Agrarian Reform in the Republic of Vietnam

By David Wurfel, Cornell University
in Far Eastern Survey, Vol. 26, No. 6 (Jun., 1957), pp. 81-92.

The celebrations in Saigon in October 1956 over the proclamation of the new constitution of the Repub­lic of Vietnam tended to obscure the inscription on the statute books of a law which could alter substantially the pattern of Vietnamese agrarian society.1 Though framed as the South’s bold answer to the Communist-style “land reform” in the North, this law (Ordinance No. 57) was in fact proclaimed at a time when large landowners seemed to be regaining influence in places of political power and was in many respects an inade­quate compromise measure. Emboldened by the crush­ing of Communist organizations in Southern Vietnam’s countryside and reestablishment of their control over their estates, large landed proprietors succeeded in pre­venting President Diem’s government from undertaking as drastic a program as had first been envisaged. In fact, it is conceivable that no land transfer program would have been possible if the political elite of Diem’s regime had been drawn entirely from Cochinchina.2

Vietnam has long been faced with a tenancy problem as acute as any in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately the most reliable data are even less up-to-date than elsewhere in the area. Nor does the invaluable study by Yves Henry in 19313 clearly state the number of tenants or the amount of land they cultivated. One can only estimate the figures indirectly. In Annam, out of a total population of 4.9 million, there were 658,000 landowners; less than one in every eight persons owned land. If the average family is taken to be five persons, it may be estimated that more than 35 per cent of family heads were landless. What proportion of these had non-agricultural occupations is not known, but it was certainly small. Of the total number of landowners, 93.9 per cent, or 614,000, owned less than 2.5 hectares. But many of these, even, must have rented out their land, since only 590,000 owners cultivated their own land.4

Henry’s data for Cochinchina were more detailed. Out of less than 4.5 million total population, or ap­proximately 900,000 family heads, there were only 255,000 landowners. Holdings in the South are much larger than those in Annam: about 184,000 landowners, or 71.7 per cent of the total, farmed holdings less than 5 ha. covering 12.5 per cent of the total area of rice-land. But not all these were owner-cultivators: 90,300 landowners rented out their land to tenants; only 72,200, or 28.3 per cent of the total, owned more than 5 ha. The figures for percentage of area are even more revealing. The 25.8 per cent of owners having from 5 to 50 ha. held 45 per cent of the total area.’5 The per­centage of riceland area held by owners with more than 10 ha., who can safely be assumed to be non-cultiva­tors, varied tremendously from province to province, being 50.6 per cent in Cholon and 89.5 in Baclieu. The most heavily populated and longest cultivated provinces tended to have the highest percentage of small owner-cultivators. For five provinces which Henry claimed were representative of all Cochinchina, the holdings of non-cultivators averaged 73.8 per cent of the total riceland area. This indicates a tenancy per­centage even higher than that in Central Luzon or Lower Burma during the same period. Acquisition of large holdings, either by purchase of virgin land, or by foreclosing on mortgages-the former being apparently more important in Cochinchina-continued at least un­til 1939, and perhaps even during part of the war period. Since it now seems to be government’s policy to reestablish the legal claims to land which existed before the disruption caused by the Vietminh, these figures can probably be taken as a conservative estimate of the present situation.Henry also pointed out that share-cropping is very rare in Cochinchina (where a fixed rent lease is most common) but is the predominant form of tenancy in Annam. Post-war legislation has been so written as to allow for either type of agreement.

An agrarian pattern dominated by tenancy is seldom a stable one, and it is least stable when the party at a disadvantage sees the possibility of change. The Viet­minh stood for revolutionary change which most of the peasants naturally welcomed,6 though when the Viet­minh took over a village the resident landlord tem­porarily lost many, and the absentee all, of his former advantages, the tenant did not gain correspondingly. Reductions in rent were often offset by tax and other levies. Nevertheless, the Communists often gave the poorest farmer new power and a new sense of impor­tance in helping to direct village affairs. The psycho­logical changes served to protect the economic changes. The Vietminh legacy in the South, even after its sup­pression, made it almost impossible permanently to re­establish the status quo ante.

The first rent reduction ordinance to emanate from Saigon (proclaimed by Premier Nguyen Van Tam on June 4, 1953, after many months of promises) came when the Vietminh was still very active, and the law was supposedly part of the battle against it. It pro­vided that the land rent embodied in a five-year con­tract between tenant and landlord would in no case exceed 15 per cent of the annual crop. For the tenants who had been farming land of absentees or “traitors” under the Vietminh, and were paying no rent, this was regression, not reform. Assuming for the rest that Viet­minh rent reductions were roughly equivalent to the 25-35 per cent reduction decreed by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and that the actual rent outside Vietminh areas was 40-50 per cent of the crop (as re­ported by Henry before the war), this would appear to be a clear case of undercutting Communist reforms. But Premier Van Tam’s ordinance never really had this effect because it was rarely enforced. The few land­lords who did sign contracts found that it was not ne­cessarily to their disadvantage. The 15 per cent rent ceiling was only for “la terre nue”. The “model” con­tract specifically provided for additional charges for the use of buildings, farm implements, work animals, and for seed and fishing and grazing rights, placing no limit on them. These charges could be legally increased to compensate for the decrease in land rent. Landlords also frequently made written contracts conditional on the tenants’ willingness to make certain extra-legal payments.8 Tam’s government, French-supported and land­lord-staffed, neither felt the need nor had the will for agrarian reform and thus accomplished practically nothing.

