Western Exploration and Exploitation of Indo China (Vietnam) – 4


     Resistance to the French in Vietnam began in the 1860s and continued sporadically until the 1930s, remerging during World War II and reaching a climax in September 1945 when the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh (l890-1969) declared Vietnam’s independence. There was much less resistance to France in Cambodia and Laos. Because of the intensity of resistance in Vietnam and the eventual victory of anticolonial forces there, it is tempting to read Vietnamese history in terms of continuous and eventually triumphant resistance to foreign control. Many scholars have chosen to do so. Vietnam’s victories over France and the United States, following centuries of resistance to China in precolonial times, provide a pleasing structure for Vietnamese historical writing, from the winners’ point of view.

     More recently, scholars have argued that multiple readings of the Indochinese past are preferable to unilineal ones. The resistance model, for example, does not clarify the histories of Laos or Cambodia, nor does it explain the thirty-year-long alliance between southern Vietnam and the United States. Scholars have also drawn attention to the complex social history of the region, where developments occurred without reference to the political interplay between the French and the Vietnamese. Print capitalism has been mentioned. Scholars have also singled out the sizeable contributions made by such historical “losers” as no revolutionary women, Catholics, Francophiles, members of religious sects, ethnic minorities, and the southern Vietnamese allied with the United States.

Nonetheless, in an article of this length, resistance has to occupy a prominent position. Without it, after all, the French might have stayed on much longer, or might even still be in command.

In the 1880s the “aid the king” (can Voong) movement mobilized thousands of patriots who sought fruitlessly but with great courage to restore the status quo ante. They were crushed by French military force, but their patriotism inspired many later thinkers, including Ho Chi Minh.

In the early twentieth century, the prospects for turning the clock back dimmed. Vietnamese patriots like Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940) were impressed by developments in China and Japan, while opponents of France in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably Phan Chu Trinh     (1871-1926), drew on European examples including democracy and Communism for their ideology. After 1900, few Vietnamese intellectuals sought refuge in the precolonial past.

Until the late 1940s, French repressive mechanisms in Indochina were sufficient to keep most resistance in check. When armed resistance broke out in 1930 to 1931 in northern and central Vietnam, partly in response to severe economic conditions, it was ruthlessly repressed. Hundreds of rebels were put to death. The ICP (founded by Ho Chi Minh) had been involved in the uprisings, and soon became the best organized of the clandestine groups opposed to French colonialism. As thousands of Vietnamese were arrested for political “crimes,” the prisons became training schools for anti-French political cadre, especially Communists, many of whom were released under France’s Popular Front government (l936-1939).

The most substantial resistance to France in Cambodia came in 1884 to 1886, when the French tried to abolish what they called “slavery” in the kingdom. Their move struck at the networks of patronage and client ship that allowed Cambodia to function in a premodern fashion. The revolt forced the French to slow down the pace of reform. Until the l940s, Cambodia was at peace. Historians looking for the roots of Cambodian nationalism have found them in the small Cambodian elite educated in the 1930s, and in the Cambodian language newspaper Nagara Vatta (Angkor Wat), which flourished between 1936 and 1942. Resistance to the French in Laos was also insignificant because the Lao population was scattered and apolitical, while the relatively benign Lao elite remained in place, supported by the French.


     World War II was a turning point in Indochina. When it began in 1939, France was more firmly in control than ever. Six years later, thanks to the Japanese, all the components of Indochina declared their independence, and France had to fight its way back into the region.

France’s defeat in Europe led Thailand (formerly known as Siam) to attack Cambodia and Laos so as to regain some of the territory that had been taken from it by France. In 1941 Japan reached an agreement with the French in Indochina whereby the Japanese stationed troops in the region while France retained administrative control. The arrangement suited both parties but displeased France’s former European allies. Japan launched its invasion of the rest of mainland Southeast Asia from Indochinese bases in December 1941.


Half a century after the collapse of the French empire in Indochina, and nearly thirty years after the end of the second Indochina War, we can assess the colonial era more objectively than would have been possible in the 1940s and 1950s, when independence movements throughout Southeast Asia, supported by large sections of global public opinion, swept out their colonial masters. The historian Nicholas Tarling has called colonialism in Southeast Asia a ”fleeting, passing phase” and certainly France’s brief time in Indochina has to be weighed against the thousands of years that came before and the half-century that has elapsed since France departed from the region. It is tempting to say that the colonial era in Indochina was unimportant. Nonetheless, while it is possible to imagine Vietnam modernizing itself without the intrusion of a colonial power, it is unlikely that Laos and Cambodia would have survived as independent states without French protection against their Southeast Asian neighbours.