André Gelinas is a French Canadian Catholic priest, a Chinese scholar, who went to live in Vietnam in December 1948 and stayed on for twenty-eight years, until fifteen months after the arrival of the North Vietnamese troops in Saigon. Before he was expelled, he worked at the Alexander of Rhodes Educational Center in Saigon. What follows are parts of a long account he gave last autumn to Pierre Doublet and Christian D’Epenoux of the Paris L’Express.
What struck me during the fifteen months I lived in Saigon after the takeover was the continual hardening of the regime. When the Bo Doi [the Liberation Army soldiers] entered Saigon on April 30, 1975 the first reaction among the people was one of fear. And then slowly they began to go out again. There were few acts of violence and, it seemed, few executions. The great “campaign” for “purification of morals and culture” took the form of vast autos-da-fé. All the adornments of “bourgeois” culture were to be destroyed. In our Center we had some 80,000 volumes, a large number of which we had to burn. Lists were compiled of all those who had collaborated with the old regime and of all “intellectuals,” i.e., those who had passed their first bachot or had gone beyond it.
A more real ordeal began when the government imposed restrictions on the money supply. After freezing bank accounts on June 10, the government announced in September that everyone had twelve hours to take their money to the banks before it became valueless. Each family henceforth had the right only to the equivalent of 1,000 French francs [i.e., about $225.00]. An epidemic of suicides followed. Thousands of ruined and desperate Vietnamese put an end to themselves, feeling that they could no longer survive in Saigon and that they would have to leave for “New Economic Zones,” the areas where the regime was sending large groups of people to clear and work on the land.
They also feared, after several months, that the regime’s propaganda would divide families, setting the young against the old. Entire families killed themselves with revolvers. A former police officer shot his ten children, his wife and his mother-in-law, and then himself. A father, after explaining to his family at dinner that they had to put an end to their sufferings, distributed poisoned soup. Some came to see me before such suicides to ask whether it was a grave sin. Here and there someone who had been saved just in time would tell what had happened. A young woman told me that she had awakened in a hospital corridor piled with hundreds of bodies. Those who were still living had their stomachs pumped out. Group suicides went on for several weeks.
To eat, to survive—that was the main problem. When I left I was little more than skin and bones, and I gained over thirty pounds after I returned [to France]. But still I was one of the privileged; as a foreigner I had the right to receive money from abroad and so we had rice right up until we left, manioc, bananas. Fish is a luxury. The fishermen are no longer allowed to go out to sea because people used the boats to escape, and many of the motors were removed to avoid this. At Vung Tau, the large port near Saigon, the authorities decide every morning which fisherman can go out, and he is “accompanied,” while his family, as a guarantee, must stay on land. Nonetheless I know someone who left the port of Phan Thiat last December along with two Bo Doi who escaped with him.
There is no famine; but many live in misery. The two staple foods are rice and the Chinese potato, the khoai-mi, which is normally eaten by animals but is now mixed with rice to make it go further. It’s a good day when one can get hold of some shrimp, and meat is very rare and impossibly expensive. Two pounds of meat costs half of one month’s salary of 15,000 piastres, a good salary. Dogs and cats disappeared long ago; if one didn’t eat them, they would be stolen.
So people manage the best they can. The rich from time to time sell an object, a piece of furniture. Those able to do so still trade on the black market with the Bo Doi. The soldiers and cadres use special state stores—successors to the American PXs—and can resell the merchandise to the population at ten times the price. But it’s mainly some of the old shopkeepers who can still buy and barter, at least the ones whose stocks were not seized and who can sell their merchandise off bit by bit, spending as much as they earn since there is no way to import or invest.
