Accounting for the Stateless of the Republic of Vietnam: A Path Towards Reconciliation

Accounting for the Stateless of the Republic of Vietnam: A Path Towards Reconciliation
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

The Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, with victory for North Vietnam, whose government has maintained a political monopoly over the country until today.

The war has brought devastating outcomes, especially the loss of human lives, for both sides. It’s estimated that more than one million North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong fighters died in the quest to unify an ideologically and geographically divided Vietnam.

On the other hand, during the 20 years of internal rivalry, defeated South Vietnam lost around 300,000 soldiers, while those who were loyal to the Saigon administration had to face the reality that their country no longer existed. An additional two million civilians from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, as well as nationals from other countries, also perished during the conflict, and a majority of these remains have not been discovered.

The war, too, had drawn an intensive engagement of the United States, an ally of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) regime, with 58,220 members of the U.S. military killed. Before and after the war ended, Washington searched to find, identify, and retrieve the remains of fallen U.S. troops in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The search continues today, with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the U.S. Department of Defense. Approximately 1,500 American soldiers are still missing.

Likewise, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) government initiated its own campaign to identify, exhume, and honor the North Vietnamese war dead. It also established memorial cemeteries and monuments to recognize the patriotism of those who fought for the Communist cause. Meanwhile, those who died serving the RVN were viewed as remnants of a defunct enemy state and thus neglected and discriminated against. The new Communist regime also mistreated South Vietnamese officials and military and jailed them in “reeducation camps,” where they lived under brutal living conditions in prison-like facilities, and few of them survived over ten years of imprisonment.

The crucial task of finding, identifying, and burying the war dead plays both an ethical and ceremonial importance in the process of healing the wounds of war and enhancing the legitimacy of the current government. With its political domination, the Hanoi regime has monopolized this commission, as it immortalizes North Vietnamese soldiers while delegitimizing their southern counterparts.

Political, financial, logistical, and technical challenges obstruct the efforts of the families and friends of the RVN war dead to take care of the remains of their deceased family members–who were treated like stateless entities after the war ended– and memorialize their sacrifices.

Alex-Thai Dinh Vo, a Vietnamese American scholar, analyzes the political meaning and complexity of the search for deceased South Vietnamese soldiers in his research “Accounting for the Stateless: in search of the Republic of Vietnam war dead,” [1] published in January 2024. Vo is an assistant professor of history at the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University.

Vo said he has delved into this aspect of Vietnam War history due to its “profound humanitarian significance.” His father, he told us, was a survivor of reeducation camps, who had imparted him with a sense of shared humanity, regardless of political affiliations or social stances. Many Vietnamese families, including his own, have experienced anguish over the loss of their loved ones, and they are still grappling with the desperate quest to locate their remains for a sense of peace and closure. 

Vo initially presented his research at two international conferences, the 2022 “Actions for the Missing: Scientific and Vernacular Forms of War Dead Accounting” in Amsterdam and the 2023 Association for Asian Studies in Boston. In this research, he shed light on the discrimination against RVN military personnel committed by the new Communist regime after the end of hostilities.

He explained that the Vietnamese government remains hesitant to pursue genuine reconciliation nearly 50 years after the Vietnam War ended. That hesitation, Vo said, indicates ongoing divisions and the likelihood of certain factions within the government refusing to recognize the former Republic of Vietnam. There was a lack of a systematic approach to accounting for the RVN soldiers and personnel who died in combat or reeducation camps. 

At the same time, Vo believes many Vietnamese people genuinely desire a true reconciliation and advocate for the establishment of a systematic program to account for the war dead associated with the former southern regime.

The task of accounting for RVN war dead largely relies on the advocacy of Vietnamese diaspora communities worldwide, particularly those who live in the United States, and the support of the U.S. government. However, Vo says the accounting could not materialize without the willingness of the Vietnamese government to address the matter with trust and sincerity rather than apprehension and distrust.

“True reconciliation, in my view, transcends mere political rhetoric and entails a sincere effort to acknowledge past grievances, foster mutual understanding, respect, and forgiveness, and pave the path toward genuine healing and lasting peace,” Vo wrote in an email to The Vietnamese Magazine. “It is about building trust, nurturing healing, and forging sustainable relationships to pursue common goals collaboratively.”

Nguyen Dac Thanh and the Politics of Accounting for the Republic of Vietnam War Dead

In his research, Vo deliberates on the role of Nguyen Dac Thanh, a former RVN major who founded the Vietnamese American Foundation (VAF), established to exhume the remains of the personnel who died during the war, and his attempt to renovate the Bien Hoa Military Cemetery, a resting place for members of the former South Vietnamese Army. He addresses important questions regarding the state of the war dead, the overseas community's skepticism, and other financial and political difficulties that Thanh and his associates faced when they took on the task of accounting for and caring for these stateless soldiers.

