Re-education camp

This article is about reeducation camps in Vietnam. For reeducation camps in North Korea see Human rights in North Korea. For reeducation camps in China, see Re-education through labor.

Reeducation camp (Vietnamese: trại học tập cải tạo) is the official title given to the prison camps operated by the government of Vietnam following the end of the Vietnam War. In such "reeducation camps", the government imprisoned several hundred thousand former military officers and government workers from the former regime of South Vietnam. Reeducation as it was implemented in Vietnam was seen as both a means of revenge and a sophisticated technique of repression and indoctrination, which developed for several years in the North and was extended to the South following the 1975 Fall of Saigon. An estimated 1-2.5[1] million people were imprisoned with no formal charges or trials.[2] According to published academic studies in the United States and Europe, 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's re-education camps.[2] Thousands were tortured or abused. Prisoners were incarcerated for as long as 17 years, with most terms ranging from three to 10 years.[2]

The term 'reeducation camp' is also used to refer to prison camps operated by the People's Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution, or to the laogai and laojiao camps currently operated by the Chinese government. The theory underlying such camps is the Maoist theory of reforming counter-revolutionaries into socialist citizens by re-education through labor.

Meaning of trại học tập cải tạo

The term reeducation, with its pedagogical overtones, does not quite convey the quasi-mystical resonance of trại học tập cải tạo in Vietnamese. Cải ("to transform") and tạo ("to create") combine to literally mean an attempt at re-creation, and making over sinful or incomplete individuals.

Historical background

After the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese men, from former officers in the armed forces, to religious leaders, to employees of the Americans or the old government, were rounded up in reeducation camps to "learn about the ways of the new government." They were never tried, judged or convicted of any crime. Many South Vietnamese men chose to flee on boats, but others had established lives and loved ones in Vietnam, so did not flee but entered these camps in hopes of quickly reconciling with the new government and continuing their lives peacefully.

The hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who were imprisoned in reeducation camps since 1975 basically fall into two categories: 1) Those who were detained in reeducation camps since 1975 because they collaborated with the other side during the war, and 2) Those who were arrested in the years since 1975 for attempting to exercise such democratic freedoms as those mentioned in Article 11 of the 1973 Paris Agreements. In other words, both categories of prisoners were held in direct violation of Article 11 of the 1973 Paris Agreements, an international treaty, and therefore of international law.

Government view on the reeducation camps

Officially, the Vietnamese government does not consider the reeducation camps prisons, but rather places where individuals could be rehabilitated into society through education and socially constructive labor.

The Hanoi regime defended the reeducation camps by placing the "war criminal" label on the prisoners. A 1981 memorandum of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to Amnesty International claimed that all those in the reeducation camps were guilty of acts of national treason as defined in Article 3 of the 30 October 1967 Law on Counter-revolutionary Crimes (enacted for the government of North Vietnam), which specifies punishment of 20 years to life imprisonment or the death penalty. However, it was instead allowing the prisoners to experience "reeducation," which is applied in Vietnam as Vietnam says it is the most "humanitarian" system and the most advantageous for law offenders.[3]

Registration and arrest

In May 1975, specific groups of Vietnamese were ordered to register with the new regime that had established control over the South on April 30, 1975. Then, in June, the new regime issued orders instructing those who had registered in May to report to various places for reeducation. Soldiers, noncommissioned officers and rank-and-file personnel of the former South Vietnamese government were to undergo a three-day "reform study," June 11–13, which they would attend during the day and go home at night.

The others ordered to report for "reform study" were not allowed the same arrangement of attending during the day and going home at night, but were instead to be confined to their sites of "reform study" until the course ended. Nevertheless, there was some hope, for the government gave the clear impression that reform study would last no more than a month for even the highest-ranking officers and officials of the former government in South Vietnam, and ten days for lower-ranking officers and officials.

Thus, officers of the RVN armed forces from the rank of second lieutenant to captain, along with low-ranking police officers and intelligence cadres, were ordered to report to various sites, bringing along "enough paper, pens, clothes, mosquito nets, personal effects, food or money to last ten days beginning from the day of their arrival." High- ranking military and police officers of the RVN, from major to general, along with mid and high-ranking intelligence officers, members of the RVN executive, judicial and legislative branches, including all elected members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and, finally, leaders of "reactionary" (i.e. non-communist) political parties in South Vietnam, were ordered to report to various sites bringing enough "paper, pens, clothes, mosquito-nets, personal effects, food or money to last a month beginning from the day of their first meeting."

