During October through to December 1972, artist Nguyễn Thế Vinh continued his assignment in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Much like other paintings made in the same year, Vinh concentrated on portraits of members of ethnic minorities living in the Central Highlands.
In his ink and wash painting (fig. 1), Vinh sketched Comrade Tol, the Secretary of a commune in Zone 6, Gia Lai Province. Although a simple painting not immediately relating to the conflict in Vietnam at the time, the intimate rendering of Comrade Tol smoking a pipe in profile takes on greater meaning in the context of the plight of the ethnic minority populations from as early as the 1950s. Heavily persecuted by the French colonial regime, Montagnard tribes such as the Tày and the Bà Nà were equally victimised by the South Vietnamese government under the advice of US government forces, through the resettlement program implemented by the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG), famously chastised by journalist Wilfred Burchett in 1964 as well as many other correspondents.
As their settlements were located on parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, ethnic minorities often found themselves caught between two opposing forces – the American-backed Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the Việt Cộng allied to the National Liberation Front (NLF). Any show of allegiance to one side invariably led to punishment from the other. Later, in December, Vinh drew more portraits of ethnic minority people in Quảng Ngãi Province, another hotbed for ethnic persecution due to their position in a militarily strategic area.