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Reproduced without permission

This article by Desbarats was published in 1990 in The Vietnam debate, edited by John Norton Moore.

Repression in Vietnam has diminished substantially since this was published, and was arguably diminishing a short time before this was published.

Desbarats' estimates of the level of repression following communist victory in Sout Vietnam are consistent with my own conversations with Vietnam refugees who came to the West, though of course people who spontaneously discuss such matters are self selected and hostile to communism, and therefore not statistically reliable, but are sufficiently reliable for order of magnitude.

Desbarats estimates approximately one hundred thousand extrajudicial executions, most occurring in the first two years after the fall of Saigon.

This does not include those who died in the camps of mistreatment and harsh conditions, probably around two hundred thousand, and those who died fleeing the country, probably around three hundred thousand or so, those dying in artificial famine following the communist victory, and so on and so forth.

Repression in the Socialist Republic

of Vietnam:

Executions and Population Relocation

Jacqueline Desbarats

The "Comparative Survey of Freedom" published by Freedom at Issue in 1986 classifies the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) in the "not free" category.[1] On the seven­point scale that measures political rights, the SRV is given a rating of seven; that is, the lowest possible rating. This means that "the political despots at the top appear by their actions to feel little constraints from either public opinion or popular tradition."[2] On the seven­point scale measuring civil liberties, Vietnam is, likewise, rated seven: "[At seven, there is pervading fear, little independent expression takes place even in private, almost no public expressions of opposition emerge in the police­ state environment, and imprisonment or execution is often swift and sure."[1] Virtually all forms of deprivation of freedom and human rights violations listed in the survey have been documented in post­1975 Vietnam.

This essay will focus on two specific forms of repression. I am not going to talk about reeducation camps, largely because there is abundant evidence on this topic. I will focus instead on extrajudicial, or summary, executions, and on the forced relocation of people to rural economic zones. I have chosen those two topics because I have a great deal of original empirical data on them, and most importantly, because they represent aspects of repression in Vietnam that have been less widely publicized over the last decade. I will first consider the macro-level factors for each that lead to that particular form of repression; that is, I will look at the legal and administrative framework using official Vietnamese sources, and will then descend to the micro­level of analysis to establish the pattern characteristic of each form of repression. To do this I will rely on the survey data that I have collected from over eight hundred Vietnamese refugees interviewed in France and in the United States in the last four years.

Extrajudicial execution is the most extreme and irreversible form of repression. A rough definition of the term is "the taking of a person's life without minimal guarantees of due process of law."[4] I am not going to discuss fine legal distinctions as to exactly what constitutes an extrajudicial execution and what constitutes a summary execution[5] , but will simply state four major aspects characterizing the executions reported in Vietnam since 1975. First of all, the accused has no legal protection and no rights to appeal. Second, the tribunal, if any, is composed of people who have no legal experience, such as the military management committees, or the people's courts that were set up in virtually all Vietnamese cities after May 1975. Third, the charges are usually vague and flimsy charges, or charges of moral judgment such as "the accused is wicked or evil," rather than charges addressed to specific transgressions of specific laws. Finally, the penalty meted out for those "offenses" is usually a kind of penalty that would not normally be found under international laws. Certainly under international law these offenses would not warrant the death sentence. Thus, in this study of executions I have not included the death of individuals in official custody due to torture, poor medical care or lack of it, extremely poor prison conditions, accidents, and so forth. I am looking only at deliberate executions that occurred after due process of law had been severely curtailed or distorted, even though there might have been some kind of judicial procedure involving the application of special decrees.

Indeed, there exist documents published in the Vietnamese legal code that supply ample justification for a large program of postliberation executions. The regulation on the punishment of counterrevolutionary crimes was promulgated initially by Ho Chi Minh in 1967 and was later reissued in 1976. It includes a list of about fifteen counterrevolutionary crimes and provides for a dual level of punishment: severe punishment, i.e., execution or long­term imprisonment, for "all counter­ revolutionary masterminds, leaders, diehards and principal culprits;" and relative leniency, i.e., three to fifteen years in jail, for "those who have been coerced and inveigled to go astray and those who have truly repented."[6] Prior to reunification in 1976, the Provisional Revolutionary Government reissued this document concerning anti­revolutionary crimes. The 1976 decree continues to list the death penalty for treason, spying, and sabotaging national unification. In both the 1967 and 1976 versions, the counter­ revolutionary crime is defined in an all­inclusive fashion, which supplies justification for capital punishment for all those who resist the revolution in any form.