The government was essentially of the same nature when Ngo Dinh Diem was appointed premier in June 1954, but he soon brought about significant changes. The new premier was faced first with the problem of maintaining order in a small country torn, not only between Communist and non-Communist, but (of more immediate importance) by competing non-Communist armed groups. He first turned his attention to problems of internal security and disloyal army officers. U.S. officials, who began to play a much more important role in Vietnam’s affairs after the Geneva truce, were, on the other hand, concentrating their attention on the all-Vietnam plebiscite then scheduled for July 1956. They felt that the Saigon government should inaugurate positive programs that would appeal to the electorate. Land reform had high priority among such programs in U.S. circles. On October 25 President Eisenhower sent a note to Premier Diem, offering American aid di­rectly, instead of through France, and, at the same time, expressing the hope that the Vietnamese government would, in turn, carry out “indispensable reforms.”9

Agrarian reform specialist Bernard Jensen was sent to assist the U.S. aid mission (USOM) in Saigon to con­duct a study. There was some enthusiasm for land transfer at first, but it soon waned. In December 1954, working closely with French High Commission advis­ors, the U.S. mission presented detailed proposals for a rent reduction law to Diem. On January 8, 1955, the Premier signed Ordinance No. 2, which substantially amended the rent reduction law of June 4, 1953, and was in harmony with the Franco-American proposals.

The amendment to Article 13 (the most crucial one in the new law) appeared to be a gain for the land­lord over Ordinance 20. Instead of a maximum rental, 15 per cent became the minimum and 25 per cent the maximum. But the gain for the tenant came in the limitation of additional fees. The law prohibited any charge for fishing or grazing and fixed the maxi­mum rental for animals and farm implements at 12 per cent of value (“value” to be determined by the Cantonal Joint Committee) . Advances of seeds and fertilizers were to be repaid at cost plus 12 per cent. The article closed with the provision that, “in no in­stance can the farmer be obliged to make any pay­ments or provide any service in kind, cash or in labor whatever its origin or form” over and above the pay­ment of the rentals already delimited. Unwittingly no doubt, this is almost an exact copy of a phrase in Ar­ticle 5 of the Agrarian Policy Decree of April 20, 1953, of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.10 To describe this new version of Article 13 as meaning “reductions of between 50 and 75 per cent in comparison with pre­war rates”11 is to conjure up false optimism as to the program’s reception on the rural scene. Pre-war rates prevailed only in those areas which the Vietminh had never controlled-in other words, in some ricefields adjacent to large towns, and perhaps in Hoa Hao and Cao Dai enclaves. Even in those restricted areas many tenants-and their number was not inconsequential-who had heard of Tam’s “15 per cent rental” but had not seen the law and its loopholes, called the new 25 per cent maximum exorbitant.

The ordinance did not provide criteria for determin­ing at what rate, between 15 and 25 per cent, the rental should be set. The exact rate “for each homo­geneous crop area” was to be decreed by the Govern­mental Delegate for the Region12 upon the recommen­dation of first the District Joint Committee and then the Provincial Joint Committee, and with agreement of the Minister of Agriculture. Because of the delay in organizing the Joint Committees, implementation of this cumbersome procedure has been slow. The process set forth in the law ignored the fact that the chefs de province are the most powerful governmental offi­cials outside of Saigon at present. In Ben Tre the chef took matters into his own hands; he called a meeting of tenants and landlords, apparently siding with the former, and worked out with them a formula as fol­lows: 25 per cent for the landlord when production exceeded 80 _gials _per ha. (a very rare phenomenom) ; 15 per cent when production was between 40 and 80 _gia; _and no rent when the yield fell below 40 _gia, _(which is not too infrequent) .14 Whether the rental is to be 15 or 25 per cent of the crop, or something in between, is determined in the majority of cases, where there is no effective governmental intervention, by the relative bargaining power of tenant and landlord.

Tenancy Contracts

The amended version of Article 7 gave more impor­tance to the tenancy contract and provided a way to gauge the extent of implementation of the law which had not existed before. Instead of two copies of the contract (one to be kept by each party), there were to be three, the third being kept in the files of the vil­lage office. At the end of the first year of operation of the act, in January 1956, the Ministry of Agrarian Reform reported that 272,000 contracts had been signed.15 Since both American and Vietnamese experts agree on the estimate that there are slightly more than one million tenants in the country, this is about a quarter of the total. Response varied tremendously from province to province. Two important provinces in Cen­tral Vietnam did not even report. Of those provinces reporting, the number of contracts ranged from about 6 to 0.1 per cent of the total population. On a national average tenants (i.e., family heads) form 10 per cent of the population. South Vietnam, with 62 per cent of the Republic’s population, accounted for 229,562 con­tracts, or 84 per cent of the total of contracts signed. In part this merely reflected the higher tenancy rate in the South Vietnam provinces, but it was also due to different degrees of administrative enthusiasm. The highest number of contracts (36,106, equaling the high­est percentage of the population, 12 per cent) was in Soctrang province. But two other southern provinces reported contracts numbering only 0.5 per cent of their respective populations. During 1956 contracts continued to be signed, at different rates in different areas, but the national total at the end of 1956 was 537,000, less than twice that in January.

Thus, in just two years approximately half of the Republic’s tenants and almost one-fourth the adult male population signed and registered contracts. Com­pared with the administrative accomplishments of other Southeast Asian governments, this is a feat of no mean significance. Some critics of the program believe that the figures on contracts signed are inflated. Consider­ing the pressures put on local officials from above and the lack of adequate supervision, a certain amount of padding is not impossible, but if it is recalled that some provincial officials had the honesty to report nothing if there were nothing to report, and others reported ridiculously low figures, it may be assumed that the percentage of falsification was of very minor importance. No evidence has been presented to challenge this as­sumption.

If one persists, nevertheless, in focussing on the 50 per cent failure instead of the 50 per cent success, then there are certainly sufficient explanations available. In the first place, there was so much military activity, both against the Communists and the sects, and internecine conflict within the government, during the first six months of 1955 that the normal functioning of the ci­vilian administration was impossible. Secondly, even had there been peace and order, there was no admin­istrative machinery to undertake this new task. A Min­istry of Agrarian Reform existed, but it had no per­sonnel outside Saigon. It was at this point that American assistance became more than advisory. The U.S. aid mission’s budget for fiscal year 1956 allotted more than $1.5 million in dollars and piastres for the addi­tion of 180 land reform agents to existing Ministry rosters, for printing of 2,000,000 contract forms, and for office equipment and vehicles needed by the Ministry.18 Nearly half these funds were set aside for the cadastral service which is not under the Ministry of Agrarian Reform. The Ministry itself used only $267,404. In addition, Wolf Ladejinsky,17 USOM Agrarian Reform Specialist with an outstanding knowl­edge of Asian agrarian reform problems, became an adviser to the Vietnamese government at all levels of administration. When he later resigned from U.S. gov­ernment service, he was succeeded in these duties by J. Price Gittinger. Occasionally the reward for such services was a “then why don’t you do it yourself” re­tort from an inefficient Vietnamese official who re­sented American prodding. But prodding was needed.

