The T'ai Federation and the Nung Atuonomous Zone,
and the Minorities of the North
The T'ai minority people of the high country of northwestern Vietnam and northern Laos - part of the broad family of Thai peoples of southeast Asia and southern China - had long had an independence that had been compromised by vague pledges of loyalty to the Emperor of Annam, the King of Luang Prabang, and the Chinese Viceroy of Yunnan. Their loose federation, the Sip Song Chau Tai, comprised some twelve cantons in the area of Lai Chau, Son La, and Dien Bien Phu. (The spelling can be Tai, Thai, or T'ai, but here is rendered as T'ai to differentiate them from the Thai of Thailand.)
In 1886 the Court in Bangkok had sent an army to Laos and the high country of those distantly related minority peoples to put down the marauding Ho armies and reassert Siamese control. In May 1887 the Siamese army withdrew, taking hostages from the ruling Deo family of the Sip Song Chau Tai. The T'ai tribes countered with an attack on Luang Prabang, Then in the course of establishing France's position in Laos, the future governor of Laos, Auguste Pavie, undertook a military expedition against, and negotiations with, the T'ai tribes. By obtaining the release of the hostages held in Siam, Pavie was able to secure an alliance with the T'ai leader Deo Van Tri and take the area under French sovereignty.
The French were to have periodic troubles with the restive minority peoples. In 1914 Chinese opium merchants and T'ai angered at the excesses of the Deo family and the French administrators killed the French garrison at Sam Neua. Another revolt in 1919 aimed at establishing an independent kingdom at Dien Bien Phu. Both these and other disturbances had to be quelled by French troops from the Tonkin Delta.
After World War II the French began to encourage T'ai separatism as a defense against the ambitions of both the Vietnamese communists and nationalists. On March 1, 1948, to the anger of Vietnamese nationalists, the T'ai Federation was given autonomous status within the French Union with its own flag and capital at Lai Chau. Pressed by both the French and the Viet Minh, T'ai and other minorities fought on both sides, but, with the allegiance of the T'ai leader Deo Van Long, the French did receive considerable support from the highland people of the north.
The T'ai country became the site of major battles of the First Indochina War. In September 1951 the 312th Viet Minh Division assaulted Nghia Lo, the eastern key to the highlands, but were beaten off. In October 1952 these Viet Minh divisions undertook a major offensive which was marked by the sacrifice of the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion. The climactic battle of Dien Bien Phu took place in 1953 after the French army dropped in parachute battalions to recapture the small highland center and to establish a "blocking position" -- which instead became a trap for both the defending force and French policy in Indochina.
The T'ai supplied a number of mountain battalions to the French Union forces and the many partisans who were commanded by French officers and NCOs in the Composite Airborne Commando Group (C.G.M.A.). The effectiveness of these guerilla forces was long argued among French military observers. The communists' own writings indicate, however, that they considered the partisans a thorn in their side. It was not until well after the Viet Minh victory that the T'ai partisans were destroyed completely.
After their victory the communists established "autonomous zones" in the highland areas for the minorities, being careful as always to retain real control with central authority.
The Nung Autonomous Zone, to be directly attached to the Crown of Annam, was apparently never formally implemented. The Nungs were a minority people of a mixed Muong and Hakka Chinese background who lived scattered along the Chinese border from the Highlands and Cao Bang to Mon Cay. They were well regarded as soldiers, and some 30,000 fought on the French side. Many were incorporated into regular French battalions, part of the "jaundicing" of the French army units during the war. The Nung emblems included an umbrella handle, and also a junk inscribed on the French tricolor.