Southeast Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - Revolutionary Alternatives, or Dien Bien Phu after the Battle

Thursday, March 22
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Location: Truman, Mezzanine Level

Điện Biên Phủ is a place often invoked but poorly understood. On 7 May 1955, a year to the day after Vietnam’s great victory over France, a ceremony on its hallowed ground established the Thái-Mèo Autonomous Zone and celebrated national ethnic unity under revolutionary socialism. Yet local critics decried the Zone’s resemblance to the colonial Thái Federation and called for a revolutionary alternative to regional autonomy. Escalating resource claims turned simmering discontent among Hmong, Khmu, and Dao swidden cultivators into a boil. Intensive engagement with revolutionary ideals and participation in anti-colonial struggle had changed the region’s peoples, destabilizing its elevationally-layered social formation.


Largely unknown to scholars, a countermovement in and around Điện Biên enriches a geographic concept of territory as an uncertain outcome of grounded struggles. Rising up in 1957, midland and upland peoples joined forces, protested state resource claims, and appealed to a supernatural sovereign to deliver justice, topple an ethnicized hierarchy, and unite kin across borders. Its leaders held high-level positions in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, demonstrating how mimetic entanglements rose not in spite of but alongside and within national territory. Crushed by security forces and its leaders jailed by 1958, the millenarian movement built on and amplified tensions embedded in postcolonial territory. Its political vision—a highland geobody ruled by a divine king—challenges how we as scholars conceptualize hegemonic spaces of nation-state rule.

Christian C. Lentz

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina

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2 - Revolutionary Alternatives, or Dien Bien Phu after the Battle



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