Long after the printed contract forms had been dis­tributed, the Minister of Agrarian Reform had signed no agreement with his own numerous tenants. But in spite of such handicaps, many contracts were signed.

Six agrarian reform agents were assigned to each province, a rather inflexible arrangement for such un­equal units. The original intention had been for these agents to establish themselves in the district offices, which is the next administrative subdivision below a province. But for numerous reasons, including the pro­clivities of civil servants for urban life, they found of­fice space in the provincial capital. Because the real cost of travel was about three times the 30$18 author­ized per diem, the agents usually spent less than 20 per cent of their time out of this office; and since expense allowances were almost never paid, anyway, though vouchers were sent to Saigon, one can not really blame them. Often an already overworked official in the dis­trict office was given responsibilities for agrarian re­form. One such person admitted that he never went to villages on official business. On the provincial level agrarian reform agents were not infrequently given time-consuming duties in other departments. Thus the Joint Committees, though having their paper work done for them, received only sporadic on-the-spot supervision and advice.

Joint Committees Established

Section III of Ordinance 2 was entirely new. The Provincial Parity Commissions provided for in 1953, but existing largely only on paper, were abolished. These commissions, composed of the chef de province _or his representative, an official of the agricultural service, two landlords, and three tenants, had been charged with fixing “each year the average yield of different categories of rice lands” and empowered to act as a Provincial Conciliation Commission to hear tenant-landlord disputes and to render decisions, which could be appealed to the courts. In their place Ordin­ance 2 established Joint Committees on the provincial, district, and cantonal level. The cantonal and district committees each have two landlords’ and two tenants’ representatives with the cantonal and district chiefs, respectively, as chairmen. The provincial committee has five tenant and five landlord representatives with the _chef de province, or his delegate, as chairman. Tenant and landlord representatives are chosen for two-year terms in a complicated procedure, involving first elec­tion on the village level, then drawing by lot from those so elected. In fact, this procedure was so complex that it was frequently ignored in practice; the chef de province would simply appoint the committee mem­bers. The excuse (often valid) given for such impromp­tu and extra-legal appointments was usually “lack of internal security”, but in other cases it merely con­cealed the persistent reluctance of many tenants to have anything to do with the machinery of the new rent control law. In some areas many potential electors stayed away during balloting for tenant representatives, and there were even instances of tenants going to polling places in groups, then ostentatiously refusing to vote.

It is also worth noting that Mr. Ladejinsky, in April 1955, had said that, in contrast to experience in other countries, tenants in Southern Vietnam were more hos­tile to the land reform than the landlords.” This rever­sal of traditional roles was caused in part by the peas­ants’ continued recognition of earlier “expropriation” by the Vietminh of the land of absentees and “traitors”. Entering into lease agreements would have validated the claim to ownership by landlords who had been thus “expropriated”. Farmers would have then been forced to pay rent on land they felt was already their own. Tenant reluctance was also a tribute to the continuing influence of Communist organization and propaganda. Vietminh agents repeated incessantly in the villages that after the projected July 1956 elections the South would come under the jurisdiction of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam which would confirm earlier Com­munist expropriation of land. Village Communist cadres also warned that it would be wise to avoid any contact with the doomed regime of President Diem.

Thus six months after the ordinance was proclaimed, independent observers in the provinces were saying that “almost nothing” had been done to implement it. Two months later less than 10 per cent of the potential total of contracts had been signed. But events in the latter part of 1955 cleared away some of the obstacles. Government military action rapidly diminished the area controlled by the sects and eliminated most Vietcong20 remnants. Information media stressed the government’s intention to refuse to allow all-Vietnam elections in 1956. But this return of stability posed a new obstacle. Landlords, who had previously seen the signing of a contract as the only way to reestablish a claim to their land, now began to find friends among increasingly powerful _chefs de province _and to hope for both their reestablishment and the imposition of pre-war rents. It is in this context that in January 1956 a 25 per cent accomplishment of a goal could be counted as success.

But a large number of contracts, though indicative of a certain amount of administrative activity, does not tell what rent the tenant is actually paying. Are the con­tracts enforced? Vo Van Giao, president of the Fed­eration of Tenant Farmers’ Unions, the only national tenants’ organization in Vietnam,21 says “very few”. Judging from a petition his Federation presented the Minister of Agrarian Reform in March 1956, there are even some contracts which specify rents higher than the legal maximum (the tenants having signed such contracts out of ignorance) . Since the rental is stated as an exact amount of rice calculated as a percentage of the estimated yield of the land, the tenant, who often did not know the yield, could be persuaded to sign a contract in which rent was based on a deliberately exaggerated yield.

Other complaints in that petition, which followed a two-day tenants’ conference in Saigon called by the Ministry of Agrarian Reform, indicated different ways in which Ordinance 2 was not being properly enforced. They also gave evidence of the resurgent power of the landlords. Many complaints centered on the prob­lem of evictions. The underlying cause for a large por­tion of these was the tenants’ insistence on a 15 per cent rental before they would sign the contract. Article 28 clearly prohibited cancellation of verbal contracts which pre-dated Ordinance 2 and required that they be revised according to the provisions of the law, then reduced to writing. Any landlord who, instead of com­plying, evicted his tenants was liable to a maximum penalty of 20,000$ fine and three months in prison. The petition asked the government to restore tenants to land from which they had been illegally evicted by “oppressive landowners”. If such appeals had to be brought to authorities in Saigon, it was apparent that the District and Provincial Joint Committees22 were not functioning effectively as arbitral boards. These com­mittees had been given jurisdiction by Articles 22 and 24 over “conflicts and disputes arising out of the ap­plication of the terms of rural leases”.

