Upland peoples in a lowland revolution
The Indochina wars were as much a political as a military struggle. Upland peoples in Laos and Vietnam, most of whom are neither ethnic Lao nor ethnic Kinh, were more often than not caught between the propaganda of the French (and, later on, the Americans) on the one hand, and the Viet Minh’s and the Pathet Lao’s promises on the other. As early as the 1930s, the French sought to create a special and exclusive relationship with indigenous people in the Central Highlands, whom they named after Montagnards or ‘mountain people’ in French. This category first described Austronesian and Mon-Khmer ethnic groups living in Vietnam’s southern mountains, but came to include nearly everybody who was other-than-ethnic Vietnamese.
The most notable realization of this strategy was the detachment of a territory (under French rule), the Pays Montagnard du Sud-Indochinois (PMSI) or Special Administrative Area, in the Central Highlands in 1946. The creation of an autonomous Montagnard zone was an element of a much broader strategy to contain the Viet Minh threat. In March 1948, the French announced the formation of a Tai Federation to include all the Tai-speaking ethnic groups living northwest of Tonkin. The French expected the Montagnards of the PMSI and the highlanders of the Tai Federation to claim rights to cultural and political autonomy, thereby opposing and then weakening Ho Chi Min’s republic.
For its part, the Viet Minh’s policy towards ethnic minorities was initially similar to the People’s Republic of China’s model. Article 3 of the 1959 Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam reiterated the policy of autonomous zones while asserting that such autonomy was to be within ‘the territory of Vietnam [which] is a single, indivisible whole from North to South’(Article 1). In reality, the right of self-determination was subordinated to socialist ideals. The minorities were expected to follow the path to ‘progress’ by going through all the evolutionist stages – from primitive communism to feudalism, then to capitalism and finally to socialism. The Vietnamese communist ethnic policy therefore was not merely a by-product of their war strategy. The policy of national equality and unity was to a great extent influenced by Lenin’s own prescriptions. However, the reunification of the country in 1975 heralded a return to the minority policy of the 1946 Constitution, which had made no mention of self-determination. Thus, on 29 December 1975, the government announced its decision to dissolve the Autonomous Regions.
When the Franco–Viet Minh war erupted in December 1946, as returning French forces tried to reestablish control, the Vietnamese communists, following a protracted warfare strategy, intensified their efforts to win support in the highlands, the rugged terrain of which provided the ideal setting for launching their attacks against the French forces posted in the mountain valleys, and then, retreating to relatively safe areas. In the same period, they began to pay consideration to the development of bases on the other side of their border. In developing close military and political collaboration with the local communist movement in southeastern Laos, the Viet Minh were creating a buffer zone to protect their western flank from attacks from the French troops and to enable their troops to intervene freely in Laos. The Viet Minh began active recruitment of new members along the western border of Vietnam, especially among nationalist-orientated resistance groups. Several disparate, small and uncoordinated anti-French resistance groups operated in the mountains of southeastern Laos in those years. What they soon had in common was their dependence on Viet Minh support. In some cases, this assistance took the form of rice, salt, money, arms and ammunition. In others, Vietnamese advisers attached themselves to the Lao or the highlanders. However, revolutionary bases on the Lao-Vietnamese borders, in particular at the junction between southeastern Laos and central and southern Vietnam, would not have operated as effectively without the help of upland villagers. The Vietnamese and Lao revolutionaries needed to run communication and logistics networks to carry messages, weapons and food in these highly strategic areas.
In the mountains and forests in the Lao-Vietnamese borderlands, Vietnamese and Lao revolutionaries relentlessly pursued their campaign of recruiting and building up bases among the local upland populations, making contact and progressively adjusting themselves to an unfamiliar environment. It was often a thankless task. Some highland leaders manifested signs of great suspicion, if not hostility, towards them. Fiercely anti-French, they believed that these revolutionaries were working for the former rulers and therefore did not trust their anti-colonial propaganda. The French campaigns of repression against some upland minorities in the early twentieth century, in addition to the labor corvée and heavy colonial taxes, had left bitter memories among the highlanders. It was therefore hardly surprising in this context that leaders manifested reacted with hostility against what seemed to be yet another group of invaders.
Harsh living conditions and a sometimes hostile social environment were nonetheless matched by the revolutionaries’ commitment and determination. The communist strategy of incorporating the upland population in the war effort also responded to local aspirations on a more basic level. The Vietnamese revolutionaries, and their Pathet Lao allies, understood that in order to carry through a war of independence, it was vitally necessary to mobilize the rural population by implementing immediate actions at the local level (e.g., building schools, providing medical care, supplying staple food) and making it clear through political training that the national revolution was the prelude to a wider social revolution, from which the peasantry would largely benefit. Successful recruitment efforts combined propaganda, promises of autonomy and social action – and also at times resorting to violence or the threat thereof – as well as skillfully exploitation of rivalries among highland chiefs, especially in the Tai Federation.