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Following the outbreak of full-scale war with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) on 19 December 1946, the French assigned increasing geopolitical importance to controlling the central highlands in northern Cochinchina and much of Annam, as they did to turning the minority ethnic groups living there against the Viet Minh operating from the lowlands.

However, as Oscar Salemink has shown, this policy of divide and rule adopted by the likes of High Commissioner Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu had its roots in the colonial past. In the late 19th century, as the French moved to consolidate their hold over Indochina, they paid particular attention to the strategic location of the highlands, especially as they moved to roll back the influence of Siam (today’s Thailand). Having consolidated colonial Indochina, French attention subsequently focused on the highlands as a way of controlling anti-colonial insurrections among the Vietnamese concentrated in the lowlands. French administrators in the highlands, such as the legendary Léopold Sabatier, contributed to the making of a separate non-Vietnamese identity for upland peoples by opposing Vietnamese immigration to the plateaux. He emphasized a separate ethnic identity for the montagnards, and even created a customary law code for the Rhadé. Administrators, military officers, and ethnographers contributed to this ethnicization by classifying four major “tribes” in the central highlands by the 1930s – the Bahnar, Sedang, Rhadé, and Jarai. Soon French colonial specialists of the central highlands were speaking of an “essential cultural unity” emerging from historical tribal diversity. And many French increasingly defined this identity in terms of its “historic” opposition to all that was Vietnamese. Military strategists worried by Vietnamese revolts further emphasized the importance of the highlands and the need “to save this race, to disentangle it from all harmful foreign influences through a direct administration, and to tie these tribes to us … These proud peoples with their spirit of independence will provide us with elite troops, (serve) as safety valves in case of internal insurgency, and (act) as powerful combat units in case of external war”.

French strategists returning to rebuild colonial Indochina after World War II built upon this pre-existing French montagnard policy, extending it now to other ethnic minority areas in the highlands of Indochina, especially among the Tai and the Nung in northwestern Vietnam. In May 1946, faced with the DRV’s territorial claim to all of Vietnam (Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin), the French high commissioner for Indochina Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu issued a decree making the central highlands a “Special Administrative Circumscription”, better known as the autonomous region for the Populations montagnardes du Sud-Indochinois or PMSI. Administered by a special French delegate, it consisted of the five upland provinces in Annam but excluded montagnard populations in the lower part of the territory as well as in Cochinchina, Cambodia, and Laos. Thierry d’Argenlieu’s strategy was to contain and if possible roll back the DRV. The same was true in the south.

Four days after establishing the PMSI, on 1 June 1946 Thierry d’Argenlieu announced the creation of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Cochinchina. The high commissioner had no trouble incorporating ethnic minority highland peoples into this new “Cochinchinese” entity given its alignment on the French. Engaged in intense negotiations at Fontainebleau, DRV officials protested vigorously against both French creations. To no avail. As one French spokesman countered the DRV’s national claim to the highlands: “neither geographically, historically nor ethnically, can the highlands be considered a part of Vietnam”. DRV delegates reminded the French of Alsace-Lorraine. On 21 June, French troops received the order to retake the highlands from the DRV below the 16th parallel.

Significantly, the French were no more willing to cede the upland regions to the counter-revolutionary Vietnamese government that they began to push in the form of the Bao Dai solution. Colonel Jacques Massu even proposed, and Thierry d’Argenlieu approved, a plan to allow retired French veterans to establish plantations in the central highlands with the goal of maintaining French control and promoting a separate identity to check Vietnamese nationalism. Results were limited, however. With the Chinese communists on their way to victory in the north in 1949, the French finally allowed Bao Dai’s government to assert its “eminent rights” over the highlands. However, this French Associated State of Vietnam had to recognize the “free evolution of these populations in relation to their traditions and customs”.

Things changed again in early 1950, when the Cold War saw the American-led bloc recognize Bao Dai’s Vietnam and pressure the French to decolonize further in Vietnam in order to better contain the nationalist attraction of communist Vietnam. For example, two decrees in 1950 “attached to Bao Dai personally all provinces and territories inhabited by non-Vietnamese populations traditionally under the court of Hue”, meaning the five provinces of Annam. The Crown Domain of the Southern Higlander Country (Domaine de la couronne du pays montagnards du Sud) or PMS was thus born. Although the French nominally recognized Vietnamese sovereignty over the highlands in the form of this crown domain, they maintained a statut particulier for the highlands because of “special French obligations” and continued to direct the PMS through their special delegate, a Frenchman, not a Vietnamese representative of the Associated State. In May 1951, Bao Dai signed a law promulgating the creation of a “special regulation” designed to provide more highlander participation in local affairs all the while reaffirming the “eminent rights” of Vietnam over this territory. However, Vietnamese national control over the central highlands remained incomplete until the end of the conflict in 1954.

While the montagnards had to navigate at least one French colonial and two Vietnamese national projects during nine years of war, the conflict also gave rise to profound changes. For one, the French and the Associated State of Vietnam promoted efforts to produce an educated anti-Viet Minh elite. Hundreds of young men coming from across the highlands met each other in the classrooms of the Collège Sabbatier in Ban Me Thuot, studied what became a common upland language, Rhadé, accepted administrative positions outside their native lands, and in so doing developed long-lasting and often unprecedented relationships extending across the hills. Marriage across clan lines often resulted. Similar things happened in the combat units created by the Franco-Vietnamese forces to fight the DRV forces. In short, the Indochina War gave rise to a new common “highlander” socio-political identity, one that would assume national goals within a short period of time. In 1953, the State of Vietnam counted an estimated 500,000 highland people in the Crown Domain (excluding parts of former Cochinchina). See also TAI FEDERATION.