a defeated sect and were busy attempting to bring some order out of their chaos . After Ba Cut death and the dispersal of the Hoa Hao Army in 1956, the sect re-examined its position relative to the national government . It became clear, as in the case of the Cao Dai, Binh Xuyen and other organized sects, that the desired power base and resultant reforms demanded by them must be obtained by means other than military forces . Therefore the emerging leaders of the sect decided to revert back to the organizational principles of Huynh Phu So, improve on them and make them a part of every day life in the villages .
At this point it might be well to review the administrative organization of the Government of Viet Nam as a foundation for the political organization developed by the Hoa Hao . The national organization consisted of a President (Emporer Bao Dai was the last chief Mandarin) with an elected upper and lower house and with a series of appointed ministers to administrative the various national programs . The next level down was the Province with an appointed Province Chief and with representatives of the various ministers who were charged with supervising the national programs under the cognizance of the National Ministers . The Province Chief had taxation authority, legal responsibility to a certain degree and authority to initiate and run programs that were within his budget . He had little authority over the ministry representatives in his Province which resulted in waste, duplication of effort in some cases, and the opportunity for excesses in graft and corruption . Below Province was the District with direct responsibility for the conduct of military operations but little in the way of administration.
In the late 1950's and early 1960's the key element in the administrative structure was the village . The village was, and is a geographical area usually of some size . Within it are hamlets that further divide the area . The village chief is responsible for all government functions within his territory and the old Vietnamese saying that government control stopped at the village gate is not without a certain amount of validity . In theory the village had an elected village council who in turn elected the village chief . In fact, more often than not both were appointed by the province chief either because he could not get anyone to run due to security situation or elections were just never held for a variety of reasons .
In his early teachings So had instructed the village to establish an administrative organization to perform church administrative duties in each village . During this period the church administrative organization was expanded to become, in fact, a shadow government that paralleled the village chief and his village council . This organization, called the Giao Hoi (religious society) did in fact have many of the same people in both organization occupying similar jobs . While the Giao Hoi is supposed to deal with problems associated with the church organization and membership it, in fact, is the driving force of the village government . Present day An Giang Province, the most Hoa Hao of the Hoa Hao Provinces, provides an excellent model for investigating the Giao Hoi and the influence of the Giao Hoi on the government process .
In An Giang Province there are 38 villages . Each village has a duly elected village council and village chief . All functions as directed by the central government are performed on the whole by qualified elected personal or paid professional civil servants . An Giang was the first Province in Viet Nam to have all elected positions filled by elected officials . The province has bee, for at least the past ten years, the most pacified province in South Viet Nam .
In 36 of these 38 villages with their elected village governments can presently be found a Giao Hoi . The two villages without Giao Hoi are Catholic villages relocated from North Viet Nam that reflect the incursion of Catholism during the Diem regime . Interestingly enough these two Catholic villages, taking a lesson from the Hoa Hao, have formed their own governments centered around the most powerful village priest .
While the dicisions make by the village council are legally binding on the village citizens, if it is opposed by the Giao Hoi it will be ignored or obeyed with great reluctance . Even though the village is the basic building block for the Hoa Hao religious organization, Giao Hoi will also be found at hamlet, district, and province level . Regardless of the level of the Giao Hoi, its power is directly related to the number of Hoa Hao believers in that particular area and the power of the Hoa Hao leaders relative to the official government apparatus .
The Hoa Hao system of Giao Hoi organization is based upon the Hoa Hao principle of "democratic centralization." The Hoa Hao followers elect representative at the hamlet level . This body in turn elects the members at village level and the process continues up to the election of the province Giao Hoi . Each Giao Hoi consists of 10-15 elected members . The central councel is elected by vote of all the hamlet, village, district, and province elected officials and is composed of 23 members . The guiding principle for the election of members to these various Giao Hoi is their virtue as perceived by the church and their prestige in the community . This easily explains why a village chief in a Hoa Hao village can be elected as the manager of his village Giao Hoi . In addition to the central council and sitting on the same level is a disciplinary council that is charged with the responsibility for applying the commandments of Phat Giao Hoa Hao .
Until the time of their death the parents of Huynh Phu So represented him at the Holy Alter (Holy See) in Hoa Hao village . Subsequently to their death and in his absence, Huynh Phu So has been represented by an Uncle, Sister, and Brother-in-law . These family members serve no function in the religious or political church bodies but simply keep the throne warm waiting So's return .
Now to return to the events that helped mold the current organization and effectiveness of the Hoa Hao religious and political organization . The years between the defeat of the Hoa Hao Army and Diem's overthrow were not very kind to the Hoa Hao . They continued to oppose the Viet Minh and later the NLF (Viet Cong) and to some extent the central government . While they continued to solidify their Hoa Hao religious organization their political ones could get now recognition, much less any power outside of the Hoa Hao Provinces . In addition, the Hoa Hao saw the growth and expansion of Catholism and with this growth a transplant of semi-state Bishoprics into several areas in the south direct from the north . These bodies received special benefits in land and social services from Diem which did not go unnoticed by the Hoa Hao and other groups in the south . Predictably, a pattern of factionalism developed throughout the countryside and this did much to strengthen the internal working of the Hoa Hao organization .
As time took its toll on the Diem government, he became more and more suspicious of all officials and advisors and turned to his family for advice and assistance in controlling the government . He constantly made personal changes and organizational realignments in order to prevent his enemies from developing strength to oppose him . He allowed Nhu to form and support secret societies and action groups to infiltrate all governmental departments and all suspected opposition groups including the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao (largely unsuccessful) . These actions eventually produced a factionalism that penetrated Diem's own immediate family when one of his brothers Ngo Dinh Can regarded another brother Ngo Dinh Nhu as his chief rival .
By 1963 these oppressive measures had produced political and military groups that were organized and prepared for action against Diem . In addition to the ones previously mentioned, the Hue Buddhist arrived on the scene with their claim that political militancy was the only possible response to religious oppression . During this period the Hoa Hao provided only minimal participation in overt opposition to the government and it was primarily the Central Vietnamse Buddhist who forced the overthrow of the corrupt Diem regime .
After the November 1963 Coup d'etat little change could be detected in the quality of the Saigon leadership in the fight against the NLF . These faces of the leaders changed by means of four (five, six, or seven) coups, but not the quality of national leadership which was so necessary for the development of a viable government and nation . As the situation stabilized somewhat under Nguyen Cao Ky the sects including the Hoa Hao, provided some representation to the Central Government . Although seen frequently at national functions they seemed most willing to avoid direct involvement in national affairs preferring to consolidate their political position in their home provinces . The Central Government did however, appoint Hoa Hao leaders as Province officials in An Giang and Chau Doc Provinces with Provincial responsibilities to the Government . This did not mean that they would execute without question the orders of the Central Government . Indeed, they took this opportunity to further develop their local religious and political organizations and in developing tactics for consolidated voting in anticipation of Provincial and National elections . It was during this period (end of 1965) that the Hoa Hao actually formalized their political and religious structure and started making their presence felt in the the politically floundering world of Nguyen Cao Ky .