The new government announced that there would be three days of reeducation for RVN soldiers, ten days for low-ranking officers and officials, and one month for high-ranking RVN officers and officials. Many teachers reported for reeducation, assuming that they would have to undergo it sooner or later anyway. Sick people also reported for reeducation, assured by the government that there would be doctors and medical facilities in the schools and that the patients would be well treated.

The camps

Indoctrination and forced confessions

During the early phase of reeducation, lasting from a few weeks to a few months, inmates were subjected to intensive political indoctrination. Subjects' studies included the exploitation by "American imperialism" of workers in other countries, the glory of labor, the inevitable victory of Vietnam, led by the Communist Party, over the U.S., and the generosity of the new government toward the "rebels" (those who fought on the other side during the war). Another feature emphasized during the early stage of reeducation, but continued throughout one's imprisonment, was the confession of one's alleged misdeeds in the past. All prisoners in the camps were required to write confessions, no matter how trivial their alleged crimes might have been. Mail clerks, for example, were told that they were guilty of aiding the "puppet war machinery" through circulating the mail, while religious chaplains were found guilty of providing spiritual comfort and encouragement to enemy troops.

The work

In the reeducation camps much emphasis was placed on "productive labor." Such labor was described by SRV spokesman Hoang Son as "absolutely necessary" for reeducation because "under the former regime, they (the prisoners) represented the upper strata of society and got rich under U.S. patronage. They could scorn the working people. Now the former social order has been turned upside down, and after they have finished their stay in camps they have to earn their living by their own labour and live in a society where work is held in honor." Thus, in the eyes of the Vietnamese rulers, "productive labor" was a necessary aspect in the overturning of the social order. Yet in examining the conditions under which this labor took place, it seems that there was also an element of revenge.

The labor was mostly hard physical work, some of it very dangerous, such as mine field sweeping. No technical equipment was provided for this extremely risky work, and as a result, many prisoners were killed or wounded in mine field explosions. Other kinds of work included cutting trees, planting corn and root crops, clearing the jungle, digging wells, latrines and garbage pits, and constructing barracks within the camp and fences around it. The inmates were generally organized into platoons and work units, where they were forced to compete with each other for better records and work achievements. This often pushed inmates to exhaustion and nervousness with each person and group striving to surpass or at least fulfill the norms set by camp authorities, or they would be classified as 'lazy' and ordered to do 'compensation work' on Sundays. North Vietnamese children were brought in to routinely pester prisoners, teenage girls stomping on the barefeet of former army officers as they marched to work. Sometimes prisoners who missed their quota were shackled and placed in solitary confinement cells.

Deaths from starvation and disease occurred frequently and bodies were often buried in graves on site which were later abandoned.[4] The work was done in the hot tropical sun, by prisoners who were poorly nourished and received little or no medical care. The poor health, combined with hard work, mandatory confessions and political indoctrination, made life very difficult for prisoners in Vietnam, and contributed to a high death rate in the camps. Former prisoners describe the constant hunger that resulted from a lack of food while they were in the camps. The government deliberately kept the prisoners on low rations. The lack of food caused severe malnutrition for many prisoners and weakened their resistance to various diseases. Most common among the diseases were malaria, beriberi and dysentery. Tuberculosis was also widespread in some of the camps. Medical supplies were generally nonexistent in the camps and medical care was very inadequate, usually limited to a poorly trained medic and perhaps a few prisoners who had formerly been medical doctors. The result was a high death rate from diseases.

Rules and regulations

The authorities sought to maintain strict control over the thoughts of the prisoners, and forbade prisoners from keeping and reading books or magazines of the former government, reminiscing in conversation about "imperialism and the puppet south," singing old patriotic and love songs from the former government, discussing political questions (outside authorized discussions), harboring "reactionary" thoughts or possessing "superstitious" beliefs.

It has been acknowledged by Hanoi that violence has in fact been directed against the prisoners, although it maintains that these are isolated cases and not indicative of general camp policy. Former prisoners, on the other hand, report frequent beatings for minor infractions, such as missing work because of illness. Violations of rules led to various forms of punishment, including being tied up in contorted positions, shackled in conex boxes or dark cells, forced to work extra hours or receiving reduced food rations. Many prisoners were beaten, some to death, or subjected to very harsh forms of punishment due to the cruelty of certain camp officials and guards. Some were executed, especially for attempting to escape.