In principle, of course, holding on to supplies and concealing them is “antipatriotic” behavior and therefore forbidden. Now and then someone is arrested and killed but all this is rather unsystematic either because of inefficiency or calculation: so long as there are supplies of goods a source of possible profit remains for those in power. One of my students, the son of a big shopkeeper, told me that he would have to be away for two or three weeks. The police had come to the store to arrest the entire family, but the officer in charge had proposed a deal—for eight million piastres he would hold off for a month. So he and the rest of the family had to try to borrow the money from friends and relatives and then quickly sell off their goods to pay them back.
The poor have no such recourse. They have to try simply to subsist in Saigon. I began to see a good many with swollen stomachs, a sign of bad nutrition. Or they must go to the “new zones” and that can be worse. Or they could beg, but now that’s forbidden and no one has the right to help a beggar; it would be helping a “parasite” to exist and against government policy, which is to send such people away from Saigon. [Catholic] religious people have been severely condemned for aiding beggars.
At the beginning of the new regime, one saw people hawking goods on every street corner in order to live—a cup of tea, a bowl of soup, a few cigarettes. But last June the authorities “cleaned up” the streets. The famous “thieves market” has now disappeared, but one can still see some small-time peddlers, always on the lookout and ready to run. At first you could buy practically any medicine in the street; would-be suicides had a wide choice, since a great many druggists had fled, leaving their stocks to be seized or pillaged. People knew that there would soon be a shortage of medicine and today it is difficult indeed to get medical care. Doctors have left or been sent away for “re-education.”
With so many shortages, possibilities for corruption and black-marketeering abound. When I left, the black market was thriving more than ever, for without it there were many things you simply could not get, for example simple writing paper. If you wanted to obtain some you had to specify why; which meant you had better not ask.
Individually the soldiers you dealt with were not bad fellows, although with some you had to be on guard. Under such a system you can always be found in violation of some rule and made to feel guilty of something. If you have a bicycle you have to have a receipt for it. Either the receipt has disappeared or it’s a phony; and even if it’s authentic they’ll prove to you that it’s false, that your bicycle vendor was a forger, etc. If you have a typewriter, again you’re likely to be in violation of the rules; for all typewriters have to be taken to the police who examine them to see if they typed the dissident tracts that sometimes circulate. But once the police have your typewriter you never see it again, so people prefer to keep them “illegally.”
At the beginning the regime evidently felt it had to take the population in hand and instill fear. One day in the street I saw a little vendor who did not get out of the way quickly enough; a soldier took out his pistol and fired a bullet right next to his head. The boy was terrified but the soldier continued along calmly. For the soldiers such acts seem natural enough. They have been formed by violence. One would watch them strolling along like big children with their weapons, free to use them, to do as they pleased. At the corner of the intersection of Yen Do and Van Dayet streets right near our Center, a thief grabbed a bracelet from a young girl. A Bo Doi caught him and then asked those who gathered around what he should do. They didn’t know what to say. He took out his pistol, grasped the thief’s hand, and put a bullet through it.
There were a great many thieves at the beginning because of the misery, but now it’s too risky, the police are better organized. And the Bo Doi themselves never steal. Many can be bribed, but if they want something they pay for it. The Bo Doi also act as guardians of “good morals” and “correct dress,” which consists of the pajamas worn by peasants. Since they’re expensive and the material is hard to get, people wear their old clothes, often of “Western” cut, and so may find themselves pushed about and questioned by soldiers who accuse them of “insulting the people” and “displaying their riches.” Coquetry is seen as capitalist, bourgeois. From time to time a soldier will enter a bus with a small scissors and cut the nails of young women if they seem too long. Although there are no more night clubs or bars there are still prostitutes. One sees them on the rue Tu Do, the old rue Catinat, leaning against the trees as they always did. The clients are mainly cadres and soldiers. The official line that the girls have been sent away for “re-education” is simply propaganda.
