Communism and Southeast Asia (2)

HO Chi Minh was an anti-imperialist Vietnamese nationalist first and foremost. He turned to communism only because it was a potent anti-imperialist ideology, especially in the context of Vietnam’s history with French imperialism.

According to William Duiker, by the end of World War 1, there were 50,000 Vietnamese in France, many of whom toiled in the factories as replacement workers. Aside from them, there were a few hundred Vietnamese scions of wealthy families studying in the country. Understandably so, there was a very strong politicized atmosphere among the Vietnamese students in France but Druiker lamented that “little had been done to channel…[nationalist sentiments] to the cause of independence.”

During the war, France impressed upon the colonial subjects their “duty…to come to the defense of the mother country.” As mentioned in previous columns, certain militant Vietnamese nationalists demanded increased autonomy or even independence in exchange for support for the French war effort [“Communism and Southeast Asia (1)” TMT, Dec. 18, 2020]; meanwhile, others resorted to cooperation with German agents to undermine imperialist authority back home (“World War 1 and Southeast Asia,” TMT, Dec. 11, 2020).

The involvement of Ho Chi Minh — going by the name Nguyen Tat Thanh at this time — in the movement was undistinguished at first. Says Duiker: “Unimposing in appearance, shabbily dressed, Thanh was hardly an arresting figure to a casual passerby. Yet friends remember that he did possess one remarkable physical characteristic, which implied that this was no ordinary man — a pair of dark eyes that flashed with intensity when he spoke and seemed to penetrate the soul of the observer. One acquaintance even mentioned that Thanh’s intensity frightened his wife.”

By 1919, Thanh organized the Association des Patriotes Annamites (Association of Annamite Patriots). Annam (Central Vietnam), together with Tonkin (North Vietnam) and Cochin China (South Vietnam), were the three administrative regions in modern-day Vietnam under French imperial control. This organization, surmises Duiker, used the name “Annam” instead of “Vietnam” to signal a seemingly benign intention, similar to the strategy of Jose Rizal in his Liga Filipina 30 years earlier in the Spanish Philippines. Nevertheless, the objective of the organization was like Rizal’s Liga: to unite the Vietnamese into an effective force against French imperialism in Indochina. Thanh was similarly in close contact with other organized national groups in Paris like the Koreans and Tunisians.

The organization drafted a petition to demand the implementation of the Wilsonian Fourteen Points declaration at the end of the war to the French colonial territories in Southeast Asia. It was signed by a certain Nguyen Ai Quoc (“Nguyen the Patriot”), believed to be another of Ho Chi Minh’s aliases. The United States delegation received and acknowledged the petition, and even promised a response from President Woodrow Wilson but was subsequently ignored. The Fourteen Points met stiff resistance in Versailles and Wilson had to settle for compromises just to hammer out a peace treaty by the summer of 1919, evoking anger, disappointment and resentment among the colonial peoples seeking independence at the conclusion of the war.

“Frustrated demands for national independence,” wrote Duiker, “drove countless patriotic intellectuals from colonial countries in Asia and Africa into radical politics.” Among this group of disaffected nationalists was Ho Chi Minh.

Ho did have socialist acquaintances as early as his time in London (where he studied English) a couple of years back, but the decision to fraternize with the French socialists was a result of the debacle in Versailles. Ho explains that he was attracted to this group because they “had shown their sympathy toward me, toward the struggle of the oppressed peoples.”

In short, the attraction that Ho had towards socialism was solely due to his country’s struggles against imperialism and the capitalism that it loyally serves. As mentioned in the previous column (“Communism and Southeast Asia (1)”)imperialism served as a viable vehicle for capitalist exploitation of colonial peoples, lands and resources. Thus, nationalists like Ho were naturally drawn, albeit shallowly, to the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist nature of socialist/communist ideology to help further their revolutionary agenda. It helps to explain communism’s lack of staying power among the post-colonial states of Southeast Asia, especially after the end of the Cold War.

Socialism is a different matter altogether, and will be delved into in greater detail in future columns.

This begs a crude and very brief comparison with the nationalist movement in the Philippines during the late 19th century, especially focusing on the depth of the internally sourced (from the wellspring of Filipino culture and mores embedded in the native language) ideals of Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Jacinto’s Katipunan in terms of edifying a well-thought out raison d’etre for the Revolution of 1896, as opposed to having to scavenge the West for a usable anti-imperialist ideology.

(To be continued)

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Happy birthday to engineer Nora Moreno (December 25). Happy wedding anniversary Peachy and Arlie Panis (December 30).

Maligayang Pasko sa ating lahat!


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