In May 1955 the leaders of the Hòa Hảo and the Bình Xuyên decided to resist the government of Ngô Đình Diệm. Yet it should be pointed out that the Hòa Hảo and the Bình Xuyên armed units had a history of successful counter-insurgency operations against the Việt Minh, during which they enjoyed the support of the French air force and artillery units. Contrariwise, in mid-1955 the sect troops had to combat the National Army, which relied on air force and artillery support. Moreover, the sect forces were suddenly forced to flee their strongholds in the secure areas and hide in guerrilla hideouts without any proper preparation. Only Lê Quang Vinh had some troops in the maquis.
Correspondingly, when the Bình Xuyên troops were forced out of their urban stronghold near the Y-Bridge inside the Saigon-Cholon area, they eventually proved unable to sustain organized resistance from their hideout in Rừng Sát marshland. On October 24, 1955 the last Bình Xuyên unit discontinued its military action in the Rừng Sát area. Some elements of the Bình Xuyên forces loyal to Bảy Môn refused to surrender and eventually joined the National Liberation Front, or NLF. Their move became an important part of Communist propaganda.
Likewise, when the forces of Trần Văn Soái left their former headquarters in Cái Vồn they lacked guerrilla bases and hideouts. Although they were surrounded by the supportive population, they failed to build up sufficient stocks of food and war materiel. The Hòa Hảo commanders decided to build a new military zone in the Đồng Tháp Mười area yet it was an impromptu plan, which could not be fulfilled without proper preparations. The Hòa Hảo forces were also desperately short of time as in late 1955 the government assigned six infantry divisions and launched a massive assault against the Hòa Hảo resistance fighters, known as the Đinh Tiên Hoàng operation.
Moreover, in the Đồng Tháp Mười area the Hòa Hảo forces faced people who tended to support the Việt Minh since 1945 as well as clandestine Communist cells. The Communist cadres reportedly staged demonstrations to support what was described as “the Hòa Hảo resistance against the Americans and Diệm.” Although the Hòa Hảo commanders refrained from any contacts with the Communists, the propaganda apparatus of Ngô Đình Diệm government repeatedly alleged that Hòa Hảo forces were cooperating with the Việt Minh. Likewise, all claims of French assistance to the Hòa Hảo forces were in fact a propaganda ploy of the Ngô Đình Diệm regime.
As a matter of fact, the remnants of the once mighty Hòa Hảo army had neither the resources nor the determination to keep on fighting. On February 19, 1956, Trần Văn Soái and the remnants of his forces surrendered. The former Hòa Hảo commander in chief was exiled to Dalat.
Only Lê Quang Vinh refused to surrender and his forces were still resisting. He was lured to talks and captured on April 13, 1956. Such a trap was set up by South Vietnam's former Ambassador to Tokyo, Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ.
Lê Quang Vinhs trial became a focus of public attention in the South. Lâm Lễ Trinh, who had represented the prosecution at the trial, told me in an interview how the litigation had taken place. According to Lâm Lễ Trinh, he had a phone call from Justice Minister Nguyễn Văn Sĩ who invited him to attend a meeting with the Interior Minister and head of the presidential office Nguyễn Hữu Châu. Subsequently, Nguyễn Hữu Châu invited Lâm Lễ Trinh into the presidential palace and then guided him into Ngô Đình Diệms bedroom where the President used to hold most confidential meetings.
Ngô Đình Diệm told Lâm Lễ Trinh that he had been put in charge of “a very important prosecution case,” namely the case of Lê Quang Vinh. Immediately afterwards the President assigned a helicopter to urgently bring Lâm Lễ Trinh to Cần Thơ where the prosecutor was to meet with Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ and General Dương Văn Minh. Both were in charge of the Đinh Tiên Hoàng operation to pacify the western provinces of the Mekong Delta and Lâm Lễ Trinh was told to discuss with them “how to file an indictment.”
According to Dương Văn Minh, Lê Quang Vinh was apprehended in the course of a cleansing operation in the Chắc Cà Đao area of Long Xuyên province. Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ argued that an appropriate indictment against Lê Quang Vinh was to be filed in order to hold a formal trial.
Subsequently, Lâm Lễ Trinh drove to Long Xuyên and Châu Đốc to meet with local judges and law enforcement officers. Notably, Lâm Lễ Trinh assigned Dương Thiệu Sinh from Long Xuyên and Đoàn Bá Lộc from Châu Đốc to compile an appropriate indictment against Lê Quang Vinh. Both judges indicated there had been a number of complaints relative to what was described as “illegal acts” allegedly committed by Lê Quang Vinh and his troops.
Lâm Lễ Trinh also visited Lê Quang Vinh in his solitary cell at the Cần Thơ municipal prison. The former Hòa Hảo general was wearing a black robe and insisted that he was innocent as his forces had been implicated in nothing but fighting the Việt Minh. Lê Quang Vinh did not ask for improved conditions for his detention but only asked to start his trial the sooner the better.
