Elizabeth Pond
Elizabeth Pond

Fellowship Title:

Student Protest

Elizabeth Pond
August 21, 1970

Fellowship Year

April, 1970


I stopped outside the barbed wire concertina and identified myself as a journalist. The boys guarding the gate released a taut rope inside the wall, springing the wire coil open to admit me.

To my left was the monument to the first monk to immolate himself – on this spot – in the Buddhist struggle against President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. In front of me, defending the building entrance, were a table with flowers and incense and two cement lions’ heads that had been severed from their nearby cement bodies. Daubed on the heads in red paint were epithets against Premier Lon Nol and other Cambodian leaders. “USA” was painted on the nose of one lion. Attacks on the South Vietnamese government were discreetly absent.

Between the lions’ heads one girl with a rag was swabbing the front steps with more industry than hope of enduring success.

The scene was the Cambodian Embassy in Saigon, boarded up since the last months of Diem when Cambodia broke diplomatic relations with South Vietnam, ostensibly over Diem’s treatment of Vietnamese Buddhists, actually in one of Prince Nordom Sihanouk’s rightrope skips between the superior forces of his various Vietnamese neighbors and their patron states. The time was April., at the height of the several-week protest occupation of the embassy by Saigon students. The occasion was the latest round in the unhappy history of government-student relations in South Vietnam.

Both in 1963 and again in 1966 students featured prominently in anti-government demonstrations in Saigon and Hue. The first of these ventures ended – when combined with Buddhist self-immolations and Washington’s benevolent neutrality toward coup plotters – in the overthrow of Diem. The second resulted in the key student leaders’ being thrown into prison for two or three years. Since 1966 further judicious jailing and conscription and firm backing by the U.S. for those in power in Saigon worked to keep the students notably quiescent. The government had one chance to woo the students – when many volunteered to help rebuild damaged sections of Saigon after the Tet and May attacks by the National Liberation Front in 1968–but government mistrust won out, and the students were denied significant supplies and support.

Now, in Spring of 1970, the old hostility surfaced again.

This time the primary issue originally was the arrest in March of one student leader who was charged with having had contact with the N.LF. Demonstrating students claimed the charge was unsubstantiated and demanded the boy’s release. The first arrest was then compounded by the arrest of a score of other students on similar charges – and by the torture of numbers of them in police questioning.

Word of the torture leaked out initially through doctors who were called on to patch up the students in the hospital between interrogation sessions. It was later confirmed when a few of the tortured students were, for unknown reasons, released – in bad condition. Their appearance and their graphic descriptions of beatings on their knees and on the soles of their feet, of ears filled with soapy water and then struck, of electric shocks applied to sex organs, and other maltreatment angered the students at large. Many in the university population who might not otherwise have followed the lead of the more radical leaders came to approve or at least tolerate the student agitation. Teargas confrontations – and sometimes rock throwing – with the police became commonplace. They remained mild and small by Parisian or American standards., but they had an effect. The government closed the universities and some high schools for the remainder of the school year.

The second major galvanizer of the students was the massacre of Vietnamese civilians in Cambodia by Cambodian army troops and the dearth of official protest by the South Vietnamese government. This issue also brought demonstrating students a certain public sympathy they had not had before. By late April families neighboring the Cambodian Embassy were helping the resident students in getting water to them or in providing clandestine food routes through the police blockades for the young “supply corps.”

The embassy ploy itself started when a vanguard of militant university students made a surprise Honda run tnrough police teargas to occupy the building. They proclaimed it – in paint on the outside of the building – as their student union headquarters. (Failure of the government to provide a new student union after it had torn down the old one two years before was one of the secondary issues in the demonstrations).

Uther slogans painted on embassy walls stressed the Cambodia issue: “This is the moment when the government should make a more positive decision vis-a-vis the massacre of Vietnamese in Cambodia.” “To abandon Vietnamese victims and to resupply the Cambodians with weapons profits the Communists very much.” Frequently an effigy of Lon Nol was hung from the roof of the embassy.

By the time I visited the embassy a tone had been set and a daily routine established. As posted in the front hall just above a bucket of teargas antidote and below a painting of a pastoral Cambodian scene, the authorized schedule read;

7-8            Check, service property

8-9            Salute colors, breakfast

9-10          Communal activities

11-12        Individual or small-group activities

12-15        Siesta

15-16        Check community property

16-17        Communal activities

17-18        Dinner

18-19        Information and propaganda

19-23        Campfire

23-24        Curfew

The schedule was supplemented by other practical and moral instructions pinned to the bulletin board:

“It is necessary to respect discipline for the strugle.”

“It is necessary to be polite and courteous to each other.”

“’We ask the Ky Con section [named after a famous anti-French revolutionary] to follow students who do not nave an attitude of dignity. If they refuse discipline, they will be chased away.”

“For collective health we must respect hygiene.”

