Dateline: Vietnam

Prison Exchange A Trap for ‘Third Force’ Members

Published in American Report, April 1, 1974

By John Spragens, Jr.

SAIGON — One of the anomalies of the Paris Agreement is that the communist parties in the negotiations forced the “free world” representatives to accept provisions requiring political freedom in South Viet Nam.

In theory, this meant that a “third force” could emerge, an alternative between the Thieu regime and the Provisional Revolutionary Government. In practice, it isn’t happening. There is a third force but it exists underground for the most part, denied legitimacy and freedom of action by the Saigon government.

Even now, in negotiations between the PRG and Saigon going on in Paris, the PRG keeps insisting that independent elements be allowed an active role in organizing elections, and Saigon keeps on saying No.

Here in Viet Nam, the intransigence of Thieu toward recognition of the third force takes a more concrete form, as illustrated during the recent prisoner exchange.

Gen. Duong van Minh
Gen. Duong van Minh — provides assurance third force prisoners will be accepted by opposition organizations

On March 7, Saigon and the PRG exchanged more than 4,000 civilian and military prisoners, ending a stalemate that began last July. Some 3,500 prisoners were handed over by Saigon to the PRG. In this exchange, the Saigon administration attempted to turn over some 30 third force prisoners to the PRG.

The Saigon press was unable to publish the full details of what happened to these people, but attention was focused on the cases of several who were too well known to be ignored.

Two of these were medical student Huynh Tan Mam, chairman of the Saigon Student Union, who has been arrested five different times since 1966 because of his peace activism, and Huynh van Trong, formerly a close adviser to President Thieu, who maintains he does not know why he was arrested. They were taken to Loc Ninh on Feb. 21 and 22 for release to the PRG.

In the release procedures agreed on by the two sides, the receiving side had the right to ask only three questions to help establish the identity of anyone they suspected was not one of their personnel. The first covered name, place of birth and residence; the second asked the circumstances of arrest; and the third established where the person wished to be released.

Both Mam and Trong expressed a desire to be released to their families in Saigon. Saigon papers headlined the government-released story that they had “rallied” under the chieu hoi program, an indoctrination program for defectors from the PRG. Only one paper, Dien Tin, did not publish the official line — though it was not able to publish the facts, either. Five days later the families of the two had still not heard from them. A delegation from the Committee to Demand the Implementation of the Paris Agreement — headed by the well-known lawyer Mrs. Ngo Ba Thanh, Deputy Ho Ngoc Nhuan, and Fr. Chan Tin — went to Chi Hoa prison to look for Mam.

They learned nothing there and were given the classic run-around, shuttled to the head office of the prison system, back to Chi Hoa, on to the Police Directorate General, and then to the Chieu Hoi Center. There was likewise no word on Trong's whereabouts until March 13, when Saigon said the two were in a chieu hoi center. The location was not disclosed.

News of what had happened to Mam and Trong spread quickly through the prison underground, and most of the third force people subsequently taken to Loc Ninh decided to stay there.

Nguyen Long, a 65-year-old lawyer who had been a leader of urban movements for peace and self-determination since 1964, asked to be received as a “political refugee” in the PRG-controlled zone, though he considers himself to be a member of the third force. According to the PRG spokesman, Col. Vo Dong Giang, six third force people formally asked for political refuge. Third force sources in Saigon reported that at least 27 students and intellectuals not connected with the PRG had remained in Loc Ninh during this exchange. They joined 20 third force students who have been at Loc Ninh since last summer.

In spite of the experiences of Mam and Trong, two third force people still demanded to be released in Saigon. One of these was a teacher, Cao thi Que Huong, whose husband died in Chi Hoa prison more than a year ago. She was brought back to Tan Hiep prison and placed in solitary confinement.

When Lieut. Col. Le Trung Hien, Saigon’s chief military spokesman, was questioned by journalists about Mam and the others, he said, “Those who work for the communists must be returned to the communists.” And Saigon continues to insist that the only way prisoners can be released in Saigon is by undergoing an indoctrination program designed for defectors from the PRG.

Newspapers in Saigon are not allowed to print stories that contradict the official position that these prisoners were really “VC agents,” and that they have now either “joined the communists” at Loc Ninh, or “sought freedom” through the chieu hoi program.

At the two-party Paris conference, Saigon has been pushing for a resolution of South Viet Nam’s political problems which would shut the third force out completely, calling on the PRG to agree to general elections this July. If these elections are agreed to in principle, Saigon says, the two parties can go on to agreement on details of the elections, set up the National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord, and then discuss such issues as democratic liberties.

The PRG has refused to short-circuit the procedures set up in the Paris Agreement. They say it is meaningless to talk about elections while the fighting continues, and before the democratic liberties spelled out in the Agreement are guaranteed. The PRG also insists that the third force be allowed to play an active role in the process of organizing the elections.

And after months of speaking of the third force only in abstract terms, the other side has begun to name names. In a recent issue of Thong Nhat, a weekly published by native southerners in Hanoi, there was a list of 32 organizations which, they said, have consistently struggled for peace and national reconciliation.

The list included such familiar names as the Committee to Reform the Prison System, led by Fr. Chan Tin; the Movement of Women for the Right to Live, headed by Mrs. Ngo Ba Thanh; a number of independent labor unions; and the recently formed Committee to Demand the Implementation of the Paris Agreement.

For its own part, the third force has not consented to fade away quietly as Saigon must have hoped. Statements from the students and intellectuals at Loc Ninh continue to make their way to Saigon where they circulate in the mimeograph underground. And at Chi Hoa prison, 340 Buddhist monks arrested for refusing to be drafted have been on a hunger strike since March 1.

Gen. Duong van “Big” Minh recently released the text of a letter he had sent to the two South Vietnamese parties. In it he said, “The Paris Agreement which you have signed clearly and unequivocally recognized the third component. ... If there are people who fear that the prisoners mentioned above will be received by no one once they have been freed, then I deem it necessary to declare: the organizations advocating national reconciliation and concord are prepared and happy to receive these prisoners once you agree to return them to freedom.”

The lines are drawn for the next stage. Whether there will soon be more progress toward peace depends on what message Thieu gets from the U.S. government. Saigon desperately needs a considerable transfusion of foreign aid if it is to hold to its hard line. Delegations of special emissaries are scurrying around the world trying to secure such aid, mainly from the U.S.

The signs from Washington are that the Nixon administration will try to provide it.

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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