In a few days after the meeting, Lâm Lễ Trinh was summoned to Saigon to report to President Ngô Đình Diệm about the legal action against Lê Quang Vinh. The prosecutor specifically asked the President about the obvious political repercussions of the trial and Ngô Đình Diệm stated that Lê Quang Vinh was an important Hòa Hảo presonality hence the case was of utmost importance both in legal and political terms. Moreover, Lâm Lễ Trinh recalled that Ngô Đình Diệm had told him urgently to start the lawsuit in case any evidence implicating Lê Quang Vinh was discovered. The President said that the trial was to be held in Cần Thơ as a special hearing. Lâm Lễ Trinh remarked that the current legislation stipulated that defendants had a right to be represented by lawyers. Ngô Đình Diệm retorted that it was no problem and Lê Quang Vinhs family members could retain any lawyer they wished.
In fact, Lê Quang Vinhs defense team included two famous lawyers, Vương Quang Nhường and Lê Ngọc Chấn. Former Quốc Dân Đảng activist, Lê Ngọc Chấn served as defense minister in the first cabinet of Ngô Đình Diệm. Head of the Lawyers Association, Vương Quang Nhường previously worked as justice minister in the Trần Văn Hữu cabinet.
Lâm Lễ Trinh collected scores of complaints by the local population relative to the action of Ba Cụts troops and promptly filed the indictment against Lê Quang Vinh. The case was moved from Long Xuyên and Châu Đốc to Cần Thơ. Moreover, Justice Minister Nguyễn Văn Sĩ ordered an open trial and loudspeakers were fixed outside the courthouse to inform the public.
Judge Huỳnh Hiệp Thành chaired the trial, which was covered by a number of reporters from Saigon. Many Hòa Hảo followers came to Cần Thơ to observe the indictment. Both Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ and Dương Văn Minh attended the hearing as invited guests. As a reward for trapping Lê Quang Vinh, Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ was made Vice President.
In the wake of the prosecutions arguments, delivered by Lâm Lễ Trinh, the defense team of the Hòa Hảo general stepped in. Vương Quang Nhường concentrated on legal arguments while Lê Ngọc Chấn highlighted the political implications of the case. They argued that there were no evidence directly implicating Lê Quang Vinh in acts of misconduct by his subordinates hence the defendant could not be held directly responsible for all acts of the people under his command. Notably, Lê Ngọc Chấn stated that Lê Quang Vinh had been an adamant anti-Communist and anti-French military leader and even if his troops committed certain illegal acts, Lê Quang Vinh could not be held directly responsible.
Lâm Lễ Trinh recalled that during the hearings Lê Quang Vinh showed no signs of anxiety. He vigorously debated the prosecutions arguments, speaking loudly and clearly. In short, Lê Quang Vinh behaved as if he was still a military commander.
Finally, judge Huỳnh Hiệp Thành announced that the defendant was sentenced to death. Nonetheless, Lê Quang Vinh remained tranquil and declared in his final statement: “I was an anti-Communist fighter and never committed any crimes as alleged at this trial. Im innocent.”
The general public reportedly had mixed feelings over the proceedings. The Hòa Hảo followers believed that the trial was rigged and Lê Quang Vinh committed no crimes. However, other people people viewed Lê Quang Vinh as a notorious and frightening adventurer. Yet nobody denied that he was an anti-Communist fighter.
The Supreme Criminal Court rejected the appeal filed by Lê Quang Vinh's lawyers and upheld the verdict of the Cần Thơ court. According to the Constitution of the First Republic, the President had an exclusive right to pardon criminals sentenced to death. Lê Quang Vinh's lawyers filed a plea for amnesty yet Ngô Đình Diệm rejected the petition and upheld the death sentence. Lâm Lễ Trinh told the author that he was still unable to comprehend why the President had rejected the plea.
It has been widely understood that Lê Quang Vinh's case was political as Ngô Đình Diệm opted to exploit legal means to eliminate the Hòa Hảo general. Notably, former Saigon lawyer Trần Sơn Hà told me in an interview that legal proceedings in Lê Quang Vinh's case were carried out in an unusual way. First of all, the fact that Ngô Đình Diệm paid special attention to this case and personally assigned a prosecutor to handle the litigation clearly suggest that the case had a political agenda. Although Long Xuyên and Châu Đốc provinces, where the alleged crimes reportedly had taken place, laid outside jurisdiction of Cần Thơ judge Huỳnh Hiệp Thành, the trial was moved to Cần Thơ anyway.
