Mass mysticism, moving with modern arms

Monday, September 6th, 2010

As Hilaire du Berrier explains in Background to Betrayal, Vietnam had a number of factions vying for power, not just Communists and anti-Communists. The Cao Dai sect stands out as even more colorful than the Robin Hood-like Binh Xuyen bandits of the swamps:

As for the Cao Dai, it was French General de la Tour who approved bringing into the war against Ho chi Minh the private army of the Cao Dai pope.

The Vietminh were like water; they were everywhere and nowhere. The country was their sponge, and de la Tour decided to wrest a cleared space from the fluid enemy. De la Tour had informers by the thousands. The intelligence service of the French army spent piastres by the millions. Information was exchanged and traded on a regular market, but most of it was false. The truth was too dangerous. Leaks invariably led to the honest informer’s getting his throat cut.

So in 1948 the same Cao Dai forces that had in 1945 embarked on a massacre of the French at the behest of the Japanese were brought into the fight as allies against the Vietminh.

In 1945 the Japanese had armed the Cao Dai and moved their flying columns into Saigon when defeat became inevitable. Cao Dai leaders never doubted for a minute that if all the foreigners in Cochin China [Southern Vietnam] had their throats cut, the country would fall to them. The screams that punctuated that frightful night in the spring of 1945 in Saigon will never be forgotten by the Europeans who survived it.

Yet the Cao Dai pope seemed such a gentle little man when one sipped tepid champagne with him at ten in the morning! He was known as His Holiness, Pope Pham cong Tac. Beside him, in immense dignity with his flowing beard, sat the Bao Dao, defender of the faith, the last time the author visited them in their place of exile in Pnom Penh, Cambodia.

The world of the little Vietnamese is inhabited by strange spirits. Everywhere about him is a sense of mystery, and before the mystery his impulse is to band together with other Vietnamese to from a brotherhood bound by inner secrets expressed in obscure symbols. Because the all-seeing eye became one of the symbols of the Cao Dai sect, students of occult societies have attempted to link Vietnam’s powerful sect with older orders and offshoots of the Illuminati. Actually, to do so is to accord it a genealogy it does not have.

The men who sat around Ngo van Chieu’s table in 1919 while he communicated with the spirits by means of the “corbeille à bec,” a primitive, beak-shaped gadget holding a pencil which in the hands of the adept communicated the daily message, were minor functionaries with at least rudimentary French educations. Victor Hugo was the literary giant of their class, so it was only natural that he should communicate with them. The symbol of the all-seeing eye was familiar to them. They had read of the Grand Orient lodge of the Free Masonry in their French history.

Long before the master with whom they were in contact identified himself on Christmas Eve of 1925 as “Cao Dai, the Pure August One, the Oldest of the Buddhas, Sakyamuni and Jesus Christ,” Chieu had plundered the Grand Orient of its symbol, without any deep knowledge of that secret lodge or any other.

When Chieu got back to Saigon his first important convert was a hard-drinking, wildly gambling reprobate named Le van Trung, who overnight threw himself into Cao Daism with such fervor that he seized its direction from Chieu. Trung became the sect’s first pope. Till his death, or “disincarnation” in Cao Dai phraseology, in 1934, the sect never ceased to expand. Then came Pham cong Tac, the former customs official.

Asia was in a state of flux. The nha-que, the toiling little man of Asia’s human anthills, was rejecting many of his old superstitions. And Pope Pham cong Tac was a genius at administration. His discipline and leadership hardened the organization. Disjointed bands had protected the sect against incursions by Vietminh guerrillas and the French. Pham con Tac welded them into an army, the only army outside the Vietminh that possessed all the elements necessary for a crusade: a mysticism, an ideal, a large following, a cohesive organization and courageous fighters. In sum, an instrument of domination.

And Cao Dai ambitions were boundless. To push ahead, to gain more strength, to possess more followers, to control more ground, to acquire more wealth, by duplicity, treachery, brutality or religion, was their aim.

Political organizations were suppressed by the French police, but police were powerless against a religion. Under Pope Pham cong Tac the Cao Dai followers bled the Japanese for money as a special auxiliary force. Prince Cong De, a cousin of Bao Dai, was brought back from Japan to serve as a puppet, and the Cao Dai were hired to acclaim him. Without a qualm they swung over to Cong De as long as the money lasted. From the Japanese they swung to the Vietminh, till the Vietminh threatened the Cao Dai pope; then they became the allies of the French, and their holy see of Tay Ninh, with it great Cao Dai temple, became a pillar in the anti-Vietminh struggle.

Delirious bands, impervious to danger and fighting as though under a hypnotic spell, out-fought the chidois (sectors) of the Vietminh wherever they found them. Soldiers of the pope were suicides from the moment they started. They killed, and died as they killed, as though life were of no importance. If the French suffered an ambush, word was sent to the Cao Dai pope and a flying brigade cleared the area. What they did with their prisoners the French never knew. Some were herded back in columns, closely guarded lest the Vietminh try to liberate them. At the end of each column marched security officers. Between vehicles moved the shock troops. In the center came mortar bearers, accompanied by their ammunition coolies. Pushed on by bayonets were the prisoners, assassination squads of the Vietminh. The villages they had terrorized henceforth belonged to the Cao Dai.

On either side of the route of march, phantoms moved through the brush, scouts by the hundreds armed only with a hand grenade to protect the flanks and alert the column in the event of attack. Along the road an efficient alarm system operated.

It was mass mysticism, moving with modern arms. When a French general could not find the enemy he had only to call on the Cao Dai pope. A lying brigade would be dispatched, and in three months they would have a fort, the Vietminh would be gone — wiped out to a man. The nha-ques, the country people, converted to Cao Daism, would be working as spies or toiling as Cao Dai slaves to feed and serve the new organization.

Each time a Vietminh drive threatened a pacified area, France’s General de la Tour had only to give the Cao Dai a bit more money, a few more machine guns, and Vietminh implantation was succeeded by that of the Cao Dai.

In the end the general realized that in areas where the Vietminh had been, a new problem presented itself. Every youngster playing beside a road, every workman in a field, the woman selling produce or weaving a basket, the decrepit beggar lying beside a tree — every human being, no matter how young or old, how weak or humble — was against the Vietminh but also against the French. When the general staff realized this, the delicate game of balance and counterbalance started.

The Cao Dai sect recognizes three saints: Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo, and Nguyen Binh Khiem.

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