Dateline: Vietnam

Buddhist nune hold banners ar peace demonstration
 Buddhist nuns at an October peace demonstration

Inflation, Corruption, Hunger Build Pressures Against Thieu

Published in American Report, November 25, 1974

By John Spragens, Jr.
Special to American Report

SAIGON — It was bad enough in 1963 when Buddhist-led struggles forced the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic. Now conservative Catholics — the very same ones who supported Diem — are calling for Thieu to get out. Thieu is a Catholic, too. Like all the leaders in Saigon from Diem on, he has counted on the Catholic 10 percent of the population as an unshakable support. The Catholics, it was assumed, always rise to warnings about the communist threat and support whatever anti-communist administration may be in power.

Now those reliable Catholics, led by Fr. Tran Huu Thanh, say that government corruption, starting with Thieu and running all the way down, makes it impossible for the “nationalists” to wage the anti-communist struggle effectively.

Saigon’s economy is in bad shape. Annual inflation over 60 per cent tells the story. The tone of market haggling does, too. Bargaining is no longer the game it was in better times. Voices turn bitter, and eyes glare fire.

The foreign investment that was counted on as the basis of postwar reconstruction has not come, except in driblets. The continuing war, bureaucratic hassles and corruption are too much for most foreign firms. Agricultural production remains low because Saigon will not allow farmers to return to lands in PRG-controlled zones. Thieu is trying to insist that his is the only legitimate government in the south. He forgot to read the Paris Agreement.

People are going hungry, especially in city slums and in refugee camps. It’s worst in central Viet Nam. A bowl or two of rice gruel a day. Fifty cents to feed a family of four. When road “taxes” and other corruption rip-offs are added, it’s easy to see why the reservoir of anger is high. Father Thanh’s movement has been the first to give it a vent, and he draws rallies of thousands everywhere he goes — from Hue to the Mekong delta.

Buddhists Pursue Peace

The Buddhists, too, are gathering their forces. They, too, want Thieu out. (“Go back home to America!”) They see the basic problem differently. National reconciliation is the goal. Peace is the first priority. The Paris Agreement is the best tool to get there. Thieu is the main obstacle to implementing the Agreement. Buddhists have started to take to the streets.

“The greatest help the U.S. could give the communists is to keep Thieu in power,” says a savvy third force politico. “If they do that, I am sure that in a year or two there will be a ‘people’s republic’ in South Viet Nam. They should let Thieu go and give the third force a chance.”

The Provisional Revolutionary Government appears to welcome the newfound strength of the third force. If the Saigon regime completely rotted out from the inside, they could take over. But there are 20, 30 years of enmity to be overcome. The third force can act as a buffer. Maybe even physically. One idea floating around is to establish demilitarized cooperative farms in boundary zones between the two sides.

For now the PRG continues trading attacks with Saigon. Just enough to keep Saigon’s troops tied down. The city people will have enough trouble with the police. They don’t need troops attacking their demonstrations, too.

What does the U.S. government intend to do? The U.S. embassy seems to have been caught off guard, but now they have got the message that the situation is serious. They have sent some high powered trouble shooters investigating as quietly as possible. They seem to hope that some acceptable leader will bubble to the surface in the ferment.

The U.S. has done some saber rattling, but Congress has taken the punch out of those threats by refusing to provide the budget. Many of the American technicians who have been keeping Saigon’s bombers flying are gone. They predict that the planes will grind to a halt in six months — from disrepair.

Thieu is still trying to hang on. He’s started a series of spectaculars, even cashiering his cousin Hoang Due Nha, the minister of information and the only person in the government Thieu trusts. But as everyone from Father Thanh to the PRG says, lt’s not a matter of changing a few faces. It’s the policies that have got to change.

The End Begins

If the policies do change, it will still be a difficult process. Six months or a year, perhaps, before preparations would be complete for elections for a government for all of south Viet Nam. More years before reunification. Five years? Ten years? Maybe a north-south federation in the meantime. That’s how some third force people guess it.

Thieu could make the process a lot easier by going off to Paris for some convenient medical treatment. He hasn’t left, though, and things may well get nasty before they’re over. But there is hope of change now — more hope than six months ago — at least enough hope to pull people out into the streets. This just might be it!

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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