Nonetheless, Ngô Đình Diệm refrained from appointing a special tribunal and used the existing legal system to prosecute Lê Quang Vinh. Therefore the involvement of the Saigon prosecutor and the Cần Thơ judge in this case amounted to a clear violation of the current legislation, according to Trần Sơn Hà. Not surprisingly, the litigation ended up in a death sentence despite the lack of any direct evidence incriminating Lê Quang Vinh.
Ngô Đình Diệm also rejected Lê Quang Vinh's appeal in a move that might have been also suggested certain political considerations. The regime was arguably keen to eliminate its political opponents by fully-legal means. A similar pattern of legal action was used against the Caodaist General Nguyễn Thành Phương, who was detained and convicted for alleged “theft and possession of stolen property.”
Moreover, the authorities thoroughly prepared to execute Lê Quang Vinh as a guillotine was brought from Saigons Chí Hòa prison. Lâm Lễ Trinh recalled that he had declined to witness the beheading yet he had visited Lê Quang Vinh in his prison cell shortly befor the execution. The former Hòa Hảo general reportedly remained calm. Moreover, during his final days he painted a sketchy map of a unified Vietnam on the wall of his cell and wrote “Long live Vietnam” Việt Nam Muôn Năm. below the picture. Lê Quang Vinh reportedly opted to shake hands with his prosecutor and told Lâm Lễ Trinh that he had no hard feelings over the prosecution. Lâm Lễ Trinh asked if the condemned wished a visit from a vicar and Lê Quang Vinh replied he was not a Catholic but a follower of Hòa Hảo Buddhism, hence, he wished to meet with a dignitary of his religion.
Lê Quang Vinh was guillotined at Cần Thơ on July 13. In the morning, curiosity-seekers gathered in large numbers in the area of Cần Thơ cemetery where the decapitation was about to take place. However, armed guards did not allow the crowd to witness the execution. Lê Quang Vinh reportedly remained calm until his last moment, yet, judge Huỳnh Hiệp Thành later conceded that he had lost sleep for a week after witnessing the horrible scene of decapitation.
Initially, Lê Quang Vinhs body was buried at Cần Thơ cemetery. Yet in a precaution to ensure against his proper funeral in a jungle hideout of the Hòa Hảo resistance fighters, Lê Quang Vinhs body was reportedly unearthed, hacked into several pieces, and each portion was buried in a separate place. General Trần Văn Đôn recalled that Dương Văn Minh assigned his trusted bodyguard, Nguyễn Văn Nhung, to destroy Lê Quang Vinhs body. Subsequently, in the course of the November 1963 coup, Captain Nguyễn Văn Nhung reportedly murdered brothers Ngô Đình Diệm and Ngô Đình Nhu. Trần Văn Đôn. Les Guerres du Vietnam. Paris: Vertiges, 1985, pp. 170-171.
In retrospect, Lâm Lễ Trinh conceded that Lê Quang Vinhs case was clearly a political trial as Ngô Đình Diệm and his government aimed at destroying all the sect forces. During the First Indochina War, Lê Quang Vinh controlled a sort of quasi-autonomous region, which was subject to constant guerrilla attacks by the Việt Minh forces. Subsequently, robberies and killings often happened yet it was virtually impossible to determine actual perpetrators. Nonetheless, the government of Ngô Đình Diệm accused Lê Quang Vinh of all crimes which had happened in the territory under his control. On the other hand, Lâm Lễ Trinh acknowledged that the court had failed to investigate whether complaints against Lê Quang Vinh had been really justified.
Furthermore, it might be argued that accusations against Lê Quang Vinh could come only from pro-Việt Minh or pro-government elements. The Hòa Hảo followers, who constituted a vast majority in the areas of Long Xuyên and Châu Đốc provinces, once controlled by Lê Quang Vinh, would have never complained. There was little doubt that the Communists hated Lê Quang Vinh because he managed to cut their supply lines between the Đồng Tháp and U Minh military regions. Therefore it might be argued that the government and the Communists were equally eager to eliminate Lê Quang Vinh.
Hence the historical cycle of armed struggle by the Hòa Hảo community was arguably completed. In the fall 1945 three Hòa Hảo activists - Nguyễn Xuân Thiệp, Trần Văn Hoành and Huỳnh Thạnh Mậu - headed a protest against the Communist dictatorship and were detained and executed in Cần Thơ. Paradoxically, when South Vietnam moved towards national independence the government, which described itself as a nationalist regime, ordered the decapitation of a nationalist fighter who opposed the Communists and the French.
In the wake of Lê Quang Vinhs demise, only a small unit under Trương Kim Cù continued armed resistance in the areas near the Cambodian border. Finally, Trương Kim Cù ordered his troops to disperse while he led his officers to Cambodia where they sought political asylum. There was not a single unit of the Hòa Hảo armed forces, which opted to cooperate with the Việt Minh due to opposition to Ngô Đình Diệms regime.