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Errors Have Been Committed - Mai Dong after 1954

If you're reading this post I'm going to make the rude assumption that you've read Uprooted already. If not, then be aware of minor spoiler activity to follow. It should not reduce your enjoyment of my seminal, epoch-encompassing tome. Indeed, a brief glance at the table of contents will spoil more than I'm about to.

While the book's focus moves southward after Tung's family leave Mai Dong, this post will share what took place in their village after the events of 1954.

Persecution against other family members is described in Uprooted, and were part of more than two years' of upheavals, displacements and executions.

Communist leader Ho Chi Minh called a halt to the campaign in 1956, conceding that “errors have been committed” and stating that “those who have been wrongly classified as landlords and rich peasants will be correctly reclassified.”

What followed land reform was described by a British eye-witness as an “orgy of self-criticism” as the perpetrators absolved one another. Party Secretary Troung Chinh was the only high-profile party member demoted.

The cadres responsible for the show trial in Mai Dong were down-graded too, but their punishment was for failure, not success.

The government announced 12,000 prisoners would be released from labor camps. Bitterness remained for a long time as relatives of the exonerated deceased struggled to reclaim their confiscated homes.

As the years passed the authorities tried to put a positive spin on the tragedy by emphasizing their success in correcting the mistakes. One western study, written with Communist blessing in 1967 admitted that only 30% of convicted landlords were exonerated. How, in fact, do you apologize to the dead?

The same study quoted an official from Hung Yen Province who said that his village restored 5 of the 59 households stripped. This figure of less than 10% is probably closer to the truth, and closer reflects the experiences of those in Mai Dong.

While there was reticence to conduct practical reparations, the lesson was learned at the highest level. In spite of criticism from the Chinese that they had backed off land reform too soon, the North Vietnamese later advised the Communists in Laos not to employ such deadly methods.

It also meant that when the push towards collectivization got underway, it didn't involve the arbitrary massacres that traumatized China and Cambodia.

Within ten years, the American and South Vietnamese began bombing North Vietnam. It did not take long for strategists to run out of sizable targets. The country had very little heavy industry, so even Mai Dong, a farming village of a few thousand inhabitants, became a target.

The peasants were taught to dig shallow pits and trenches under beds and in gardens. At school the children made straw hats which they wore when church bells and temple gongs sounded the alarm.

Bombs destroyed homes and left craters 2-6 meters wide in the village's fields, gardens and roads. People emerged from the rubble and smoke, blackened and bleeding. Tung's sister-in-law was one of many who were wounded.

The bombing campaign did nothing to diminish the will of the people to continue the fight. And one of the byproducts was that it disguised the failures of the collectivization campaign.

Collectivization was the next step after land reform. Having been given land, the peasants were now asked to give it all up again. Their lives would improve through shared work and shared rewards. Even when, through social coercion, participation goals were reached by the late 1960's, collectivization never worked.

I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) (a propaganda emporium that only tells one very narrow version of a complicated history). One section focused on the economic miracle of Communist Vietnam's agricultural program.

“In 1987 the Mekong Delta was the world's 2nd biggest rice exporter.”

This didn't jive with what I'd been reading about the failure of collectivization. A little research revealed that, according to the International Rice Commission, Vietnam was importing rice until the late 1980s.

In production terms, 1987 saw Vietnam 6th in the world, just above Nepal. The reading for other Communist countries, bar China, is even worse. So maybe the museum's narrow view only encompassed the Communist world.

In Mai Dong, the situation was even more dire than in the Mekong Delta, which is a much easier place to cultivate rice. In 1980 the farmers of northern Vietnam were eating less than half the daily amount of rice they'd had in 1959.

Collectivization failed partly because when the peasants were given an equal share of food, there was no incentive to work hard. Shared equipment and animals were neglected and the system enabled corrupt officials to flourish.

It took until the 1980's for the Party to begin allowing private ownership, after decades of relying on rice imports to survive. According to scholar Ben Kerkvliet, “the aim to make everyone equally succeed made nearly everyone equally poor.”

Had the family remained in Mai Dong they would have become second-class citizens. They would have been given the worst jobs, the poorest housing and their children would have been pariah's in their own schools. Tung's brother experienced similar treatment after 1975.

However, Vietnamese policy did change in the mid-1980's and the country began to flourish, becoming the highly regarded tourist destination it is today. Life remains difficult for many people, particularly in the small farming villages far from the tourist centers.

In contrast to the 1930's when young men had to leave the village because there was not enough land to farm, Mai Dong now suffers from a lack of farmers. The hamlets are quiet and many fields lie fallow. All the young people go to the cities where easier money can be made.

A small handful of the eldest villagers lived through those turbulent years that followed the Second World War.

Tung's uncle wanted to be buried alongside his ancestors, so he returned to Mai Dong and lived there for about ten years before he died. His surviving acquaintances thanked him for his family's help during the great famine of 1945, but no one mentioned the land reform campaign.

Vietnam has changed. It has a large, young population, for whom the wars are a piece of history, remembered with pride according to their Party-written history books.

The old, historical enemy, China is again their main rival as tensions in the South China Sea over the Spratly Islands increase. Vietnamese-Americans will face a difficult quandary over whether to raise their voices in defense of the Vietnamese Communist government.

Next week I'll talk a little about the diaspora itself. For Vietnamese-American's it still brings very difficult remembrance. Highlighted soon with the 40th Anniversary of the fall of Saigon the following week.

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