The tenants’ complaint that these committees did not dispense true justice was in part the consequence of the boycott of the election for tenant representatives by some of them. When the _chef de province, _often a landlord himself, found it necessary to appoint tenant representatives to the committees, he tended to choose inarticulate, politically “safe” tenants. Thus educated landlords, accustomed to taking a dominant role, domi­nated the proceedings of the committees and more often than not won over the government member to their side. A tenant dissatisfied with the Provincial Joint Committee’s decision could appeal the dispute to a regular civil court, but filing of the appeal alone cost nearly twice the price of a _gia _of rice, and this was not the only cost of litigation. Fortunately the Tenants’ Union had the assistance of lawyers who would handle members’ cases free of charge or for a small fraction of their regular fees.

The solution that the Tenants’ Union proposed was both a reinvigoration of the present system (by hold­ing new elections for the joint committees, providing them with salaried staffs, and training them to fulfill their duties) and the establishment of a new agrarian court accessible to the tenant at no expense. Despite a verbal assurance by the Minister of Agrarian Reform in March that an agrarian court would be established, no such action has yet been taken.

The Tenants’ Union, along with the Confederation Vietnam ienne du Travail Chrétien (Vietnam’s largest labor federation) to which it is affiliated, was one of Diem’s few supporters in the early days of his regime. It then had close liaison with the Palace, but recently the most active members of the Union have been sub­ject to several instances of arbitrary arrest and kid­napping, which is invariably explained in official circles as the result of “Vietcong activity”. In October the Government Delegate for South Vietnam announced that he had “discovered” an old statute, a legacy of the colonial era, which required unions to get prior police approval for all meetings. The Tenants’ Union, and the CVTC, have refused to do so. There have, as a result, been arrests in some provinces, warnings in others. A court test of the law is expected.

The study released in June 1956 by the Michigan State University Technical Assistance Project in Viet­nam (financed by U.S. aid funds and entitled _Report on the Organization of the Department of Land Regis­tration and Agrarian Reform) _affords opportunity for a fitting comment to conclude the discussion of Ordin­ance 2. After describing the multifarious functions of the Department, the Report recommended its dissolu­tion and the distribution of its functions among three other departments, with agrarian reform programs su­pervised by a Directorate of Agrarian Reform in the Department of Agriculture. Though the cause of good administrative organization would certainly have been served thereby, apparently the President felt that de­motion of agrarian reform from a department to a di­rectorate would not accurately indicate to government officials and to the public the emphasis he wants placed on the program, for he has not so far followed this recommendation. Within the proposed Directorate the Report suggested two very practical changes: alloca­tion of agrarian reform agents to each province ac­cording to the expected work load (not six to large and small provinces alike as at present) ; and the in­crease of those agents’ travel allowance, to be paid promptly. At another point, however, the Report crossed the boundaries of a public administration survey and recommended the abolition of a program. Alongside the statement that “the success of the present phase of the Agrarian Reform Program . . . is largely de­pendent upon the work of the Agrarian Reform agents in the province”,23 it advocated the discontinuance of the use of government personnel in the implementa­tion of Ordinance 2 and their shifting to the adminis­tration of land redistribution.

Such a recommendation does not indicate that its authors appreciated the very partial character of the program’s “success”, namely that the job was less than half done at the time of the Report’s release. To sug­gest that the program “be allowed to coast on the momentum it has gathered”24 overestimates the capa­bilities of the only organizations that would remain to benefit from what little momentum actually exists, i.e., the joint committees, stripped of their secretariat. For a different reason-an understandable desire to redirect the aid program away from budget support projects-. USOM hesitated for months to allocate FY 1957 funds to the Ministry of Agrarian Reform; then, with the fiscal year nearly half over and the field staff prac­tically disbanded, support was again given. Without continued U.S. financial assistance the remainder of the task cannot be finished.

In nearly a decade of dodging bullets many Viet­namese peasants grew tired of being caught in the cross-fire between French and Vietminh, Vietminh and Hoa Hao, dissident Cao Dai and loyal Cao Dai, Nationalists and Binh Xuyen, and other factions. Though it meant abandoning their traditional means of livelihood, thousands of farmers found it healthier to go to the towns and to Saigon-Cholon to eke out a living there. Nearly one fifth of the cultivated area of South Vietnam in 1945 had been abandoned by 1955. Thus one of the three most important rice sur­plus areas in Asia before the war ceased to export any rice at all by the first quarter of 1956. The most ef­fective step toward rehabilitation of Vietnam’s economy which the Diem regime has taken so far has been its wielding of both carrot and stick in order to speed the recultivation of abandoned lands. Though the aban­doned land development program is not, strictly speak­ing, agrarian reform, it is so inter-related with several aspects of agrarian reform as to merit discussion here.

The District Joint Committee was held responsible, in Article 22 of Ordinance 2, for compiling a list of uncultivated farm lands. The results of that compila­tion showed, as of April 1956,25 that there were 77,499 has. of abandoned land in Central Vietnam and 397,537 in South Vietnam. Seven provinces reported more than 20,000 has., and three, more than 40,000. There were probably other abandoned lands not yet reported.26

Ordinance No. 7 of February 5, 1955, offered incen­tives to the tenants to cultivate this land. Type B con­tract, which was to be concluded between a tenant and the owner of uncultivated land, differed from a Type A contract, which embodied the essential pro­visions of Ordiance 2, in two important respects. In a Type B the length of the contract was for 3 years in­stead of 5, but the landlord could not refuse to renew it for another 5 years unless he could prove that he or an adult member of his family was going to farm the land. The rental was fixed at the same level in Type A and Type B contracts, except that Type B exempted the tenant from paying any rent the first year, required him to pay only half the regular rent in the second year and three quarters in the third year. Type C contract, to be used when the landlord or his personal agent was not present to sign the lease, is the same as Type B except that the Communal Council “acts on behalf” of the absent landlord in drawing up the contract. If the landlord returns within three years, he may renew the contract in person; otherwise it will be renewed by the Communal Council. Nothing is said about what is to be done with the rent the Council collects for the landlords.

