Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam



Le Van Khoi’s rebellion and war with Siam

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In the spring of 1833, Le Van Khoi was being investigated by Minh Mang’s officials for irregularities in supplying lumber to shipyards when news arrived that Le Duy Luong had been proclaimed king and that two or three provinces in the north had already come under his control. Le Van Khoi reportedly received a message from Le Duy Luong calling on him to rise against the Hue monarchy. If he did in fact receive such a message, it implies that he had been in some kind of prior contact with Le Duy Luong’s group. Two months after the outbreak of Le Duy Luong’s uprising in the north, at a time when Le Duy Luong’s armies appeared to be building momentum and just prior to suffering defeats, Le Van Khoi mobilized a large following and killed the upper echelon of Minh Mang’s officials at Saigon. Within a few days, men at the other provincial centers in the Mekong plain killed or drove off Hue officials and recognized Le Van Khoi’s authority. Le Van Khoi’s immediate entourage was mostly comprised of Le Van Duyet’s old circle of officials, including officers of the militia organizations of former insurgents from Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, the men with whom Le Van Khoi had come south under Le Van Duyet’s leadership more than ten years earlier. Christians, Chinese, and other minority groups, as well as mainstream local Vietnamese, also rallied to him. For about three months, as Minh Mang was suppressing Le Duy Luong in the north, Le Van Khoi and his followers were ascendant in the south. Minh Mang viewed the southern uprising as the outcome of a long-standing problem related to Le Van Duyet’s heterodox regime. He announced that Le Van Duyet had neglected the law and ignored social discipline, had not encouraged righteous behavior, allowed many illegalities and tolerated evil customs, such as gambling and lasciviousness among his officials. Consequently, the southerners had become arrogant, lazy, and rebellious. He was particularly concerned about the many surrendered rebels and banished criminals from the north who filled the southern militia units. He cautioned his generals that these men were not a rabble but were experienced soldiers and desperate outlaws. Meanwhile, he ordered that members of Le Van Khoi’s family in Cao Bang be seized. Fourteen people were arrested, including a brother and two sons of Le Van Khoi. The fact that these relatives of Le Van Khoi were found in Cao Bang shows that the family was part of a network of contacts that stretched from the northernmost to the southernmost parts of the country. The significance of this lay not only in the resonance between the Le Duy Luong and Le Van Khoi uprisings, but also in the rebellion of Nong Van Van, which erupted at this same time in the mountains north of Tuyen Quang, just west of Cao Bang. Nong Van Van was a local chieftain of this region. He was also the elder brother of Le Van Khoi’s wife. For the better part of the next two years, he led armies of several thousands and dominated most of the upland territory east of the Red River as far as the Qing border, comprising the modern provinces of Ha Giang, Tuyen Quang, Cao Bang, Bac Can, Thai Nguyen, and Lang Son. As Minh Mang’s armies gradually pacified these mountain jurisdictions during 1834, Nong Van Van sought refuge across the border, but Qing officials, alerted by Minh Mang, refused him asylum. In the spring of 1835, he was finally cornered in a thick forest where he perished when royal troops set the trees afire in a strong wind. The Le Duy Luong, Le Van Khoi, and Nong Van Van uprisings were in some degree coordinated by contacts among the rebel leaders. But they were also coordinated with the plans of Rama III of Siam, who, after subduing the lowland Lao, was determined to wrest Cambodia away from Minh Mang. Le Van Khoi, after his initial success, and while waiting for the inevitable arrival of Hue’s armies, sent a messenger to Rama III, supposedly asking for Siamese assistance. The content of his message is no longer known, but it may have been primarily to inform Rama III about events at Saigon and to indicate that the time for action had arrived. Within weeks, Siamese armies appeared at several strategic points along the western borders of Vietnam. Siamese military demonstrations occurred on the Xieng Khouang frontier of Nghe An, where the 1832 mutiny had occurred, on the western border of Ha Tien, and on the Cam Lo Road that crossed the mountains to Quang Tri, only a short distance north of Hue. These operations were intended to divert Minh Mang’s attention from Cambodia, where the main Siamese invasion occurred. In autumn of 1833, tens of thousands of Siamese soldiers marched into Cambodia along both shores of the Tonle Sap to rendezvous with a seaborne expedition moving up the Vinh Te Canal from Ha Tien to the Mekong River. King Ang Chan escaped downriver where the situation among the Vietnamese had by then dramatically changed in Minh Mang’s favor as a result of the actions of Thai Cong Trieu. Thai Cong Trieu was a man from the Hue area whom Le Van Duyet had  learned to trust. In 1830, at Le Van Duyet’s request, he was made second-in- command of all military forces in the south. When Minh Mang reorganized the  south, Thai Cong Trieu became the senior military officer. He maintained good relations with local people while retaining his loyalty to Hue. When Le Van Khoi and his followers made their bid for power, he chose to go with them rather than be killed. He became the commander of the rebel army that took control of the provincial centers at My Tho, Vinh Long, Chau Doc, and Ha Tien. Le Van Khoi and his closest associates occupied themselves at Saigon and Bien Hoa. When seaborne armies from Hue began to appear at the mouths of southern rivers, Thai Cong Trieu was in the Chau Doc area on the Cambodian frontier. He sent a message to Truong Minh Giang (d. 1841), commander of the Hue forces, affirming his loyalty to Minh Mang despite having been