“Shower in the designated hall. Do not waste water.” (This had obviously been posted before the police cut off the electricity and water lines to the embassy. Some of the engineering students had managed to tap the power lines again, but water now had to be brought in by hand, and daily showers for everyone had ceased).

“To protect our own ideal
To avoid dangerous infiltration
To avoid all disorder which might come
We ask the control committee
Not to accept students under 16 years.”

 “We ask the Nguyen An Ninh section to check the door and prevent those under 16 from entering.”

Nor in the students’ thoroughness was discipline of the bulletin board itself neglected:

“For all notices it is necessary to contact the coordinating committee.”

Some of the admonitions were followed. Others were observed in the breach. The novelty of the occupation had not yet worn off, and relations between fellow occupants tended to go beyond the courtesy called for to sheer exuberance. The Nguyen An Ninh section, however, was clearly failing in its job of screening out all 14- and 15-year-olds.

The predominant atmosphere was one of kids having a lark – “Lord of the Flies” before discovery of the pig’s head., as it were. But running like a current through this – especially with the older ones – was that grave air of young students consciously playing a dangerous adult game for the first time.

The pure camaraderie was epitomized by one giggling girl who admitted cheerfully that she was only 14. Her mother was worried about her and had sent an older sister to bring her home, but she had not gone. Why was she here? “To help the others.”

At the other end of the spectrum were the student leaders, intent on fomenting demonstrations throughout the city as well as running the Embassy; calculating always the best way to politicize their colleagues and build a sturdy organization; suspicious of Westerners; suspicious of their fellow student leaders, not knowing who would sell out next or had sold out already; amusedly tolerant of the housekeeping efforts of the girls in the embassy and of the activities for the masses like “Campfire;” some with that uncompromised fury at a corrupt and cynical world that is the luxury of the young; some already well hardened to a use-or-get-used approach; secretly or openly exhilarated at the power of their own voices in crowds; terribly young and decent, many of them, dreading falling into the war and getting killed as their fathers and brothers had; aware that they were treading the brink of arrest and torture themselves; waiting in fatalistic fashion, but still propping up their hopes that they could win out against the inevitable police raid.

The reception room of the embassy served its original intent and also doubled as a press center. Like the entrance, it was decorated with flowers. The student at the desk there issued me a numbered pink press card and commandeered another student who chanced by in the corridor to get a member of the coordinating committee to talk with me. I was handed a mimeographed copy of the most recent statement of support for the student protest, this one from a Buddhist nun.

While I was waiting for the member of the coordinating committee to appear, a bedlam of door banging, pot banging, and loud cries broke out. This, it developed, was an alert. Designated boys with staves and plastic bags to ward off teargas ran to posts along the outside wall. One boy carried a slingshot. As general ammunition there was a wheelbarrow of broken glass and a box of tiles on the front grounds, and there may have been more up on the flat roof of the building. Outsiders were not allowed onto the roof lest they see secret defense preparations (or lack thereof).

One of the leaders in the occupation, a radical who has shunned Western reporters along with other unnecessary contacts, took command on a battery bullhorn. He stood straight and devoid of body motion as his words resounded in the air.

The alert turned out to be a false alarm, however. It was not the police who were approaching, but a visiting delegation of students that had slipped through the several-block-wide police cordon. With the eyes of the entire embassy community now focused on them, the delegation emerged from behind the Esso station across the street and walked proudly and self-consciously up to the embassy gate. (The gasoline at the station had been removed to prevent holocaust should shooting or fires begin, and the owner said he was losing 150,000 piasters per day – about $500 at the black market rate.)

The boys on “external protection” on the walls waved their plastic bags to welcome the newcomers. The delegation identified itself as a committee of the General Association of Students, and an assembly was called in the briefing room to celebrate. Among the visitors was the secretary-general of the student organization at Can Tho (the capitol city of the populous delta south of Saigon and the site of one of South Vietnam’s five universities). He reported that the day before, students at Can Tho had tried to throw an effigy of Lon Nol into the river but the police had prevented them, as their solution had proved too weak to counter the teargas. They were obliged to disperse, and some students were arrested.

One of the Saigon leaders took the occasion to report that in the capitol the day before 1000 students had demonstrated at the School of Agriculture to protest police action against students and also to condemn the Lon Nol clique. That afternoon, he continued, a group of students that had gathered at the National Assembly and started to march to the Cambodian Embassy had been broken up with an especially heavy dose of teargas and colored water. Police orders were now out to confiscate Hondas, he warned. He concluded by saying that the student committee would issue a proclamation that evening asking the population in the surrounding blocks to excuse the inconvenience of the barricades and to demand that the police remove these barricades.

I was asked if I would like to interview a Vietnamese boy who had Just escaped from Cambodia, and was ushered up (past the two guards sitting at the foot of the stairs) to the second floor. The interview took place in one of the carefully labeled rooms the students had named after historical Vietnamese heroes. The windows were decorated with fresh vines. Several students who appeared to be assigned to press affairs joined us around the table, one taking notes by hand, another turning on a tape recorder. One of the table drawers contained the stores of plastic bags, and throughout the interview there was a mannerly flow of people coming to get supplied.