Agricultural Credit Program

The Popular Agricultural Credit Program was a kind of carrot even more tasty than excused rentals for inducing tenants to cultivate abandoned lands and sign contracts. With characteristic American optimism, and naivete, USOM allotted, and hoped to distribute during FY 1955, 225$ million for loans to tenants. But there was no administrative machinery to effect the distribution, and it was months before any money reached the provincial offices. There the _chefs de pro­vince _occasionally took the opportunity to make a quick profit on short-term usury before sending the money on to the district. Thus by April 30, 1956, nearly one year after the end of FY 1955, Saigon rec­ords indicated that less than 50$ million had actually been received by farmers.27 Nevertheless, though there may not have been enough money, the way in which it was frequently distributed made it an effective in­strument in getting contracts signed. The formula was simple: no B or C contract, no loan.

Since a 50$ million carrot had achieved only 30 per cent cultivation of registered abandoned land by April 1956, the President decided to apply the stick. Ordin­ance No. 28 of April 30 provided, in Articles 14 and 16, that:

Any owner who, after having promised to do so, does not recultivate or have recultivated the registered areas and does not have a legitimate reason for his failure is liable to a fine of 5,000$ to 50,000$.

Any tenant who, without good reason, allows the agricul­tural season to pass without undertaking the work necessary to cultivate the rice fields or other agricultural land which he has leased or which have been allotted to him . . .

shall forfeit his right to be allotted other land and be subject to the same fine as the landlord. “Any per­son who, directly or indirectly . . . tries to impede the application of this ordinance . . . is liable to” two to five years imprisonment. This ordinance also estab­lished a Provincial Census Commission which took from the District Joint Committee the responsibility for com­piling the list of abandoned lands. Its membership was taken from the Provincial Joint Committee. The Census Commission was empowered to “act on be­half” of the landowner in signing a Type C contract in place of the Communal Council, and to deposit the funds collected in rent, after deduction of taxes and costs, in a special account in the provincial treasury.

The most concentrated effort to recultivate aban­doned lands has been coupled with resettlement of re­fugees from the North, in the spectacular Caisan pro­ject in the southern Mekong delta. Caisan is spectacu­lar because in October 1955 one could stand in the center of the project area and look to the horizon in any direction on an unbroken expanse of swamp, which a few years before had all been riceland. In October 1956, standing in the same spot, within the radius of human vision one saw only rice, and houses, 8,000 of them. In the intervening year 200 kilometers of canals had been dug, 16,000 ha. drained, plowed by tractors, and planted, and 43,000 refugees from Communism, mostly Catholics from the North, had been resettled.” The Minister of Agrarian Reform had considered the undertaking of such high priority that he abandoned his Saigon office and lived at the project headquarters for several months. The project was financed out of the $37 million U.S. aid funds set aside in FY 1956 for resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees. It rep­resents a much larger portion of that total than the approximately 7 per cent of total refugees affected would indicate. In addition to the huge expense of land reclamation, each family head was given 800$ for building a home and 4$ a day per person for sub­sistence until after the first harvest. The U.S. aid au­thorities have been so pleased with the economic re­sults, and the propaganda effect, of Caisan that they are planning to finance more such projects, with some modification and improvement, in the present fiscal year.29

But the impressive record of physical accomplish­ment at Caisan was not always paralleled by harmoni­ous relations between the settlers and administrators. Before the April 30, 1956 ordinance no refugee in the project was asked to sign a tenancy contract, though the land is all owned by private persons (a French company is said to own a 1000 ha. tract, and a per­sistent rumor holds that the Minister of Agrarian Re­form, Nguyen Van Thoi, and his wife have holdings of 3000 ha.). One explanation could be that there were no legally constituted Communal Councils within the project to “act on behalf” of the absent landlord. But after April 30, when the Provincial Census Commis­sions were empowered to assume this responsibility, there was no such obstacle. In the late summer of 1956 Minister Thoi’s chef de cabinet,30 who is also his nephew, was appointed Project Coordinator, permitting the Minister to return to Saigon. Mr. Hi began to insist that refugees sign Type C contracts.

At this point the dangerous policy of appearing to promise more than can be given began to bear fruit. The priests, who had led their flocks out of the North and remained their spokesmen on all occasions, in­sisted, in turn, that the land belonged to the farmers, for had not Mr. Thoi, in his speech inaugurating the project, promised to give the land to the tillers? The administration explained that this was “giving” for a price and that the procedure for sale to the tenants would be worked out later. Officials also tried to argue that a Type C contract was between the tenant and the government, but the priests knew the law better than the officials suspected and were not deceived.

Mr. Hi then cut off the daily subsistence payments to the recalcitrant refugees, and when faced with continued resistance, took even stronger measures. As re­fugee unrest neared the explosion point, the President became alarmed at these developments and removed Mr. Hi. Subsistence payments were resumed without strings, but officials assured observers that after further explanation the refugees “understood the real situation” and had “promised” to sign contracts. Both to prevent anomalies and to reduce the priests’ power, the project administrators began paying subsistence directly to re­fugees, after it was discovered that under the old sys­tem of giving the money to the priests for redistribu­tion some priests were receiving per diems for more people than actually existed within their parishes. But the only solution that could be permanent was, of course, a plan to make the refugees’ dreams of land ownership come true.

Ordinance No. 57, promulgated on October 22, was a fulfilment of these dreams for many. It had been under discussion for several months. Late in 1955 the President had received from one of his foreign advis­ors a memorandum which set forth most persuasively the two main arguments for the necessity of land re­distribution: the political (in order to meet effectively the threat of Communism the regime must be strengthened by carrying out the most urgent socio­economic reforms and by broadening the base of poli­tical power) ; and the economic (in order to improve agricultural techniques and thus increase production, the farmers must have a greater economic and emo­tional stake in the land they till).

This “outline of a land redistribution program” de­scribed the 1953 land transfer ordinances as an ex­ample of “how not to do it”. Ordinance 21 of June 4, 1953, had fixed a maximum retention limit of 45 ha. for Central Vietnam and 100 ha. for South Vietnam, any proprietor owning land in two regions being en­titled to retain the maximum for both. Furthermore, landlords were allowed a 25 per cent increase in the retention limit for the fourth and each succeeding child; and the landed elite usually had large families. Ordinance No. 19 of the same date had provided, in addition, that all land above the retention limit and all abandoned land could be purchased by the tenant at current market prices, with the assistance of govern­ment credit. The Service National du Credit Agricole et Artisanal Cooperatif began lending money under this scheme in November 1953, and stopped a year later. During this period 3,131,230$ was actually loaned to 115 cultivators to finance the purchase of 640 ha.

