“Re-education camp (Vietnamese: trại học tập cải tạo) is the official title given to the prison camps operated by the Communist government of Vietnam following the end of the Vietnam War. In such “re-education camps”, the government imprisoned over 1 million former military officers, government workers and supporters of the former government of South Vietnam. Re-education as it was implemented in Vietnam was seen as both a means of revenge and as a sophisticated technique of repression and indoctrination, which developed for several years in the North and was extended to the South following the 1975 Fall of Saigon. An estimated 1-2.5 million people were imprisoned with no formal charges or trials. According to published academic studies in the United States and Europe, 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s re-education camps. Thousands were tortured or abused. Prisoners were incarcerated for as long as 17 years, with most terms ranging from three to 10 years.
The term ‘re-education camp’ is also used to refer to prison camps operated by the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution, or to the laogai and laojiao camps currently operated by the Chinese government. The theory underlying such camps is the Maoist theory of reforming counter-revolutionaries into socialist citizens by re-education through labor.”
“On April 30, 1975 the South Vietnamese Government fell to the Communist regime under Ho Chi Minh and those individuals involved in the political and military running of the former government were ordered to register with the new government and await further orders.
In the summer of 1975 the transportation of these individuals to camps throughout the newly united country began, with the higher ranking members of the ARVN taken to the most remote camps in the highland jungles of the north. Although not specifically told the extent of their stay in the camps, the authorities informed military personnel from the rank of second lieutenant to captain and lower ranking police officials to report to sites with a 10 day supply of food, clothing and personal effects. Officers of the rank of major to general, high-ranking police and intelligence officers and all elected member of the Senate and House of Representatives were to report to their designated sites with enough clothing, food and supplies for one month.
Life in the camps consisted of a regimen of forced hard labor, including landmine clearance and road building and political indoctrination denouncing ‘American imperialism’ and celebrating the inevitable superiority of communism. The prisoners were organized into work units and forced to compete against each other for better work records. The evenings were spent in studying the writings of the Communist regime, confessing to anti-communist and pro-American leanings and denouncing those fellow prisoners who lacked a sufficient ‘work ethic’ or who still harbored anti communist thoughts. The scanty diet was supplemented by scavenging during work time and occasional visits from relatives, but starvation and illness claimed the lives of thousands of prisoners.
In 1981 a memorandum by the Communist government to Amnesty International claimed that all those imprisoned in the re-education camps were guilty of acts of national treason as defined in Article 3 of the 30 October 1967 Law on Counter-revolutionary Crimes which specifies twenty years to life imprisonment or the death penalty. The punishment of re-education was seen by the Vietnamese government as the most ‘humanitarian’ system.
And now, for archaeology of a more recent time. The Returning Casualty is a American-Vietnamese charity whose work involves the excavation of camp cemeteries so the remains of the soldiers can be returned to their families after DNA testing. Julie Martin, who is studying for an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology at Cranfield University in the UK shares her recent work with The Returning Casualty at a 2010 excavation in Yen Bai Province. [Text and photos by Julie Martin.]”
“After the Fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975, every South Vietnamese man, from former officers in the armed forces, to religious leaders, to employees of the Americans or the old government, were told to report to a re-education camp to “learn about the ways of the new government.” Many South Vietnamese men chose to flee on boats, but others had established lives and loved ones in Vietnam, so they willingly entered these camps in hopes of quickly reconciling with the new government and continuing their lives peacefully. According to my father, the government said re-education would only last for ten days, and at most two weeks. However, once there, the men were detained for many years in grueling labour camps.
Excerpts from My Father’s Oral History
The best way to describe these camps is through the words of someone who lived through it. In Spring 2003, I interviewed my father and learned about his experiences in totality for the first time. Here are excerpts from accounts of his seven years in re-education camps:
“I was married for less than eight months before I had to go to re-education camp. Communists said one thing—only ten days! They wrote that we’d only need to pack clothing and food and money for ten days, so everyone believed. We all signed contracts that said this! But after ten days, after three months, after six months, after being moved from place to place by the Communists, I knew we were in for the long haul. In June of 1975, they brought me to Hoc Mon, then transferred me on a cargo boat to the North.”
My father believes he was kept at the re-education camps for seven years because of his Military Intelligence (MI) status. “Communists were afraid of Military Intelligence because we could reveal information, so they brought MI to the North.” Here, the re-education camp became known as labor camp due to the notorious back-breaking work forced upon prisoners. “Their main goal was not to teach us, but only to detain us. Many of them didn’t even have an education beyond the 8th grade; how could they teach us?”
The time of imprisonment was physically demanding and morally disheartening. “The Communists put people like me into the jungle so that we would get sick and slowly die off. That was their goal… Everyone was miserable. Many people died of sadness… One week I’d see one gravesite. As the weeks went on I saw more and more graves.”
Prisoners endured long days of menial labor and physical pain. “Everyday I needed to get 20kg of bamboo shoots. We had to peel the outside until we reached the soft white middle to collect. I worked in the jungle where there were leeches skinny as chopsticks. But once they stuck onto you and sucked on your blood, they would swell like fat sausages. I would lie there at night, tired and not knowing why, and my friends would see a big leech on my foot and pry it off.”
“We were broken up into different labor units. The building unit made houses, the equipment unit made spades and there was a unit that grew wheat, a unit that grew vegetables, a unit that cultivated tea… In camp, our unit’s specialty was building. I would carry cement, wood and everything needed to make buildings. I had to carry 16 pieces of brick, or carry tureens full of water and walk barefoot on a steep road.” My father’s unit also made and transported equipment for people to build houses. “I had to walk through the fields and streams to give equipment to the construction unit… It was heavy work, especially carrying the water. Sometimes I had to walk with the water for 1-2 km.”
The fatigue wore down the men and made them more susceptible to accidents. My father relates, “People who didn’t know how to cut bamboos properly died when branches they chopped fell on top of them.”
“Another time, there was a bamboo that fell on my head.” While other prisoners chopped bamboo trees around him, my father was caught amidst falling bamboo branches. “Fortunately, I held a knife in one hand. A bamboo tree actually fell on my knife and split in half. My other arm wasn’t so lucky. It swelled and hung in a cast without medication for two weeks. To this day, my right arm is weaker than my left!”
When accidents or sickness occurred, very little could be done for the prisoners. “When I was sick, only two out of the 70-some people in my unit could stay home to rest, so I continued to work.”
After a strenuous day of work, prisoners had very little time to themselves. “At night, after returning from work and entering the camp, at 7 p.m. there would be a conference to plan the next day and evaluate the current day. They’d tell us what we did well and what we did badly. It took two hours. If someone said ‘Truong didn’t do a good job today,’ then I’d have to stand up according to Communist protocol and accept shame and excuse my fatigue and promise that I would do a better job tomorrow.”
“Each person got two hands’ span of space to lie down. To do this, we had to lie like canned sardines. One person lay one way, the adjacent people lay the other way to have enough room to lie down. In each little room there were about 60-70 people, sleeping on a floor that was a little elevated over the bare earth.”
“We woke up really early in the morning. They hit a cowbell to wake us all up: ‘Keng keng keng!’ We had to bring water into the sleeping area so that in the morning we could wash our faces. Each day before work we’d eat breakfast. At noon we had lunch and after work we had dinner.”
Besides the constant fatigue, my father remembers being very hungry. “We ate very little. Every day, we ate a portion of rice as small as a quit (small fruit, like an orange) and some salt water. They didn’t give us much because they feared that people would hoard food and escape… We ate just enough to survive.” Pain punctuates his narrative. “Since we lacked food and medicine many people died. Sometimes I’d lie awake at night, not knowing when my turn would come, because a friend had died just two days ago, and a week after I would bury another friend in the fields. I’d bring another friend to the hospital, only to have him die. So I didn’t know when my turn would come…” Even with his positive temperament, my father was miserable and constantly fearful of death. He speaks with resentment about the lack of food. “I was very weak when I came home (from the labor camp in 1982). During the time I served for the South Vietnamese army, I weighed 53 kg. But after two years in the camp, I weighed only 39 kg!”
