Cholon and Cochin-China 3

A message left next day at the hotel invited me to call at a certain address at a certain time. I went there and found that the address given was a luxurious-looking villa. There were several expensive cars outside. A group of Vietnamese, who were at first reluctant to give their names, awaited me. Among them was a prosperous lawyer, a bank director and an ex-member of the Cabinet of the Governor of Cochin-China. All these people were members of the wealthy, land-owning class, and all were wholehearted supporters of the Viet-Minh, which, if, as it is said to be, under communist control, would supposedly dispossess them as soon as it came to power. One of this group was actually known to be a high- ranking member of the Viet-Minh, but was left unmolested in Saigon by the French as providing an unofficial diplomatic contact, which could be used whenever the occasion necessitated.
It would be tedious to describe the conversation that followed, but it may be summed up by saying that these people made it clear that the Vietnamese would never be satisfied with anything less from France than India had obtained from England. The ‘Independence within the French Union’ conceded a year before was described as a bad joke, since it left France’s control of all the key positions unaltered. The publication by the Viet-Minh of a secret report prepared in 1948 by Monsieur Bollaert, the previous High Commissioner, for submission to the Prime Minister, had not helped. A great deal of publicity had been given to the sentence which might be roughly translated, ‘It is my impression that we must make a concession to Vietnam of the term, independence; but I am convinced that this word need never be interpreted in any light other than that of a religious verbalism.’
And that was how it worked out in practice, my informants said. To take the example of the police force. A great show had been made of turning over to the Vietnamese of the Sureté headquarters in the Rue Catinat. But all the French had actually done was to leave the incoming officials an empty building and open up themselves again at another address under the title of Surete Federale. As the Surete Federale had kept all the archives, the Vietnamese organisation was disabled from the start. Then again, French troops would be withdrawn from Vietnamese soil, but, somewhat vaguely, ‘when the opportune moment arrives’. And, of course, extra-territorial rights were retained, by which persons other than Vietnamese nationals were tried in mixed courts presided over by a French judge. This meant that Cambodians and Laotians, as well as French, were not subject in Vietnam to Vietnamese law, while all matters relating to security came before a French Military tribunal.
Thus, I was informed, was independence interpreted. But there were other and more sinister French manoeuvres which envisaged the possi¬bility of the Vietnamese independence becoming real and took steps accordingly. Certain districts such as the Flauts Plateaux and the areas occupied by various tribal groups in Tonkin had been declared racial minority zones and separated entirely from Vietnam. And now, at the assembly of the Union Franchise the Cambodians, who had never raised their voices before, had been worked upon to demand the return of their old provinces in Cochin-China as well as legal right of access to the port of Saigon. Militant religious sects as Cao-Daism and the Hoa-Hao, originally banned by the King of Cambodia and the Emperor of Annam, had been encouraged as potential separatists and aided in the formation of private armies. In this way, Vietnam, even fully independent, would be weakened in every possible way.
And now after this revelation of rankling injustices and huge scale political manipulations, a curious complaint was made, the cri du coeur of the Asiatic’s injured ego, a single comparatively insignificant fact, but significantly disclosed at the end of the list of oppressions: the French were as insultingly exclusive as ever – ‘the cercle sportif does not admit Vietnamese’. Perhaps, if the French – and the English – had been gentler with their colonial subjects’ amour-propre in the matter of such things as club memberships, their position in the Far East might have been a lot less precarious than it is. Planes to Laos were infrequent and the earliest seat I could get was for a fortnight later. In the meanwhile, a French acquaintance, who was trying to sell British Land Rover cars to the Cambodian army, mentioned that he was sending a sample car to the army headquarters at Phnom Penh and asked if I would like to go with it. I accepted the offer, with great pleasure, especially as my friend would be making the journey by plane and suggested that we might spend a few days together in Cambodia. He had lived for several years in the country and knew it as well as any European could.

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