From time to time the newspapers announce the execution, imprisonment, or dismissal of certain officials for “dishonesty,” abusive acts of seizure, etc. It’s impossible to say whether these announcements are true or merely bluff. Such questions are decided entirely in secret. By contrast, a citizen can be arrested simply for saying yes or no. The regulations are such that everyone is always a little guilty. Walking in the street you may see that the police have cordoned off a house, the family waiting in the street while a search takes place. If they want to arrest someone they can always produce, as coming from the house, something they’ve brought in themselves. And so you see them coming out with a radio transmitter, a submachine gun, etc.—evidence of a “plot.” In the countryside, when they want to arrest a priest or a so-called “traitor,” they often accuse him of rape. There are always four or five sturdy women, whose rape one would think quite unlikely, to swear that they have been violated. No one believes it, but that makes no difference.
In fact most arrests are generally based on “denunciations.” The very organization of the new society encourages informing as a “patriotic” duty. The fundamental social unit, the Tô, is directed by the Tô Chuong, who is always a southerner. You can do hardly anything without his permission, whether it is a matter of seeing people or having guests, going to the hospital, making a large purchase, etc. Some of the Tô Chuong use this excessive power to take revenge on others, but for the most part they are in complicity with the rest of the population. Above the Tô there was formerly a larger unit called the Khom, but this was suppressed in order to achieve tighter control at the base. Now the hierarchy of administrative units consists of the Phuong, the Quan (equivalent to a French arrondissement), and finally the Tinh, the equivalent of a sous-préfecture. Northerners, in fact, hold all the key posts. The former guerrillas of the PRG (the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the South) have been systematically pushed aside; they were too close to the population.
Indoctrination takes place at the lowest level, within the Tô. In certain neighborhoods, where those in authority are more zealous, there are meetings every night, at which people are supposed to report what they’ve seen happening at a neighbor’s house, for example who visited, and to point out which people still seem refractory or anti-revolutionary. If you “forget” to point out something you’re at fault. In these sessions there are also discussions of local cleanliness, health, the upkeep of the quarter, its good or bad morale, the teams of volunteers organized for different jobs, the work on the arch of triumph that each neighborhood has to build.
The leaders also set themes for discussion which are laid down by official directives. At one time, the theme was “American atrocities.” An official speaker I heard of revealed that these included, among other crimes, the practice of American soldiers of consuming human flesh and eating small babies. The Vietnamese of course knew very well that the Americans mainly ate canned goods because practically everyone had bought some from them; but no matter, the lecture solemnly continued. After such a lecture the audience is supposed to explain why they hate the Americans, sometimes with odd results. One evening a small old woman got up and started talking furiously: “Yes, I hate them, they’re odious, foul, and the proof is that they left, leaving us in the hands of the Communists!”—at which the entire group broke out laughing and clapping. What can the regime do against something like that?
Ordinary people have found a variety of sly strategies to make fun of what’s happening and protest against it without taking too many risks; when propaganda becomes too inflated they interrupt the speaker continually with bursts of applause, as when he announces for example that a factory in the North is producing one truck every minute. Or they laugh very loudly and for a long time at every little remark supposed to be funny. The only thing the authorities can do in the face of such reactions is to split people into smaller groups so as to deal more effectively with “bad” attitudes, and this is what they’ve tried to do.
At the neighborhood level most of the people seem either indifferent or to feel a kind of passive resistance. One phrase that remains very current is “Don’t listen to what they say, but watch what they do”—even if its author, former President Thieu, is not particularly liked. At night there are still people who write this slogan on the walls and of course the Communists detest it, as the sad story of an actor I heard of makes clear. In one of the propaganda plays that are being put on he was acting the part of a Chinese emperor urging his son to throw off the evil influence of the mandarins. It is common to improvise a bit in such plays to amuse the audience, and he had the misfortune, in the heat of the moment, to declaim this phrase of Thieu’s. The audience applauded for minutes but the actor was sent off to “re-education.”
That is what happens to “bad” citizens, “intellectuals gone astray,” those who are repeatedly absent from political meetings, the very stubborn, and those who in one way or another violate the new law. Either they go to the “re-education” camps or to the “New Economic Zones” and these are, in most cases, terrible punishments.
