Posted Monday, Feb. 19, 1951
The northwest corner of Indo-China is a wild, mountainous region, seemingly perfect for Communist guerrilla tactics. The people who cultivate the valleys are Thais;* in the mountains live Muongs. Both belong to the Thai Federation, part of Bao Dai's Viet Nam state. Last December, while the French were fighting desperately to hold the port of Hanoi, Communist forces drove into the Thai and Muong country, pushed the French frontier guards back 100 miles to the outpost town of Lai Chau. The Communists then set about winning over Thais and Muongs.
In Lai Chau, the president of the Thai Federation (Deo Van Lang) and the French regional counselor (Ter-Sarkissoff) planned to beat the Communists at their own guerrilla game. A month's journey by land from Hanoi, they could not expect reinforcements. To the beleaguered French, a French plane dropped 1) three ammunition canisters filled with money, and 2) a case of champagne.
The Communists also had money: brand-new piasters, off a printing press in one of the towns they had captured. Neither the Thais nor the Muongs are a highly developed people—but they know good money from bad. They called the Red piasters "monkey money." Discontent broke out among the Thais and Muongs, and Ter-Sarkissoff's undercover agents made the most of it.
The Communists issued an ultimatum to village elders: cooperate by Jan. 27, or have your property confiscated. Thais and Muongs began taking refuge behind the French lines. The French recruited them at 350 (good) piasters a month, armed them with rifles, mortars. Soon the French had a barefooted, beret-wearing, mobile mountain force of several thousand men.
Six weeks ago Thai and Muong soldiers, led by the French, infiltrated the Communist-held territory. They hid themselves in the mountains until Jan. 27, when they descended on the Communists in a succession of hit & run raids and ambuscades. After six days, the terrorized Reds pulled out. Deo Van Lang sent his local chieftains back to take over the region.
In Lai Chau last week, Regional Counselor Ter-Sarkissoff broke open the case of champagne, split a warm bottle with a TIME correspondent. Looking out upon the peaceable, beautiful country of the Thais and the Muongs, Counselor Sarkis-soff said: "It's really beautiful, eh?"
*Most Thais live in northern Siam (or Thailand), some in Indo-China, some in eastern Burma.