For three years, the French have been fighting a weary, tenacious jungle war against the Communists in Indo-China. To save France's richest prewar colony (and a potentially important anti-Communist base in Southeast Asia), the French government has thrown a third of its small, painstakingly rebuilt army into the fight; so far, it has been unable to achieve anything like a decisive victory over Communist Leader Ho Chi Minh. Last week it looked as if the French chances of licking Ho had improved.
Last spring, the French proclaimed IndoChina's autonomy under the French Union (roughly designed as an equivalent of the British Commonwealth).* They also returned to the Indo-Chinese their plump former Emperor Bao Dai ("The Great Protector"). In his exile at La Croisette, near Cannes, Bao Dai lived quietly in a 20-room chateau, occasionally visited a bar (drinking only coffee) and gambled modestly at the Cannes casino, 10,000 francs ($30) being his limit for one night. Early this year, the French government sent bluff Leon Pignon, French high commissioner for Indo-China, to persuade His Majesty that he must return to his country as "chief of state."
100 dozen ping-pong balls
Bao Dai did not look like the man to lead his people to independence and victory over the Communists. When he first assumed his Dragon Throne (1932), he was a playboy and a puppet. The French owned him, along with the 7,000 jazz phonograph records and the 100 dozen ping-pong balls with which he moved into his teakwood Palace of Supreme Peace. The young emperor, as "absolute master, father and mother" of his tough, diligent people, seemed only partly to fulfill the requirements of the Imperial Book of Rites which says that "the Emperor's eyes must dwell motionless upon utter vacancy, as his mind is filled with August Thoughts." When Bao Dai returned to his country last June, IndoChina's mother & father was changed. He no longer wanted to be a playboy or a puppet. TIME Correspondent Sam Welles visited the Emperor and his troubled country, cabled:
In the old days, Bao Dai's favorite sport (in addition to chasing chorus girls) was tracking down tigers, elephants and gaur (fierce wild buffalo) on foot through the jungle. That took intelligence and guts. Both traits are needed in the fierce jungle of Viet Namese politics, and Bao Dai is displaying both. The Communist radio had predicted that he would be assassinated; the French authorities were so concerned that at public ceremonies they kept the crowds 100 yards from His Majesty and gave him an armored car. But Bao Dai scorned such protection. At Hanoi, which he proclaimed his capital, he walked down a narrow street, right through 50,000 people, any one of whom could have killed him with a pistol or a grenade. He has done this again & again all over the country, walking as calmly as he did when he was stalking gaur.
"Every statesman should have a sport," he says with a twinkle. Then he adds seriously: "I cannot gain support by bowing from a distant balcony."
A Medieval Touch. Bao Dai is gaining support. Many nationalists who in the past fought the French are joining him. They have come to believe that the French are sincere in giving Indo-China self-rule. By year's end, Viet Nam will run its own courts, finances, railways and utilities. The French will have to retain a heavy hand in military affairs; they are now training a Viet Namese national army of 90,000 to complement the 130,000 French troops now in Indo-China. Chief problem of the French is to clear the Communists from the country's rich food-producing areas and to prevent a junction between Ho's forces and the victorious Communists of China.
The French are doing well in both respects. Last year, the Communists controlled virtually the entire country except the major cities. Since then they have lost the key rural areas, including the Red River delta and Mekong River delta, where 90% of IndoChina's rice is grown. In a land that is five-sixths jungle, Ho and his forces can still strike almost anywhere. But while last year the Communists levied $30 million worth of money and rice from farmers taking their crops to town, government forces now guard the roads so well that the Reds' toll is almost nil. This has been achieved by what one French colonel called un petit cachet medieval: sentries are posted on 40-ft. towers recently built on each road at one-mile intervals. A dawn patrol from each tower digs up the land mines which the Communists plant during the night.
Mangoes & Chanel No. 5.
The little medieval touch has given the new regime a valuable breather. Some of the country's wounds are healing fast. In Sontay, once a thriving town of 6,000 in the Red River delta, only seven people and one church were left when the French took it from the Communists last November. When I visited Sontay last month, it was largely rebuilt, 5,000 of its people had returned, and in its bustling market, cheerful, slim-hipped women were buying everything from mangoes to Chanel No. 5.
The approach of the Chinese Communists across the border has given the Reds visions of decisive victory, but it has also aggravated a growing rift between the hard Communist core of leaders around Ho, who are ready to accept Mao Tse-tung's leadership, and the rank & file, who fear China and want Viet Nam for the Viet Namese. One French general told me: "For two years I had to keep statistics of desertions to the Communists. For the last two months my statistics are Communist desertions to us."
Guilty Husband. France has taught many Indo-Chinese to read (they have one of Asia's highest literacy rates—40%), but it did not teach them how to rule themselves. Viet Nam has many ambitious politicians with loose personal followings. The most remarkable of these is perky little Ho Phap, self-styled pope of Caodaism, a faith (founded by him in 1926) which combines belief in everything from Confucianism to Christianity. Ho Phap, who claims 2,000,000 disciples, has a private army of 20,000 which provides Bao Dai's personal guard and bitterly fights the Communists as enemies of religion.
Among Bao Dai's other loyal followers are the Mois, a million G-stringed men and bare-breasted women who still lead a nomad life in the uplands. Last June, Buddhist Bao Dai personally took the oath of allegiance of a Moi tribal chief. The Mois still live under their ancient tribal laws, including the one that covers adultery. The first time an adulterous wife is caught, her lover is punished for seducing her. The second time, she is punished for permitting herself to be seduced again. The third time, the husband is punished—for not knowing how to keep her in line.
This quaint law of Father & Mother Bao Dai's subjects has its larger applications. In the past, the French (and all the West) might blame Communist successes on the Communists, who seduced Asia's millions, or on the people, who let themselves be seduced. But today, in Indo-China and elsewhere, it is clearly up to the West to keep Asia's people in line, by offering them a better life than the Communist tempters.
*Most important part of the new Indo-China (with 21 out of 25 million of its people) is the Union of Viet Nam, composed of the old colonial provinces of Cochin-China, Annam and Tonkin, and run by an autonomous federal government. To continue as French
protectorates with semi-autonomous status are the remaining two provinces: Laos, the land with the three-headed elephant in its flag (TIME, Aug. 1) and Cambodia, ruled by young (26) King Norodom Sihanouk.
Post a Comment