Re-Education In Vietnam

Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the communist regime which gained control of South Vietnam ordered the "re-education" of thousands of people. The goal was the re-habilitation of the individual through labor and education. The Ministry of the Interior oversaw the re-education camps which were considered separate from the prison system. Specifically targeted social classes included intellectuals, students, religious figures, merchants, political opponents, and even some Communists. Estimates for the number of people who were victim to re-education range from 500,000 to 1 million out of a population of 20 million.[1]

As with labor camps in other communist nations, conditions were often inhumane. Malnutrition, poor sanitation, disease, and torture was common. A letter by a camp prisoner with the pen-name of Ho Khanh describes the rampant hunger.[2]

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 more hungry 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.

As conditions worsened, desperation ensued among prisoners. The following testament was orally "signed" by forty-eight prisoners, memorized, and circulated by word of mouth among the re-education camps of Ho Chi Minh City.[3]

We,

workers, peasants, and proletarians,
believers, artists, writers, and patriotic intellectuals interned in different prisons across Vietnam,
wish first of all to express our debt of gratitude to: progressive movements throughout the world, workers' and intellectual struggle movements,
everyone who over the last ten years has supported the fight for human rights in Vietnam and supported the struggle for democracy and the freedom of oppressed and exploited Vietnamese citizens ...

The prison system of the old regime (which was itself widely condemned by international opinion) was quickly replaced by a more subtly planned system that is far harsher and crueler. A11 contact be tween prisoners and their families is forbidden, even by mail. The families of prisoners are kept in the dark about the fate of those in prison, which adds to the suffering and anguish. In the face of these humiliating, discriminatory procedures prisoners keep quiet, fearing that any objections they raise might result in further punishment for their relatives, who could be killed at any moment without their knowledge ...

Conditions inside the prisons are unimaginably bad. In the Chi Hoa prison, the official Saigon prison, 8,000 people under the old re-gime were kept in conditions that were universally condemned. Today there are more than 40,000 people in the same prison. Prisoners often die from hunger, lack of air, or torture, or by their own hand . . .

There are two sorts of prison in Vietnam: the official prisons and the concentration camps. The latter are far out in the jungle, and the prisoner is sentenced to a lifetime of forced labor. There are no trials, and hence no possibility of using a legal mechanism in their defense ...

If it really is the case that humanity at present is recoiling from the spread of Communism, and rejecting at last the claims of the North Vietnamese Communists that their defeat of American imperialism is proof of their invincibility, then we, the prisoners of Vietnam, ask the International Red Cross, humanitarian organizations throughout the world, and all men of goodwill to send us cyanide capsules as soon as possible so that we can put an end to our suffering ourselves. We want to die now! Help us to carry out this act, and help us kill ourselves as soon as possible. We would be eternally in vour debt.

Vietnam, August 1975-October 1977

Imagine, for a moment, just how intolerable life in the camps must have been such that the goal of the letter -- meticulously memorized in detail and spread via underground networks -- was not to seek rescue or petition for aid, but rather to ask for suicide pills.

Though many of the harsher camps were closed in 1986 when Nguyen Van Linh became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, reform has been slow, and it is uncertain what the state of prison camps is in Vietnam today.


fn1. Courtois et al. The Black Book of Communism. Harvard University Press.1999.

fn2. A Form of Torture: Food Deprivation by Cao Ngoc Phuong. The Indochina Newsletter. Burlingame, CA. Feb-March 1982, Issue No. 24.

fn3. Originally from The Vietnamese Gulag by Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff.


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Thank you, Johnathan. My

Thank you, Johnathan. My father survived one of those camp. Thank to people like you their stories are heard. And thanks to President Reagan (May he rest in peace) intervention, my father was able to unite with me in the US.

May it never happen again.