Friday, May 14, 2010

Monarchist Profile: Ba Cut

The man known as Ba Cut (because of a short third finger) was born Le Quang Vinh in 1923 in the far south of Vietnam, what was then the French colony of Cochinchina. An unlikely defender of monarchy, he was orphaned at an early age, was adopted by a peasant family and fostered a lifelong hatred of landowners when these people were evicted by the local landlord. Illiterate and uneducated as a youth, he displayed a short and fiery temper for which he was to be known throughout his life. In 1939 the religious leader and prophet Huynh Phu So founded the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect which soon attracted a large following in the far south of Vietnam. He accomplished this through his powers of healing and prophecy. It is noteworthy that Huynh Phu So also seemed to be a monarchist, predicting the outbreak of World War II and preaching that this would lead to the restoration of the “true king” which referred to Prince Cuong De, a descendent of the first Nguyen dynasty emperor who was living in exile in Japan for preaching opposition to the French.

Around 1943 Ba Cut joined the private militia of the Hoa Hao, originally formed to combat the private army of another new religious sect; the Cao Dai (a sort of combination of all the major world religions mixed into one). Within a year Ba Cut was a commander and, according to his enemies at least, gained a reputation for ruthlessness and deranged behavior. In 1945 the Hoa Hao clashed with the communist-dominated Vietminh (which posed as a nationalist group at that stage) as most of the Hoa Hao were supportive or at least neutral toward the Japanese while the communists opposed them. However, after the end of World War II there was a recognition that things had changed and the two sides agreed to a cease-fire to concentrate on fighting the returning French.

However, when Ba Cut was defeated by a rival within the Hoa Hao the French offered him their support and he came on side. There was no true change of heart on his part though and the money and arms he received went to fighting the rival Cao Dai sect rather than the VietMinh communists. Nonetheless, the same alliance was made and broken a number of times. He finally turned irrevocably against the French, pulled his forces out of the area he was defending (with the VietMinh filling the vacuum) but there was little the French could do as they were soon defeated in the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu which broke the back of French resistance and spelled the end of French power in Indochina.

In the peace deal signed by the French at Geneva Vietnam was partitioned with the communists keeping the north and the south remaining under the control of the State of Vietnam, under the nominal rule of the former Emperor Bao Dai but effectively governed by his prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem. The Emperor had refused to accept the Geneva agreement but Ba Cut blamed Diem for the fact that it was done and he became an intractable foe of Ngo Dinh Diem. Also opposed to Diem (but loyal to the Emperor Bao Dai) was the commander of the National Army of Vietnam General Nguyen Van Hinh who plotted a coup against him. Diem got rid of Hinh by advising the Emperor to call him to France but before he left he made Ba Cut a colonel in the regular army, knowing him to be an enemy of Diem.

As Diem tried to get rid of the private armies in South Vietnam Ba Cut openly fought the government troops loyal to him and at time his own Hoa Hao brethren who had been ‘bought’ by the prime minister. In 1955 his life was even saved by the French after he was severely wounded in a battle with the Cao Dai forces of General Trinh Minh The. This was because, in early 1955, it was clear to everyone that Diem was the favored leader by the United States (France had supported the former Emperor Bao Dai) and the French were not thrilled with being supplanted by the Americans in Indochina. It was even claimed later that retreating French forces had given top of the line weapons and war materials to the army of Ba Cut.

In the spring of 1955 the factions of the Hoa Hao, Cao Dai and the Binh Xuyen syndicate opposed to Diem joined forces in an effort to remove him from power and Ba Cut was named military commander of the coalition. Foreign advisors urged Diem to negotiate but he was an old-style man and was determined to crush all opposition. The Binh Xuyen fell first and then he moved against Ba Cut and the Hoa Hao. His forces were defeated and he fled to Cambodia, finally becoming the only hold-out. Ba Cut announced that while he opposed Diem he was loyal to the Emperor Bao Dai (hence his profile here) and Diem (who would soon depose the Emperor and become the first President of South Vietnam with US assistance) responded by getting rid of all the commanders of the regiments loyal to the Emperor and replacing them with his own hand-picked lieutenants.

With only 3,000 men still with him Ba Cut evaded and harassed 20,000 government troops sent to deal with him. A bounty of 1 million piasters was even put on his head. When Diem held a referendum (staged by his OSS advisor) to provide a legal basis for deposing Bao Dai and becoming president Ba Cut denounced him as an American lackey and prevented anyone from voting in the areas under his control. Nonetheless, the actual votes did not matter and Diem still claimed to have won 90% of the electorate (with even his American advisors warning him that he should have set the number lower to be more believable). The end finally came on April 13, 1956 when Ba Cut was captured by a government army patrol. After a short but dramatic show-trial he was sent to the guillotine on July 13 in Can Tho. In yet another change of loyalties typical of the time those diehard loyalists of Ba Cut who did not go along with the Diem regime ended up opposing the new government by joining the Viet Cong.

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