Monday, May 25, 2009


Dr. Quân Xuân Đinh

Ladies and Gentlemen
Dear participants
Dear Friends and US audience
Dear young listeners

Usually Vietnamese don’t like to talk about themselves. This is a Confucian teaching. My story has taken over 30 years to unravel. I speak now for those who died at sea – for those who did not have the chance to speak.

This is a true story I would like to share with you, a story that give a voice to the Vietnamese refugee experience.

This is not a litany of torture or miserable treatments from our own communist countrymen but an experience that demonstrates the greatness of a country that accepted refugees who suffered.

My personal experience is part of the larger American story about refugees who came before me and made my story possible. I owe a debt to them and their legacy that has become the fabric of America.

Like those who have gone before me, my story chronicles persecution, survival and resilience, faith and hope, and payback. I speak now to share two common lessons from the Vietnamese refugee experience.
The end of my world /a prisoner under the communist system and the story of survival in a Communist Re-education camp

My story begins with the end of the world as I knew it with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Contrary to many of my fellow students who studied abroad, I returned to VN during the “Vietnamization” period, a time when there was a strong demand for economists to contribute to and direct the reconstruction of Vietnam.

After the fall of Saigon, people were categorically labelled as “with” or “against” the Communist system. Most people from the South were classified as “third class citizens.” Bearing the stigma of the old South Vietnam regime, we were sent to “re-education camps.”

After the fall of Saigon, I was faced with few options: either go with the flow – by making peace with myself, surrendering mentally to the new occupiers of my country, and collaborating with the new regime; or steel a resolve to survive and find opportunities to live free again. I chose the latter option.

With the fall of Saigon in April 1975, I was one of those who was caught fleeing, considered to be a “traitor” by the communist regime. I was imprisoned in a tiny room of 4x5 meters with 40 fellow inmates with one open toilet. The first few months was infernal – we were shackled, without enough food or health care and no ventilation, and only allowed to go out for an hour a day to tend to our personal hygiene. The so-called “tiger cage” on Con Dao island depicted by the US media as a hell, was a ‘paradise’ when compared to our prison. Needless to say, many of us died during the first few months due to poor hygiene and lack of medicine and food. These unfortunate ones were simply rolled up in straw mats (chiếu) for burial.

Interrogations consisted of “self confession or “tự khai”” followed by endless conversation with interrogators from the North. This is a very dark period and we were coerced into submitting that “the revolutionary government – the National Front of Liberation a “smokescreen for the North” has a “policy of leniency.”

Most of our guards were uneducated farmers while the top echelon commissars were from the North. Depending on each of our declarations, we were steered to various camps. We later learned that many ended up assigned to 3 to 25 years of imprisonment and hard labor depending on how seriously we were perceived to have “blood on their hands.” Of course, such decisions were left to the low level administrators – as during the war, these “NFL government representatives” exercised decentralized and often uninformed decision-making authority at that level. After six months of imprisonment we were sent to a camp designated for former “government officials” in Đồng Nai province. Being classified as a low level civil servant (the high education system in VN was public in general), and a lecturer in economics at the University of Saigon, I considered myself “lucky” to be imprisoned in the Đồng Nai province in the South instead of being sent to the North.

Re-education through labor at Bầu Lâm camp

The camp was composed of approximately 3,000 prisoners and was divided into two main groups: those who were allowed to stay in the main camp and those, usually younger prisoners, who were relegated to satellite camps to build “state farms.”

We were forced to build our own shelters, toilets and sewers, and irrigation schemes, all starting from scratch and with the most minimal of tools. We were closely scrutinized by “yellow dogs” as we called armed police sent by the Ministry of Security. They were known for their poor education, fanaticism, indoctrination of hatred, and blind devotion to class struggle.

People with skills were separated in specialized units – the carpentry unit to make furniture for “cán bộ,” the health unit to take care of fellow prisoners, etc. For others, we were told to plant rice and sent to satellite camps.

Each day was harsh. We woke up at 5.00 AM to ready ourselves and went to work with empty stomachs to do extremely intensive tasks. Often we were forced to chop trees, prepare land, dig irrigation canals, and saw wood planks—always under the watchful eye of the guards. At noon we were allowed to go back to camp for a “super diet” lunch cooked by fellow prisoners. The food was scarce – each person had a bowl of rice, maize, or cassava with some salt and vegetables that we grew ourselves or picked from the forest.

Camp discipline/mental torture

Work was alternated with public propaganda sessions where we repeatedly heard why Communist VN is invincible, why we vanquish the US, why we are the powerhouse of the human race, etc. These propaganda lessons were not so convincing for educated people, but the constant repetition in some instances made the propaganda a reality for some in the long run.

We were not allowed to read, listen to the radio, talk in foreign languages, or receive any outside news. Any kind of religious practice or symbol such as the cross was forbidden. We had to make irrigation canals, prepare land, replanting rice, etc. But we never saw one grain of rice from our sweat and labor. It was totally reserved for “cán bộ.”

Under this environment, physical and mental torture was immense and much worse than physical torture. We were perpetually hungry. In the field, we dispatched a member of the team to scrounge for extra food like tubers or to trap small animals to supplement our pathetic diet.

Our instincts and faith helped us to survive and to do some good even in such a restricted environment. But sometimes we were reminded of the worst of human instincts, as prisoners betrayed each other in order to win favor with the guards, to see a spouse, and to receive lighter job assignments.

Looking for freedom/Boat people – refugee camp

During my captivity, I made a harrowing attempt to escape. After three years in captivity, I had shrunk from 155 to 80 lbs. Any prospects for the future seemed bleak. I was no longer allowed to teach or to work. I learned acupuncture and practiced it to keep me sane. Armed with a fake ID and my acupuncture diploma, I was able to find a way out.