Many people couldn’t take the inhumane camp conditions and hoarded their rice rations and attempted to flee at night. Unfortunately, communist guards usually caught prisoners as they climbed the fence that surrounded the camps. “I never tried to leave. I had friends who tried to escape, who were shot dead.” If they survived, the punishment was severe. Five to six soldiers beat prisoners who were brought back. “I had a friend who was beaten until he vomited blood… (there were) welts all over his body.” Afterwards, guards jailed him in a small box for three to four months.
My father helped his friend survive. Everyday, his duty included bringing rice to those imprisoned in the boxes, so he used this opportunity to feed his friend. “Before I brought my friend his portion, I would pack a lot of rice really tightly into the bowl and sprinkle a little rice on top of it. When the soldiers inspected the portion, it would look small and they would allow me to bring the food to my friend.”
“My friend went through that and survived. During the war, he served as a Vietnamese SEAL, so he was very strong. That’s how he withstood the camp conditions. He lives in the US today.” My father continues to correspond with his friend through letters and more recently, e-mail.
Occasionally, the prisoners were allowed to communicate with loved ones. “Every three to five months, we got permission to write home.” However, my father did not trust the Communist postal services. “I was never sure that your mother received all the information because sometimes they would send the letters, sometimes they wouldn’t. Many times, the Communists did not send the letter to Saigon but kept it at the re-education camp. I know because a Communist man asked me why I bothered to write; then he showed me the pile of letters.”
“They kept the letters because they didn’t want people at home to know the situation or news from re-education camp. Sometimes I’d write a letter in February and a letter in May, but they might send the May letter first and then send the February letter later to lose the time continuity.”
My father tried to communicate with his wife in code, referring to memories that would indicate his whereabouts. “I would write, ‘Here I really miss my father.’ In the past, Grandfather worked in Lau Cai, so your mother would understand that I was in the North near Lao Cai.”
In addition to written correspondence, prisoners were allowed to receive two gifts and one visit annually. “The Communists would issue a ticket, and with that ticket, we could receive packages.” Resentment and irritation creep into his voice. “Even so, sometimes I got the gifts, sometimes I didn’t… When I went up to the Communist offices to clean up, I would see opened cans of fish, labeled with your mother’s handwriting. Then, I would know that they kept and ate everything instead of delivering her package.”
Seeing loved ones was even more difficult. “The distance from the South to the North was very far. Every time your mother came to visit, she would have to take the train for three days and four nights to get to the North. From Hanoi, she would need to take a ferry, then walk, and then wade through deep water to visit me. All this, for an hour visit!” Simultaneously infuriated with the Communists and grateful for his wife, my father marvels at the trouble Ai-Mai had to go through to visit him. “Once in camp, she got questioned. They interviewed her for half an hour about her education and family… Then we got to talk to each other for half an hour. We sat so far away from each other, our hands could not have touched if we reached out.” During their conversation, a communist soldier sat at the head of the table, dispelling any intimacy and privacy. “We could only talk about the news before they took her away. After she left, the soldier would look through the gifts she brought to see if there was anything worth keeping. Then they would take it and claim to throw it out, but actually kept the stuff for themselves.” Nevertheless, Ai-Mai made the journey to see her husband. “Every year, your mother would visit once.”
Prisoners learned to be resourceful with the few items they owned. “In the North, all the clothing I wore had holes, so I had to make my own needle and smuggle thread to mend them.” Each year, Communists only issued one shirt and one pair of pants. “I had to get pieces of cloth to sew another layer of clothing, or even underwear.” Most of his clothes were from 1975, when he initially thought he’d be in camp for only ten days, or sent from his wife and her mother.
Despite the harsh conditions in the North, my father made the distinction between Communists and Northerners; he never harbored any anger towards villagers. Likewise, local people empathized with prisoners. “Many Northerners cried when they saw that we worked so hard. They were good people. There was a family who lived near our camp. Every day, they lent me their treasured ladle to get clean water.” My father tried to return the favor. “This family had a boy who wore a tattered shirt all the time. I saved and hid a Communist-issued shirt that wasn’t branded to give to the boy.” However, when he offered them the shirt, the mother thanked him but refused the gift. “She was such a good person. She told me that I should save the shirt because I never know when I’ll leave the camp and need it.”
Besides interaction with the locals, my father remembers simple pleasures. “What was best for everyone was the chance to bathe, because we were so dirty. Everyone desired to bathe. Afterwards, we’d take our clothing and wash it in the water.” Reflecting back on how they walked back to camp, dripping wet, he feels lucky that he never caught pneumonia.
Despite the conditions, men found camaraderie and entertainment in each other. “One time, there was theater in camp, and I had to act and dance. The play was called ‘Nguoi Van Do,’ which meant ‘Person Who Lived Near the Sea.’ It was all for fun, to amuse the others. We went to a theater and practiced, and everyone who wanted could perform. I dressed up as a woman, wearing a dress! We only got 5 weeks to practice and then perform the play. In the morning, we would practice, and in the afternoons we would work. In prison camp we only had this form of amusement.”
In camp, the dehumanization and the challenge to one’s rank grated on many prisoners’ nerves. Before the fall of Saigon and during the Vietnam War, My father was treated with the respect accorded to his rank and age. “Whatever I said, people would have to follow my orders; but when I entered re-education camp, there would be a small kid about (my son) Quang’s age (16) and they’d tell me this and that, and I’d have to follow their orders. Even though I was older, they ordered me around.” This breach of respect also countered traditional values of deferring to one’s elders.
Many prisoners became disillusioned with the new regime. “After re-education camp, many people felt they couldn’t live with the Communist rule, so they left. Uncle Hien served as a General in the army and was also in re-education camp. After he was dismissed from re-education camp, he immediately jumped a boat (to leave Vietnam).”
“I left re-education camp in 1982. There were people who stayed in camp even longer than I did! I stayed seven years, and that year they had begun to dismiss people.” My father was detained until Communists judged that the South was stable enough to permit his release. In 1987 at least 15,000 people were still incarcerated in labor camps. When their term of imprisonment expired, they were simply sentenced to three or five more years of re-education. [re-education Camps: Vietnamese Information Resource, April 16, 2003.] My father affirms, “There were people (at the camps) for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, even thirteen years!” He feels lucky for getting out. “I still have no idea why they let me go when they did.” The day he was released, guards gathered all the prisoners and read out names. “They read the name of one person higher-ranked than I, and I feared that I wouldn’t be allowed to leave. Then they read my name, and I was shocked. I stood to one side. They kept me at the camp for another 10 days to do some work, but there was no longer a soldier following me everywhere. I got to go bathe and work by myself. Afterwards, I took the train to go home.”
The re-education camps were organized into five levels. The level-one camps which were called as study camps or day-study centers located mainly in major urban centers, often in public parks, and allowed attendees to return home each night. In those camps, some 500,000 people were instructed about socialism, new government policy in order to unlearn their old ways of thinking.
The level-two camps had a similar purpose as the level-one, but attendees were not allowed to return home for three to six months. During the 1970s, at least 200,000 inmates entered more than three hundred level–two camps.
The level-three re-education camps, known as the socialist-reform camps, could be found in almost every Southern Vietnam province containing at least 50,000 inmates. Most of them were educated people and thus less susceptible to manipulation than most South Vietnamese in the level-one and two camps. Therefore, the inmates (or prisoners) in these camps had to suffer poorer living conditions, forced labor and daily communist indoctrination.