Former anti-Vietnam war activist Ginetta Sagan described conditions in the camps in 1982:

During the last three years friends and I have interviewed several hundred former prisoners, read newspaper articles on the camps as well as various reports of Amnesty International, and have studied official statements from the Vietnamese Government and its press on the re-education camps. The picture that emerges is one of severe hardship, where prisoners are kept on a starvation diet, overworked and harshly punished for minor infractions of camp rules. We know of cases where prisoners have been beaten to death, confined to dark cells or in ditches dug around the perimeters of the camps and executed for attempting escape. A common form of punishment is confinement to the CONEX boxes—air-freight containers that were left behind by the United States in 1975. The boxes vary in size; some are made of wood and others of metal. In a CONEX box 4 feet high and 4 feet wide, for example, several prisoners would be confined with their feet shackled, and allowed only one bowl of rice and water a day. "It reminded me of the pictures I saw of Nazi camp inmates after World War II," said a physician we interviewed who witnessed the release of four prisoners who had been confined to a CONEX box for one month. None of them survived."[5]


As of 1980, official regulations stated that prisoners in the camps could be visited by their immediate family once every three months. Family visits were important not only because of the personal need for prisoners and their loved ones to have contact with each other but also because the families could bring food to their relatives in some of the camps. It has been reported that the prisoners in these camps would not have survived without such food. The duration of the visits was not long, reported by former prisoners to last from 15 to 30 minutes. Moreover, family visits would be suspended for prisoners who broke the rules, and it has also been said that only families who had proven their loyalty to the regime were allowed visiting privileges.

Most of the former prisoners interviewed have been in between three and five different reeducation camps. It is believed that the movement of prisoners from one camp to another was intended to prevent both the inmates and their relatives from knowing a specific camp's real location. That way, escapes from prison could be prevented, and prisoners' relatives could be prevented from visiting them.

The release of prisoners

In June 1976, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, in one of its last policy announcements before the official reunification of Vietnam, stated that those in the camps would either be tried or released after three years of imprisonment. But this promise was broken. The policy announced that those still in the camps would stay there for three years, but would be released early if they made "real progress, confess their crimes and score merits".

Since there were no clear criteria for releasing the inmates from the camps, bribery and family connections with high-ranking officials were more likely to speed up release than the prisoner's good behavior. Released prisoners were put on probation and placed under surveillance for six months to one year, and during that time they had no official status, no exit visas, no access to government food rations and no right to send their children to school. If the progress of the former prisoners was judged unsatisfactory during this period, they could be fired from their jobs, put under surveillance for another six months to a year, or sent back to the reeducation camps. Faced with these challenges, many chose to flee the country and became boat people.

Some prisoners who have been imprisoned since the Fall of Saigon, have been released as recently as the year 2000.

The U.S. government considers reeducation camp inmates to be political prisoners. In 1989, the Reagan administration entered into an agreement with the Vietnamese government, pursuant to which Vietnam would free all former RVN soldiers and officials held in reeducation camps and allow them to emigrate to the United States. Thus began the third large influx of Vietnamese immigrants into the country.

The Vietnamese American Foundation began a program called "The Returning Casualty" in the early 2006. It attempts to locate graves of people who died in the camps, and identify and deliver their remains to loved ones.[4]

Partial List of camps

  • Lang Da, NW of Hanoi[4]
  • Unnamed temporary camp, Phu Yen Province[4]
  • Ca Mau Prison Camp, Tan Anh Camp, Kien Vang Camp, Bac Lieu Prison Camp, Ganh-Hao Labour Camp, Chi-Lang Camp, Vuon-Dao Camp. Xuyen-Moc Camp The Dark Journey - Inside The Reeducation Camps Of Vietcong (2010) Eloquent Books, Durham, Ct., USA>

See also


External links

  • Reeducation camp
  • Denney Stephen, Human rights and daily life in Viêtnam, Report prepared for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, March 25, 1990
  • Denney Stephen and Sagan Ginetta, Re-education in unliberated Viêtnam : loneliness, suffering and death, the Indochina newsletter October-November 1982
  • The Returning Casualty [1]
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