Following the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Vietnamese Communist government began to open hundreds of “re-education” camps throughout the country. Those camps, as Hanoi officially claimed, were places where individuals could “learn about the ways of the new government” through education and socially constructive labor. In 1975, it was estimated that around 1 to 2.5 million people1, including former officers, religious leaders, intellectuals, merchants, employees of the old regime, and even some Communists, entered the camps in the hope that they could quickly reconcile with the new government and continued their peaceful life. However, their time in those camps did not last for ten days or two weeks as the government had claimed.
Re-education Camps Levels
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 people2 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 camps2.
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 inmates2. 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 camps2.
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 care3. 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 equipments.
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 camps4.
The End of “Re-education” Period
Most of the re-education camps were operated until 1986 when Nguyen Van Linh became the General Secretary of the Communist Party. He began to close the harsher camps and reformed the others5. Two year later, Washington and Hanoi reached an agreement that Vietnam would free all former soldiers and officials of the old regime who were still held in re-education camps across the country and allowed them to emigrate to the United States under the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). As of August 1995, around 405,000 Vietnamese prisoners and their families were resettled in the U.S6.
1. Desbarats, J., “Repression in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Executions and Population Relocation”. Retrieved April 17, 2014 from http://jim.com/repression.htm.
2. “Vietnam Re-education Camps”, The Library of Congress Country Studies, CIA World Factbook. Retrieved April 17, 2014 from http://www.photius.com/countries/vietnam/society/vietnam_society_re_education_camps.html.
3. Cao, N. P., “A form of torture: Food deprivation”. Retrieved April 17, 2014 from http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~sdenney/hunger.
4. “Vietnamese Americans: Lessons in American History – An Interdisciplinary Curriculum and Resource Guide”, p. 83.
5. Jonathan, W., “Re-education in Vietnam”. Retrieved March 29, 2014 from http://www.distributedrepublic.net/archives/2006/05/01/re-education-in-vietnam/.
6. “Accounts of Imprisonment and Re-education”, Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam. Retrieved April 17, 2014 from http://www.yale.edu/seas/bibliography/chapters/chap9.html.