The last two types of camps were used to incarcerate more “dangerous” southern individuals – including writers, legislator teachers, supreme court judges, province chiefs – until the South was stable to permit their release. By separating members of certain social classes of the old regime, Hanoi wanted to prevent them from conducting joint resistances and forced them to conform to the new social norms. In 1987, at least 15,000 “dangerous” persons were still incarcerated level-four and level-five camps.
Camp Conditions and Deaths
In most of the re-education camps, living conditions were inhumane. Prisoners were treated with little food, poor sanitation, and no medical care. They were also assigned to do hard and risky work such as clearing the jungle, constructing barracks, digging wells, cutting trees and even mine field sweeping without necessary working equipment.
Although those hard work required a lot of energy, their provided food portions were extremely small. As a prisoner recall, the experience of hunger dominated every man in his camp. Food was the only thing they talked about. Even when they were quiet, food still haunted their thoughts, their sleep and their dreams. Worse still, various diseases such as malaria, beriberi and dysentery were widespread in some of the camps. As many prisoners were weakened by the lack of food, those diseases could now easily take away their lives.
Starvation diet, overwork, diseases and harshly punishment resulted in a high death rate of the prisoners. According to academic studies of American researchers, a total of 165,000 Vietnamese people died in those camps”
Below are pictures and video when the communists staged a ‘happy re-education camp’ for the American journalists visiting the Z30-D Ham Tan camp in 1984. Healthy prisoners who were visited and supplied with food regularly by relatives were selected to front the journalists. A music band was on show too.
“What happened to the losing side in the Vietnam War? Whatever happened to those who were left behind?
In the years following the fall of Saigon, the communist victors exacted a cruel revenge on hundreds of thousands of its citizens in an extensive network of re-education camps. Executions, torture and constant, numbing brutality were cloaked in a veil of secrecy manufactured by Hanoi. It wasn’t until thousands of Vietnamese, including many escaped prisoners, flowed into San Jose and other U.S. cities, that the story began to emerge.
More than 100 survivors of the camps who now live in San Jose, Southern California and the Washington, D.C., area have told me of their ordeals. They told how military, government, business and religious leaders — people the communists declared guilty of war crimes or who they fear could lead a counter-revolution — lived out their lives in hard labor, humiliation, sickness and deliberately inflicted pain. Their stories are backed up by the findings of scholars, government officials and human rights groups across the United States, Europe and Asia.
The Vietnamese government admits that the camps existed and said that it had the right to punish the inmates as war criminals and “enemies of the people.” But Hanoi denied that prisoners were tortured or otherwise mistreated in the camps. However, I learned otherwise.
- Executed thousands of its vanquished opponents. A report by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimated that 65,000 people were executed in the eight years after the communist victory in 1975. The U.S. State Department reported to Congress that “executions number in the tens of thousands.
- Consigned as many as 500,000 people to extended stays in the camps. Scholars believe that at one time there were as many as 300 camps throughout Vietnam, most of them near Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon.–Sent people to the camps for indefinite terms without bringing formal charges against them or conducting judicial proceedings of any kind.
- Subjected prisoners to intense political harangues and forced them to write detailed confessions of their supposed crimes. Many prisoners said they had to revise their confessions dozens of times before they were deemed acceptable. Some inmates said they were forced to betray other prisoners for imaginary crimes in order to prove their sincerity.
- Tortured prisoners in an attempt to get information about political opposition, military resistance movements and conspiracies to escape. According to the former prisoners, the list of torture techniques included ripping out fingernails with pliers, whipping prisoners with live electric wires, hanging inmates from the ceiling and beating them and forcing prisoners to drink water and then jumping on their bloated stomachs.
- Disciplined prisoners by locking them in metal storage boxes called connexes, where the temperature often soared above 120 degrees. Water was sometimes denied as punishment, and some former prisoners said they drank their own urine. Others reported that some prisoners were chained so long that maggots grew in the wounds on their wrists or ankles.
- Forced inmates to perform hard labor while providing only the most rudimentary food and medical care. Many prisoners starved to death, while others were left to die a lingering, painful death from disease. Conditions in those camps are so bad that discipline for even the most minor infraction “can result in acute suffering, permanent physical impairment and death,” according to the State Department.
“The communists practiced a form of genocide,” said one former South Vietnamese army colonel speaking in his Los Angeles home. “The Vietnamese communists were too clever to kill us all in a bloodbath as the Cambodia communists did,” the colonel said. “They decided who they wanted to kill, worked them very hard, fed them almost nothing and let disease do the rest. There were 300 colonels in my camp originally. When we were moved two and a half years later, we left 37 graves behind.”
“The communists did not want to re-educate us,” said another former colonel from Garden Grove. “They wanted vengeance.” In the Berkeley study, researchers Jacqueline Desbarats and Karl D. Jackson said the camps were a sophisticated form of “drip death” that the communist regime uses for “liquidating (its) class enemies.”
I went to New York to ask the Vietnamese about this at their mission to the United Nations.Vietnamese spokesman Ha Huy Thong called the reports of brutality in the camps “distorted” and “fabricated.” Thong answered the allegations of torture with a statement from Justice Minister Phan Hien.
“We pursue a benevolent and very humane policy toward (the prisoners),” the statement said. “There are, of course, regulations in any camp. If they are violated, it is necessary to ensure they are respected. But we are against torture. We punish torture. But, on the other hand, prisoners must be punished who try to escape or destroy discipline in the camp.”
Hanoi officials said they could have tried the prisoners as war criminals, but chose to punish most of them without formal charges or trials “to save them from a dirty stain (that) might be brought to bear on their families and themselves.”
“To re-educate them is to help them to realize their crimes, to offer them an opportunity to listen to reason and to reform themselves into honest-minded people, thus contributing to the common cause of national reconstruction,” according to a statement issued by the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.
The continuing agony of thousands of Vietnamese went unnoticed by much of the world for years because of Hanoi’s tight control over information and access to the country. Few Western journalists were given access to the camps. Former prisoners said that even journalists from friendly communist countries were permitted to visit only after the camps have been transformed into showpieces in which guards sometimes masquerade as prisoners and props are brought in to create a brighter – but false – picture.
As a condition of release, prisoners are required to swear that they would never reveal what they experienced or saw. However, scores of refugees who have come to the United States over the years told me that conditions in the camps were so brutal that some prisoners taunted guards to shoot them to end their misery. In some cases, the guards complied.
“Often I wished I could die to end the pain,” said one torture victim struggling to build a new life and erase old memories in San Jose, the New Saigon. He winced at the memory. “It was so bad, so horrible, I don’t think I will forget it even after I am dead.”
Even sleep was not an escape. “They would beat prisoners at night. They made noise to keep us awake,” said a former Special Forces operative who worked for the CIA and lives today in San Jose. “We all knew they could come for us at any time, and our sleep was always uneasy.”
“The camp at Tay Ninh was very cruel,” said a 54-year-old former Special Forces colonel who lives in Campbell. “I saw two executions. It was in 1976. . . . They shot a Ranger captain and a lieutenant by the name of Luong Thanh Tu. There was a trial, but they brought up the coffins before it started.”
“I was a prisoner at Kim Son for five years. I almost died,” said a former Qui Nhon police officer who lives in Santa Ana. “I was locked in a connex in the hot sun. They gave me rice but no water, and I had to drink my urine to survive.”
“In 1980 at Thanh Cam I saw about 30 Buddhist and Catholic monks and priests chained in a special cell,” said a 45-year- old former army major living in San Jose. “Some of them were kept in chains so long maggots hatched where the shackles rubbed their wrists and ankles.”
