COMMUNISM: by Dr Cuong Tran BuiNews Weekly
Remembering the Vietnamese exodus
, May 21, 2005
The Fall of Saigon in April 1975 was a final result of the withdrawal of American military support for the South Vietnamese Government, caused by the forced resignation of President Nixon in the US and the consequent failure by a war-weary US Congress to appropriate funds for the defence of South Vietnam.
While its consequences on American morale and America's reputation throughout the world were devastating, its effect on the people of South Vietnam - who had been fighting a communist insurgency and invasion from the north for the previous 20 years - was catastrophic.
Dr Cuong Tran Bui was one of those forced to flee Vietnam. This article is taken from a longer one which Dr Bui wrote on the Vietnamese exodus.The collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975 was triggered by the withdrawal of Government forces from the Central Highlands a month earlier. Thirty years since the debacle in South Vietnam, no one can deny the consequences of that mistaken decision to withdraw from the Central Highlands.
The horror, death, and collapse of confidence were depicted by Nguyen Tú, a senior journalist and a witness at the exodus. He wrote, "Not a single doctor, either civilian or military, was to be found in the city of Kontum ... A number of patients in both the military and civilian hospitals at Pleiku have been abandoned to their fate. These poor people of course don't know how to react to the situation except to stay there on the sickbed and wait until death slowly comes to them.Exodus
"I too, with a knapsack on my back, joined the exodus at about 10:30 Sunday night ... It was a beautiful night and the sky over Pleiku was scintillating with thousands of glittering stars.
"If I had a friend by my side, I would tell him: Dear friend, the sky has as many stars as there are sorrows in my heart.
"I still don't know from where the order to make Pleiku and Kontum open cities has come. There was no explanation whatsoever for the move to the population. No organisation of any kind was set for the mass evacuation. Aren't the military leaders supposed to work out such a plan for an exodus like this?
"No support of any kind was given to the people, particularly the poor ones who had to walk. Since 1954 I have witnessed many evacuations. But the exodus from Pleiku-Kontum has filled me with such despair that I find the slight hope I have been nursing in my inner-self since 1954 has disappeared ...
"Refugees from Pleiku and Kontum, who reached Hau Bon in small groups, made the long journey in two days. The majority are still far behind, dragging their feet on the dirty road under a scorching sun by day and chilled by night in the forests.
"It was not possible to say how many children fell during the walk, how many helpless old people were standing along the road unable to move, how many others were suffering from thirst and hunger during the walk to freedom and democracy.
"A Ranger officer told me: 'This time, I can never look straight to my people again.' A private said: 'Damn it, we got away without fighting. I prefer to fight and run away if we lose. I will accept that.' An Air Force captain said: 'It is sad, very sad, especially when we look back at Pleiku, a deserted city now. We can see only fires and fires. I am very sad.'
"Another soldier added, 'I am stunned ... Look at these people, the young ones. Isn't this miserable?' "
The gloomy experiences of our countrymen on the 7th "Highway of Death" were also re-depicted from the pen of Phan Nhut Nam:
"The exodus is so huge; the anguish suffered by 200,000 civilians lingered on well over the 200-kilometre-long mountainous route from Kontum and Pleiku. It was quite chilly in the Central Highlands on a late spring morning, which turned out to be sunny, hot and dry toward midday. The reddish basalt dirt got stuck in the vehicle sides, the cannons, weapons and the people's hair and face, making their eyes look so red - the eyes of worry, exhaustion and despair.Hunger, thirst and misery
"The exodus peacefully passed the first day, surviving through hunger, thirst, misery and worry. The soldiers were half-asleep, leaning on their weapons; women and children exhaustedly lay down on their luggage, on the vehicle or on the sandy ground. Oh God, to be alive and to be able to sleep is too big a happiness, isn't it? How do they ask for help? To whom should they turn for rescue?
"Suddenly, there were sounds of very close artillery shells explosions. The (communist) 320th Division aimed their guns right down at the exodus. The soldiers knew how to either seek for shelter or resist. Pitifully, the civilians could only look up at where the cannon were mounted, just to be fired at and blown up.
