Diaspora and a National Tragedy
“At first they said bring food for ten days. But they kept me forever. No trial at all.”
Kim's story is one that Uprooted touches on towards its conclusion. I met him at a family reunion in Florida a few years ago.
We were in a small room, packed with forty people. Sunshine and laughter filled the air around us. A table creaked under its weight of food. People shouted to hear themselves above the excitable screams of a dozen children.
Kim sat beside me. He was crying. Seeing his cousins again for the first time in many years took him back to Saigon, April 30th 1975.
“I saw the tank as it broke through the gates of the Palace. America had deserted us. Now the Communists...”
Tears overwhelmed him. He had fought in the South Vietnamese Army and witnessed the North's final assault on his country. Following defeat he was imprisoned for six years in a reeducation camp.
Meanwhile Saigon's transformation began.
North Vietnamese soldiers were warned even before they arrived in the city to ignore the capitalist spoils that had so denigrated their southern brothers. They witnessed the undignified spectacle of their leaders squabbling over the most opulent French-style villas.
Bookshops and newspapers were closed, films and music were banned. Even Vietnamese music was also considered too decadent. Anything the cadres found written in English or French was burned, even medical text books.
Bank accounts were frozen and two months after their victory, the currency was switched from piasters to dong, wiping millions in savings from the accounts of both greedy and thrifty alike. The change was made overnight with no announcement to prevent a run on the banks.
Doan Van Toai, a student activist and ardent nationalist had been leaking information to the North Vietnamese long before 1975. The southern Communists and their international representation in the PRG [Provisional Revolutionary Government] regarded themselves equal partners in post war reconstruction and reunification to come. Instead many of them, Toai included, found themselves in jail only a month after victory.
Not only did the prison system quickly become “choked with the cream of South Vietnam's intelligentsia”, Toai wrote, but the dragnet included many underground members of the Viet Cong. They were regarded with suspicion because they'd been exposed to decadent influences while conducting their espionage.
Likewise Kim languished in prison. “They tried to brainwash us. It didn't work. In the end they let us go.”
But even in 1981 the government would not let them leave the country. So Kim spent ten more years as a second-class citizen, having to report to the local police every week and surviving on low-paid work with no prospects.
When the opportunity to escape came, he took it.
There were three distinct waves of refugees during the 1975-1992 diaspora. Those like Tung, who fled as soon as Saigon fell numbered around 120,000.
A second movement peaked between 1977 and 1979, when those who had decided to see what life was like under Communist rule took to the water. Social/political oppression and economic conditions were the main drivers. By 1979 the authorities had set up 13,240 production teams to roll out collectivization. Within a year 10,000 of them had collapsed.
1979 also saw Vietnam invade Cambodia. In response China attacked from the north. Mass mobilization, persecution of the large local Chinese population and further economic hardship drove still more people to risk their lives in escape.
Between 1980 and 1986 the demographic shifted. Numbers remained high but more than half of the refugees that arrived in the overcrowded UN camps in Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong were minors.
With no money, their parents sent them alone in the hope they could establish residency in a new country and become their sponsors. This was the terrible ordeal Tung's brother Co was forced to put his children through.
Also incarcerated in a prison camp with no expectation of release, he was surviving on food earned and brought in by his wife. With no chance of a better life for his children, and a brother in Florida who could be their sponsor, he made that most difficult and desperate of decisions.
In a labor camp, Co suffered the same “brainwashing” treatment as his cousin Kim. The evils of American imperialism and the inevitability of Communist victory were regular themes.
“In prison we had many classes,” Co recalled. “After each lesson we had to sit with each other – about ten people – to discuss about what we'd learned, with an official listening. We had to pretend to agree or they would kill us.”
“I saw my friend from military school shot. All they wanted was to see someone stand up and say something they didn't like. In that situation, if you said anything to confront them, you would die.”
Kim's escape attempts are mentioned briefly in the book's epilogue. He lost all his money in the process, was cheated, arrested and thrown back into prison.
The risks did not end when refugees successfully reached international waters. Unknown numbers succumbed to the elements, particularly in the volatile South China Sea route to the Philippines.
Tung's youngest brother Sa sent money from the U.S. via Hong Kong to help his sister-in-law buy her way onto a boat. She took to the sea on a 50-foot fishing boat, overloaded with 200 refugees. In fourteen days they were attacked twice by Thai pirates who robbed, beat and raped some of the women.
They arrived in Malaysia where the government had started refusing entry to refugees, and were towed back out to sea.
After another five days with virtually no food they arrived in Indonesia. They were lucky to spend only seven months in the refugee camp before Sa could sponsor their immigration to the United States.
In 1979 it was estimated that 30 percent of boats leaving southern Vietnam were boarded and subjected to “RPM” - rape, pillage and murder. It became so common officials gave it an acronym.
The Vietnamese diaspora became the largest in world history. Between the boat people exodus and the Orderly Departure Program that was created to provide a safe means of leaving, 1.6 million Vietnamese were resettled. Unknown numbers perished in the attempt.
One of the diaspora's many effects was to turn the surrounding countries further against Communism. It increased Vietnam's isolation among its neighbors and was a contributing factor in the domestic reforms that took place in the mid-1980s.
Most refugee camps had closed by the early 1990's, but the last 200 refugees in the Philippines were not granted asylum until 2008.
Despite all his ordeals, Kim regards himself as one of the lucky ones.
“Finally I am here. Thank God,” he said, looking around the room at the smiling faces. The children were now kicking a ball outside. The adults reclined under full stomachs.
“Thanks America. America saved my life and my family's life. And I have a day today to see everybody. But we never forget the Vietnamese war. And we never, never forget the national tragedy.”
Next week will be my last post in this series of blogs. It will cover a little of Tung's fortunes as he and his family made the difficult adjustment to life in the United States.
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