The loans were made for ten years at 8 per cent interest.31 Bernard Fall has commented that this procedure would “make the national land reform a mat­ter of centuries”,32 but as has been noted, it was a matter of one year; after that there was no further at­tempt to implement the legislation.

Proposals on Land Redistribution

The memorandum argued that the maximum reten­tion limit should be applied to the total land holdings of the family unit, whether rented or owner-cultivated, in whatever province, though, of course, without forc­ing anyone to sell land that he cultivated himself. It also suggested that absentee owners, as in Japan, should not be allowed to retain any land, and that land cul­tivated entirely by hired labor should not be exempt from redistribution. It warned that no tenant could pos­sibly afford to pay the market price for land in Central Vietnam, where it is sometimes more than 60,000$ per ha., or perhaps even the much lower price in South Vietnam. It then recommended that the system used in Formosa, where the land price was set as a multiple of the annual crop, be applied in Vietnam. The ob­servation was made that a workable redistribution pro­gram usually requires a price not to the liking of the landlords. If the annual cost of purchase to the tenant were to exceed 40 per cent of the income from the land, it was predicted that the economic and political aims of the entire program might be defeated. The President was advised against cash payment of more than 20 per cent even if the government should find itself in a strong financial position, because of the danger of inflation. To insure the landlord against the possibility that inflation might nevertheless develop, the memorandum recommended that the value of the bonds given in payment be stated in terms of rice and that they should not be negotiable, except for payment of taxes, buying shares in government enterprises, or as surety for loans to develop essential industry. There was also a wise suggestion that there should be no at­tempt to equalize the size of holdings but that tenants merely be assisted to purchase the land they already cultivated.

Early in August 1956 the fruits of a different kind of technical assistance appeared in the form of _Esquisse d’un Programme de Redistribution des Terres au Viet-nam _by Nguyen Manh Tu of the Ministry of Agricul­ture. Mr. Tu had just returned from a brief U.S.-financed tour of Japan and Formosa to observe agricultural administration. After reviewing some of the statistics on tenancy and land ownership in Vietnam, he launched into detailed proposals for a land reform program. Mr. Tu had one especially ingenious sugges­tion for cash payments-a regressive rate. Owners of holdings of less than 100 ha. would receive 10 per cent of the value in cash, while owners with more than 500 ha. would receive only 5 per cent, with gradations in between. Most of Tu’s proposals were in agreement with the advice the President had already received.

Soon after Mr. Tu’s “sketch” had been distributed, a draft of the law itself was circulated for comment. The special committee appointed by the President to draw up the ordinance appointed in its turn represen­tatives who did the actual research and writing. The full committee sat twice to discuss and revise what had been prepared. Then a copy of the revised draft was sent to USOM for study and finally USOM represen­tatives were invited to meet with the committee on August 21. Representing the committee were the Secre­taries of State for National Economy, Finance, and Agriculture, and Nguyen Manh Tu, among others. The Secretary of State for Agrarian Reform sent an assist­ant.

It was apparent from the draft that expert advice had not influenced the authors of certain paragraphs. In spite of warnings about the dire consequences if the cost of repayment should each year take more than 40 per cent of the cultivator’s gross income from the land, the six-year payment period in Article 13 would, based on an expected price for the land of 7,000$ per hectare, take nearly 45 per cent of that income. The Americans at the meeting raised this point and advo­cated a longer payment period. The committee mem­bers present agreed to discuss the matter further. When USOM representatives estimated that administrative costs might run as high as $5 million, the committee admitted that they had not yet considered that question.

Several questions of considerable importance were not discussed at this meeting. Expert advice had been further disregarded with the exemption from redistribu­tion of all land devoted to industrial crops, such as coffee, rubber, sugar, tobacco, or fruit trees, and land “capable of being shifted” to such production (if ac­tually shifted within six months from the date of proc­lamation of the ordinance) . All the crops mentioned have been or are being successfully grown in large quantities by small holders in Indonesia or the Philip­pines. Admittedly, however, breaking up of such es­tates would at least temporarily reduce production. The concept of the limited family as the unit of land­holding was discarded in Article 6 which would make it possible for husband and wife or minor children each to hold land up to the retention limit. At least, no land could be registered in a different name after the law’s promulgation. A very onerous provision for the tenant was found in Article 13: during the six years he is paying for the land, pending final registration of the land in his name, he would have to pay rent to the government also. Fortunately this provision was omitted in the final version.

Nor were the technical advisors’ recommendations followed entirely regarding the method of fixing the price to be paid to the landlord. Article 19 provided that the owner was entitled to receive compensation equal to “current value”. If “current value” turns out to be 7,000$ (a figure frequently mentioned in Viet­namese government circles), this amounts to only slightly more than 2.5 times the annual production, the same rate as was applied in Formosa. But deter­mination of “current value” is left up to a special com­mission, and there is no assurance that it will not be more than 7,000$. Cash compensation was to be a moderate 10 per cent according to Article 20. The bonds issued to make up the balance of the payment could be used as legal tender for mortgage debts with the government agricultural credit agency or any other privileged creditor, for paying land and inheritance taxes on the expropriated land, and for subscribing to securities of state enterprises. These bonds would bear an annual interest of 3 per cent and be amortized in twelve years.

The administrative structure, in addition to the exist­ing Ministry of Agrarian Reform provided for in Title IV, included a National Council for Agrarian Reform which was “to settle in last resort questions raised by the application of this ordinance”. But there was no explanation of the relationship between this Council and the local agrarian judges, mentioned in Article 28, who would “have jurisdiction over the litigation in the actions arising from the implementation of this ordi­nance”. Other commissions-how chosen or where lo­cated was unspecified-were to be formed with “com­petence” in several fields of administration, such as listing the lands to be expropriated, granting of titles to new owners, etc.