Nguyen Dac Thanh is a former RVN major who graduated from the 12th class of the Thu Duc Infantry School. He endured nine years and seven months in Communist reeducation camps across northern Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, where he had to bury many of his unfortunate fellow prisoners. In 1990, Thanh immigrated to the United States under the Humanitarian Operation (H.O.) program, and he later moved to Pearland, Texas.

Thanh’s harrowing experience in the reeducation camps and the new regime’s treatment of RVN-associated war dead shaped his postwar devotion to finding and recovering the remains of RVN service personnel who died in combat and postwar detention. By 1995, he established the Tổng Hội H.O. (General Mutual Assistance Association of Humanitarian Operation) in Houston to carry out that mission. In the mid-2000s, Thanh transformed the Tổng Hội H.O. into the VAF.

The VAF runs two distinct programs: the Returning Casualty Program and the Vietnamese MIA/POW Foundation.

The former, established in December 2006, assists the families of prisoners who perished in Communist camps to find and collect the remains of their relatives. It also helps families of the deceased with no known living relatives in exhumation and reburial efforts. Meanwhile, the latter’s mission is to locate and rebury the remains of South Vietnamese soldiers who were lost in combat. However, according to Vo’s research, the VAF has since 2010 shifted this endeavor to the renovation of the RVN Bien Hoa Military Cemetery, currently Binh An Cemetery, in Binh Duong Province.

In 2004, the Vietnamese Communist Party's Politburo issued Resolution NQ/TW 36 concerning Hanoi’s first guidelines and policies towards the overseas Vietnamese community, many former officials, and civilians who lived and worked in southern Vietnam before 1975. The resolution coincided with Nguyen Dac Thanh and the VAF’s lobbying of the United States and Vietnamese governments to pursue their mission of discovering the bodies of RVN personnel. Although Resolution 36 met with strong opposition from many anti-Communist groups, Thanh saw it as an opportunity to advance his plan.

With clear determination, in 2006, Thanh reached out to the Association for Liaison with Overseas Vietnamese, a state agency. He received approval from the government to locate and exhume the remains of his RVN fellows from reeducation camps.

He met with many key Vietnamese officials, including former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, known for his progressive stance in advocating postwar reconciliation, to discuss the matter. In addition to holding negotiations with representatives from Vietnam, Thanh also engaged with American congressional members and diplomats, including former ambassadors to Vietnam David Shear, Ted Osius, and Daniel Kritenbrink, to gain their support for his endeavor.

However, new challenges emerged as the VAF proceeded with its plan to locate and exhume the bodies of former RVN soldiers. Despite identifying over 300 gravesites and remains, through consultation and collaboration with former reeducation camp inmates and their surviving family members, many families were not available to accept, rebury, and care for the remains of their loved ones. This practice plays an essential cultural role in Vietnam.

This is due to social and political changes unfurled in the postwar landscape. After all, the VAF is only a small organization of the Vietnamese American diaspora, and multiple factors, including financial limitations, human power shortages, and political complexities, constrained their efforts. 

On the one hand, most families of these deceased soldiers relocated to other regions or aboard when these soldiers were locked in reeducation camps. The passage of time and the lack of information on these soldiers' whereabouts also made it challenging to locate and identify the remains. The gravesites and cemeteries of RVN soldiers are most vulnerable to the evolving landscape in modern Vietnam, where these burial grounds were often be repurposed by the government to free up space for new land development.

Logistical factors and bureaucratic obstacles further complicate the VAF mission. After the VAF exhumed remains, they temporarily relocated them before returning them to families or cremating and interring them in Buddhist pagodas and other permanent locations. The lack of familial advocacy and legal representation for these remains proved to be an obstacle, while DNA testing to verify the identity of the remains also requires financial resources and scientific technologies.

The Renovation of Bien Hoa Military Cemetery

One of the VAF’s crucial missions was restoring and renovating the Bien Hoa Military Cemetery, currently named Binh An People’s Cemetery. This project carries a special significance. In addition to the aim of honoring the RVN soldiers buried there and preventing the graveyard from falling into further disrepair or being cleared for development projects, it demonstrates resistance to the current regime's attempts to erase the history of the Republic of Vietnam.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Communist authorities made significant efforts to remove the remnants of the RVN regime and replace them with symbols of the new regime. Many street names were changed, political landmarks were removed, and symbols associated with the former government were eradicated. Burial places holding the remains of RVN military and civilian personnel, including the Bien Hoa Military Cemetery, were no exception. Many were closed or demolished, deemed a reminder of a “corrupt” past.

