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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 10, 2011

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Vietnam famine's living legacy
By Geoffrey Gunn

The deaths stemming from the great famine of 1944-45, which reached its zenith in March-April 1945 in Japanese-occupied northern Vietnam, eclipsed in scale all human tragedies of the modern period in that country up until that time. The demographics vary from French estimates of 600,000-700,000 dead, to official Vietnamese numbers of 1 million to 2 million victims. [1]

Food security is an age-old problem, and dearth, famine, and disease have long been a scourge of mankind across the broad Eurasian landmass and beyond. While more recent understandings [2] recognize that famines are mostly man-made, it is also true that in ecologically vulnerable zones, alongside

natural disasters, war and conflict often tilt the balance between sustainability and human disaster. [3]

Allowing the contingency of natural cause as a predisposing factor for mass famine, this article revisits the Vietnam famine of 1944-45 in light of flaws in human agency (alongside willful or even deliberate neglect) as well as destabilization stemming from war and conflict. While I avoid the issue of impacts of the famine in favor of seeking cause - the human suffering of the famine has not been effaced by time. It was recorded in Hanoi newspapers at the time. It survives in local memory and in fiction by Vietnamese writers. [4]

The great famine was never construed as a war crime by the Allies, yet the question of blame, alongside agency or lack of it, was an issue between the French and the Viet Minh in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese surrender and entered into propaganda recriminations. Indeed, as written into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) declaration of independence, both Japan and France were jointly blamed for the disaster. South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam) also raised the famine issue in postwar reparation negotiations with Japan.

While such charged issues as the Nanjing Massacre, the comfort women, forced labor and unit 731 have long been the subject of intense debate in the historical memory wars, in textbook controversies and in museum exhibits, the Vietnamese famine, and Japanís role in creating it, appear to have disappeared from Japanese war memory and commemoration whether in textbooks or museum representations.

It may nevertheless be asked, why is it important now to apportion blame? I would argue that the great Vietnam famine of 1944-45 is at least one of the underwritten tragedies stemming from the Pacific War. Outside of Vietnam, very few articles or studies have sought to contextualize this event, whether from the side of Vietnamese history, or from the perspective of Japanese and/or French and American responsibility.

No doubt a court of law would seek to distinguish between deliberate policy, benign neglect, and/or the unanticipated consequences of social action. But, rather than pinning blame as with a court of law or a war crimes trial, what I seek here is closer to a truth commission-style investigation that precisely seeks to uncover a number of thinly veiled truths that could possibly stimulate further research, not only on war and memory issues related to the famine, but also in the field of famine prevention.

Background to the famine
The background to the great famine in northern Vietnam is the increasing scale and character of Japanese military intervention in Indochina from 1940 down to surrender in September-October 1945. While the Vichy French regime in Indochina and Japan existed in a tense albeit unequal cohabitation with Japanese forces, matters changed absolutely on 9 March 1945, when Japan mounted a coup de force, militarily attacked and interned all French military personal who did not escape to the mountains, and sequestered all French civilians.

The Japanese military took over full administrative responsibility alongside local puppet regimes as with the Tran Trong Kim cabinet in Annam, under a pliant Emperor Bao Dai. Economically, Japan had used Indochina under the Vichy administration as a source of industrial and food procurement, from coal to rubber, to a range of industrial crops and, especially rice from the surplus-producing Mekong delta region.

Though notionally under French administration, Japanese military requisitions profoundly distorted the colonial political economy, shattered the import-export system, and eroded many bonds across communities and classes, sowing the seeds of disasters to come. Even with French administrative services continuing, including dike repair, the monitoring of agricultural activities, and the collection of taxes, the rural population, increasingly bereft of cash as market mechanisms collapsed, was obliged to cope in a situation of virtual economic autarky just as Indochina came to be subordinated within Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. [5]

Towards the end of the war, US bombing raids, mounted from India and Yunnan in China as well as the Philippines, and from carrier-based aircraft, also took a toll on infrastructure, targeting the TransIndochinois rail line linking north and south Vietnam, as well as mining harbors and launching submarine raids on Japanese and local coastal shipping. With all but a few French administrators behind bars, administrative services deteriorated, both central (run from Hanoi) and local, whether run from Hanoi, Saigon or Hue.

In this environment, customary rural statistical surveys were rarely conducted. Japanese military authorities, moreover, paid scant attention to local needs across Vietnam, not to mention traditionally rice-deficit Laos, and even rice surplus Cambodia, which was also ruthlessly exploited of its rice resources. The priority was fulfilling Imperial imperatives designed to feed Japan's own on the battlefronts and at home.

Colonial famine protection
From time immemorial, coastal Vietnam had suffered frequent droughts, floods, and typhoons, inflicting misery and suffering. According to Nguyen dynasty chronicles as interpreted by Ngo Vinh Long, destructive floods occurred on average every three years, usually around the seventh or eighth months but sometimes in the fourth and fifth months as well. Prolonged droughts proved even more disastrous to crops. Added to that were crop failures due to locusts and other insects. [6]

In official French discourse, protection of the population against threats of famine was a constant preoccupation of the administration. The colonial administration did not neglect the new and expanding modern communication links to re-supply afflicted regions. The need to diversify crop production was not ignored, given understandings of the risks of monoculture in situations of crisis and food insufficiency, and close monitoring of agricultural production and human needs became a finely honed bureaucratic procedure at the local, regional and federal (Indochinese) levels. Nevertheless, the colonial economy was above all geared for export of rice, especially from the rice surplus Mekong River delta area of southern Vietnam.