“They went out of their way to degrade us in the camps,” said a 46-year-old former political warfare captain living in Garden Grove. “I had to carry human waste to the rice fields to use as fertilizer. We could have used tools, but they made us use our hands.”
“My arm was tied over my shoulder and behind my back during questioning,” said a 50-year-old former non-commissioned officer from San Jose. “There is no way to describe the pain. I wanted to die.”
“They ignored sick people and let them die,” said a former helicopter pilot who lives in Los Angeles. “When I was in An Duong I slept near this guy whose whole body was infected. A million ants were swarming all over him, and he didn’t appear to feel a thing. Later he died.”
“I saw a man in 1976 at An Duong put in a barrel,” said a 50-year-old former colonel in Falls Church, Va. “The guards beat on it and drove him crazy by doing this every day for two weeks.”
“I think the mental torture was the worst,” said another former colonel living in Falls Church. “They would humiliate us, forcing us to bow to them while they insulted us. They would wake us up in the middle of the night for this. This went on for years and it was very painful.”
The residual brutality against the Vietnamese who supported the Americans and the Saigon regime may explain why the Vietnamese, who never left en masse during centuries of occupation by the Chinese, French and Japanese, today are pouring out of their homeland by the thousands.
Although the U.S. government knew of the suffering of the people who were its staunchest supporters during the war, it did little to spotlight the problem, relying on little-publicized reports, low-key, talks and occasional congressional resolutions. When U.S. officials asked in 1987 that the re-education camp prisoners be released to settle here in the U.S. Hanoi finally agreed.But an official told me that Hanoi had done nothing wrong by imprisoning the losing side in the war. “It is Vietnam’s right to punish these criminals as the European countries did with the elements who had cooperated with Hitler. It is the legitimate right of all states to protect their national rights.”
“The policy described by these witnesses is very simple: the prisoners are given so little to eat that they can never think of anything but food. Their labor requires great energy, but the portion of food provided them is extremely small. Even just after a meal, prisoners feel like they have not even started to eat yet.
Listen to this from the South Vietnamese writer who is a personal friend of mine: “In my forced labor camp in the highlands, the event that dominates everything is the experience of hunger. We are hungry permanently. All we can think about, day and night, is eating! During the first days of the harvest season we are allowed almost our fill of corn and manioc roots. But that lasts only a few days. During these days there are shining eyes and smiles. But very soon the camp administration shuts up the eating. The shining eyes and smiles disappear. We feel hungry again, so hungry that we think of nothing else. Many of us catch lizards to eat, knowing they provide proteins. Very soon the lizards of the whole area were exterminated. I know of a prisoner who one night caught a millipede on the ceiling, hid it under the mat, and in the morning roasted it on a fire and ate it. He said it was as good as a roast shrimp. There are those who are very clever to invent devices to catch mice and birds; they will roast and eat them while others watch with envy. Others catch grasshoppers and crickets. Whenever someone catches a snake, that is a feast. In our conversation, we only talk about eating and how to find things to eat. When we do not talk about eating, we silently think about eating. As soon as we finish lunch, we begin to imagine the supper awaiting us when we return from the fields: The food put into the mouth is like one breath of air blown into a vast empty house. What little food is given is chewed very slowly. Still, it makes no difference – we feel even hungrier after eating. Even in our sleep, our dreams are haunted by food. There are those who chew noisily in their dreams…”
“Such food as mice, rats, birds, snakes, grasshoppers, must be caught and eaten secretly. It is forbidden, and if the camp guards learn about it, the prisoners will be punished.”
“I was assigned to carry sand and pebbles from the stream to the camp so that other prisoners can make bricks. I balanced two baskets with a stick across my shoulder. One day, by digging in the sand, I saw a beautiful white egg. I bent down, used my hand as a spade, and unearthed fifteen of these eggs. On my way back to the camp, I shared them with some of the younger prisoners. Everyone believed they were tortoise eggs. After boiling them, we discovered small reptiles already formed inside. They were hard to swallow, but we all tried to eat to get some protein in our body. During the period of my assignment to carry sand and pebbles I had the opportunity to try different kinds of young leaves. There are young leaves of yellow color, I chewed them and had the feeling that they possessed some protein. I also found the tips of some bamboo right on the edge of the spring. Bamboo has a sour taste. Even so, I ate many of these, hoping that they might provide some vitamin C.”
The memoirs of my writer-friend whose pen name is Ho Khanh) were smuggled out and sent to me by a friend of his, who escaped the country by sea on a small boat. Ho Khanh had been arrested already in 1976. The La Boi Publishing House in Paris has published some extracts in October ’81, and will publish the whole document in Vietnamese in a few months.
Another friend of mine, named Chau, is now in a concentration camp in Nghe An. He asked me through his wife living in Ho Chi Minh City to send him a bottle of Super Levure Gayelord Hauser tablets so that he can calm down his hunger. This is a kind of dietetic yeast tablet used by French ladies to suppress their appetite when they want to lose weight. Chau hopes that a tablet of Superlevure taken with a lot of water will help him forget his hunger. I have sent several bottles of these pills, and hope they may help!
It is cold in the mountainous areas, not only in the winter, but also in spring and autumn. Prisoners wonder how government cadres can bathe in the chilly spring water without showing any feeling of cold, while the prisoners themselves, with clothes on and sitting near a fire, shiver so much. Nguyen Chi Thien wrote in a poem:
“We work hard and can never relax, afraid of being beaten
all year around, our food is roots, leaves and salt.
Government cadres and security officers
undress and bathe happily in the spring.
We, sitting near a fire, still shiver…”
(Nhung ghi chep vung vat)
On a day of the peanut harvest, it rained and the peanuts were mixed with mud. Prisoners working in the fields tried to eat some raw nuts. They did not have the time to take the nuts out of the shells; there was not even time to wipe the mud out of the shell:
“Last night it rained all night
This morning unearthed peanuts
are dirty, full of mud.
Not afraid of germs, not afraid of sickness,
this is a great opportunity!
Prisoners quickly put them into their mouths
and chew them in great hurry.
I hear the chewing all around me:
One part peanut and two parts mud.”
(Troi Mua Tam Ta)
That was a lucky day. Another day:
“Our team was harvesting peanuts in the field
Watched carefully by a government cadre.
For one short moment the cadre looked another way
and a prisoner swallowed some peanuts
together with their shells.
But he was caught
and beaten with a gun
until his swollen face was bleeding
and his teeth came out.”
(Toan toi ro lac)
At another season, in order to prevent prisoners from eating peanut seeds:
“They mixed the peanut seeds
in ash and manure
to prevent prisoners from eating.
It did not work!
They mixed the seeds with DDT-poison
(now let the prisoners dare to eat!)
Still, dozens of pounds disappeared.
But the poisoned peanut seeds
could not grow, not one came out!
This is the way the Party
realized the Winter-Spring Project.”
(Lac Giong Dem Trong)
The book by Nguyen Chi Thien has about 350 poems with over 4,000 verses. Most concern the hunger of prisoners. These poems were written from jail to jail and in several re-education camps during 20 years in North Vietnam. One day it happened to Thien that his bowl of rice mixed with roots tipped over. The food scattered on the muddy ground. Five or six prisoners rushed to the spot, trampling each other in their frenzy, and
fighting each other for that bit of food. The aim of the policy, prisoners believe, is to hurt them both physically and morally, making them lose their personality and turn beasts. As Thien writes:
“From ape to man, the process took millions of years
From man to ape, will it take so many?
People of the world, come and visit
concentration camps in the heart of distant jungles!
Naked prisoners, bathing together in herds
living in stinking darkness with lice and mosquitoes,
fighting each other for one piece
of manioc root or sweet potato,
chained shot, dragged, beaten
torn up at the will of their captors,
thrown away for the rats to gnaw.