In addition, and particularly important, in an aide­memoire to Amnesty International in 1981, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam specifically rejected the principle of non­retroactivity by claiming that the laws of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had been applicable to all citizens of South Vietnam from 1945 onward. In this perspective, it is quite obvious that high­ranking members of the Army and civil administration of Vietnam could be considered to have blatantly transgressed the law of the land and therefore deserve severe punishment.[7]

Clearly the mere existence of special decrees does not necessarily indicate that they were put to work. But in public pronouncements beginning May 1975, we find ominous asides interspersed with more or less conciliatory statements. For instance, in a banquet speech on May 15, 1975, Le Duc To said: "We must quickly stabilize the people's lives, maintain public order and security, and resolutely punish counter­ revolutionary elements." The official newspaper of Saigon wrote in June 1975:

Let us put the old regime on record. We cannot erase the blood debt owed to us by the U.S. imperialists and their henchmen. Our people must expose and pinpoint all crimes of the old regime, for the clearer we see its ugliness, the more determined . . . we are to wipe out its remnants and build a new and better life. We just continue to fight all our enemies in the city, and at the same time, urgently build a better life.[8]

Careful examination of public records does indeed supply evidence that there was an execution program after 1975. It also supplies evidence that the execution program was political in its intent rather than merely concerned with dealing with the crime wave that swept South Vietnam after the liberation. Who, then, were the victims of these summary executions? Among the victims brought to my attention were a number of government officials of the former regime: province chiefs, district chiefs, mayors, members of the police, high ranking members of the army, and members of the intelligence community. The victims also included a handful of members of the compradore bourgeoisie, a few leaders of popular, ethnic, or religious groups, including a couple of Hoa Hao, a number of people who tried to escape from the country, and a large number of people who tried to escape from reeducation camps. But by far the most widespread alleged reason for those executions was "antigovernment resistance." This reason alone accounted for forty nine percent of all the executions, including both armed resistance and passive resistance, such as refusal to register for reeducation.

The empirical data collected in the interviews allows one to look at the pattern of executions over time and space. Two thirds of the executions occurred in 1975 and 1976, at which time the number of executions seems to have tapered off. A secondary peak occurred in 1978 at the time of the nationalization of commerce and business in South Vietnam. Over geographic space, we also find a rather clear pattern. Almost two thirds of the reported executions occurred in the Saigon and the Delta areas, and those were mostly executions that took place very soon after liberation. Subsequently, there is a geographic diffusion phenomenon, whereby executions started to spread to the areas north of Saigon. Those coastal areas became especially important after 1976. We also find a pattern in the kinds of reasons given for the executions. For instance, the executions motivated by anti­ government resistance were practically ubiquitous, as we find them everywhere, though mostly after 1976. On the other hand, executions of high­ranking officers are essentially found in the Mekong Delta area and occurred very soon after liberation, most of them in 1975. Executions of people who tried to escape from reeducation occurred mostly in the areas north of Saigon, and those are also widely spread over the ten year period examined.

What are the numbers involved in extrajudicial executions? Looking only at deaths that were due to active willful acts rather than passive neglect, and using highly conservative coding and accounting procedures in the study's sample estimation, I came to an estimate of approximately 65,O00 persons executed.[9] I suspected all along that this probably was an underestimate. But I am more convinced now that it is an underestimate because the computations are based in part on the assumption that no more than one million people were processed through reeducation camps. As a matter of fact, we know now from a 1985 statement by Nguyen Co Tach that two and a half million, rather than one million, people went through reeducation. The change in statistical parameters resulting from that recent admission would indicate that, in fact, possibly more than 100,000 Vietnamese people were victims of extrajudicial executions in the last ten years.

The second type of political repression that I want to look at involves the forced relocation of people to rural New Economic Zones[10] On the surface, population redistribution policies need not necessarily involve human rights violations. After all, most developing countries have a program of population redistribution. But in the case of Vietnam, there is evidence that the implementation of this program was based on extensive coercion. As a matter of fact, the rather ambitious, and I would even say highly unrealistic, numerical goals of the Vietnamese program suggest that the government must have felt confident of its ability to coerce people into meeting those unreasonable goals. The policies of the population relocation program were threefold. First, there was a Southern de­urbanization program, which was started under the Provisional Revolutionary Government and was initially designed to repatriate war refugees to their native places. In fact, this quickly turned out to be a program to purge Saigon and other southern cities of "undesirable" elements. Then there was a North­South program of population transfers from the Red River Delta to the South, concentrating on the Central Highlands. This program was really the continuation of the historical North­to­South movement of the Vietnamese people and it certainly has ample demographic justification. The third part of the population relocation program involved the resettlement, or rather the "sedentarization," of over a million­and­a half nomads belonging to the hill tribes of the Central Highlands, the Montagnards. It is important to realize that they were largely people who were fighting the new Vietnamese government under the old banner of the "Front Uni pour la Liberation des Races Opprimees."