Arrests are not officially announced; they have to be deduced from certain facts. For example, one day you may not return home and your family begins to worry. Your wife may go to the police station and ask if you might possibly have had an accident. Generally she will be sent from one police station to another, a bad sign. If after two or three days she’s told to go home, that it’s all none of her business, she can conclude that you’ve been arrested. To be put in prison itself is not too serious; ordinarily they take you there to be questioned, to establish one fact or another, and you may leave fairly quickly. But if you are sent away for “re-education” you may be away a long time.
Transfer to a camp is never described as a police measure, as a punishment, but on the contrary as a favor, a chance the government offers you to purge yourself of your errors and to begin again with a new self. According to official statistics the number of “re-educated” people would be 300,000* but, from our many attempts to cross-check information, a figure of 400,000 to 500,000 would appear much more accurate. Since they had to act fast the communists used the old army camps, and God knows they were numerous, and have created some others. Between three and five thousand people are interned in a camp. The locations are often kept secret and those who return are under orders, and keep quiet. The periods of prescribed internment vary, but three years would appear to be common. People are liberated if they’ve made sufficient “progress” and their families are judged worthy of receiving them. From time to time the government presents someone who has been “re-educated” on television to speak of his “past errors” and all he has come to understand since, etc. Very edifying.
Certain families, in view of the “good conduct” of the prisoner, and if they’re judged “worthy,” are authorized to write him. They are given a postal code number without any geographic location, and have the right to send a letter every two months. The model of this letter is published periodically in the press and is always the same. “We are glad that the government could give you the chance to recognize your past errors,” etc. The prisoner is authorized to write along the same lines. So every two months some thousands of prisoners and families receive more or less the same letter. The only point is to learn whether one’s husband, brother, fiancé, or son is still living.
The camps are run by two administrations, one for Saigon, one for the provinces. At some of the provincial camps families have the right to visit fifteen minutes a month and these are the only ones who know where their relatives are. The regime in the camps varies depending partly on the camp director but mainly on the seriousness of one’s “past errors.” Former officers and high officials are in special camps and have a much harder time. In one camp of former parachute commandos four or five men were killed in a day, for example. An extreme case was the camp for ex-police officers, which, the evidence seems to show, was completely destroyed by the government. In any case the prisoners are dead and I know personally three of the widows, who worked at our television center.
But that again is an extreme case. Life is very hard in the camps but executions are exceptional and there is no torture. I heard of none at all. Some are badly treated—hit with clubs or, more frequently, put in foot-irons. A prisoner not sufficiently docile can find himself in a special prison. But the prisoners suffer more from malnutrition and bad care; from scabies and beri-beri for lack of vitamins. I knew a man whose wrists were paralyzed because of under-nourishment. There are many doctors of the old regime undergoing “re-education,” but there is nothing they can do. To take care of the sick in a camp there are only four or five Bo Doi doctors.
I knew a man of about sixty-five who’d been released after five and a half months. He didn’t want to talk with his family but with us he felt more confident. Of the 200 people in his own group in the camp ten had been released. But release is not final: a source of anguish for those who return to their families is uncertainty about whether they’ll have to go back. According to this man the prisoners worked on the land all day. His own job was looking after pigs. In the evening there were re-education courses and at the end of each week the activities of the preceding days were discussed in order to extract lessons from them. The chief of the group would then make a report to the camp officials. In his camp they could receive each month a package weighing six pounds with food and also medicine when their families in Saigon could find it.
Everyone agrees that there is no escape from the camps. There are no barbed-wire fences, but an escaped prisoner couldn’t last more than forty-eight hours without having the various cards and papers that are necessary to justify all travel. The entire country is under surveillance, so where could he go? The intransigent prisoners always know what would happen if they were caught. Either they would be used for the very dangerous work of digging up the large number of mines left behind by the war or they would disappear, listed as having been “sent elsewhere,” which generally means that they were executed. So there is little desire to escape.
