Arguably, the French did not want the Social-Democratic Party to sustain its considerable political influence over the Hòa Hảo community, notably the Self-Defense armed forces. The French military commanders sought the cooperation of the Hòa Hảo armed units in order to pacify the Hậu Giang areas. The French definitely did not intend to encourage any political activities, let alone promote the national independence slogans advocated by the Social-Democratic Party.
In 1947 the French were only willing to discuss a measure of limited autonomy for Vietnam. Paris declined to consider the countrys independence. In particular, the French analysts concluded that the Social-Democratic Partys priorities of Vietnams independence and territorial integrity were irreconcilable with the French neo-colonialist “divide-and-rule” policies. Therefore the French viewed leaders of the Social-Democratic Party as potentially dangerous rebels.
Although the Social-Democratic Party vowed to embrace all non-Việt Minh nationalist elements, the French believed that its creation was a political maneuver of Nguyễn Văn Sâm and Nguyễn Bảo Toàn, aka Nguyễn Hoàn Bích. The French suspected that their stratagem was aimed at politicizing and radicalizing the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community.
In the aftermath of the deal clinched on May 18, the French pursued a twofold policy with regard to the Hòa Hảo community. The French military supplied weapons to the Hòa Hảo units in order to destroy the Việt Minh forces in Hậu Giang area. On the other hand, the French authorities banned all political activities of the Social-Democratic Party. Moreover, many activists and leaders of the party were detained.
Furthermore, after signing the agreement with the French, Trần Văn Soái distributed a written statement and hence declared that his course of action remained in line with the declaration and program of the Social-Democratic Party. Therefore the Hòa Hảo military leader implicitly supported the partys course of action aimed at the national independence and social reforms.
Not surprisingly, the French decided to disconnect Trần Văn Soái and the partys activists. Major De Mallerey reportedly believed that the Social-Democratic Party activists were to be declared outlaws and held responsible for the on-going turmoil in the Mekong Delta. According to De Mallerey, head of the French liaison office to communicate with the Hòa Hảo, the partys activists sparked rumors about an imminent return of Huỳnh Phú Sổ while such rumors created religious fervor in the Delta provinces.
Subsequently, many activists and officials of the Social-Democratic Party became subjected to French reprisals. Some party members fled from the Hậu Giang area to Saigon in a futile attempt to disappear among the urban crowds. Nonetheless, the Saigon-based Central Committee of the Social-Democratic Party did not last as its leaders became targets of terrorist outrages.
Notably, on October 10, 1947 Nguyễn Văn Sâm was shot and killed inside a bus in Chợ Lớn. Although the attack took place around 6 PM, the French police failed to find witnesses or apprehend perpetrators. Also in late 1947, Dr. Trần Văn Tâm also fell victim of an armed assault. His son Trần Kim Thiện told me in an interview that a group of strangers wearing masks forced their way into his fathers house around 4 AM and fatally shot Dr. Trần Văn Tâm on the spot. The murderers did not take any documents or valuables and the official investigation concluded that it was an attack by the Việt Minh.
The French authorities announced that Communist agents had perpetrated both murders yet they failed to provide any compelling evidence. However, it was widely understood that the French had a hand in the killings. There were rumors that Nguyễn Văn Sâm and Dr. Trần Văn Tâm were either assassinated by agents of French intelligence or the French deliberately tipped the Việt Minh terrorists.
During the fall of 1947, another prominent leader of the Social-Democratic Party, Trần Văn Ân, was offered information minister post in the government of the south headed by Nguyễn Văn Xuân. Although Trần Văn Ân accepted the post as an individual, he was keen to promote the agenda of the Social-Democratic Party, including a call for the unity of Vietnam. Not surprisingly, the French authorities strongly objected his presence in the generally pro-French government. Trần Văn Ân recalled that the French commander-in-chief in the south, General Boyer de la Tour had repeatedly demanded Nguyễn Văn Xuân to oust the information minister. The French general sent a letter to Nguyễn Văn Xuân and informed him that within the next 24 hours Trần Văn Âns personal safety would no longer be guaranteed. ”Dépassé 24 heures je ne répondrai plus de sa sécurité.”. Finally, Trần Văn Ân was forced to quit the government and fled to France.
In early 1948, many activists of the Social-Democratic Party fled to the Hiệp Xương area near Hòa Hảo village. They set up temporary headquarters there under the protection of Huỳnh Công Bộ. The partys activists launched political and military courses and published the Dân Xã newspaper in this area. They hoped that the French military was not going to attack the Hòa Hảo Holy Land.
However, in mid-1948 the French sent troops to the Hiệp Xương area and ordered the destruction of the partys headquarters. Subsequently, the partys Interprovincial Committee ceased to exist and all three partys newspapers were shut down. Although the French military was well aware of the close ties between Huỳnh Công Bộ and the Social-Democratic Party, they refrained from detaining Huỳnh Phú Sổs father. Therefore, it might be argued that the French succeeded in their tactics of disconnecting the Hòa Hảo community from its political organization, the Social-Democratic Party.
Nonetheless, some partys elements remained in the Mekong Delta. On December 6, 1948, they issued a statement to support the “Bảo Đại solution” in order to combat Communist expansion and restore peace in Việt Nam. The Social-Democratic Party claimed it represented “more than two million people” as well as the armed forces. Subsequently, the partys representatives visited Hong Kong and attended a number of negotiation sessions with Emperor Bảo Đại.
In short, the disappearance of Huỳnh Phú Sổ on April 16, 1947 sparked a leadership crisis and the Hòa Hảo organization weakened considerably. In the meantime, the French aimed at removing the Hòa Hảo political leadership and disconnecting politicians and intellectuals from the mass of adepts and the Hòa Hảo armed forces. Basically, by the end of 1948, the French plan was finalized and Hòa Hảo military leaders acquired indisputable position of power within the Hòa Hảo community. They emerged from the lower social strata and were not adequately educated and trained to head a mass movement such as Hòa Hảo Buddhism.
Following the removal of the Hòa Hảo political leadership, the French opted to divide the Hòa Hảo armed forces into several factions. This tactics was well in line with the colonial “divide and rule” policy, practiced by the French during the previous decades. Although the French recognized Trần Văn Soái as commander-in-chief of the Hòa Hảo armed units, they simultaneously encouraged the creation of alternative quasi-independent armed groups. This is how the units of Lâm Thành Nguyên, Nguyễn Giác Ngộ, Lê Quang Vinh gradually split from the army of Trần Văn Soái. Subsequently, some smaller groups emerged, including the units of Võ Văn Điểu, Nguyễn Thành Đầy, as well as Nguyễn Văn Huês force in Long Xuyên. The French also encouraged some Hòa Hảo provincial and district military commanders to act independently.
It has been argued that the Hòa Hảo army suffered countless divisions in large measure due to the personal ambitions of its leaders. It should be pointed out that the French military was in a perfect position - had they wanted to do so - to forestall any internal conflicts and divisions among the Hòa Hảo.
On the other hand, the French provided insufficient funding to the Hòa Hảo units. In order to become self-sufficient, some Hòa Hảo armed groups had to rely on illegal methods such as charging taxes or misappropriating unclaimed property.
With a backdrop of sharp divisions among the Hòa Hảo military, the separate armed groups became virtually unable to create any sort of political pressure or act as a distinct political force. These groups were only in position to control relatively small areas by militarily means. As the French succeeded in eliminating the Social-Democratic Party and dividing the Hòa Hảo army, the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community, once a coherent mass movement, began evolving into a conglomerate of quasi-independent armed groups.