Actor Ke Huy Quan and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” made history at this year’s Oscars. Despite being the first person of Vietnamese heritage to win Best Supporting Actor, Quan, born in Vietnam to a family of Chinese descent, was not “celebrated” by many Vietnamese people and news outlets.
Many state-sanctioned news channels censored his Oscar acceptance speech, which mentioned his experience during the refugee crisis. This deliberate action erased the history of post-war violence against people who were deemed a threat to national security - including ethnic minorities, religious leaders, as well as an ambiguous category of individuals who are “anti-state” and “counter-revolutionaries.”
Ke Huy Quan’s story and his mistreatment by the Vietnamese state-sanctioned media opened a historical chapter that the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) wants to forget: What happened after the “reunification” of the North and the South in 1975?
The world knows about China’s reeducation camp for the Uyghur ethnic minority and the Soviet Union’s infamous Gulag. Still, less attention has been paid to the state-sanctioned reeducation camps in Vietnam. While Ke Huy Quan’s family and many others successfully fled Vietnam, the fate of the many people in the South was harrowing. For those who disappeared in reeducation camps, the end of the war on April 30, 1975, was not “reunification.”
Because the Communist government has not admitted its wrongdoings in reeducation camps, research on the topic has been complex. What we currently know about the camps is mostly based on interviews with survivors and reports from international human rights organizations. Some historians have recently utilized the VCP’s propaganda and post-1975 publications to understand the rationale behind reeducation camps. This article summarizes the current findings on this brutal system after the war ended with the understanding that more evidence might resurface with time.
When the Communist tanks crashed through the gates of Independence Palace in Saigon on April 30, 1975, the Communists from the North celebrated the moment as a recognition of their years of effort to triumph against the South. While it was celebratory for them, the same cannot be said about the people of the South, especially those who served under the government of the fallen Republic of Vietnam (RVN).
Even though there was no public bloodbath, in the subsequent months, around 200,000-250,000 people in Saigon were put into reeducation camps where they suffered countless physical and psychological abuses. There has been no definite count on the number of detainees. Historian Amanda Demmer has estimated that there could have been around 1 million people sent to the camps.
At first, reeducation was advertised as only lasting for a few months - which is why a lot of people voluntarily reported in the first place. However, many detainees ended up in the camps for years as the regime argued that they failed to reform genuinely. Some were not released until 1992.
The first thing that many South Vietnamese government and military officials did was destroy all documents that showed their ties to the government, such as IDs, photographs, letters, clothes, and weapons. However, their attempts were not always successful. For example, there was one RVN officer whose son secretly stashed away New Year cards that his father received from other generals without his parent’s knowledge. The officer was sent to a reeducation camp after the secret police found the cards and used them as evidence against him.
“Dehumanization” is a word commonly used to describe the experience of reeducation camps in Vietnam. We know more about the condition of the camps from an expansive qualitative study published in 1983 by Ginetta Sagan, a prominent anti-fascist human rights activist who systematically interviewed around 500 former detainees in the Vietnamese reeducation camp system.
According to the study, conditions differed from camp to camp, but there were a few similarities: detainees were subjected to political indoctrination, mandatory confession sessions, harsh physical labor, and widespread diseases due to malnourishment and poor medical care.
In the early phase of reeducation, inmates were put through intense political indoctrination in the form of lectures from Communist cadres. Common subjects included the crimes of the American imperialists and the generosity of the Communist government.
After a few months, inmates started having group discussions leading up to lengthy self-confessions of past “crimes” in the form of writing, regardless of how trivial the crimes were. For example, mail clerks were told they were guilty of contributing to “the puppet’s war machine.” Inmates were forced to write very detailed autobiographies about their lives, including details about their father’s and grandfather’s generations as well as their material assets. Inmates were encouraged to criticize each other’s confessions, and the more confessions they wrote, the better.
The government was said to use these confessions to retroactively justify its imprisonment of the inmates to international organizations such as Amnesty International. The confessions were also used to find more people to put into reeducation camps.
In addition to mental torture, detainees experienced intense physical labor with abhorrent medical care and food supplies. Many tasks, such as planting trees, digging wells, and building fences, may seem normal. But the poorly nourished inmates received little medical care and had to work 12 hours a day, six days a week. Occasionally, inmates might have to engage in extremely dangerous tasks such as clearing minefields. If the inmates failed to meet the camp’s daily quota, they had to make this up by working on Sundays, and they risked being placed in solitary confinement.
While Hanoi insisted that the detainees posed a threat to national security, the ambiguous definition of “national security” led to many questionable arrests. For example, Tran Van Tuyen, an RVN legislator who opposed the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, was imprisoned and died only a few months later. Medical doctors, conscripted to treat wounded soldiers, were also found guilty of “strengthening the puppet forces.” Large numbers of writers, journalists, poets, religious leaders, and others were subjected to reeducation.
In other words, it was not just high-ranking RVN officials who were subjected to reeducation - it was also ordinary people of South Vietnam.
Hanoi first justified the reeducation camps by portraying the detainees as war criminals who could face at least 20 years in prison for national treason under Article 3 of the 1967 Law on Counter-Revolutionary Crimes. Therefore, the regime argued that it was being merciful for “only” making the detainees undergo “reeducation.”.
Why Did Reeducation Camps Exist?
One question is if the Communists from the North already won the war, why did they decide to create an elaborate reeducation camp system?