These apes are not swift,
they are slow in their movements
they are not like the apes
that descended from ancient times.
These apes are hungry and thin as toothpicks,
yet they produce the nation’s wealth all year long
People of the world, please come and visit!
(Tu Vuon Len Nguoi)
Thien says that under the new regime the manioc root has become as precious as the ginseng root. He admits that when chance comes:
“I can devour several pounds of raw manioc root
as if they were pieces of chocolate.
You are impressed? You say that I am more talented than an ox?
No, it is just that I am an inmate
of a Vietnamese Communist Prison.
In the cold winter when the wind is roaring in fury
I jump into the icy stream to fish up bamboo trunks.
Do you think my skin is made of leather, my bones of iron?
No, it is just that I am living in a Vietnamese Communist Prison.”
(Toi co the)
Human rights, to Thien, are simply human dignity. The food deprivation policy strips people of their dignity:
“My ideal, my glory, my dream, my love,
all these are remote and abstract things!
I confess to you that we, hungry prisoners,
only dream of being as well fed as animals.
Why? Our dream to be Man, alas,
has ceased to be a possibility;
that dream has led us to prison.
Now, only four things on this earth are meaningful:
Rice, manioc roots, potatoes and corn.
These four things bind us, harrass us, torture us,
They never leave us in peace.”
(Tu Chuong Tren Doi)
Thien complains that prisoners are exploited to the marrow for economic ends:
“If you count the number of prisoners
If you see the amount of work they do
If you see how much food each one gets
You will realize how big an economic resource
the detention system is.”
(Nhung ghi chep vung vat 78)
It is very difficult to survive under these conditions. When prisoners get sick, with no medical care, many die. In the mountainous areas, all over the country, there are prisoners’ graves:
“The Ho Chi Minh era
by hunger and misery
by soldier graves
and by prisoners’ graves.”
(Nhung ghi chep vung vat 51)
Nguyen Chi Thien was arrested in 1959 in North Vietnam because he once expressed his discontent with government policy. He spent 20 years going from prison to prison and to several re-education camps. He was condemned to forced labor and tortured by the practice of food deprivation, in order to make him feel like an animal.
He is only one of the tens of thousands of people living and dying in the concentration camps far off in the jungles of Vietnam, as a punishment for the fact that they could not unconditionally condone government policy.
The poetry of Nguyen Chi Thien has been smuggled out of the country by a diplomat and will be published under the title “Tieng Vong Tu Day Vuc”. I hope that many people, also outside Vietnam, will listen to his voice and realised the secret suffering in Vietnamese prisons and concentration camps,
so that we may seek a way to end this kind of torture and destruction of human dignity.
- Cao Ngoc Phuong
Dec. 14, 1981
(Editor’s note: Cao Ngoc Phuong is co-chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in France, the overseas representative of the Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam.)
“* An estimated 1 million people were imprisoned without formal charges or trials.
- 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s re-education camps, according to published academic studies in the United States and Europe.
- Thousands were abused or tortured: their hands and legs shackled in painful positions for months, their skin slashed by bamboo canes studded with thorns, their veins injected with poisonous chemicals, their spirits broken with stories about relatives being killed.
- Prisoners were incarcerated for as long as 17 years, according to the U.S. Department of State, with most terms ranging from three to 10 years.
- At least 150 re-education prisons were built after Saigon fell 26 years ago.
- One in three South Vietnamese families had a relative in a re-education camp.
Vietnamese government officials declined to be questioned but agreed to release a statement about the camps:
“After the southern part of Vietnam was liberated, those people who had worked for and cooperated with the former government presented themselves to the new government. Thanks to the policy of humanity, clemency and national reconciliation of the State of Vietnam, these people were not punished.
“Some of them were admitted to re-education facilities in order to enable them to repent their mistakes and reintegrate themselves into the community.”
Officially, 34,641 former prisoners and 128,068 of their relatives fled to America, according to the State Department. At least 2,000 former inmates live in Orange County.
And the legacy of the prisons continues today.
Authors, artists, journalists and monks are routinely arrested and jailed across Vietnam, human-rights activists say.
In Orange County, many former inmates wake up in the dark, shaking from nightmares. Others find themselves sleepwalking, aimlessly wandering. Some live in fear, trusting only family.
Dozens of former prisoners declined to be interviewed by The Orange County Register, saying they worry about reprisals against relatives who remain in their homeland. Most asked not to be named.
Some agreed to tell their tales, then hid when they heard knocks on the door. Still others shared their stories only to regret it later, the searing memories too much to bear.
In refugee enclaves throughout the United States, anger and hatred toward the Hanoi government are common. There are ongoing boycotts of Vietnamese goods, especially in Orange County, where more than 250,000 immigrants settled, forming the nation’s largest Vietnamese population.
Some survivors, however, are beginning to speak out, to give testimony to their treatment and to those who died.”
“In preparation for this report, we have interviewed over 200 former prisoners from Vietnam’s re-education camps and examined all available articles from the Hanoi press and the Western press on the camps. The picture that emerges from our research is of hard-labour camps where hunger and disease predominate, where prisoners are harshly punished for minor infractions of camp rules, subjected to political indoctrination and forced to write long “confessions” denouncing themselves and others for alleged misdeeds in the past.
The Precedent in the North
According to Hoang Son, a spokesman for the Hanoi regime, the use of “re-education” camps began in North Vietnam in 1961, at a time, he says, when the United States and the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem had sabotaged the 1954 Geneva Accords, and were attempting to incite rebellion among “counter-revolutionary elements” in the North, most notably among former members of the pro-French army and government that existed during the colonial period. Son cited acts that threatened public security, such as “economic sabotage” and attempted assassinations of Party cadres. It was under these circumstances, said Son, that the DRV (“Democratic Republic of Vietnam”) enacted on 20 June 1961 Resolution 49-NQTVQH, with the task of concentrating for educational reform “counter-revolutionary elements who continue to be culpable of acts which threaten public security.”.
The hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who have been imprisoned in re-education camps since 1975 basically fall into two categories:
(1) Those who have been detained in re-education camps since 1975 because they collaborated with the other side during the war, and
(2) Those who have been arrested in the years since 1975 for attempting to exercise such democratic freedoms as those mentioned in Article 11 of the 1973 Paris Agreements.
In other words, both categories of prisoners are held in direct violation of Article 11 of the 1973 Paris Agreements, an international treaty, and therefore of international law.
Thus we see that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have been detained in re-education camps since 1975 not for any specific individual deeds, but for the act of collaborating with the other side during the war. This applies not only to top-ranking government officials and military officers of the former regime in South Vietnam, but also to more ordinary people such as medical doctors conscripted into the army (like Dr. Ninh), who were told that in treating sick and wounded soldiers, they had committed the crime of “strengthening the puppet forces.” College graduates, who attended officer’s training school, as required by law, and then became RVN reserve military officers were also sent to the re-education camps. Others sent to the camps in June of 1975 included nearly 400 writers, poets and journalists and over 2,000 religious leaders, including 194 Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant chaplains,and 516 Catholic priests and fathers.(13). Even leaders of the opposition to U.S.-supported regimes, such as the legislator Tran Van Tuyen (who died after three years imprisonment) were sent to the camps.
