Power Dynamics Unveiled: The Kinh People's Transition from Comrades to Colonialists in the Central Highlands

Motivated by an unwavering determination to advance civilization and uphold the principles of socialism, the communists sought to demonstrate their superiority.

Power Dynamics Unveiled: The Kinh People's Transition from Comrades to Colonialists in the Central Highlands
Graphic: Shiv/ Luat Khoa Magazine.

This article was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on June 15, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated this into English.

In the French Colonial War (1946-1954) and the subsequent conflict against the former Republic of Vietnam, the revolutionary communist forces forged a common alliance with the indigenous people of the Central Highlands. Together, they fervently directed their efforts against the perceived "colonialists," "oppressors," and "assimilators" associated with their respective opposing political factions. Nevertheless, once the Kinh communists took power in 1975, they began to distance themselves from the ethnic minority populations since they no longer had common or shared interests with these indigenous groups.

This shift was evidenced by a series of intrusive and forceful policies that resulted in extended conflicts between the former allies, with echoes of these tensions persisting to this day in the plight of the Montagnards in the Central Highlands.

Revolutionary Mobilization with a Supremacy Mindset

The Central Highlands has always been seen as one of the regions with significant influence on the survival of Vietnam as a country.

In the context of the Vietnam War, this region served as a strategically important buffer zone between the highland and lowland areas under the control of the Republic of Vietnam government. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran along the border of Laos and Cambodia, was a vital route for the communist forces in southern and northern Vietnam. To maintain their presence in this region and establish a stronghold, it was crucial for these communist forces to gain the support of the local indigenous ethnic groups.

At that time, gaining the support of these ethnic groups was not overly challenging. According to the study “Highlanders on the Ho Chi Minh Trail: Representations and Narratives,” the revolutionary government of Vietnam attempted to establish roots in the Central Highlands during the Viet Minh period (1941-1951). [1] During the Vietnam War (1954-1975), the support of the indigenous people became even more critical.

The Communist strategy of building trust between themselves and the ethnic people of the Central Highlands adhered to the basic theory of constructing a revolutionary movement.

They recognized and addressed the indigenous people’s absence of representation in the national government. Likewise, the Communists pointed out the damage to the land and nature caused by military campaigns conducted by the United States and the Republic of Vietnam

At the same time, the Communists made several promises to the ethnic minority groups to win their support. They promised to give the people in the Central Highlands autonomy, self-governance, and a better life for the farmers. Communist cadres also exploited the political antagonism among various tribes and communities to gradually dominate the political landscape in the Central Highlands.

Nevertheless, despite employing these manipulative rhetorical techniques, Vietnamese communists still disdained the perceived slow progress and antiquated aspects of the Montagnards' lifestyle, customs, and socio-economic models.

According to Marxist ideology, the communist revolution emphasizes interracial solidarity; a Marxist revolutionary group cannot adhere to racially discriminatory viewpoints. However, Marxism greatly trusted the movement to develop advanced socio-economic structures. Hence, the socialist modernity being adopted and implemented by the Kinh people must be superior and more developed than the primitive systems of the Montagnards.

With this belief in mind, Communist cadres carried the revolutionary "civilization" mindset to the highland ethnic groups, drawing parallels to the French advocacy of enlightenment and civilization for the Annamese people. However, Kinh's “supremacist” mindset was rarely manifested due to constant conflicts and clashes with their common enemies: France, the United States, and the Republic of Vietnam.

Nevertheless, as argued by Christopher Goscha, the language used by the Kinh communist cadres and their primary goals of mobilizing, persuading, and building trust with ethnic minority communities always maintained a sense of supremacy and absolute superiority. [2] These cadres say ethnic minority groups cannot exercise sufficient agency in choosing their political beliefs.

Establishing a Neo-colonialist Governance Policy

With this conservative mindset, it is difficult to discern any contrasting approach or perspective among Kinh communist cadres when considering the Montagnards in the Central Highlands compared to how the French perceived the Annamese people. Both groups are regarded as underdeveloped ethnic communities, seen to lack civilization and require enlightenment.

Similar to how the French came to Vietnam under the guise of spreading enlightenment and civilization but ultimately focused on colonial exploitation, the Kinh people also went to the Central Highlands with this in mind, especially after establishing their political dominance in Vietnam.

According to the standard definition, colonialism is  “controlling by one power over a dependent area or people.” [3] In this context, a nation or a community subjugates another and exploits it economically while imposing the conqueror's cultural, linguistic, and political values on the dominated society.

With this broad definition, it can be seen that colonialism does not exclusively refer to the West. The fact that the Kinh people were colonized in the past does not mean they cannot become the oppressor of other groups of people.

Researchers use the term "internal colonialism" to discuss similar issues in Vietnam.

In the observations of Grant Evans, the Montagnards hoped that after the war ended, they could return to their villages, rebuild their sacred land, and live their lives as before. However, this would never be realized. [4]

Immediately after the war ended, resettlement campaigns, reconstruction efforts, labor reallocation, and the establishment of new economic zones primarily targeted the land in the Central Highlands – the historical motherland of the Montagnards.

Successive “invasive” policies of the new government, the chaotic spontaneous migration of people from other regions, and the emergence of illegal logging companies deprived the indigenous ethnic groups of any opportunity for self-governance, as promised by the previous communist officials.

From dominating the Central Highlands, the Montagnards were assimilated by the influx of Kinh migrants and became a minority in their motherland.

They were displaced from being landowners and cultivators and pushed deeper into remote areas with limited industrial and agricultural productivity.

From having a system of self-determined, autonomous, cultural, and political governance, the future of the Central Highlands ethnic communities became entangled in political policies designed for ethnic minorities by the Communist Party.

Moreover, Grant Evans' research also reveals that the overall demographic policies of Kinh scholars, under the supervision and guidance of the Hanoi government, continued to produce unfavorable outcomes for the existence and development of the Montagnards' cultures in the Central Highlands.

More specifically, some authors, such as Dang Nghiem Van, clearly demonstrate a Marxist ideology that prioritizes socialism over recognizing and supporting the maintenance of the Montagnard tradition.

The studies by Van and many other Kinh demographic scholars support resettlement policies and redistribution of Kinh labor resources into the Central Highlands. They argue that the influx of Kinh individuals to these regions aids in bridging the development gap experienced by the indigenous communities. This perspective, however, reveals a sense of supremacy when Kinh communist individuals assess the ethnic communities in the highlands of Central Highlands.


The policies imposed by the Kinh people on the Montagnards in the Central Highlands resemble the colonial practices employed by the French during their rule over Vietnam. However, it might be somewhat unrealistic to expect the Kinh people to fully acknowledge and actively seek reconciliation for the ethnic conflicts they have contributed to.


1. Pholsena, V. (2008). Highlanders on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Critical Asian Studies, 40(3), 445–474. https://doi.org/10.1080/14672710802274151

2. Vietnam and the world outside: The case of Vietnamese communist advisers in Laos (1948–62), JSTOR. (n.d.). https://www.jstor.org/stable/23750295

3. Blakemore, E. (2021, May 3). What is colonialism? Culture. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/colonialism

4. Internal Colonialism in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, JSTOR. (n.d.). https://www.jstor.org/stable/26531807

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