Another painful experience is taking place in the “New Economic Zones.” One of the first aims of the Vietnamese Communists was to empty the cities, first of all Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City—a little like what happened in Cambodia but on a smaller scale and in a less brutal way. The city populations are considered more “contaminated” than those of the more tractable countryside. The problem was to disperse them, breaking them up into fragments in order to control them better.
The regime therefore invented the “New Economic Zones” which are in principle zones of agriculture and development intended to cultivate land that had been unused or from which peasants were driven by the war. Civil servants, urban employees, shopkeepers suddenly found themselves designated as settlers and transplanted to remote places where often nothing had been done to receive them. They are not at all prepared for this and suffer severely, so much so that the great fear today in Saigon is of being sent to the new zones.
Of course the government’s propaganda describes a quite different reality. The newspapers and television explain that people will find water, houses, markets when they reach these places. But they often arrive to discover that the housing consists of bamboo huts open to the winds. What happens is that a month before the settlers arrive students are sent out to prepare the terrain; for each house they set up four bamboo stakes which they roof over with lantana and banana leaves, finally constructing several rows of such shelters in a partially cleared corner of a zone. No walls, floors of packed earth, the rain comes in.
A more serious problem is finding water; there are places in the zones where there is none at all. I knew a geologist working for the government who was charged with drilling wells in the zones. Every time he came back he was more discouraged. A strong man, very confident, but he wondered why they kept sending him out. “I’m totally useless,” he told me. “They never listen to me. I study the terrain and tell them where to drive the wells, but it’s always a little cadre from the North, who knows nothing, who has the last word. He decides that the wells will be sunk here or there because one place seems nicer than another, and if he’s lucky then there will be water, but it’s rare. And if he finds nothing, well tant pis. The red tape has already been set in motion and there’ll be a new zone anyway.”
Life is very hard in the zones. While working in the forest people are sometimes blown up by the mines remaining from the war. Conditions of hygiene are deplorable. Malaria, which was a great scourge before the French and Americans tried to deal with it, is again reappearing, and food is insufficient. Officially the government promised a three-month supply of rice to the settlers while awaiting the next harvest but I don’t know a single case where these promises were kept.
Often in the early morning I saw lines of military trucks crossing the city filled with civilians leaving for the zones. About 3,000 leave each day. Among them are volunteers and for them transport is free and they also have the right to take some things with them; ordinarily they bring planks, beams, some pieces of sheet metal from their own roofs. They become volunteers because they can no longer subsist in the city, have nothing more to sell, no choice. In certain cases teams of young men have even come to demolish the homes of people who were too slow in deciding to leave.
Others are sent to the zones forcibly. Acting on reports from the chief of the Tô in each quarter the government decides that certain families are “non-producers” and these families are simply expelled from the city. They pay for their own transport and only have the right to take along supplies if they pay a supplement. The work itself varies and includes farming and land clearing, but also large construction projects in the Chinese style. Thousands of Vietnamese are employed digging canals for example. What is striking is how irrational and apparently improvised the work can be. I knew a group of students who each day had to walk five hours in order to work for three hours. It made no sense.
Personally I’m rather pessimistic about the future because the old structures have been destroyed without replacing them with something workable. Blunders are too numerous. People are too crushed. Instead of increasing productivity the contrary is taking place. Peasants, for example, are not planting all their rice fields because the government takes nearly everything away from them and the harvests also suffer from a lack of fertilizer and insecticides. And even when the rice grows, it is so taxed that there is little motive to harvest it. And why grow mangos when each tree is also taxed and other people get to eat the fruit? So the growers prefer to cut these trees for firewood.