The idea of reeducation, or cải tạo in Vietnamese, was allegedly aimed at “reforming” people through nonviolent means. In the context of post-war Vietnam, the VCP believed that any individuals still remembering the fallen Saigon regime posed an active threat to the country’s stability. As a result, reeducation became associated with the violent suppression of those who posed such a threat.
Fulbright University historian Hoang Minh Vu argues that the reeducation camp system was unnecessary and wasteful and failed at every declared objective.
Firstly, there were no notable military threats to the regime as most high-ranking RVN officers had already fled the country, so the excuse of using the camps for national security seems shallow. Secondly, the camps failed to win the hearts and minds of the former RVN officers as the active participation in sadistic punishments "degraded the moral character" of the Communist cadres in the eyes of the former. Thirdly, instead of making the former RVN officers support the new regime, reeducation camps only made them more resentful.
There is also an added problem of brain drain, as the majority of skilled workers and highly educated intellectuals from South Vietnam eventually emigrated to the West or other countries when they had the chance.
So why did the VCP go through this violent process? Hoang Minh Vu theorizes that the Vietnamese reeducation camp system wanted to shape the ideal socialist citizens by “making them go through an imperfectly reconstructed wartime experience of the Communist guerillas.”
In other words, making the detainees go through the same pain and dehumanization that the Communists themselves went through during the war was an exercise of power by the winning side. It was a message about the power of the Communist state, that it could punish any potential threat to the regime, no matter how trivial such a threat seemed.
Remembering that reeducation camps were not a new post-war phenomenon is important. Before the war ended, reeducation camps already existed in the North, aiming at disciplining dissidents and people who still had doubts about Communism. The practice of reeducation, hence, was not simply a punishment for RVN supporters.
At this core was the enforcement of authoritarian rule and societal control. With the institution of reeducation camps, the state was indirectly deterring political dissent, for it signalled that a similar fate awaited anyone who dared to challenge the one-party rule of the VCP.
Spotted in the crowd of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, is the yellow flag with three stripes - the flag of the RVN, a country that no longer exists.
Reeducation camps in Vietnam had an impact beyond the country’s borders. As many former detainees fled Vietnam to escape to Western countries, their politics influenced other countries, particularly in the United States.
Historian Tuan Hoang points out that the suffering after the war led to modern-day anticommunism and blind loyalty to far-right figures among the Vietnamese-American community. Even though not all of the far-right anti-communist individuals among the Vietnamese diaspora were incarcerated, the cruelty of reeducation camps is an integral part of many Vietnamese-Americans’ radical politics.
The war has never ended for these Vietnamese-Americans who joined the riot, argued Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winner and professor at the University of Southern California.
The fall of Saigon in 1975 was a traumatic experience that stripped away the national identity of the South Vietnamese people. The subsequent, extrajudicial incarceration of former RVN officers confirmed their suspicions that they had no place under the new regime, and that reconciliation was not going to happen.
The reeducation camps backfired on the VCP as well. Many activists in the Vietnamese diaspora used the inhumanity of the camps and the state’s other human rights violations as the reason for their opposition to the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Vietnam successfully normalized relations with the United States in 1995, but it is clear that the reeducation camps created countless unnecessary enemies who could have used their education and expertise to contribute to the building of a post-war Vietnam.
Through the state’s treatment of the Vietnamese diaspora, and of people like Ke Huy Quan, it is clear that it cannot admit its mistakes. To this day, the state still violently suppresses any sign of opposition, and it has never publicly admitted its wrongdoings regarding the reeducation camps. Reconciliation starts with acknowledging past mistakes. For this reason, many years after the war, genuine reconciliation and reunification have yet to be achieved.
- Chan, Y. “Ke Huy Quan, Sinophobia, and the Controversy Surrounding His Vietnamese Cultural Identity.” The Vietnamese Magazine, March 2023, www.thevietnamese.org/2023/03/ke-huy-quan-sinophobia-and-the-controversy-surrounding-his-vietnamese-cultural-identity.
- Demmer, Amanda. “Forging Consensus on Vietnamese Reeducation Camp Detainees: The Families of Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association and U.S.-Vietnam Normalization.” The Cold War at Home and Abroad: Domestic Politics and U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1945, edited by Andy Johns and Mitch Lerner, University of Kentucky Press, 2016.
- Hoang, Tuan. “From Reeducation Camps to Little Saigons: Historicizing Vietnamese Diasporic Anticommunism.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, University of California Press, Aug. 2016, doi:10.1525/jvs.2016.11.2.43.
- Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “There’s a Reason the South Vietnamese Flag Flew During the Capitol Riot.” Washington Post, 14 Jan. 2021, www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/01/14/south-vietnam-flag-capitol-riot.
- “Report, the Aurora Foundation, with Letter from Ginetta Sagan to William E. Colby - Violations of Human Rights in The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, April 30, 1975 to April 30, 1983, 0440417001.” 12 December 1986, Box 04, Folder 17, William Colby Collection, The Vietnam Center & Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University, https://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/virtualarchive/items.php?item=0440417001.
- Vu, Hoang Minh. “Recycling Violence: The Theory and Practice of Reeducation Camps in Postwar Vietnam.” Experiments With Marxism-Leninism in Cold War Southeast Asia, edited by Matthew Galway and Marc H. Opper, Australian National UP, 2022.