Furthermore, Amnesty International has appealed to Hanoi on behalf of many writers, scholars, priests, human rights activists and others who had no connection with the Thieu regime or previous South Vietnamese governments supported by the U.S., yet were arrested “months and even years after the end of military conflict in April 1975.” Amnesty International believes that “many were detained for the nonviolent expression of views critical of the present government.”‘(14). Under the present legal system in Vietnam, the government can, in political cases, detain an individual for up to twelve months for interrogation without formal charge or trial.(15). Some Vietnamese, such as leaders of the Unified Buddhist Church arrested in April 1977 have been held for interrogation for much longer than twelve months. Following this period, the prisoner may be (1) released with a formal warning, (2) sent to a re-education camp in accordance with the 1961 Resolution 49, or (3) brought to trial.
Most of the former prisoners we have interviewed have been in between three and five different re-education camps. It is our belief that the movement of prisoners from one camp to another may be intended to delay Vietnamese from knowing the whereabouts of their relatives in the camps and to prevent prisoners from forming bonds of friendship with each other or with some of the guards. Some of the camps are administered by the military, some by the security police, and some by both.
When foreign delegations visit the camps, the prisoners are briefed on what to say to the visitors. In some cases, about half of the prisoners would be taken out to the fields or jungles to hide until the delegates departed. We know of at least one case where government agents pretended to be prisoners during a visit.(20). In another case, a prisoner was punished for reading a prepared statement to a visiting delegation rather than memorizing it.(21)
Dermot Kinlen, a distinguished Irish lawyer who led a delegation to Vietnam for nine days in April of 1980 noted that the camps his delegation visited “were exactly the same camps as Amnesty had visited some months earlier and had also been visited by other groups. It is a pity that only three camps are available for inspection.” In all of the camps they visited, he said, most of the inmates “were not seen as they were absent at fieldwork.” Kinlen also said: “Aa a lawyer of thirty years experience and as a prison visitor and having made a study of penology I am satisfied that there is wholesale and widespread violation of human rights in Vietnam. The retention of an uncertain but large number of people without trial in detention and forcing them to do forced labor and subjecting them to indoctrination and depriving them of support and social contact with their families and friends, and providing inadequate medical facilities, and denying them any spiritual administration and allowing them no intellectual exercise other than the absorption of selected texts for the purpose of indoctrination are all negations of human rights.”(23)
While it is true that conditions vary widely in the camps, we have also found a depressing quality of similarity with regard to certain features of the re-education camps, which appear to be universal. These include an emphasis on political indoctrination and mandatory “confessions” during the early stages of re-education, heavy and often dangerous physical labor, and widespread disease due to a severe lack of food and medical care. The variations occur mainly with regard to the various forms of physical mistreatment inflicted on the prisoners, but even here there are certain features widely practiced,such as placing recalcitrant prisoners in “connex” boxes, metal air freight containers left behind by the United States, or in dark cellar underground.
During the early phase of re-education, lasting from a few week to a few months, inmates were subjected to intensive political indoctrination. Subjects studied included the exploitation by “American imperialism” of workers in other countries, the glory of labour, the inevitable victory of Vietnam, led by the Communist Party, over the U.S., and the generosity of the new government toward the “rebels” (those who fought on the other aide during the war). There were a total of nine courses, of variable length. Each course would begin with lectures from the political cadres, lasting one or two days, and following this the inmates would divide into closely supervised groups where they would discuss
the lesson over the next five to seven days and write essays summarizing each lesson. According to Ngo Trung Trong, a former inmate in a camp for low-ranking RVN officers, the discussions would last four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon. In the afternoon sessions, the prisoners were required to repeat the contents of the lectures. (24)
The nine-course political indoctrination session generally lasted about two months, in the summer of 1975. Political indoctrinationclasses have continued since then, but with much less emphasis. A former inmate of Xuyen Moc camp in southern Vietnam reports that the subsequent indoctrination has consisted mainly of dividing prisoners into small groups in the evenings to review their work through mutual criticism and self- criticism – but this conversation never continues beyond the guards’ presence.(25)
Another feature emphasized during the early stage of re-education, but continued throughout one’s imprisonment, is confession of one’s alleged misdeeds in the past. In a March 1981 memorandum to
Amnesty International, the Hanoi government said “in all cases of people being sent to re-education camps, the competent Vietnamese authorities have established files recording the criminal acts
committed by the people concerned.”(26) These files were established through the mandatory confessions and denunciation of others.
All prisoners in the camps are required to write confessions, no matter how trivial their alleged crimes might be. Mail clerks, for example, were told that they were guilty of aiding the “puppet war machinery” through circulating the mail, while religious chaplains were found guilty of providing spiritual comfort and encouragement to the enemy troops.(27) A reserve military officer who taught Vietnamese literature in high school was told that he had “misled a whole generation of innocent children.”(28)
Besides confessing such “crimes”, prisoners had to write their autobiography and disclose their financial assets as described by a former prisoner: “You had to write the story of your life, including your father, grandfather and children, describing their fortunes, how everyone died, what they owned, including television, radio, camera. New ones had to be written twice each month, both in re-education and in prison. If they found you had left something out that you had included earlier, you were in trouble. You would have to write new confessions many times each day. Each confession was about 20 pages handwritten.”(29) Following the written confessions were the public confessions in which prisoners would confess their “crimes” before the camp authorities and other prisoners. Prisoners were encouraged to
criticize each other’s confessions, said a former prisoner, which was “very effective in getting us to hate each other.” The more “crimes” a prisoner confessed, the more he is praised as “progressive” by camp authorities.
The incessant demand for confessions places much pressure on the prisoners, leading to insanity in some cases. A former prisoner who had previously been a medical doctor said he saw “many cases – screaming, yelling people.” Despite his medical experience, he was not allowed to treat them.(30)
The purpose of these confessions has not only been to produce a sense of guilt in the prisoners and to establish files on them, but also to get the prisoners to denounce other former soldiers and government officials who had not yet reported for re- education. The government has been very concerned about the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who have not yet reported.
“Labor is Glory”
Much emphasis in the re-education camps is placed on “productive labour.” Such labour was described by SRV spokesman Hoang Son as “absolutely necessary” for re-education because “under the former regime, they (the prisoners) represented the upper strata of society and got rich under US patronage. They could but scorn the working people. Now the former social order has been turned upside down, and after they have finished their stay in camps they have to earn their living by their own labour and live in a
society where work is held in honor.”(31) Thus, in the eyes of the Vietnamese rulers, “productive labor” is a necessary aspect in the overturning of the social order. Yet in examining the conditions under which this labor takes place, it seems that there is also an element of revenge.
The labour is mostly hard physical work, some of it very dangerous, such as mine field sweeping. No equipment is provided for this extremely risky work, and as a result, many prisoners have been killed or wounded in mine field explosions. Other work includes cutting trees, planting corn and root crops, clearing the jungle, digging wells, latrines and garbage pits, and constructing barracks within the camp and fences around it. The inmates are generally organized into platoons and work units, where they are forced to compete with each other for better records and work achievements. This has pushed inmates to exhaustion and nervousness a former prisoners said: “Each person and group had to strive to surpass or at least fulfill the norms set by camp authorities, or they would be classified as `lazy’ and ordered to do ‘compensation work’ on Sundays.”(32) Other prisoners who missed their quota have been shackled and placed in solitary confinement cells.(33)
The duration of the work has generally been eight hours a day, six days a week, which might not seem so bad, except the work is done in the hot tropical sun, by prisoners who are poorly nourished and receive little or no medical care. The poor health,combined with hard work, mandatory confessions and political indoctrination, makes life very difficult for prisoners inVietnam, and has contributed to a high death rate in the camps.
Food and Medical Supplies
“My ideal, my glory, my dream, my love,
All these are remote and abstract things!
I confess to you that we, hungry prisoners,
Only dream of being as well fed as animals.
Why? Our dream to be Man, alas,
Has ceased to be a possibility;
That dream has led us to prison.
Now, only four things on the earth are meaningful:
Rice, manioc roots, potatoes and corn.