coerced into joining the rebels. He then assisted men loyal to Hue who had survived the rebellion and had gone into hiding to expel Le Van Khoi’s partisans and to reassert royal government in Ha Tien, Chau Doc, Vinh Long, and My Tho. From My Tho he advanced his men toward Saigon in coordination with Truong Minh Giang. Thai Cong Trieu’s role in the events of 1833 was crucial for minimizing the effects of Le Van Khoi’s rebellion and for enabling Truong Minh Giang to concentrate his forces against the Siamese. Le Van Khoi and several thousand of his most fervent followers, mainly Christians, banished militiamen, and Chinese, took refuge in the huge Saigon fortress that had been renovated by Le Van Duyet and was stocked with enough weaponry and provisions to withstand a long siege. Le Van Khoi died in early 1834 from an eruption of tumors. Nguyen Van Cham, leader of the banished militiamen, thereafter exercised command among the besieged. The fortress held  out for another year and a half. In autumn of 1835, it fell. Five hundred and fifty- four ringleaders and their families were beheaded on the spot. One thousand two  hundred and seventy-eight people, being lower-ranking rebels and their families, were seized alive and later killed, buried in a large common grave. Six hundred and sixty-six of those killed were reportedly Christians. Six persons, including Nguyen Van Cham, the Chinese leader Luu Tin, a French missionary named Joseph Marchand, and one of Le Van Khoi’s sons, were taken to Hue and publicly executed. The Saigon fortress was demolished. Meanwhile, Minh Mang’s attention had moved on to the Siamese in Cambodia. Truong Minh Giang was from the Saigon region, had passed the 1819 regional exam, and, despite his youth, had risen to the top echelon of Minh Mang’s court during the 1820s. In 1833, Minh Mang chose him to be in charge of settling matters in the south and dealing with the Siamese in Cambodia. He spent the eight remaining years of his life on this assignment, gaining a reputation for severity among the Khmer and for competence among the Vietnamese. By the time that Truong Minh Giang was able to turn his attention from Saigon in late 1833, the Siamese had already advanced into the region of the Vinh Te Canal between Ha Tien and Chau Doc, and Ang Chan and his court had arrived in Vinh Long seeking protection from the invaders. The Siamese brought along from Bangkok two of Ang Chan’s younger brothers, Ang Im and Ang Duong, to assist with their plan of occupying all of Cambodia. In a series of battles in late 1833 and early 1834, Truong Minh Giang forced the Siamese out of Cambodia. As the Siamese withdrew back along the two shores of the Tonle  Sap, they plundered and destroyed habitations and forced the able-bodied popu- lation to move west under their control. Great numbers of elderly people were  left to fend for themselves and died in the ravaged countryside. Truong Minh Giang restored Ang Chan to Phnom Penh. However, the country was devastated with a large part of the population deported to Siamese territory and much of the countryside laid waste. The Siamese occupation had been brief but destructive. Rama III had not been prepared for such a sudden confrontation with large Vietnamese armies so had simply done his best to degrade the assets of the Khmer protectorate. Ang Chan died in 1835. There was no prince to manage the relationship between the Vietnamese suzerains and the Khmer people as successfully as he had done. He had no sons, but he had four daughters. His eldest daughter favored the Siamese, as did her two uncles in Bangkok, Ang Im and Ang Duong. The Vietnamese could think of nothing better than to hail Ang Chan’s second daughter, Ang Mei, as the Queen of Cambodia. However, Ang Mei had no political ability and exerted no discernible influence on public affairs. The task of government fell upon Truong Minh Giang, who was subject to the instructions  of Minh Mang. Minh Mang decided to simply extend to Cambodia the adminis- trative reforms that he had already implemented in Hanoi and Saigon, which  amounted to the annexation of Cambodia behind the façade of Ang Mei’s royal court. In 1836, Truong Minh Giang reorganized local Khmer jurisdictions, appointed Vietnamese officials to oversee the Khmer governors of provinces, and established garrisons of Khmer and Vietnamese soldiers at strategic locations. In 1836, Rama III built up his military forces in Battambang and Siem Reap, the parts of northwestern Cambodia that had already been annexed by Siam. The Khmer princes, Ang Im and Ang Duong, were sent to the frontier to rally support for the Siamese among the Khmer. During the next three years, the Siamese General Bodin and Truong Minh Giang endeavored to destabilize each other’s positions with intrigues, raids, and uprisings. In 1839, Truong Minh Giang succeeded in persuading Ang Im, the elder of the two princes, to come over to the Vietnamese side. Ang Im’s expectation of being made king by the Vietnamese was disabused when he was unceremoniously hustled off to Hue. Rama III returned Ang Duong to Bangkok for safekeeping, proclaimed him the King of Cambodia, and prepared for war. Truong Minh Giang sent Ang Mei, along with her two younger sisters, to Saigon. He killed her  anti-Vietnamese elder sister to remove what had become a magnet for pro- Siamese conspiracies. In 1840, Bodin launched a general offensive. At the same  time, Siamese agents inspired uprisings among the Khmer downriver in Vietnam- ese territory. After nearly two years of fighting, the new Vietnamese king, Thieu  Tri, was persuaded to redeploy out of Cambodia in order to concentrate upon the disorders in the rear of his armies. Thieu Tri ordered Truong Minh Giang to withdraw, blaming him for having been unable to prevent the situation from reaching such an impasse. When he arrived at Chau Doc in the autumn of 1841,  having retreated completely out of Cambodia, Truong Minh Giang, over- whelmed with a sense of failure, stopped eating and died of chagrin, less than a  year after the death of Minh Mang.

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