The economy is also impoverished by the exactions of the North. Factories have been dismantled and sent to Hanoi. So have some of the more sophisticated apparatus in the hospitals. But when something goes wrong the “enemies and exploiters” of the people are blamed. This is the slogan which is used to explain or justify everything; and since there are acts of resistance that are difficult to hide some explanation must be given. Some violent outbreaks have occurred, some shooting, a certain amount of armed resistance. Fairly often Bo Doi have been killed in the more heavily populated quarters where police are not heavily spread about. Normally the soldiers must go through such places only in groups but there are always some who are rash. The usual weapon is a kitchen knife and those who use it are generally young people or former soldiers who want to “pay back” an officer. But all this serves no purpose except to make repression more severe. The army takes no hostages; that would be to recognize that the soldiers are not always welcomed as “liberators”; but the quarter in question is surrounded for two or three days, with all the harassment that entails.
Many Vietnamese find solace in prayer and the churches have never been fuller. In the countryside Catholics have more difficulties. Diligent religious observance, which is disapproved of, is more easily kept track of there; the foreign missions have been closed and there are fewer priests. About 200 priests remain in prison, none of them foreigners. Thirteen hundred others are still free but have to keep very quiet and say nothing that would displease the authorities. A priest in Saigon found himself in trouble for having quoted a famous saying of Jesus: “Who has never sinned, let him cast the first stone.” He was called in by the authorities on suspicion of having made allusions that were displeasing and “anti-revolutionary.”
The authorities themselves are hypercritical people, very touchy, wanting to observe everything, to control everything. To do so they’ve installed the enormous apparatus for surveillance and for bureaucratic administration, which are the great defects of the system. The bureaucratic mind is capable of a kind of sadism that is insupportable. If one of your family dies, for example, what would be more normal than to bury him peaceably? But no, it becomes an elaborate affair. Your sorrow is of no account, you must cope with all sorts of vexations. A friend of mine had to wait eight days before burying his father. The body had to lie in his home; it was very hot. The poor boy had to go to the Tô where the chief had to attest that his father was indeed dead; then to the chief of the Khom who asked him, “Are you sure he’s dead? Have you a photo? Was he really your father? Why didn’t you report his illness? Where is your marriage certificate?” etc. There was always something he lacked.
I don’t think such men harass people as they do because they are wicked or spiteful; but these small bureaucrats tremble that they might make a mistake, that they haven’t done enough; that they might be given a slap by the fellow who is above them. It is that sort of fear that explains their behavior.
The great census that took place last summer is a very good example of the unbelievable meticulousness. The form you had to fill out consisted of seven or eight pages in which you were absolutely required to describe your monthly activities during the last seven years, where you lived, what you did, what you thought, and why you thought it, the names of people you knew and of those for whom you worked, your political opinions, etc. On each form you had to list the names of five people who could guarantee the accuracy of your statements.
But this form was merely a preliminary draft. You had to read it publicly before the assembled members of your Tô, and if your neighbors thought there were errors or omissions they could correct them. The chief of the Tô would then approve or reject your census form and only then could you make a clean final copy; but you had to do this before a kind of jury of four or five civil servants. That could take four or five hours, after which you turned in your form, but without being able to keep any notes.
And there is the catch. Because ten days later you have to answer the same questions without crossing yourself up; and then the questions must be answered yet a third time, after the authorities had checked over all the rest of your family. “Your sister-in-law was a secretary for a French company and you didn’t say so. Why? And the six months you spent in the army. Have you forgotten them?” And your brother-in-law, uncle, and aunt go through the same paces. So by collating all such information, by working through millions of forms, the authorities are able to know everything about everybody.