Writing half a century prior to the great disaster, governor general Jean Baptiste Paul Beau (October 1902 - February 1908) reflected that there was no unique solution to the famine problem. One speaks of irrigation works as a solution, he opined, but Tonkin or northern Vietnam had not generally suffered drought over a 10-year period commencing in 1896. On the contrary, it had suffered an excess of water over this period, whether caused by heavy rainfall or floods. Irrigation systems, he argued, did not have incontestable value and could only be viewed as a partial solution to the famine problem.

As well understood, several regions in Annam, the central region of Vietnam with its capital in Hue, supported excessive population densities. Prone to famine, it was not then possible to render assistance to these remote areas by either land or sea. At the time of Beau's writing, only northern Annam remained outside of access to the new colonial railway system. But thanks to the extension of the rail head to this area, timely rice assistance provided by the Hue government had helped the population of Thanh-Hoa, then suffering famine. Similarly, in Annam, wherever the rail head reached, relief could be speedily arranged.

Alongside new transportation routes, the old system of rice stores that the imperial government hosted in each of the provinces was deemed a less practical solution, even though some individuals demanded their restoration. High population density in parts of Tonkin likewise aggravated the effects of famine. Alongside experiments in relocating emigrants from Tonkin to western Cochinchina - as the French called their colony in the south - incentives were also offered by the administration to peasant cultivators to move away from rice monoculture. [7]

Throughout the colonial period, a large number of irrigation works were created in northern and central Vietnam, in particular, using conscript labor and drawing upon local budgets with both flood control and expanded cultivation as objectives. [8] Nevertheless, famine did occur in the central provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh in 1930-1931. Combined with falling rice prices and a constant tax burden, the result was to ignite mass peasant protest along with communist-inspired attacks on the administration. [9]

It is true that the French introduced a range of plantation or export crops, as with rubber, tobacco, coffee, etc, but neither, as demonstrated below, did colonial economic managers ignore the need to maintain a basket of food crops to tide over emergencies, such as fitting long-established peasant cultivator practice. [10] Generally, the paix Francais in Indochina was marked by its managerial response to famine and hunger, even as large numbers of people, particularly mountain-dwellers and those in more marginal settings, barely survived in the natural economy.

Managing the food crisis of 1937
Recovering from a low of 960,000 tonnes of rice, unhusked paddy, and rice derivatives exported from the port of Saigon during 1931, a depression year, the figure for 1934 rose to 1,505,493 tonnes. Major export markets were, in rank order, metropolitan France, other French colonies, Hong Kong, and China-Shanghai. A certain quantity of rice also reached Japan (60,000 tonnes in 1931-32), although still a new and irregular market. Cochinchina and Cambodia combined provided the overwhelming bulk of rice exports from Indochina and rice represented 27% of total tonnage exported, contributing up to 36% of total value of exports. [11]

By 1937, rice exports from Indochina had fallen, owing to a generalized drought caused by a delay in the arrival of the monsoon rains which affected a wide swathe of territory from southern Tonkin, to northern Annam, north and central Laos, and even the northeast of Siam. As a remedial measure, the colonial administration, now under the socialist Popular Front government of Leon Blum, imposed a total ban on the export of rice from Laos (including rice surplus Bassac in the south), while seeking to reserve all quantities of rice for local consumption.

With northern Annam suffering a marked lack of precipitation, especially in Vinh and Than-Hoa provinces, 50,000 piasters was earmarked for distribution of rice to victims. In order to prevent speculation on existing stocks of rice, the administration opened a 40,000-piaster line of credit with the official small loan institution, Credit Agricole Mutual, a measure seen as helping to regulate the price of rice. Answering to the Minister of Colonies in France, the Indochina government reported monitoring the situation with "extreme caution", [12] and this is borne out by the facts.

In early 1937, a number of locales in Thanh Hoa were drastically affected by poor harvests leading to a certain "malaise" (read, major discontent) on the part of the affected population. No doubt with memories of 1931-32 in mind, the authorities did not stand idly by. A series of public works projects, roads especially, were created offering indigent peasant farmers a stipend to cover their needs. This was not a small investment but translated into 192,000 paid workdays. Roads and bridges in the view of the authorities would open new markets, thus satisfying demand on the part of the population. More than that, the extra income earned would enable peasant-workers to purchase rice-seeds ready for planting in the next season. In the words of an official rapporteur, "Misery was banished owing to the generous support of the government and the agricultural rhythm reestablished in the best conditions while allowing even the most disinherited to receive support." [13]

Pressed by Paris and the governor general, the French resident superior in Hanoi scrambled to take stock of food reserves in Tonkin by conducting a province-level investigation. As the top French official concluded, the soudure, or gap, between the intervening harvests was not at a critical level in Tonkin. His investigation disclosed that 566,217 tonnes of rice were held in reserve (stockpiled), amounting to some 56,000 tonnes in excess of (annual) consumption needs of 510,310 tonnes. To this was added approximately 22,500 tonnes of maize, along with a reserve of secondary items of everyday consumption, including potatoes, soy beans, manioc, and taro, "which also makes up an appreciable part of the diet of the indigenous population", albeit an amount difficult to accurately calculate owing to the small-scale or household character of its production. [14]

Continued 1 2 3 4 5 

Food and failed Arab states
(Feb 02, '11)

North Korea's desperate measures
(Jul 17, '10)

Swarms of rats plague rural Myanmar
(Oct 21, '09)

Rice now too costly to give away
(Mar 06, '08)


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