February 1964: Wilfred Burchett Questions the Strategic Hamlet Programme

In November 1963, veteran Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett embarked on his greatest assignment since covering the after-effects of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Burchett spent six months travelling through the jungles and forests of South Vietnam with Việt Cộng guerrillas in areas controlled by the National Liberation Front (NLF).

His excursion gave rise to a book called Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerilla War, a collection of articles dispatched to the National Guardian in New York called “My Visit to the Liberated Zones of South Vietnam”, never before seen photos of a Western journalist posing with Việt Cộng guerrillas and a never before heard perspective of the Second Indochina War for Western readers. His journey was also the subject of an article published in Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett under the title “The Tragedy of South Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities”.

Wilfred Burchett standing with a member of the Vietnamese village self-defence corps, 1964.

In “The Tragedy of South Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities”, Burchett quickly honed in on the US “Special Warfare” strategies being implemented throughout South Vietnam as a method for fighting resistance forces. This included PsyOps (an American military tactic that Burchett was already familiar with after reporting on the war in Korea in the early 1950s), crop poisoning, propaganda and search and destroy missions. Above all, US “Special Warfare” tactics also included the development of strategic hamlets, a concept originally conceived in 1962 after the launch of Operation Sunrise by President Ngô Đình Diệm’s regime.

The strategic hamlet program focused on the displacement and elimination of rural and ethnic minorities in South Vietnam. Seen as a hotbed for Việt Cộng sympathisers due to their support for the Việt Minh resistance against the French in the 1950s, ethnicities living in small villages were systematically removed from their homes and sent to fortified, pre-fabricated compounds under the supervision of US and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) forces. Mountain-dwelling tribespeople were forced to live in the plains; those that lived in the plains were forced into the mountains. Burchett likened the displacement strategy to the policy of the US government against First Nation populations, writing:

“[t]he ‘quick’ method of physical annihilation having failed because the tribespeople finally took to arms to defend their homes and families, the ‘slow’ method of US-type ‘reservations’ is now being tried. The Americans have plenty of experience with both methods in dealing with their own ‘redskins’.”

Wilfred G. Burchett, “The Tragedy of South Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities”, Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett, 2007, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

When Operation Sunrise first began, and long into its continuation, the proposed intent behind strategic hamlets to President Diệm by US advisors was for the protection of rural and tribal populations. Burchett, however, having talked to tribal members in various locations on his six-month excursion, found that this was not the case. Instead, Burchett heard stories of violence, devastation and executions.

After talking to Lê Quang Bình in 1964, a member of the Quảng Ngãi provincial executive committee of the NLF, Burchett learnt that dissent and prosecution among tribal populations in central and northern provinces could be traced back to 1954. In December 1954, 4,000 people from the Hre minority in  Quảng Ngãi Province were arrested for resistance activities.  Lê Quang Bình told Burchett: “‘Important suspects were dragged to death behind automobiles… Others were buried alive in batches of 20 and 30.'”

After resistance increased in the face of arrests and executions, the Cor tribe, again from Quảng Ngãi Province, staged an uprising in 1959. As retribution, Diemsit soldiers conducted 230 mopping-up operations, making 32,000 people homeless, burning over 200 hamlets and killing chickens, pigs and buffalos. Later, in 1968, Quảng Ngãi Province would experience the Mỹ Lai Massacre, another terrible example of systematic extermination.

War artists Văn GiáoNguyễn Thế Vinh and Thái Hà all travelled to Quảng Ngãi and surrounding provinces throughout their careers, specifically to document, sketch and paint ethnic tribes as a paragon of resistance life. In neighbouring Quảng Nam Province, Trần Hữu Chất painted the Bà Nà tribe that lived primarily in the Central Highland provinces of Gia Lai and Kon Tum, as well as the coastal provinces of Bình Định and Phú Yên. The works of these artists were usually portraits of guerrilla soldiers or farmers, concentrating on the beauty of the people as well as their dedication to the resistance effort through bearing arms and manual labour. The ability of Burchett to access these areas alongside NLF soldiers perfectly reflects the on-the-ground, first-hand account journalist he aspired to be.

Burchett’s experience in the region, however, revealed shocking additional facts that war artists refused to capture. In Dar Lạc Province, Burchett heard a story by an elder from the Rhade tribe – anonymously for the elder’s protection – that he described as “one of the most moving I heard.” He recounted the example of a strategic hamlet set-up in Buôn Ea Nao, Dar Lạc Province, in 1961, only three kilometres from the capital Ban Mê Thuột. In an effort to coerce the Rhade minority into the strategic hamlet in Buôn Ea Nao, a scheme watched closely by General Maxwell Taylor, who visited the site frequently when in the area, the tribespeople were told that the scheme was for their own good, that it would help with their autonomy and give them security. An American colonel dressed in pastor’s clothing, only referred to as Eay Teo (Grandfather Teo), an instructor of that particular strategic hamlet, addressed the crowd of Rhade.

Eay Teo described himself, and by extension of himself the strategic hamlet scheme in Buôn Ea Nao, as a “new” American, different from the Americans that supported the Ngô Đình Diệm’s regime in the past. “New” Americans, said Eay Teo, were dedicated to helping ethnic minorities realise their full autonomy and protect them from “old” Diemist supporters. If, as Eay Teo explained, the Rhade did not agree to resettle in the strategic hamlet, the “new” Americans would have no responsibility or ability to protect them from attacks by old Diemists. The Rhade refused, as Burchett recorded, arguing, “‘but you look just like the “old” Americans that even now help the Diemists kill our people.'”

“And, sure enough,” wrote Burchett, “within a few days of the final refusal, a regiment was sent to the area, five villages were burned to the ground and 20-odd tribespeople, mainly children and old people, were killed.”

Wilfred G. Burchett, “The Tragedy of South Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities”, Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett, 2007, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

After the attack, the Rhade consulted with NLF cadres in the area before being forced to attend a second meeting in the provincial capital with Eay Teo, the provincial governor, district chiefs and a ring of armed guards. Again, the ultimatum was the same; as resolute and unreasonable as before. Then, as the Rhade delegation were finally resigned to agreeing to the terms of resettlement, I Bru, a 70-year-old man from Boùn Dju village, climbed onto a platform and delivered a speech that reinforced the Rhade’s notions of independence. As Burchett recalled:

“‘If you are killed,’ cried old I Bru, ‘you lose your villa, your plantation, your car, your beautiful women. If I am killed, I lose this only,’ and he snatched off his loincloth and threw it at the district chief.”

Wilfred G. Burchett, “The Tragedy of South Vietnam’s Ethnic Minorities”, Rebel Journalism: The Writings of Wilfred Burchett, 2007, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Commotion and excitement swept through the 1000-strong Rhade members at the meeting as they surged toward the old man shouting “No concentration.” After being dismissed from the meeting by Eay Teo, a Rhade elder met with the NLF cadres in the area to tell the story of I Bru. They vowed to find him and protect him. That night, however, before the NLF guerrillas arrived, I Bru was taken away and killed.

The event hardened the Rhade’s resolve against American involvement in their lands and the strategic hamlet scheme in general. They pledged to carry on the fight old I Bru had started in honour of his memory. Burchett ended the article by describing how, even though the Rhade won their initial confrontation with the instructors of the strategic hamlet programme, the villages around Ban Mê Thuột were eventually enclosed with fencing and turned into strategic hamlets. Despite this, Burchett’s informer, the anonymous tribal elder, expressed the Rhade’s ultimate resilience against the program: “‘They may fence in our villages, but they cannot fence in our hearts. They belong to the revolution.'”

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