To be sure, there were genuine economic and demographic goals underlying those policies. But it is also obvious that the goals of military strategy and political control were at least as important as demographic and economic goals. The use of coercion in population relocation was difficult to document directly, and required plowing through an enormous amount of official documents.

Overall, the Vietnamese government seems to have used both the carrot and the stick; that is, a mix of incentives and threats. In all appearance, the government initially tried to avoid the use of coercion. Indeed, it would have been too dangerous to risk an uprising, as the country was awash at that time in small arms and ammunitions. Therefore, it was much wiser to avoid coercion, at least initially. Incentives to volunteer for the New Economic Zones were developed.

For instance, volunteers were given a choice of which New Economic Zone they wanted to go to (not much of a choice really, in view of the uniformly bad conditions in the NEZs). They were given free transportation, the ability to take supplies with them, and so forth.

More important still were the disincentives to staying in Southern cities such as the lack of job opportunities in cities, and the reduced urban food rations after the institution of the mouth registration system, whereby people had to be registered at an official place of residence in order to qualify for food rations. Those food rations were severely reduced in South Vietnamese cities after 1977, partly because of bad harvests and near­famine conditions nationwide. But some foreign observers also suspected that this reduction was a way to try to get urban residents to move out of the cities. Additionally, there were other sorts of disincentives that hit very deep into the value system of the Vietnamese; for instance, the lack of educational opportunities for the children of those who persisted in remaining in the cities.

In spite of these various measures, the program of de­urbanization was not progressing fast enough. In 1976, the government decided to designate whole groups for relocation. An enlightening editorial in Saigon Giai Phong provided an answer to the question "Who is authorized to go and build new economic zones?" in terms that leave little doubt about the degree of choice involved:

Those who must take part in the building of new economic areas now include: 1) those who do not have a job and are in economic difficulty; 2) those who, though employed, are in temporary difficulty and have no assurance for the future; 3) families of government and army members having undergone or now undergoing reeducation and who are in difficulty; 4) those who have production means and equipment.[11]

As people were still not moving out of the cities at the expected rate, the threat of jail and reeducation camp sentences was used to try to speed up the relocation program, as seen in a quotation from Quan Doi Nhan Dan, Article 13, of the law providing for the punishment for counter­revolutionary crimes promulgated by the state on November 10, 1967, the same old decree that was reactivated in 1976:

Anyone who opposes or sabotages or hinders the plans to serve national defense or creates serious obstacles to the implementation of state policies, laws and plans, will be sentenced to life in prison or will be executed.[12]

Clearly, refusing to move to a New Economic Zone could easily fall under that category of offense, because in many cases, the opening of New Economic Zones had an explicit political purpose. In 1979, the newspaper Tap Chi Cong San printed a statement that left no doubt on that point:

In the strong strategic position closely linking the three countries, Vietnam, Laos, and Kampuchea, we must coordinate the establishment of the military zones with those of economic development to constitute strong military bases in close liaison with a system of defense of the two brother states of Laos and Kampuchea and enable them to defeat all forms of aggression. [13]

Since the setting up of New Economic Zones in the border areas near Laos and Kampuchea had such a definite strategic purpose, refusal to move to those zones could legally be interpreted as interference with national defense.

The use of coercion increased in 1978, when arrests and forced transfers to the countryside were used as a last resort. People were simply expelled from the city and their property confiscated. It was to be expected that there would be less carrot and more stick as time went on, simply because the relocation program was increasingly difficult to implement. People who were most likely to be willing to go back had already left the cities earlier on, so that the residual urban population disproportionately included those who had the most reasons to fear and avoid rustication.