In 2006, Thanh found the opportunity to care for the Bien Hoa Military Cemetery when the Minister of Defense transferred the cemetery's management rights from the military to civilian administration. The VAF took advantage of this change to request permission from the Vietnamese government to care for the site. The requests started with paving new roads and building a shrine for worshiping in front of the Tower to Virtue and Bravery, where people could pay their respects and offer flowers and light incense for the fallen soldiers.

With the approval of Deputy Minister Nguyen Thanh Son on March 1, 2013, VAF  was able to receive the remains of ARVN soldiers who died in reeducation camps or who were discovered elsewhere and bury them at the Bien Hoa Military Cemetery.  As a result, VAF was able to exhume and transfer the remains of 200 ARVN soldiers, who, according to the foundation, had died defending Saigon, from a mass grave at Dong An Vocational College to the military cemetery.

On March 21, 2013, VAF made a public announcement directed to family members and ARVN veterans, asking whether or not the VAF should exhume and transfer these remains to the Bien Hoa Military Cemetery. However, the VAF announcement drew clashing opinions within the Vietnamese-American community. Many applauded Thanh and the VAF’s humanitarian efforts, while others questioned the program’s transparency and his relationship with the Vietnamese Communist government.

Mistrust Remains

Among those critics of the program, one prominent voice was Do Van Phuc, president of the Vietnamese American Community of the United States (VAC-USA). Phuc was an ARVN major serving in a psychological warfare unit who spent 10 years in various reeducation camps after the war ended. His organization, founded in 1993 and which reportedly has connections with 35 other Vietnamese American communities across the United States, vehemently opposes any collaboration with the Hanoi regime. It declares its mission to build a free, independent, and democratic Vietnam free of Communism.

Phuc’s seemingly hostile attitude toward the VAF’s project reflects the outlook of a section of the Vietnamese American community, especially among the older generation, whose experience was shaped by war and discrimination under the new Communist regime. In contrast, younger Vietnamese Americans often pay less attention to Vietnam's history and the war and hold more ambivalent views towards the current situation in Vietnam. Generational gaps and diverse experiences have divided opinions within the Vietnamese-American community.

However, Vo said we should not place the responsibility of accounting for the RVN war dead on the Vietnamese American community, which was only gradually formed in the aftermath of war, conflict, and other historical turmoil. The Vietnamese-American diaspora, on the other hand, also has other primary focuses, including nurturing the sustainability of the diaspora and supporting the soldiers who survived, war widows, and victims of natural disasters that happened in Vietnam.

Additionally, the search for war dead is hindered by numerous constraints, including discriminative restrictions imposed by the ruling authorities in Vietnam and VAF’s lack of official representation and recognition. Despite these challenges, if both the United States and Vietnam recognized its efforts, Vo believes, these “could quietly lead to the acknowledgment of the Republic of Vietnam and its affiliates, even though they no longer exist as a legitimate and recognized political entity.”

He added, “Such recognition essentially signifies the reclamation of one's existence and identity, representing a step toward.”

Looking Ahead

Alex-Thai Dinh Vo believes that to promote meaningful reconciliation, especially in the accounting of RVN war dead, the current Vietnamese government should begin by publicly recognizing the contributions of the Republic of Vietnam and its associates and acknowledging their right to a proper burial and memorial for those who died in the conflict. Meanwhile, the U.S. could fulfill its obligations by offering financial, technical, and administrative assistance to aid the locating and recovering fallen soldiers - who fought alongside them for the shared value of democracy, freedom, and rights, he added.

However, Vo believes reconciliation is not a one-way street; it also requires cooperation from all sides for the common good. He said that if the Vietnamese government demonstrates genuine efforts through concrete actions, individuals associated with the fallen RVN may also be more inclined to contribute to such efforts. These individuals could, in turn, provide valuable information that might assist in accounting for the Communist Vietnamese war dead in the South of Vietnam.

“Efforts to raise public awareness about the importance of accounting for RVN war dead could contribute to a nuanced understanding of Vietnam's wartime history,” Vo said. “By encouraging public engagement and dialogue,” he said, “these initiatives promote a culture of remembrance and reconciliation that transcends political divides.”

“Such a comprehensive approach to accounting for war dead,” he said, “serves as a vital step toward healing and reconciliation.”


[1] Võ, Alex-Thái Dinh. “Accounting for the Stateless: in search of the Republic of Vietnam war dead.” Human Remains and Violence, vol. 9, no. 2, Dec. 2023, pp. 76–95.

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