"Not only were there simple and quick deaths by weaponry, but also slow terrified deaths by drowning in a tank when it pitched forward at the front of the floating bridge over the Ba River. How can the temporary, quickly-made floating bridge bear the weight of tens of thousands of people and vehicles? The M48 tank was like a huge mass of rock pressing onto, cracking and breaking the bowl.
"There were dying screams in the tank; on the turret, a few people stepped on other people's head, back or shoulder to be able to breathe and survive a few more seconds. The tank sank, quietly bringing with it and crushing under it many people. The cogged wheels wildly whirled the river of blood, scattering the limbs stuck somewhere under the tank sides.
"At last, the exodus led by the 58th battalion Rangers finally reached Tuy Hòa on March 25, 1975. Among 200,000 civilians who followed soldiers fleeing from Kontum and Pleiku, only approximately 60,000 remained. Nobody could have the exact figure of the civilian death toll. Each person just sadly knew of their own dead relatives."Chaotic retreat
Another Vietnamese observer said, "The last 52-day-long battle to defend South Vietnam was commenced with the two chaotic and tormenting retreats from the Central Highlands and Hué. The generals in combat on the very last day, April 30, 1975, chose to commit suicide instead of surrender, following the 'white flag' decision made by General Duong Van Minh, the then President ...
"However, when talking about heroes of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, during the 21 years of fighting communism, it is the soldiers, the subaltern administrative officers, and commissioned officers ranking lower than the regiment commanders who deserve our respect and the title of real hero."
After April 30, 1975, the very first things the communists tried to do was to destroy the administrative system of the South. Concurrently, they transformed South Vietnam into a communist state through economic reform, cultural reform and the extermination of basic human rights.
The economic reform was carried out by denying private ownership and to apply collectivisation, by confiscating property, and by devaluing the currency.
The cultural reform was made by suppressing all liberal, humane and national values of the traditional culture, through burning books, even textbooks; discarding Vietnamese traditional dress; destroying cemeteries and monuments to the dead; and by establishing a new education system to train socialist citizens.
The communists also abolished human rights and citizens' rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of association. They established a family register system, ward security, and ward security policemen to control citizens and their families.
As for religious organisations, their properties were confiscated. Christian and Buddhist facilities were desecrated and used for purposes other than spiritual ones. In addition, state-controlled congregations were established and the training of priests regulated by the state.
To smash South Vietnam's administrative system, the communists took over the army, police, the court and prisons, together with all of their officials and staffs. Many measures were taken to eradicate former social classes, among which were (1) massacres, (2) "people's courts", (3) concentration camps with the misleading phrase "re-education camps", (4) new economic zones, (5) public denunciation of the middle class, and (6) isolation or home confinement.
With mass killing as a brutal measure, as they did after occupying Hué during the Tet offensive in 1968, the communists, according to Professor Karl Jackson, the University of California, at Berkeley, and Professor Jacqueline Desbarats, North Western University, Illinois, killed at least 65,000 people from 1975 to 1983.
Concentration camps were the communists' second most successful means of eliminating the former social classes. It is impossible to estimate the precise number of people sent to concentration camps since April 30, 1975.Perished at sea
Not many countries in the world have had to suffer huge calamities like Vietnam. Within 20 years, due to Vietnamese communism, there were two mass migrations. In 1954-1955, a million Vietnamese people had to leave the communist North for the South. In 1975, nearly three million were forced into exile, together with hundreds of thousands of boat people who perished on the open seas. Never have calamities of such magnitude happened in Vietnam, even during 1,000 years of Chinese domination or 100 years of French colonisation.
In the Central Highlands retreat, the number of Vietnamese people who decided to follow the troops south, having to desert their homes, their lands and their ancestors' tombs, was huge, reaching around one million.
One reason is that they were terrified of the certainty of a communist-inspired massacre, as happened in Hué during the Tet Offensive in 1968. During the three-decade-long war, they had borne everything, without having to flee the country like that. After the whole of South Vietnam fell to the communists, they had to make that decision again, but this time fleeing their beloved Vietnam.
The true nature of communist terror can be clearly shown if we compare the number of people who migrated to the south of Vietnam in 1955, and the number of people who sought asylum abroad after April 30, 1975.
According to one observer, from July 20, 1954 to May 31, 1955, there were 776,525 migrants from the communist north of Vietnam to the non-communist south. The number increased to 887,890 on October 30, 1955, the official deadline of the mass migration. In reality, however, the number must have been much greater.
