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Reeducation camp (trại học tập cải tạo) is the official title given to the prison camps operated by the government of Vietnammarker following the end of the Vietnam War. In such "reeducation camps", the government imprisoned several hundred thousand former military officers and government workers from the former regime of South Vietnam. Reeducation as it was implemented in Vietnam was seen both as a means of revenge and a sophisticated technique of repression and indoctrination which developed for several years in the North and was extended to the South following the 1975 North Vietnam takeover.

Meaning of the term 'trại học tập cải tạo'

The term 'reeducation', with its pedagogical overtones, does not quite convey the quasi-mystical resonance of 'trại học tập cải tạo' in Vietnamese. Cải (to transform) and tạo (to create) combine to literally mean an attempt at re-creation, and making over sinful or incomplete individuals.

Historical background

After the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese men, from former officers in the armed forces, to religious leaders, to employees of the Americans or the old government, were rounded up in reeducation camps to "learn about the ways of the new government." They were never tried or convicted of any crime. Many South Vietnamese men chose to flee on boats, but others had established lives in Vietnam, so did not flee but entered these camps in hopes of quickly reconciling with the new government and continuing their lives.

Government view on the reeducation camps

Officially, the Vietnamese government does not consider the reeducation camps prisons, but rather places where individuals could be rehabilitated into society through education and socially constructive labor.

The Hanoimarker regime defended the reeducation camps by placing the "war criminal" label on the prisoners. A 1981 memorandum of the Socialist Republic of Vietnammarker to Amnesty International claimed that all those in the reeducation camps were guilty of acts of national treason as defined in Article 3 of the 30 October 1967 Law on Counter-revolutionary Crimes (enacted for the government of North Vietnam) which specifies punishment of 20 years to life imprisonment or the death penalty. But, it was instead allowing the prisoners to experience "reeducation" which "as applied in Vietnam is the most humanitarian system, and the most advantageous for law offenders

Registration and arrest

In May 1975, specific groups of Vietnamese were ordered to register with the new regime that had established control overthe South on April 30, 1975. Then, in June, the new regime issued orders instructing those who had registered in May to report to various places for reeducation. Soldiers, noncommissioned officers and rank-and-file personnel of the former SouthVietnamese government were to undergo a three-day "reform study," June 11-13, which they would attend during the day and go home at night.

The others ordered to report for "reform study" were not allowed the same arrangement of attending during the day and going home at night, but were instead to be confined to their sites of "reform study" until the course ended. Nevertheless, there was some hope, for the government gave the clear impression that reform study would last no more than a month for even the highest ranking officers and officials of the former government in South Vietnam, and ten days for lower-ranking officers and officials.

Thus, officers of the RVN armed forces from the rank of second lieutenant to captain, along with low-rankingpolice officers and intelligence cadres, were ordered to report to various sites, bringing along "enough paper, pens, clothes,mosquito nets, personal effects, food or money to last ten days beginning from the day of their arrival." High- ranking military and police officers of the RVN, from major to general, along with mid and high-ranking intelligence officers, members of the RVN executive, judicial and legislative branches, including all elected members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and, finally, leaders of "reactionary" (i.e. non-communist) political parties in South Vietnam, were ordered to report to various sites bringing enough "paper, pens, clothes, mosquito-nets, personal effects, food or money to last a monthbeginning from the day of their first meeting."

The new government announced that there would be three days of reeducation for RVN soldiers, ten days for low-ranking officers and officials, and one month for high-ranking RVN officers and officials. Many teachers reported for reeducation, assuming that they would have to undergo it sooner or later anyway. Sick people also reported for reeducation, assured by the government that there would be doctors and medical facilities in the schools and that the patients would be well treated.

The camps

Indoctrination and forced confessions

During the early phase of reeducation, lasting from a few weeks to a few months, inmates were subjected to intensive politicalindoctrination. Subjects' studies included the exploitation by "American imperialism" of workers in other countries, the glory of labor, the inevitable victory of Vietnam, led by the Communist Party, over the U.S.marker, and the generosity of the new government toward the "rebels" (those who fought on the other side during the war). Another feature emphasized during the early stage of reeducation, but continued throughout one's imprisonment, was the confession of one's alleged misdeeds in the past. All prisoners in the camps were required to write confessions, no matter how trivial their alleged crimes might have been. Mail clerks, for example, were told that they were guilty of aiding the "puppet war machinery" through circulating the mail, while religious chaplains were found guilty of providing spiritual comfort and encouragement to enemy troops.