My time to escape came when difficulties swamped Vietnam in 1979. I managed to make arrangements to flee with others by boat. My trip from Saigon to Rạch Gía (about 250 km) and from Rạch Gía to Trat, a small town in Chantabury province in Thailand, was not without danger – at every turn, I risked capture by the police or encounters with Thai pirates. Fortunately, our captain was a mixed Thai-Vietnamese and a smuggler, so he was able to steer away from pirates and the Thai navy.

After a month, we were transported to the Leamsing Refugee Camp for boat people. Daily life in Leamsing was not a paradise, but we could bear any hardship after coming from a communist country.

With hope of overcoming all hardship, we focused on our eventual freedom and organized our life in the camp. Classes in English, French, and German were organized to help people wishing to go to those countries. I kept myself busy, teaching both English and French and served as a volunteer translator for various delegations: Australia, Denmark, France, US, etc. I acted out of goodwill for many of my less fortunate countrymen: orphans, children, women and victims of rape or less educated people.

Amidst this hardship, I learned my first lesson: Be resilient, and constantly adapt to survive for better days.

Upon arriving at my new home in California, I began to feel free from fear. I picked up three jobs: as a social worker for “Goodwill Industries” training refugees during the day, as an instructor at Santa Ana College in the evening, and as a volunteer writer for the newly established Vietnamese Newspaper “Nguoi Viet.” I felt blessed to come to America and have these new opportunities.

Return to Viet Nam

I eventually became a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). My first assignment in Mauritania, a country of West Africa, enabled me to take advantage of my past experience and help others. Since that first assignment, I have been striving to reciprocate the blessings afforded me by helping humanitarian development in over twenty countries, including Vietnam. I am indebted to America for giving me refuge, freedom and the chance to contribute back.

I did not intend to return to Vietnam, a place that kept me captive in a “re-education” camp for many years. I had vivid memories of abuse, misery and debasing treatment. In 1979, when I “ran away” from Vietnam, I could not fathom that I would be able to return, nor did I want to return.

However, in 1992, under the aegis of International Fund for Agriculture Development , a UN agency specializing in agricultural development, I returned to Vietnam where I saw hardship and extreme poverty: children that could not attend school because their parents could not afford $2/month for their tuition; and minority people in abject poverty.

In 1994, under United Nations Development Program I returned to Vietnam as an advisor to a Minister in North Vietnam to assist with the public administration reforms.

In Hanoi, I was hounded by the security people. At the hotel my belongings were constantly searched. Faced with such scrutiny, my thought was to help set up a modern public administration system to open people’s minds. My first test case was Quảng Bình, a small and poor central Vietnamese province. Developing relationships in the province was not easy (officials were hard core communists and tried to cajole me to get the money as though they could spend as they pleased, like they had in the past with the former Soviet Union). Eventually, I secured a $4.5 million for a project funded by Holland, an important contribution at the time.
With this success, I secured funding for 7 out of 11 projects I prepared thanks to Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Switzerland. While facing ostracism from the security apparatus, I was able to build many projects for Vietnam, and these projects became channels for people shut off from the outside world to study in Saigon and participate in study tours to neighboring countries. This was a tremendous opportunity to enable people who had never left their homes in the North to compare themselves with the outside world. These projects were seeds for change. This was a tremendous opportunity to enable people who had never left their homes to compare themselves with the outside world. Thanks to these study tours, party members and bureaucrats could learn “how to” manage their provinces and districts and to sustain change for the betterment of Vietnam.

Through this engagement I was able to engage regularly with the “advisory group” of Prime Minister Võ văn Kiệt and Prime Minister Phan văn Khải who managed the changes in Vietnam. We had many brainstorming sessions on topics from public administration to economics and state owned enterprises, etc.

Before his death, my Minister admitted that North Vietnam had made terrible mistakes in the way it treated the people in the South. My Minister’s concession was a “sweet reward” for my efforts because it underscored the potential for change. I never sought to spite the government. I aspired only to sow the seeds of change through good-hearted and human exchange.

Vietnam is now more open to the outside. My friends and I were able to publish four economic books in Vietnam in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004, helping to open young generations of Vietnamese students to new ideas and concepts.

Once a “prisoner unworthy of a bullet” I became the vehicle for change through my work with the Minister and the Prime Minister’s office in Vietnam. Through my assignments in Vietnam, as well as Kabul, Bagdad, South Sudan, Kosovo, and other troubled environments, I was able to make contributions far beyond what I could have imagined while in captivity. In so doing, I’d like to think that I’ve given back to the United States the kind of freedom and future it offered me.

Thus, in returning to Vietnam, I realized the second lesson: Hope in the future and payback to the country that gave you refuge.

I am indebted to America for giving me refuge, freedom and the chance to contribute and pay back.

I thank all of you for allowing me to give voice to the story of the boat people and the lessons which stem from our story of survival, hope and gratitude for the opportunities presented to future generations.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Dr.Quan. I was at the same camp for six months in 1979, possibly at the same time you were. I'm sure that you can attest to the smell of cremated bodies while at that place. Thank God we were not there very long as compared to others before my family were re-settled in Connecticut. Thank you for your altruistic work in helping our people to move forward and modernize. I hope other Vietnamese Americans look past the politics and see that it's our people who can use their help. I have moved back to Vietnam and have been teaching and working with charities here for the last 4 years. If you ever want to get together when you're in Saigon, please let me know. I would love to talk to you about charity work and our common past experience. Regards.