THE PLIGHT OF THE VIETNAMESE PEOPLE AFTER THE COMMUNIST CONQUEST OF SOUTH VIETNAM
It has been estimated that 65,000 South Vietnamese were executed by the communist North Vietnamese who took over the Republic of South Vietnam (RSV) on April 29, 1975. We may never know the full number of Vietnamese who were imprisoned in communist concentration camps and soviet-styled gulags in Vietnam. Reliable sources* estimate the number to be between 800,000 and one million. While some were released after three brutal years of incarceration, many were detained far longer, including officers and senior NCOs of South Vietnam’s Army, Navy, Airborne, Marines, and Rangers, government officials and other politicians, intellectuals, school teachers, doctors, artists, poets, musicians, religious leaders of all faiths, northern emigres, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Chieu Hoi defectors, and ethnic minorities who fought alongside the U.S. were incarcerated, some for as long as 15 years, or even longer. And if the Vietnamese communists hold true to form of other communist regimes, some may still be held.
Of those incarcerated, it is estimated that over 165,000 died from torture, malnutrition, diseases and deprivation of medical treatment. Punishment for violating “camp rules” included being shackled in crowded unbearably hot metal boxes, dark cells, abandoned wells, or deep narrow ditches. They were most fortunate if they were fed once a day – a bowl of rice or sorghum and water. They were forced to eat, sleep, and carry out bodily functions on the spot. Many were shackled so tightly that they became afflicted with gangrene and lost their hands or feet, or died.
Repression was also severe against the Hoa, the ethnic Chinese population of Vietnam, who were seen by the Vietnamese government as a security threat. They also controlled much of the retail trade in South Vietnam, and the communist government began confiscating their businesses. In May 1978, the Hoa began to leave Vietnam in large numbers for China, initially by land. By the end of 1979, 250,000 Hoa had sought refuge in China and many tens of thousands more were among the boat people scattered all over Southeast Asia and in Hong Kong.
As in Cambodia, 1 million Vietnamese, mostly city dwellers, “volunteered” to live in “New Economic Zones” where they were to survive by reclaiming land and clearing jungle to grow crops. Conditions there were also extremely harsh, food was scarce, malnourishment was rife, diseases and malaria were rampant with no medicines for treatment, all resulting in an untold number of deaths.
No one really knows how many Vietnamese chose to flee in small boats on the open seas, but estimates by the Australian Immigration Ministry run as high as 1.5 million. The number of estimated deaths varies from 50,000 to 200,000. The primary cause of death was drowning, but many refugees were attacked by pirates and murdered, or sold into slavery and prostitution. In one year, UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) recorded 452 boats carrying 15,479 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Thailand, and of than number 349 boats had been attacked by pirates averaging three times each, with 578 women having been raped; 228 women abducted; and 881 people were dead or missing. The UN convened an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland in July 1979, and Western countries agreed to accelerate resettlement and Vietnam agreed to promote orderly departures, which then declined to a few thousand per month. (This also created an opportunity for the communists to milk the refugees of any wealth they might have in order to gain authorization to leave — gold bars were preferred. Reportedly the cost was the equivalent of $3,000 for each adult and $1,500 for each child.) Of those who survived the perils of exodus by boat, the United States accepted around 823,000 refugees, Britain 19,000, France 96,000 and Australia and Canada 137,000.
As a result of the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of people fled not only from Vietnam, but from Laos, and Cambodia as well via land or boat. Unfortunately, many thousands were refouled back to their parent countries under brutal communist control after being deemed economic refugees instead of fleeing from threat of retribution. More than likely they were sentenced to toil or die in gulags in “New Economic Zones.”
HUỲNH CÔNG ÁHN’s book Escape to Freedom is the harrowing tale of the author’s incarceration in and escape from a communist concentration camp in Vietnam. It is also a testament to the resilience of the Vietnamese people.
His story is written as though the reader was sitting across the table and events of 40 years ago are described as though they happened yesterday; his memory for detail is amazing. Mr. Huynh recalls the character, spirit, and kinship of the Vietnamese people – how they would help each other in time of need, even at the risk of imprisonment or death. This man endured great hardship, yet he persevered and never gave up; an exemplary Vietnamese man. I highly recommend this compelling first-hand account.
Note: Although not based on Mr. Huynh’s experience, the movie Ride the Thunder is an excellent depiction of the brutal hardships of life in a Vietnamese communist “re-education” camp.
Michael Benge spent eleven years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer; five as a Prisoner of War of the North Vietnamese . He is a student of Southeast Asian politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights, religious freedom and democracy for the countries of former Indochina and has written extensively on these subjects.