Title V (“Penalties”) was not lenient. Any land­owner who opposed application of the ordinance by any illegal means would have all his land immediately confiscated without compensation; one who attempted to reduce the value of his land was subject to fine or imprisonment. Article 29 was so sweeping as to be reminiscent of restrictions surrounding Communist land reform: “any person acting in a manner to discredit or impede the application of this ordinance will be liable” to fine or imprisonment. The “crime” of total insolvency on the part of the new owner-cultivator who has not completed payments was punishable, in Article 32, by eviction from his holding without reimburse­ment for the installments he had already paid.

Discussions on the draft continued. Some quarters pressed for a reduction of the retention limit to 50 hec­tares. But, surprisingly enough, the increase in area for redistribution would have been very slight with such a change. Henry reported in 1932 only 51 landlords hold­ing more than 50 ha. in all of Central Vietnam, though he did not indicate the area they owned. The detailed figures he gave for five representative southern prov­inces permit a fairly accurate projection for South Vietnam, which indicates that only 9 per cent of the cultivated area was owned by landlords with 50 to 100 ha. The number of landlords affected by a 50 ha. retention limit would have been more than doubled, however.

Inflationary Dangers

Vietnamese officials again approached USOM for $30 million in financial assistance, as they had first done in June. The cost of the 10 per cent cash pay­ment has been estimated at more than $12,000,000, a sizable sum in a total annual budget of $448,570,000 (in 1955) . But the USOM director was adamant against U.S. support for any kind of cash payment be­cause of the inflationary dangers involved. Instead he offered a suggestion to the drafting committee, which had been made also by Mr. Tu, that payment to the landlords be made in blocked foreign exchange avail­able only for the importation of approved capital goods. Under such an arrangement he was willing to profer American aid. But this suggestion was not accepted by the whole committee.

Concern for a rational payments system is com­mendable. Transformation of the landlords into indus­trial entrepreneurs is one of the important aims of agrarian reform. But the failure of the U.S. mission to give any financial assistance at all to land redis­tribution, except on its own terms, seemed to indicate that the mission had an order of priorities quite dif­ferent from that of those who have been most closely associated with the land reform program. During the fiscal years 1955 and 1956, about 85 per cent of the U.S. aid program in Vietnam was devoted to military budget support33 —a very inflationary venture. This was a calculated risk, a much greater risk than that involved in the $12 to $30 million now under discus­sion. Certainly under present conditions land redis­tribution is no less important as a protection against Communism than the armed forces. Moreover, if the Vietnamese government is determined to proceed with reform that requires a 10 per cent cash payment, then there will be a little inflation anyway.

The government does seem to be so determined: the final draft of the ordinance left Chapter III (on Com­pensation to Landlords) practically unchanged, except for additional restrictions on the bonds by addition of the modifying word “non-transferable” and omission of payments to “all other privileged creditors” from among their possible uses. In most other respects-except for the removal of the requirement that the tenant pay rent at the same time that he is buying the land by installment-the final draft was a retrogression instead of an improvement. Most serious was this addition to Article 3: “The maximum area which the landowners have the right to exploit directly for themselves is fixed at 30 ha.” It does not say whether the 30 ha. is in addition to the 100 ha. retention limit, but it would seem to have been useless to insert this sentence if it were not. Furthermore, the landlord is given one year instead of six months in which to shift from rice to industrial crops, if he so desires. A new article (No. 5) was added to allow an additional 15 ha. to landowners who have set aside certain land for ancestor worship.

Article 11 prevents cultivators “who have not signed farm lease contracts or paid either rent or land tax during the past year, and who refuse to pay them by March 31, 1957, from being beneficiaries of the re­form. Article 12, already very confusing in its attempt to name the priority of allotments, lists another cate­gory in the final draft, “those owning no land”, which would appear to allow non-cultivating landless to ac­quire lots. Though lands allotted under the reform cannot be rented, there is nothing in the law to pro­hibit them from being worked by wage laborers. The local committees or commissions, which were given “competence” in several fields in the earlier draft, were reduced to “studying and proposing solutions” on the same subjects by the final draft. In Title IV fines and imprisonment under Article 29 (Article 27 in the final draft) were raised from 20,000$ to 120,000$ and from six months to two years, respectively. Penalties in other articles were raised less sharply.

Article 33 was added in the final draft: “The mo­dalities of carrying out of this ordinance shall be de­termined by decree”. And well it might have been added, for the final draft was every bit as vague as the earlier one. It is little more than a statement of principles, or of an intention to do something. The real fate of land redistribution has not yet been de­cided. The most perplexing problems of allocation of lots—“who gets what”, and pricing—“for how much”, have been left to administrative discretion, along with other matters almost equally important. It is much too early, therefore, to judge whether the legal and ad­ministrative framework will be adequate to the task ahead.

Social legislation is enacted as the result either of effective agitation by the group to be benefited or of a determination of need by the political elite. The Tenants’ Union only sent a few petitions to the Min­istry of Agrarian Reform requesting land redistribution and these were generally disregarded. At the time of enactment of the rent reduction ordinance the Union was much younger and smaller. Vietnamese agrarian reform was initiated by the elite in the national gov­ernment.

When social legislation is thus initiated, its charac­ter is determined by the politico-economic character of that elite. The group which formulated the agrarian reform ordinances can be said to be both domestic and foreign. It was foreign in two senses. American ad­visors had some influence, and Tonkinese government officials originally from the north who, though not foreign, were not indigenous to Southern Vietnam, had much greater power. Neither had landholdings in Southern Vietnam. Within the truly domestic elite the Annamese and Cochin-chinese had divergent economic interests. These interests did not produce significantly divergent views on the rent-reduction program, but did in the discussions of land redistribution. As has already been noted, there were practically no landlords with more than 100 ha. in Central Vietnam. Thus Annamese leaders could argue for the political advan­tages to the regime of land redistribution with a 100 ha. retention limit without having to worry about the possibilities of personal economic disadvantage. The Cochin-Chinese within the national political elite, al­most all large landowners, though beginning to regain influence, were less powerful than natives of the other two regions. It may have been the desire to prevent such a political “come-back” that, in part, motivated enactment of redistribution legislation, for in an agrar­ian society such as Vietnam’s land is, in the long run, the basis of political power. The 100 ha. retention limit prevented medium-sized landlords’ support for large landlords’ opposition.

