In 1999, Christopher Goscha published a pioneering study called Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution (1885-1954) in which he looked at the importance of places outside of Vietnam for various revolutionaries from the time of the Cần Vương through the First Indochina War.
Then several years ago I saw a band in Chiang Mai perform at a small beer garden that had a female lead singer who was ethnically Vietnamese from northeastern Thailand (Isaan). Realizing that there are still ethnic Vietnamese in Thailand today made me wonder what had happened to them after 1954, when Goscha’s book ends.
Today I came across a report that Tom Critchley, Australian ambassador to Thailand, filed in 1970 after traveling through the Isaan region. At the time there were some 40,000 Vietnamese there, and they were loyal to North Vietnam. This made the Thai government very nervous.
To quote Critchley’s account,
“Thai officials in the Mekong border provinces clearly shared a strong dislike and distrust of the refugees. They all spoke of the refugees’ sneering, arrogant attitude, their lack of co-operation, their strong sense of loyalty to Vietnam and of the widespread and thorough indoctrination carried out among them by agents from Hanoi.”
“Although the refugees have not been permitted to maintain their own schools, their children are said to attend night classes or ‘informal’ gatherings where instruction in the Vietnamese language and political indoctrination are carried out. Thai officials appeared convinced – though their evidence often seemed flimsy – that the refugees were acting surreptitiously as financiers, couriers, suppliers, intelligence gatherers and even instructors to C.T. groups.”
I think C.T. here means Communist Thai. Someone told me today that the Thai government at this time blamed ethnic Vietnamese for the communist movement in Thailand that opposed the government. This was a convenient idea, but it was not actually the case. Thai communists were Thai (many were Sino-Thai. . . but not Vietnamese).
In any case, the Vietnamese in Isaan were in a difficult position. Some had been allowed to become citizens, whereas others had been deemed to have entered Thailand illegally, and were forced to remain in Isaan. The Thai government was nervous about both groups. Those who were not Thai were suspected of being loyal to Hanoi, while those who were Thai were suspected of serving as “terrorist agents” who could move from one society to the other.
One of the most interesting passages in Critchley’s account concerns the actions of Vietnamese in northeastern Thailand following the death of Hồ Chí Minh. This is what Critchley reported:
“We were told with relish in Nakon Panom how Vietnamese refugees had placed a portrait of Ho Chi Minh above the Buddha image in temples where memorial services were held after Ho’s death. Since in Thailand not even royalty may stand or be seated at a higher level than the Buddha image or the Buddhist monk this incensed even the local Thais who had to be restrained from physically setting upon the refugees, and some memorial services were broken up.”
Not long before the time Ambassador Critchley wrote this report, there had been massacres of Vietnamese in Cambodia. So according to Critchley, the Vietnamese in Isaan were at that time fearful that such attacks might come from the Thais, and were being cautious.
Thai government officials, meanwhile, apparently wanted to repatriate the Vietnamese to avoid any such complications. That I listened to an ethnic Vietnamese Thai citizen sing in Chiang Mai a few years ago indicates that repatriations must not have happened. So I wonder what did happen.
Has anyone written a history of the Isaan Vietnamese?
[The citation for this report in the National Archives of Australia is: NAA: A4231, 1970/SOUTH ASIA/SOUTH EAST ASIA]