March 1962: Operation Sunrise

In March 1962, Operation Sunrise started what was known as the Strategic Hamlet (Ấp Chiến lược) resettlement programme. The initiative was first recommended in November 1961 by Sir Robert Thompson, a veteran of the Malayan counter-insurgency effort and then head of the British Advisory Mission to South Vietnam. Thompson first proposed the programme to President Ngô Đình Diệm as a way to pacify rebellious elements in the Mekong Delta.

Operation Sunrise aimed to consolidate the rural population of the Delta into easy-to-manage hamlets. Scattered rural populations in South Vietnam were uprooted from their ancestral farmlands, coastal villages and mountain retreats and resettled into fortified hamlets defended by Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers. The villages came with barbed wire and bamboo fences as a way to convince the rural population that the hamlets were for their security. Also, the new villages were built with schools, hospitals, electricity and other modern conveniences as added attractions for rural peasants. Part of the scheme stipulated that the villagers would be given weapons and military training to defend themselves. They would also receive aid from ARVN forces if and when needed.

According to the Pentagon Papers, in September 1962, approximately six months after the first resettlement effort, 3,225 hamlets had been completed and 4.3 million people were relocated. By late 1963 the South Vietnamese government claimed to have completed 8,600 strategic hamlets.

However, these figures are now widely acknowledged to have been grossly fabricated. A subsequent American investigation found that four-fifths of these were incomplete. American funding dried up and the program soon faded away. The South Vietnamese government was unable to provide the adequate and necessary support for the hamlets and its residents. Many strategic hamlets were abandoned, stripped of whatever was useful and left to rot.

The strategic hamlets failed because they were poorly implemented. Despite a barrage of CIA-produced propaganda, most peasants did not wish to relocate. Much of the money set aside for compensation ended up in the pockets of corrupt government officials – including Diệm’s own family – rather than being distributed to the peasants. Over 50 of the first hamlets were soon infiltrated and easily taken over by Việt Cộng who killed or intimidated village leaders.

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