Social legislation in which the disadvantages fall dis­proportionately on an alien minority is comparatively easy to enact. This is especially true during periods of strong nationalist feeling. The easy adoption of Burma’s Land Nationalization law, in which the main casualties were the Indian Chettyars, is a case in point. So is the new land transfer ordinance in Viet­nam, though to a lesser extent. Judging by Henry’s pre-war figures, which showed that 253,000 ha. of rice-land in Cochin-china was owned in 1931 by French citizens,” it may be assumed that a sizable portion (perhaps a quarter) of the land to be redistributed under Ordinance 57 is alien-owned. This fact may soften the blow to the Vietnamese landowners.

The implementation of the agrarian legislation will also reflect changes in the economic interests of the elite. We have already noted how the gradual aboli­tion of Communist armed forces in Southern Vietnam during 1955-56, which greatly facilitated the collection of land rents, transformed the landlords’ attitude to­ward signing lease contracts from eagerness to extreme reluctance. We have also seen that the increase in landlord power in Southern Vietnam is continuing. It is thus difficult to imagine that the administrative decrees drafted, and other decisions taken, to imple­ment Ordinance 57 will be more favorable to the tenant than the Ordinance itself, unless, of course, the Ten­ants’ Union is more successful in mustering its forces and making its power felt than it has been in the past year.

In making this comment, however, it is important to remember that many expert observers predicted that Southern Vietnam would be under the Communist heel by 1957. But the dynamic leadership of President Diem has confounded the experts, and the Republic of Vietnam is now struggling with its basic economic, social and political problems, not without mistakes, yet in such a way as to give real hope that it can be­come a real stronghold against Communism in South­east Asia.


Mr. Wurfel, now in the Southeast Asia Program of Cornell University, has made detailed studies of agrarian reform in the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia.

1 Research for this article was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation. That Foundation is not, however, to be understood as approving any of the statements made or views expressed herein. In Vietnam the assistance of Mr. J. Price Gittinger in acquiring pertinent materials was in­valuable, and is much appreciated, but he is in no way re­sponsible for the author’s interpretation.

2 Now termed “South Vietnam”. In this article “the South” or “Southern Vietnam” refers to the territory con­trolled by the non-Communist Republic of Vietnam, but “South Vietnam” always means Cochinchina.

3 _Economie Agricole de L’Indochine, _Hanoi, 1932.

4 _Ibid., _pp. 144-145.

5 _Ibid., _pp. 189-190.

6 It is interesting to note that land reform decrees of the Vietminh regime (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) never applied to South Vietnam, though, of course, some rent reduction schemes were implemented in Vietminh-controlled areas there. See Bernard Fall, _The Viet-Minh Regime. _New York: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1956, P. 107.

7 Etat du Viet-Nam, Ordonnance No. 20, June 4, 1953.

8 Fall. loc. cit.

9 Brian Crozier, “The Diem Regime in Southern Viet­nam”, _Far Eastern Survey, _April 1955, p. 51.

10 Fall, loc. cit.

11 _Land Reform in Vietnam, _Saigon, 1956, P. 7.

12 There are two regions, South Vietnam and Central Viet­nam (Annam), headed by a Governmental Delegate appointed by the President.

13 One _gia _is about one eighth of a bushel.

14 The power of the _chef de province _is not always wielded so as to produce such good results for the tenant. In Central Vietnam one _chef _advised landlords that they had nothing to worry about and failed to distribute contract forms.

15 _Bilan des Realisations Gouvernementales, _Saigon, 1956, Pp. 134-135.

16 FOA/Saigon, PEA/EL, Project #30-12-089 (Adminis­tration, Agrarian Reform).

17 Mr. Ladejinsky is now Pres. Diem’s personal agrarian reform advisor.

18 The dollar sign to the right of the figure denotes piastres. _In early 1956 the official rate was 35 _piastres _for 1 U.S. dol­lar, while the Hong Kong free market rate was 80 to 1. U.S. aid funds are exchanged at the official rate, of course; but the Hong Kong exchange more nearly indicates the real ex­change value of the _piastre.

19 _New York Times, _April 5, 1955.

20 Denoting “Communist”, the term now officially preferred in Saigon to Vietminh, which implies “coalition”.

21 It claims a membership of about 250,000, which is equal to the total number of all other organized workers in Vietnam.

22 Cantonal Joint Committees, those closest to the tenant, were only advisory bodies and could do no more than in­vestigate disputes filed with the District Joint Committee. See Article 20.

23 _Report on the Organization of the Department … _p. 17. The Vietnamese term is translated into English both as “ministry” and “department”.

24 _Ibid., _p. 16.

25 _Ibid., _Exhibit No. 10.

26 In an interview with the Agrarian Reform Agent of Rachgia province in October 1956 the author was given a figure for abandoned lands in that province which was three times the total for Rachgia in Exhibit No. 10. This indicates not only feverish activity in the intervening six months but a lag in provincial reporting to Saigon.

27 Report on the Organization… Exhibit No. 11. Per­sonal observation in October 1956 led the author to believe that this figure was much larger by that time.

28 Leland Barrows, Director, United States Operation Mis­sion, Speech to the Vietnamese-American Association, Saigon, October 9, 1956, p. 6.

29 See Leland Barrows, Statement before Committee on Foreign Aid, Washington, June 14, 1956, pp. 19-20, Part II.

30 Roughly equivalent to private secretary.

31 John L. Cooper, “Study of Agricultural Credit Needs in Vietnam”, ICA, Saigon, January 30, 1955, p. 6.

32 “Indochina since Geneva”, Pacific Affairs, March 1955, p. 10.

33 Barrows, Statement before Committee on Foreign Aid, Part I, p. 7.

34 Henry, op. cit., p. 224. Some of these “citizens” were, of course, Cochin-chinese who had chosen to acquire French citizenship.

Categories Vietnam, The War Years