These four things bind us, harass us, torture us,
They never leave us in peace.”(34)
It was acknowledged by the government spokesman Hoang Son in his 1980 essay that while poverty is a serious problem throughout the country, “Neither food nor housing conditions can be considered as satisfactory in some of the camps.” However, Son maintains that such conditions are “equally shared by the inmates and their guards.”(35). Former prisoners would use stronger language in describing the lack of food in the camps, and deny that there is such equal sharing. Former prisoners believe that the government deliberately keeps the prisoners on low rations in order to weaken their ability to unite and resist camp policies, so all they think about will be the next meal.(36)
Since the inmates were originally told in 1975 to bring enough food for up to 30 days, food supplies were generally adequate for the first few weeks, but have gradually deteriorated since that time. Prisoners interviewed in 1976 and 1977 reported that the typical diet was only one or two bowls of rice a day with no meat and few vegetables.(37) Since then, the diet has become even worse, shifting from rice to corn and root crops – especially common in the diet now is manioc, a starchy root crop which has little nutritive value other than filling one’s stomach. Besides salt and water, the total amount of food for each prisoner is about 400 to 500 grams a day, and much of it is spoiled. There is virtually no protein in the diet, except on rare occasions, perhaps two or three times a year on holidays such as Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, the Lunar New Year or Independence day, when the diet is supplemented by a few tiny morsels of meat.(38) Under such conditions, prisoners are constantly preoccupied with food.
The lack of food has caused severe malnutrition for many prisoners and weakened their resistance to various diseases. Most common among the diseases are malaria, beriberi and dysentery.(40) Tuberculosis is also widespread in some of the camps. Medical supplies are generally nonexistent in the camps and medical care is very inadequate, usually limited to a poorly trained medic and perhaps a few prisoners who had formerly been medical doctors. The result is a high death rate from diseases. A prisoner in Dam Duong camp of Ha Nam Ninh province, for example, witnessed twenty deaths, including three cases of intestinal haemorrhage in which prisoners died because there was no plasma.(41) In Tun Hoa camp, about thirty prisoners (out of a camp population of 5,000) died of illness in the last three or four months of 1978.(42). Some seriously ill prisoners have been allowed to go to hospitals outside the camp or return to their families. But others have not, and many have died in the camps, without their families even being notified. It is official government policy, as stated in the 1976 PRG decree No. 02/CS-76 that terminally ill prisoners will be allowed to return to their families. Yet Amnesty International has brought to Hanoi’s attention cases of such prisoners not allowed to return. One such prisoner was Truong Van Truoc, who “died in August 1980 of stomach cancer in a detention camp, 90A TD 63/TC, Doi 11, Thanh Hoa.” Another prisoner AI mentioned was the writer Ho Huu Tuong, who was sick for several months, but not transferred to a hospital until June 2, 1980: “He died only three weeks later, just after he was finally given permission to return to his family.”(43)
Rules and Punishment
The authorities seek to maintain strict control over the thoughts of the prisoners, and to this end forbid prisoners from keeping and reading books or magazines of the former regime, reminiscing in conversation about “imperialism and the puppet south,” singing old love songs of the former regime, discussing political questions (outside authorized discussions), harbouring “reactionary” thoughts or possessing “superstitious” beliefs. It is also forbidden to be impolite to the cadres of the camp, and
this rule has been abused to the point where the slightest indication of a lack of reverence to the cadres has been interpreted as rudeness and therefore harshly punished.
Violations of these and other rules lead to various forms of punishment, including being tied up in contorted positions, shackled in connex boxes or dark cells, forced to work extra hours or reduced food rations. Many prisoners have been beaten, some to death, or subjected to very harsh forms of punishment due to the cruelty of certain camp officials and guards. Some have been executed, especially for attempting to escape. Some of the most brutal treatment occurs in camps in southern Vietnam around
the Mekong delta, where guards apparently have no fear of any reprimand for mistreating the prisoners.(44)
The connex boxes vary in size, but are generally large enough to accommodate a few prisoners crowded together. Some of the containers are made of wood, some of metal. The metal containers can become unbearable in the hot sun, prisoners can pass out or die under such circumstances.(45)
Solitary confinement cells are also common in the camps, such as the Gia Ray camp, where prisoners can receive ten days solitary for minor infractions, fifteen for making “reactionary statements” and one year (or the death penalty) for attempting to escape the camp. Prisoners in these daring cells are forced to eat and sleep on the spot, and carry out bodily functions while shackled to the wall.(46) Prisoners in such cells in Ham Tam camp (Thuan Hai province) lie on the floor with their legs raised and
feet locked in wooden stocks.(47) In a camp in Nghe Tinh, Thanh Chuong district of Nghe Tinh province, some prisoners in the dark cells had their hands and feet tied so tightly that they became afflicted with gangrene and lost their hands or feet or died.(48)
Other forms of confinement include tiger cage cells and abandoned wells. A prisoner in Long Khanh camp (a southern camp for low-ran-ding officers) was put in such a well for five days because he sang “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, 1975.(49) In some camps, such as Ben Gia, ditches, called “living graves” by the prisoners, are dug around the outer perimeter, away from the main camp, but visible from the watchtower. Prisoners confined to these ditches in Ben Gia were fed once daily a bowl of rice or
sorghum and water.(50)
Other forms of torture were reported by a former prisoner of Dam Duong camp, composed of around 1,000 prisoners, with 200 Montagnards (tribal highlanders):
- The Honda : with the prisoner’s hands and feet tied together, he is hung and swung to and fro while beaten. Nausea and vomiting often follow.
The Auto : the prisoner is tied “butterfly” style with thumbs tied together behind the back; one arm over the shoulder and the other pulled around the trunk of the body. In another version of this the prisoner’s outstretched legs are tied by the toes to the two middle fingers of the hands of the outstretched arms. A prisoner could be kept in such positions for weeks or even months.
The Airplane : the prisoner is tied either standing to a pole, lying down, or sitting on cement for various periods, depending on the prisoner’s “mistakes” – one week, sometimes longer, sometimes a few days.
As one would expect, prisoners released after such treatment are often unable to walk.(51)
A case where the airplane method was applied was described by Nguyen Ngoc Ngan in his book, The Will of Heaven . This case occurred in May of 1977 at Bu Gia Map camp, located in a malarial jungle area near the Cambodian border. Tru, a prisoner, became angry when he saw a guard using the flag of the former government of South Vietnam as a dustcloth. He took the flag out of the guard’s hand and yelled at him for desecrating it. The next day, Tru was brought before the prisoners in a “people’s court,” but instead of confessing his “crime”, Tru remained unrepentant, praising the flag and criticizing the communists. The out- raged camp commander sentenced Tru to be tied to a wooden column outdoors, standing upright for three months. He was gagged and his hands were tied behind the back and around the post, his
wrists lashed tightly with telephone wire. The wire cut through his flesh by the end of the first day. Forced to stand bareheaded all day long in the hot sun and the unusually cool nights of the highlands, plagued by mosquitos, Tru contacted malaria by the second week and became seriously ill. After a month, Tru was untied and carried to meet the camp commander’s superior who was visiting the camp that day, and was given one more chance to repent. But Tru remained unrepentant and was taken out of the camp the next day.(52)
It has been acknowledged by Hanoi that violence has in fact been directed against the prisoners, although it maintains that these are isolated cases and not indicative of general camp policy.(53) Former prisoners, on the other hand, report frequent beatings for minor infractions, such as missing work because of illness. In some cases, prisoners have been beaten to death, such as Colonel Pham Ba Ham. Accused of helping an escape attempt of other prisoners, he was bludgeoned before the other prisoners and leftwithout any medical treatment until he died.(54) Another prisoner, a former non-commissioned RVN officer, insulted leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party while delirious with fever and was beaten to death with chains.(55)
Prisoners have been executed, most commonly for attempting to escape the camps. In some cases, the caught prisoners are tried by “People’s Courts” held before the other prisoners and then killed.(56)
Suicides appear to be fairly common in the camps. In one camp, a pharmacist who ended a letter to his wife asking her to pray for his return was brought before the other prisoners and berated for relying upon God for his release. For the next several nights he was interrogated by camp authorities, until he committed suicide. His family was not notified of his death.(57)
The Prisoners and Their Families
Family visits are important not only because of the personal need for prisoners and their loved ones to have contact with each other, but also because the families can bring food to their relatives in some of the camps. It has been reported that the prisoners in these camps could not survive without such food.(58) However, the government does not allow many visits. As of 1980, official regulations stated that prisoners in the camps could be visited by their immediate family once every three months.(59).