The numbers affected by the population transfer program are larger than the numbers previously mentioned for the execution program. Official statements claim that about half a million people left Saigon in one year, and that eighty percent of those left spontaneously or voluntarily. This would indicate that in that first year about one hundred thousand were coerced into leaving the cities. Under the Second Five Year Plan (1976 to 1980),1.3 million persons were sent to New Economic Zones, but this figure includes a large number of Northerners who went south. Those who were sent to NEZs from Southern cities presumably by force must total no more than three quarter of a million people. Under the Third Five Year Plan (19811985), a total of not quite a million people were sent to NEZs, but those were virtually all Northerners. The Southerners were passively resisting the program. By then the government had all but given up trying to send Southern urbanites into rural areas.

Estimates based on my survey data are congruent with these figures. About six percent of the respondents mentioned that they had been forcibly sent to a New Economic Zone. Extrapolating this proportion to the twenty two million people that made up the South Vietnamese population in 1975 would give a total of 1.2 million people forced to NEZs, if one assumes that the proportion subject to this form of coercion was the same in the population that left Vietnam as in the population that stayed behind. Thus, it is likely that, overall, at least one million Vietnamese were the victims of forced population transfers.

In the two forms of repression that I have examined here, the totalitarian character of the new Vietnamese regime is evidenced in three major features. One is the striving for absolute political control that so clearly dominated the economic and demographic goals of the population transfer program. For instance, this is very obvious in the kind of ethnic and class mixes found in the New Economic Zones, with a very careful blending of revolutionary families and "puppet" families, lowlanders and highlanders, (to capitalize on the traditional animosity of highlanders toward lowland Vietnamese), rural and urban people, ethnic Vietnamese and Sino­Vietnamese. In the New Economic Zones near the Kampuchean border, very great care was taken to add a sprinkling of Khmer families, very often refugees from Kampuchea themselves.

Second, the policy of geographic relocation of the population underscores the territorial expansionism of the regime. This is indicated clearly in the urge to decongest the northern provinces and to place the bulk of the responsibility for an increase in agricultural production squarely on the southern part of the country, where there was supposed to be more irrigable land. But it is also visible in the strategic location of the New Economic Zones along the borders.

Finally, the persuasive use made of deceit to implement various policies emerged repeatedly from the official text. This can be seen both in the semantic obfuscation of the texts relative to the relocation of urbanites and the repatriation of war refugees, and in the unexpected geographic patterns that appear in the complex criss cross of migration flows. For instance, at the same time that the government was trying to decongest Saigon by forcing its residents to NEZs, three quarters of a million Northerners were allowed to move to Saigon. Likewise, while highlanders accustomed to slash­and­burn agriculture were sedentarized by being brought down to the valleys where they were expected to become wet­rice cultivators, lowlanders brought to the open fields of upland areas found that only slash­and­burn rice would grow in the highlands. Thus the ecological degradation that the sedentarization of the nomads was supposed to alleviate, in fact, increased when lowlanders unable to grow wet­rice in upland areas turned to the same damaging slash­and­burn practices as the nomads had practiced before them. These examples of inconsistent migration flows hint at the prevalence of the political and strategic goals of the relocation program over its economic and demographic goals.


1. Gastil, "The Comparative Survey of Freedom 1986," 88 Freedom at Issue (Jan.­ Feb. 1986), at 3­17.
2. Gastil, "The Comparative Survey of Freedom 1986," 88 Freedom at Issue (Jan.­ Feb. 1986), at 7
3. [1]
4. Kaufman and Fagen, "Extrajudicial Executions: An Insight into the Global Dimensions of a Human Rights Violation," 3 Hum. Rts. Q. 4 (Fall 1981), at 81.
5. For an extensive discussion of the various categories of extrajudicial executions, see [4].
6. Hanoi Domestic Service, 22 October 1979. FBIS Asia and Pacific IV, Kl, at 3 (October 23, 1979).
7. For a more exhaustive treatment of the post­liberation security program, see Desbarats and Jackson, "Political Violence in Vietnam: The Dark Side of Liberation," 6 Indochina Rep. 1 (Apr.­June 1986).
8. Saigon GiaiPhong, June 2, 1975, at 4.
9. For a detailed description of the statistical estimation procedure, see Desbarats and Jackson, "Vietnam 1975­1982: The Cruel Peace," 8 Wash. Q. 4 (Fall 1985), at 169.
10. This part is abstracted from Desbarats, "Population Redistribution in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" (forthcoming).
11. Saigon GiaiPhong. October 10, 1975.
12. Quang Doi Nhan Dan, June 27, 1977.
13.Tap Chi Cong San, 1979, at 18­19.