Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Rice Wars in Colonial Vietnam: The Great Famine and the Viet Minh Road to Power

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Rice Wars in Colonial Vietnam: The Great Famine and the Viet Minh Road to Power

Article excerpt

Rice wars in colonial Vietnam: The Great Famine and the Viet Minh road to power

By GEOFFREY GUNN

London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Pp. xix + 323. Tables, Maps, Glossary, References, Index.

doi: 10.1017/S0022463414000794

In the summer of 1944, poor returns from the five-month rice harvest in northern Vietnam set the stage for a major subsistence crisis. Typhoons and floods destroyed the tenth-month crop due at the end of the year, and an exceptionally long and cold winter added to the misery of a population already deprived of food. The following summer, after torrential rains lifted the Red River to unprecedented heights, water poured through collapsing dykes, inundating paddy fields in large sections of the Tonkin delta. Credible estimates suggest that at least one million people starved to death.

These climatic and ecological factors help to account for the 'Great Famine', but, Geoffrey Gunn argues, a major share of the blame belongs to political formations, beginning with Japan, the de facto ruler of Indochina from 1940 to 1945. By enforcing annual 'rice accords', the Japanese 'nakedly plundered' food reserves (p. 144) and further insisted on shifting paddy fields to industrial crops for use elsewhere in their empire. Anti-Japanese aerial sorties launched by the United States against roads, bridges, and rail lines undercut potential south-to-north shipments of rice, the traditional route for in-country transfers of foodstuffs. Pillaging Chinese soldiers who occupied the North beginning in September 1945 (as per the Potsdam Accords) further drained off precious staple crops.

Among external players, Gunn dwells especially on France, and his citations from French colonial archives lend substance to the most original passages in the book. Colonialism's 'agrarian-hydraulic pact' with the population was fragile, he notes, but the authorities did believe that feeding the hungry was necessary to build consent for their rule over Indochina (p. 134). French emergency measures are said to have helped when ruptured dykes in the delta threatened to bring on famine in 1937. The author quotes at length from the papers of colonial official Paul Chauvet, who in 1944-45 was keenly aware of the unfolding catastrophe in the North and whose remedial efforts failed in part because Japanese authorities blocked the way. In developing this thread, Gunn takes his distance from Van Nguyen-Marshall, who offers a more critical view of French suzerainty in her book, In search of moral authority: The discourse on poverty, poor relief, and charity in French colonial Vietnam (2008). …

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