The duration of the visits are not long, reported by former prisoners to last from 15 to 30 minutes.(60) Moreover, family visits can be suspended for prisoners who break rules: and it has also been said that only families who have proven their loyalty to the regime are allowed visiting privileges.(61) In its 1980 memorandum to the Hanoi government, Amnesty International expressed its concern that visiting privileges are dependent on the prisoner’s conduct and “progress in re-education,” and stated its belief that “a prisoner’s rights to visits and correspondence should be inviolable and in no way conditional, except in cases of serious violations of camp discipline and then only for a limited period.”(62) AI also said that if “visits by family or a lawyer are not allowed, an officer may feel secure when ill-
treating a prisoner, knowing that no one concerned about the prisoner’s interests will see him or her soon and notice any signs of physical or mental deterioration. (63)
The families of the prisoners are regarded as responsible for the acts of the prisoners before 1975. According to the Hanoi spokesman Hoang Son, 1.3 million Vietnamese were part of the military or administrative apparatus of South Vietnam, members of “so-called” political parties or of mass organizations which Son says were American-controlled. On the basis of this estimate, and on the estimate that there are an average of five members to each Vietnamese family, Son concluded that there were 6.5 million Vietnamese who were “compromised” by ties with the non- communist regime in South Vietnam.(64) As a result of such logic, not only the prisoners, but also their families, suffer discrimination inaccess to health care, employment and higher education.(65)
As a way of redeeming their relatives for their past activities, families of Vietnamese ordered to report to the re- education camps were told in 1975 that they should “urge their dear ones to devote themselves to reform study.” (66). In order to attain the release of their imprisoned relatives, to demonstrate that they are good families, they have been pressured to move to the new economic zones.(67) Some families of the prisoners have had their food ration cards revoked until agreeing to move to these
The new economic zones are theoretically for a good purpose, to increase food production, but actually are more like concentration camps located in malarial jungle areas where the land is very difficult to cultivate. Conditions in these areas are therefore not so different from life in the re- education camps – living under harsh conditions and in isolated areas. Thus, thousands of Vietnamese have fled these areas and returned to the cities. In doing so, they become non-persons in the eyes of the state, ineligible for food rations, an approved job, or housing. Living in makeshift shelters on the streets of Saigon alone are as many as 15,000 to 20,000 such people, according to a reporter who visited the country in 1980.(69)
Besides being pressured to move to the new economic zones, families of the prisoners have also been pressured to give up all their possessions to the state and work extra hours in order to demonstrate that they are good families so that their relatives can be released.(70)
The policy of releasing prisoners from the re-education camps of Vietnam has been a story of broken promises. The existence of the camps is itself a broken promise because it violates Article 11 of the 1973 Paris Agreements, which specifically prohibits such imprisonment. Another broken promise, as we have already noted, occurred when the Vietnamese who had reported for re-education in June of 1975 were not released within 30 days, as had been clearly implied by the new regime when it issued the order to report. In June of 1976, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, in one of its last policy announcements before the official reunification of Vietnam, stated that those in the camps would either be tried or released after three years imprisonment. But this promise was also broken.
Articles that appeared in Saigon Giai Phong (Liberated Saigon) of Ho Chi Minh City on August 24, Sept. 7,20,24 and 30, and Dec. 11 and 25, 1975, discussed categories of prisoners that could be released at that time. The August 24 SGP article said certain groups of prisoners were eligible for release. These included prisoners with close relatives (parents, spouse, siblings) who were revolutionary cadres or had “merit toward the revolution in the locality,” and scientific and technical specialists who did not “commit crimes” or participate in non-communist political parties or organizations. The Sept. 7 SGP article added another category of prisoners eligible for release: old people, people seriously ill and pregnant women. However, as with the other categories, it stressed that “first and foremost” prisoners must have shown “progress” in re-education and repentance over “past mistakes” and also must not have been engaged in “criminal acts” against the revolution before 1975. (73) We can see from such vague wording that there were no guarantees for any category of prisoners being released.
The most significant policy announcement on the re-education camps was broadcast by Saigon Domestic Service on June 9, 1976. This is the May 25 PRGRSV statement No. 02/CS-76, signed by President Huynh Tan Phat. According to this broadcast, 95% of those “attending reform courses had their cases examined and their citizen’s rights restored” in order that they could vote in the April elections. This figure led some foreign observers to estimate that 50,000 remained in the camps, according to official figures, since the government had said that over one million had been re-educated.
The policy announced that those still in the camps would stay there for three years, but could be released earlier if they make “real progress, confess their crimes and score merits.” It also said that some Vietnamese would be brought to trial, including those who deserted the NLF during the war, those who owed “manyblood debts” to the people and those who fled to “foreign countries with their U.S. masters.”(74)
As far as we know, no such trials were held, or at least they were not publicized. Nor were prisoners in the camps released after three years. The excuses offered for the continued detention beyond the three years are increased security tensions with China and the 1961 Resolution 49, which Hanoi argues supersedes the 1976 PRG decree and which allows for detention in the camps beyond three years. According to Hoang Son, Resolution 49 allows for a new three year period to be established for those in the camps who did not sufficiently reform during the first three years.(75) Since it is now over seven years since many of the prisoners were first arrested, we can presume that such prisoners are in their third three- year period. In the words of Amnesty International, “Grounds for the continued detention of these people, therefore, seems to have shifted from past misdeeds and present behavior to the external situation, namely national security. These prisoners are therefore being held in what is
usually termed administrative detention without trial.” The result of such prolonged, indefinite detention is severe hardship for the prisoners and their families, said Amnesty International.(76)
Since there is no clear criteria for releasing the inmates from the camps, bribery and family connections with high-ranking officials are more likely to speed up release than the prisoner’s
behavior. Released prisoners are put under probation and surveillance for six months to one year, and during this time they have no official status, no exit visas, no access to government food rations and no right to send their children to school.(77). If the progress of the former prisoners is judged
unsatisfactory during this period, they may be fired from their jobs, put under surveillance for another six months to a year, or sent back to the re-education camps.(78) Approximately 60% of those released have been re-arrested, according to a high-ranking Vietnamese official.(79)
Amnesty International has appealed to Hanoi to abolish Resolution 49 and the system of re-education camps in Vietnam. We agree. Genuine peace and reconciliation in Vietnam cannot be brought about through forcing the people to praise the regime or “confess” their past opposition to the Communist side. On the
contrary, as stated in 1973 by NLF leader Nguyen Van Hieu (presently Minister of Culture in Vietnam), “..democratic freedoms are man’s fundamental rights, ardent aspirations of all social strata, of all political and religious forces in South Vietnam. Only a full and total exercise of democratic liberties can serve as a basis for the realization of national reconciliation and concord, the settlement of the internal affairs of South Viet Nam, and the exercise of the South Vietnamese people’s right to self-determination.” (80)