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Historical Dictionary

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OPIUM

For centuries, opium has been grown throughout areas of southern China and upper South and Southeast Asia. Opium has traditionally been used for medicinal, ritual, social, and leisure purposes in Asia. And for centuries, Asians and Europeans traded in the opium commerce running from India to China via maritime port cities and across the mountains dividing northern Southeast Asian from southern China, especially via Yunnan province bordering upper Laos and northwestern Vietnam. In upper Indochina and southern China, the Hmong were heavily involved in this form of agriculture, one that was strictly controlled by the French during the colonial period. A monopoly, opium became one of the colonial state’s most important sources of revenue. The French administered the opium monopoly until 1945, when the Japanese coup de force in March brought down colonial Indochina.

While the authorities of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) may have outlawed the purchase and use of opium upon taking power later that year, they sought to tap into this trade since it provided them with a highly valuable export, one which they could sell in order to buy arms, munitions, and medicines, and one which they could transport easily and secretly.

In the early 1950s, as the forces of the DRV moved into opium-producing Hmong and Tai regions in northwestern Vietnam, the French countered by infiltrating their newly created Groupement de commandos mixtes aéroportés (GCMA) into these zones. There, the GCMA entered into contact with anti-DRV Tai and Hmong leaders in order to create a clandestine maquis among the minorities from which the French could harass the DRV military operations in the northwest. One of the leaders of the GCMA in this area, Roger Trinquier, contacted the Hmong leader, Tūbī Līfung, in order to obtain his support for the GCMA fighting the DRV. In exchange for his collaboration, however, Tūbī Līfung insisted that the French provide him with the means to sell his opium crop each year. Given that the French state could not and would not buy the opium as in the past, the GCMA was secretly authorized to transport the harvest by air to Saigon, where Tūbī found a buyer in the person of Le Van Vien, the head of the Binh Xuyen, himself deeply involved in the entertainment and drug business in Saigon-Cholon.

Recognizing the importance of countering the enemy by every means possible in this decisive phase of the war, during the spring of 1953, General Henri Navarre authorized Trinquier and Tūbī to find a way to transport the opium to Saigon. From this emerged “operation X”. In short, Trinquier organized the transport of stocks of 800 kg of raw opium on DC3s, which his agents flew to the Binh Xuyen’s representatives at a secret GCMA base near Dalat. From there, the opium traveled by truck to Saigon. A few days later, Tūbī would fly into Dalat to be paid.

Given the budgetary constraints under which the French army was operating in Indochina by 1953, it is clear that the attraction of the opium trade was strong for GCMA leaders. For one, the French army gained the support of Tūbī’s Hmong fighters in a strategically important zone where the DRV was expanding its politico-military movements. Second, after each opium deal was sealed, Tūbī deposited 50,000 francs in the coffers of the cash-strapped GCMA. The GCMA’s maquis operations in the northwest were virtually “self-financed” thanks to this opium trade. However, despite the important sums generated by this traffick, the idea that the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was fought over the control of the opium market is an exaggeration. See also ALCOHOLISM; DIEN BIEN PHU, BATTLE PREPARATION AND CONTEXT; ECONOMY OF WAR; FINANCIAL COST OF THE WAR, FRANCE.