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LÊ VǍN VIỄN (BẢY VIỄN, 1904–1972)

Best known leader of the Binh Xuyen who defected from the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) to those of Bao Dai and the French. Born in Cholon, he grew up street-wise, learning to box, frequenting secret societies, and increasingly on the wrong side of the law. On 14 May 1921, he was sentenced to 20 days in prison for theft. He was 17. Between 1921 and 1940, he was sentenced at least five more times for burglary, unauthorized possession of weapons, and “bad company” (associations de malfaiteurs). The French shipped him off to Poulo Condor. He succeeded in escaping only to be arrested again in December 1939. He was apparently released from jail in the early 1940s. During World War II, he joined a band of brigands and outlaws active in the village of Binh Xuyen south of Saigon, whence the name.

Following the overthrow of the French and the advent of the DRV, Le Van Vien and the Binh Xuyen supported the nationalist cause against the French. He briefly served as the commander in chief of Saigon-Cholon until the French forced the Viet Minh out of Saigon on 23 September 1945. In February 1946, the leader of the Binh Xuyen, Ba Duong, died in a firefight with the French and Le Van Vien was chosen to take over the movement as its supreme commander and head of its armed forces. For about two years, Le Van Vien allied the Binh Xuyen with the DRV and its army under the direction of Nguyen Binh. As the movement’s spokesman put it at the time, “From now on the Binh Xuyen bids farewell to its adventurous past and is now ready to swear its loyalty to the government and to sacrifice itself for the country”. Despite differences with Nguyen Binh and the DRV’s desire to create a unified, national army, in July 1946 Le Van Vien served as his deputy in war Zone VII (Khu Chien VII). However, serious problems continued to divide the two men. And the communist core at the helm of the DRV did little to assuage Binh Xuyen worries.

The final break occurred in June 1948, when Le Van Vien and forces loyal to him decided to crossover to the French-backed Vietnamese government. To formalize his new loyalty, Le Van Vien was received by General Pierre Boyer de la Tour and Bao Dai. On 10 September 1948, the French formalized his ralliement. Documents were signed integrating his armed forces into those of the French Union, in which he obtained the rank of colonel. In January 1949, Le Van Vien established his operations in the Saigon-Cholon area as the French authorities looked the other way. The latter needed his political and military support to build a counter-revolutionary alternative to the DRV. In November 1950, Bao Dai received Le Van Vien in a private audience in Dalat. The latter promised to support the Associated State of Vietnam and to collaborate militarily with the Cao Dai forces. In 1952, Le Van Vien obtained the right to run a variety of gambling operations in Saigon-Cholon in exchange for a tax paid to the government. He was deeply involved in the operations of the famous colonial gambling center, Le Grand Monde. He also successfully placed Binh Xuyen men in the Ministry of Interior and the Public Security Services of the Associated State of Vietnam. In order to build a national army along the lines set out by General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, Bao Dai named Le Van Vien brigadier general on 7 April 1952. The truck driver and common criminal of the 1930s had come a long way. In exchange, Le Van Vien signed an agreement with the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao to support Bao Dai. Le Van Vien instigated the creation in May 1954 of the National Salvation Front (Mat Tran Quoc Gia Cuu Quoc) allying the Binh Xuyen, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and some Catholic groups. He was a member of its presidium. On 14 January 1953, he also became president of the Automobile Club of Vietnam.

After the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 provisionally dividing Vietnam into two states, Le Van Vien entered into conflict with the new Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. When Le Van Vien refused on 15 March 1955 to respond to Diem’s desire to meet, violence broke out at the end of the month between Binh Xuyen militia and State of Vietnam paratroopers. The latter won. Le Van Vien fled to France where he lived out the rest of his life. He was laid to rest in 1972 in a Parisian cemetery.