Dinh was in his early 20s, wore glasses, and had long hair held out of his face by the white mourning band on his forehead. He wore a watch and had not only the long nails on the little fingers that mandarins cultivated to show their distance from manual labor, but long thumbnails as well. He was the eldest of seven children, he said, and his father owned a 24-room hotel in one of the eastern provinces of Cambodia. When the trouble started, the Cambodia province chief had helped the whole family get to Phnom Penh. His father had paid 20,000 riels to several of his Cambodian schoolmates to accompany him to the South Vietnamese border. From there Dinh had bribed his way to Saigon without any identification papers with another 20,000 riels (70,000 piasters, or about $233 at the black market rate). He described at some length the vicissitudes of the Vietnamese population at the hands of Cambodians.

A late supper with whichever of the leaders happened to be around came next. The reception room became the dining room, with the little table crowded but adequate. In contrast to the earlier messline for the rank-and-file, this meal was placed on the table in serving dishes. It was hearty, with rice, fish, Spam, mushrooms, and vegetables. There was ice for water or soft drinks. The centerpiece was the spent shell of a CS gas grenade that had been converted into an ashtray.

One of the boys did his best to include me in the group, but as I spoke no Vietnamese and he spoke little English or French, his good will had to be confined to smiles and trying to get me to eat more. After dinner a second boy discussed the situation with me in fluent English but with a very preoccupied air. The law school was hopelessly conservative, he said, because the police had gotten their own candidates in as student officers. He thought Saigon’s most moderate student leader was a police agent. He thought the student protest movement would last longer in 1970 than it did in 1966 because of better organization. His distraction seemed to be a compound of wanting to be in the command center making decisions at this very moment, wariness over talking to a reporter who had not demonstrated total commitment to the students, and probably some distaste for Americans. After a few minutes a lieutenant came to consult the boy, and he quickly took his leave.

The last activity of the evening was Campfire. A new fire was started outside the front door on the ashes of the old ones. Fuel consisted of broken-up drawers and bamboo blinds which students shoved out of upper windows. One boy splashed a plastic bag of gasoline onto the fire, and it blazed up, casting an erratic glow onto the guardian lions’ heads. A light drizzle matted down the dust of the day. Crickets began to chirp.

Some 30 or 40 students (out of a probable 100 or 150 in the embassy) sat around on the floor in a circle and sang rousing and illegal peace songs. One girl played a harmonica. Some songs were familiar to all; others required song sheets. A demure girl in earrings and green ao dai, one of the more radical leaders in the group, kneeled at the microphone and taught the assemblage one new song, which all learned quickly and with great gusto. Two oppositionist National Assembly Deputies appeared, and while one held a quick strategy session in the hall with a few members of the coordinating committee the other joined the circle on the floor and sang and clapped with the students. Campfire ended with a highly successful satirical improvisation of Satan in hell judging Lon Nol and other Cambodian officials.

Bedtime for the leaders (and journalists staying overnight) meant the ambassador’s air conditioned room with its individual washroom. Dominating the room was a large deluxe lacquer painting which had somehow escaped the nightly Campfire. There were a couple of mattresses rolled out on the floor; otherwise, the ambassador’s big desk and chairs and tables that had been pushed together served as beds. There was a modest amount of chatter and laughter before everyone drifted off to sleep.

In the morning waking was individual and unceremonious, marked by yawns, stretchings, scratchings, and half-hearted calisthenics. In the sleeping rooms of the rank-and-file, some students began boiling drinking water while others still slept. Boys and girls brushed their teeth, combed their hair, and washed clothes squatting at buckets in the courtyard. Roosters crowded. Across the street combat police ate at a restaurant with checkered tablecloths and watched the embassy with curiosity.

The end of the idyll came swiftly, at 3:00 a.m. on May 5. Police and soldiers ran coordinated raids on the Cambodian Embassy and the National Pagoda, which bonzes and laymen of the central (but anti-government) Buddhist faction had occupied two nights before. The students were routed, and many of the leaders were arrested.

What was the net result of the agitation? The students as a whole probably were somewhat radicalized, though organizational accomplishments appeared to be minimal. The government succeeded in containing the demonstrations, preventing them from spreading to workers or Buddhist faithful. The general population was stirred momentarily over Cambodia, but their longer-term political attitudes continued to depend more on the price of rice and fish sauce than on anything else. As for the Communists, according to one source, they eschewed the tactics of trying for general urban disruption this time, preferring to wait things out and then recruit cadres for the future from among the frustrated students.

Received in New York on August 21, 1970.

©1970 Elizabeth Pond

Miss Pond is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Christian Science Monitor. This article may be published with credit to Miss Pond, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Alicia Patterson Fund