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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: May 2013

12 - Indochina at war


The Japanese arrive

As the Sino-Japanese War raged just over the northern border and as war in Europe shifted from threat to reality, a fresh upsurge of religious excitement spread in western Cochinchina. In July of 1939, in a village near the Seven Mountains near the Khmer border, a sickly but charismatic young man named Huynh Phu So (1919–1947) claimed to be a Buddha and attracted large numbers of followers. By the summer of 1940, the resulting uproar prompted the French to take him into custody. After nearly a year of confinement in a Cholon psychiatric hospital, he was allowed to return to the countryside under house arrest. In 1942, the Japanese, who had meanwhile entered southern Indochina, gained possession of him and thereafter cultivated his following as a pro-Japanese force. This movement came to be known by the name of Huynh Phu So’s home village, Hoa Hao. The Hoa Hao religion arose from the millenarian traditions of western Cochinchina, but instead of being an ephemeral movement as previous millenarian episodes had been, it gained coherence in the peculiar conditions of the Franco-Japanese wartime relationship.

The French Popular Front faded away during the course of 1938 and was replaced by a more conservative government that began to prepare for war. In August 1939, General George Catroux (1877–1969), the commander of French military forces in Indochina, replaced Brévié as governor general. Catroux had served in Indochina prior to the First World War and more recently had held colonial commands in Morocco, Algeria, and Syria. Within weeks of his appointment, the Indochina Communist Party was deprived of its legal status. Catroux focused on military preparations and enforced strict internal security, arresting many communists and other anti-colonial activists and confiscating their property.