The large work projects and the “New Economic Zones” are clearly inspired by the Chinese, but the methods, the doctrine and very weight of the police and bureaucratic apparatus I have been describing are entirely Russian—which is to be expected. The Russians have been and remain very powerful in the North, and already in Saigon the television is full of Soviet propaganda films, some with subtitles in Arabic, having done service elsewhere in the world. Sometimes such films appear every two or three days, preceded by a “journal” consisting essentially of a reading of the editorial of the official daily newspaper, the Saigon Giai Phong. Since this editorial has already been broadcast in the streets by a loudspeaker everyone is familiar with it. International news about our Soviet and Cuban “older brothers” follows, but never about the Chinese; one would think they did not exist. No more than France or the US except when they have strikes or catastrophes.
At the movies one finds more Russian films with very prudish posters, conforming to the image of the new regime. Russian experts are in every ministry, including industry, agriculture, and television. As well as Cubans, Poles, and Hungarians—but again no Chinese. In fact the only Chinese who remain are those of the Cholon quarter who have always been there and used to control much of the commerce, including the export-import trade. Some were able to escape because they could pay to do so. The others have had to adopt Vietnamese nationality because as foreigners they no longer had the right to possess goods. But these are people whom everyone seems to need. They run what is left of commercial life and are also a possible source of profit, for the Communists as well as others. The Chinese therefore are able to live relatively undisturbed and Cholon is the only quarter which is still lively. But when something is not going well they can also be used as scapegoats; just as I was leaving, a campaign obliquely attacking them—as “merchants” and “exploiters”—had begun to develop.
A decisive test of the direction the new regime was taking was the general election on April 25, 1976—one year, nearly to the day, after the end of the war. The election was preceded by an extensive campaign which had nothing to do with electoral campaigns as we generally understand them. It was more a general mobilization of people’s minds which took the form of a barrage of propaganda in the press, radio and television, and on the street loudspeakers. The slogans invited each person to “do his duty and demonstrate his patriotism by voting to build a new Vietnam.” But you could only vote for a single list of candidates chosen by the government. The merits of each candidate were announced on the radio: a former member of Parliament from a certain district, a worker from a certain factory, each distinguished in this or that way. But the candidate himself never appeared or spoke in person. One only saw his photograph and a brief curriculum vitae on the ballot along with those of the other candidates of the election district (or Quan).
In our district there were thirteen candidates and it was much argued that the election was a “free one” because you had the right to cross out three names out of thirteen. In other districts you could eliminate two out of thirteen or one out of eleven. Still, the freedom in question was relative. In the district meetings which preceded the election the list was commented on and the names to be struck pointed out. In my own district someone even questioned what was happening and said, “Look. You tell us that these are free elections and at the same time you indicate whom we should vote for.” The cadre was not at all abashed. He replied, “It’s exactly our duty to clarify your liberty and to help you act really freely by indicating the people who will best represent you. Without that, since ignorance is a lack of freedom, how would you be capable of voting well?”
During the campaign there was also a column of “mail from readers” which, by means of imaginary letters, undertook to respond to such questions as: “Why is there no opposition?” Answer: “We have a government of the people. Can the people accept someone who is opposed to the people? In capitalist countries it is not the people who govern but the powerful and rich, who fight among themselves. That’s different.” Another question: “Why wasn’t there an electoral campaign?” Answer: “This proves that we are a thousand times more civilized than the imperialists. Instead of throwing abuse at each other in public, and of insulting an adversary, we act in the interests of the people by selecting those with the most merit.”
On election day the polls opened at 7:30 AM and the “good citizens” were those who voted right away. The district that could announce that by 9 AM everyone had voted was cited as an example. At the polling offices there were voting booths and in Saigon it seemed that the electors selected the names they wanted without being disturbed. But in the provinces they were able to keep track of those who had voted badly. The father of one of my students was called in by police for having crossed out the name of a “good” candidate. They explained to him that freedom did not allow people to “do stupid things in a bad spirit” by choosing men who were “less competent.” He had, in short, the right to a good dressing down before returning home.