The work

In the reeducation camps much emphasis was placed on "productive labor." Such labor was described by SRVmarker spokesman Hoang Son as "absolutely necessary" for reeducation because "under the former regime, they (the prisoners) represented the upper strata of society and got rich under U.S. patronage. They could scorn the working people. Now the former social order has been turned upside down, and after they have finished their stay in camps they have to earn their living by their own labour and live in a society where work is held in honor." Thus, in the eyes of the Vietnamese rulers, "productive labor" was a necessary aspectin the overturning of the social order. Yet in examining the conditions under which this labor took place, it seems thatthere was also an element of revenge.

The labor was mostly hard physical work, some of it very dangerous, such as mine field sweeping. No technical equipment was provided for this extremely risky work, and as a result, many prisoners were killed or wounded in mine field explosions. Other kinds of work included cutting trees, planting corn and root crops, clearing the jungle, digging wells, latrines and garbage pits, and constructing barracks within the camp and fences around it. The inmates were generally organized into platoons and work units, where they were forced to compete with each other for better records and work achievements. This often pushed inmates to exhaustion and nervousness with each person and group striving to surpass or at least fulfill the norms set by camp authorities, or they would be classified as 'lazy' and ordered to do 'compensation work' on Sundays. Sometimes prisoners who missed their quota were shackled and placed in solitary confinement cells.

Rules and regulations

The authorities sought to maintain strict control over the thoughts of the prisoners, and forbade prisoners from keeping and reading books or magazines of the former regime, reminiscing in conversation about "imperialism and the puppet south," singing old love songs of the former regime, discussing political questions (outside authorized discussions), harboring "reactionary" thoughts or possessing "superstitious" beliefs.

It has been acknowledged by Hanoi that violence has in fact been directed against the prisoners, although it maintains that these are isolated cases and not indicative of general camp policy. Former prisoners, on the other hand, report frequent beatings for minor infractions, such as missing work because of illness. Violations of rules lead to various forms of punishment, including being tied up in contorted positions, shackled in convex boxes or dark cells, forced to work extra hours or receiving reduced food rations. Many prisoners were beaten, some to death , or subjected to very harsh forms of punishment due to the cruelty of certain camp officials and guards. Some were executed, especially for attempting to escape.


As of 1980, official regulations stated that prisoners in the camps could be visited by their immediate family once every three months. Family visits were important not only because of the personal need for prisoners and their loved ones to have contact with each other but also because the families could bring food to their relatives in some of the camps. It has been reported that the prisoners in these camps would not have survived without such food. The duration of the visits was not long, reported by former prisoners to last from 15 to 30 minutes. Moreover, family visits would be suspended for prisoners who broke the rules, and it has also been said that only families who had proven their loyalty to the regime were allowed visiting privileges.

Most of the former prisoners interviewed have been in between three and five different reeducation camps. It is believed that the movement of prisoners from one camp to another was intended to prevent both the inmates and their relatives from knowing a specific camp's real location. That way, escapes from prison could be prevented, and prisoners' relatives could be prevented from visiting them.

The release of prisoners

In June 1976, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, in one of its last policy announcements before the official reunification of Vietnam, stated that those in the camps would either be tried or released after three years of imprisonment. But this promise was broken. The policy announced that those still in the camps would stay there for three years, but would be released early if they made "real progress, confess their crimes and score merits".

Since there were no clear criteria for releasing the inmates from the camps, bribery and family connections with high-ranking officials were more likely to speed up release than the prisoner's good behavior. Released prisoners were put on probation and placed under surveillance for six months to one year, and during that time they had no official status, no exit visas, no access to government food rations and no right to send their children to school. If the progress of the former prisoners was judged unsatisfactory during this period, they could be fired from their jobs, put under surveillance for another six months to a year, or sent back to the reeducation camps. Faced with these challenges, many chose to flee the country and became boat people.

Some prisoners who have been imprisoned since the Fall of Saigon, have been released as recently as the year 2000.

The U.S. government considers reeducation camp inmates to be political prisoners. In 1989, the Reagan administration entered into an agreement with the Vietnamese government, pursuant to which Vietnam would free all former RVN soldiers and officials held in reeducation camps and allow them to emigrate to the United Statesmarker. Thus began the third large influx of Vietnamese immigrants into the country.

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