Elizabeth Pond
Elizabeth Pond

Fellowship Title:

The Fading of the Neo-Can Lao Party

Elizabeth Pond
January 19, 1970

Fellowship Year

Like everything political in South Vietnam, the neo-Can Lao party too has proved evanescent.  Plans are going ahead for the formal founding of the Republican Mass Party, as it is now called, but it is not to be the strong central force its leaders had originally hoped for (See EP-2).

The reasons for this development lie in conflict of interests among the initial organizers of the party and in general reluctance of Vietnamese to commit themselves politically, given the uncertainties of American troop withdrawal and therefore of internal Vietnamese politics.

The consulting architects of what might have been a new Southern Can Lao were Nguyen Cao Thang, Mrs. Ngyen Thi Hai, Senator Tran Chinh Thanh, and Cao Xuan Vy, the original organizer of Ngo Dinh Diem’s Republican Youth.

Nguyen Cao Thang, according to one informed source, was seeking to Protect the sizable fortune amassed from his pharmacy wholesaling and. also to prove further his Political usefulness to President Nguyen Van Thieu.  Thang is one Of Thieu’s closest political advisers, serving in his most public role as the president’s liaison man with the National Assembly.  He doesn’t appear to be in any danger of falling from Thieu’s favor, but if he could have created a strong and useful pro-Thieu party, out of the many competent and organizationally adept former Diemists, he could have only enhanced himself in Thieu’s eyes.

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Hai, reputedly South Vietnam’s third richest pharmacist (after Thang and a French company), likewise sought to protect her fortune, but had no concomitant political aims, according to Vietnamese sources.

Sen. Than Chinh Thanh has been seeking his own political and governmental restoration since he was dropped last August as Minister of Foreign Affairs – reportedly at the urging of Thang.  He drew a short-term lot in the Senatorial drawing held recently and must therefore run for re-election this year.  The backing of a strong party would have helped his election campaign and any bid for return to a ministerial post.

As for Cao Xuan Vy, the former organizer of the late President Ngo Dinh Diem’s Republican Youth, he hoped to utilize the political funds and influence of Thang to reconstruct an organization similar to the Republican Youth.  He was pushed in this direction by a number of old officials of that organization.  Vy lacked the personal prestige (as well as the money) to pull off a resurgence of the group himself.

Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem entered the picture only indirectly, through his wish that Vy would organize the Peoples Self-Defense Forces – the local citizens’ defense units of those too young and too old to be regular soldiers that sprang into being following the 1968 Tet offensive – with the same vigor that he displayed in organizing the Republican Youth in Diem’s time.  A good nationwide cadre infrastructure of any kind (except for the National Liberation Front) is lacking in South Vietnam, and Khiem apparently had some hopes of turning the PSDF into such an infrastructure, in the time-honored fashion of patriotic youth groups.  Khiem did not participate in the working discussions about the party.

Two other personalities figured in preliminary considerations also, though they did not play the major role of the others.  The first was General Tran Van Trung, director of armed forces political warfare.  He would have directed any major recruiting and propagandizing campaign for the party in the armv if plans had materialized.  The other was Tran Quoc Buu, the head of South Vietnam’s one strong union, the CVT.  The CVT is often cited as the only non-religious grass-roots organization in South Vietnam.  Some 300,000 members come to meetings and even pay dues every so often – a unique phenomenon in this country.  Buu flirts chronically with an active political role, but he has never quite taken the definitive plunge since Ngo Dinh Nhu cut him down and prevented him from monopolizing trade union activity in the country in Diem’s time.  He did take his following of workers and peasants into the amalgam National Alliance for Social Revolution set up in the post-Tet 1968 period.  The NASR proved to be as ephemeral as most parties in South Vietnam, however, and Buu has talked of forming a really strong labor party.

To date, he has not done so.  Union rules forbid political activity by the CVT, and Buu apparently has no strong reason to try to circumvent the regulations.  As long as he does work within the restrictions there is always a dilemma.  If he sets someone else up as political leader of a formal labor party – as he has reportedly been hoping to do – while himself remaining the power behind the throne, his nominee might easilv try to seize control, whatever the prior arrangements.  If, on the other hand, Buu takes on leadership of some new labor party and relinquishes his present CVT position, there is the very real danger that the lieutenants who are urging him to do just that will take away control of the CVT – which after all has been a stable base for Buu’s noteworthy survival over the years.

In any case, each of the principals and the groups they represented naturally sought to use each of the others tactically to his own advantage without yielding himself to the profit of the other.  Suspicions were inherent even in the preliminary discussions of forming a Southern neo-Can Lao party.  An overriding common interest – or a single strong leader – might have smoothed over the differences, but the former did not exist and the latter did not emerge.

In the upshot, it was Thang who had the power and the money, and the others feared that they would simply shore up Thang and Thieu without reaping any benefit themselves.  This they considered the eventual mistake of the Nhan Xa, the Can Lao reincarnation of Central Vietnamese . They argued that if they leashed themselves firmly to Thieu, they would lose the support of their potential middle- and lower-level cadres.

More fundamentally, as nearly as an outsider can perceive, they simply did not think Thieu would remain strong enough in the future to outweigh their aversion to collaborating closely with a person who had helped overthrow their Diem and whom they did not respect personally.  Yet, on the other hand, they calculated that they could not build a strong party without government approval and money.  The practical difficulties even of such elementary moves as rallying Diemist officers who were scattered throughout the country after the 1963 coup were just too great without government assistance.

And so the Republican Mass Party is being founded with little fanfare and little expectation, another of South Vietnam’s innumerable political clubs.

In retrospect, it is impossible to say whether Thieu counted heavily on development of this party or whether he considered it merely another indecisive ploy.  Thang’s participation in the organizational discussions hinted at the former, while apparent Presidential unconcern as the party proved to be stillborn would suggest the latter.  Thieu’s style would suggest the latter as well.  The President is probably the most suspicious of a highly suspicious lot of politicians.  Instinctively, he prefers fragmenting opposition to building a strong centralized base that might be turned against him.  In this case too, he and Khiem may have been, specifically wary of stirring up gratuitously the backlash that is always aroused with any new Diemist moves.  Some backlash effect is observable anyway, even from the mere projection of the new party, but a real Can Lao upsurge would surely have caused more.

A Diemist recrudescence, then, either for or against Thieu, is not yet in the making.

Received in NewYork on January 19, 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