Participation in the election was very considerable and for a good reason. Your voting card, duly stamped, became your identity card. On election day all the old identity cards became obsolete; and without an indentity card you can’t buy rice, you are automatically in violation of the law, you can’t live. If you didn’t vote you were simply a noncitizen. On the day after the election the results were not surprising. The winning candidates had an average of from 99.2 to 99.4 percent of the votes and certain national heroes had as many as 99.9 percent.
Particularly striking has been the nearly total eclipse of the old revolutionaries of the PRG, not to talk of their collapse. Their systematic elimination, in my opinion, started very early, beginning in the summer of 1975. On July 19 and 20, a weekend, something very curious took place in Saigon. The city woke up in a state of siege, the soldiers carried gas masks and had fixed bayonets, machine guns were set up on the street corners, and tanks were all around. On the rue Bo Tanh the central police office, where the PRG had its headquarters, was surrounded by armored cars.
At the time people didn’t understand what was happening because nothing seemed to justify this deployment of forces. In fact we had been present at a coup d’état against the PRG. The conqueror had brought out his cannons to show clearly who henceforth would be the master. I also suspect that there had been some wavering among the North Vietnamese troops and that this demonstration of force was designed to show a recovery of control. The Bo Doi, as I often could see, had become rather distressed, shaken. They had been told that they had come to liberate their brothers who were miserable, enslaved by the Americans, etc. They had discovered a country with freedoms, and a rich one, a real Ali Baba’s cave. They discovered above all that they were not welcomed as “liberators” but that they were more often hated. And not this time by the French or Americans, but by Vietnamese like themselves.
For the PRG in any case it was the end to their illusions and the beginning of a great bitterness. I remember a former member of the Viet Cong who had become chief of a Khom. A fireeater, something of a boy scout, a fanatic, but not a bad man. After the Khom organizations were suppressed by the authorities for being too “Southern” in sympathy, he had been fired. He came to dine with us. He had suddenly understood what had happened; he was completely disheartened, hardly recognizable.
Another example seemed equally significant. One day after the award of the baccalaureat some students asked me to organize a picnic with them, as I had in the past. That was no longer possible but we went off on bicycles to look for a place where we could talk and sing near the river. A little soldier, hardly higher than his rifle, arrested us and took all four of us to prison, saying that I was engaged in “espionage.” At the prison I talked with a cadre, trying to arrange that the boys’ parents at least be told what happened, but there was nothing to be done. For a moment the cadre left the room and we remained with another soldier, a former revolutionary of the PRG. When I began to protest to him he looked at me and took out of his pocket a paper, which turned out to be his letter of resignation. “I’m leaving,” he said. “They’re barbarians. I can’t stand them any longer.” Earlier that morning he had offered me a chair but a Bo Doi had given him a kick and sent him to the other side of the room. For such a Vietnamese, such rudeness was inconceivable. There were two different worlds there, irreconcilable.
How these people will evolve is difficult to say. Propaganda here and there has started to have an effect, above all among the young. We were made aware of a kind of constraint, a stiffening toward us, and divisions are taking place within families. It is certain that the old regime and the Westerners also did great harm and made many errors. So all is not entirely negative. I sensed, for example, a new solidarity, the opposite of that frantic individuality which is one of the vices of our own systems. There is something positive as well in the politicizing of masses of people who heretofore showed too much passivity, too much indifference. No doubt all the construction projects, all the collective labor involve a frightful waste of energy, but there also people are learning to live and work together: something good can come out of it. On the other hand, I think it is more dangerous to promote constantly, as they do, the themes of nationalism and independence, because the people do not become more patriotic but only more hating.
I believe above at all that this people is in the process of forging a spirit and a strength that are extraordinary. But they are doing so in their resistance to oppression, in destitution, and in suffering. Did they ever wish to follow such a path?
March 17, 1977
On February 3, 1977, months after this was written, the Vietnamese ambassador to France, Vo Vang Soung, stated, according to the Agence France Press, that there were “at most some 50,000 detainees held because of the gravity of their crimes.”—eds. ↩