The exodus and asylum seeking of Vietnamese people from 1975 can be divided into four phases:
1. During the months immediately following April 30, 1975, between 100,000 and 150,000 fled South Vietnam. Most of them settled in the United States.
2. Responding to the huge movement of asylum-seekers, the US President Gerald Ford promulgated the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act in 1975, in which "the US President empowers the highest-ranking officials in charge of refugee problems to relieve the terror and anguish of Southeast Asian asylum-seekers."
From 1978 to 1980, when the middle- and upper-class properties were confiscated, some 400,000 to 500,000 Vietnamese people - the majority of whom were Chinese-Vietnamese - fled "semi-officially". Approximately half of those people went to communist China; the rest fled to Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian nations. Facing this situation, the US Administration once again promulgated another Refugee Act on March 17, 1980, to "grant a permanent and systematic statute to efficiently receive and resettle political refugees, based on special humanitarian needs".
3. From 1981 to 1989, just before the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) ordered the closing of asylum camps, approximately 500,000 Vietnamese boat people reached Hong Kong, Palawan (the Philippines), Bidong (Malaysia), Galang (Indonesia), and Thailand, etc, before being resettled all over the world.
4. Between the time when the United Nations introduced a screening program in 1989 until all refugee camps were permanently closed in 1996, an additional 200,000 asylum-seekers reached the camps. These people, however, had to encounter very strict screening before being granted political refugee status and planned settlement in another country. Those who failed the screening were forcibly repatriated in 1996.
Who were the boat people? They had many different backgrounds. There were those who had fled North Vietnam for South Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh's takeover of the north in 1954.
There were those who had had bad first-hand experiences of communism, and others fortunate enough to survive the deadly Central Highlands withdrawal. Some were close relatives of survivors of the retreat. Others were grandparents, parents, wives and children, brothers and sisters of soldiers who sacrificed their lives protecting the Republic of Vietnam. Others were prisoners in concentration camps, or blood relations of the political victims killed in "re-education camps".Fleeing South Vietnam
There were also soldiers, civil servants of all fields, members of the provincial reconnaissance units, workers, peasants, tradespeople, fishermen, and citizens of every social class in South Vietnam. In brief, they were those who were suspected of wanting to "resist" communism. That was the main reason why the huge movement of people fleeing their homeland lasted for over 20 miserable years.
They set forth with little idea of where they would go or where they would reach. Most of them had never been to sea, and knew nothing of the dangers of the voyage, as well as numerous other risks awaiting them. Some people once said, "Out of three boat people, only one can reach the shore safe and sound; another dies in seas of storms, of thirst and hunger, or of piracy; and the other is arrested and jailed."
Tran Gia Phong wrote: "The asylum-seeking since 1975 has been the greatest exodus in Vietnam's history. This was quite a shocking event to the whole world. It had not been predicted that the movement of asylum-seeking would be that extensive, lasting from 1975 to 1996, as long as the 1954-1975 war. The total number of asylum-seekers fleeing Vietnam by all means of transport, together with the toll of casualties during the exodus, roughly reached 3,000,000 - equal to the entire number of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers who died in the 1954-1975 war."
No matter what happened, we still owe thanks to the peoples and governments of countries who provided Vietnamese with temporary refugee camps, granted us settlement, or saved us on the open sea when we were lost, running out of food, or irreparable boat engines. Without the kindness and humane treatments of the vast majority of the people in those countries, we would not enjoy our current lives.
Without the assistance and protection by the nations of the free world, the success of the second generation of the free Vietnamese overseas community would not have been possible.
Today, after 30 years living in exile, as I record part of the Vietnamese people's pain and suffering, I just wish us to understand and learn the lessons of history, not to deepen antipathy. This is our duty, as eye-witnesses to the darkest period of our history.
Living in exile for the past 30 years, many of us hope that one day we may return to our homeland, contributing to make it less backward, assisting our people in stepping toward real liberty and democracy that our fellow people have never enjoyed.
This will only occur when the Vietnamese people, both those living in Vietnam and those living overseas, are able to re-construct their fatherland, putting the country's interests at topmost priority, and removing the evil communist system.