When the Vietnam War ended there were those who genuinely hoped that a national unity government could be formed for the people who stayed. Early statements from senior leaders suggest such optimism was not ill-founded. But, by 1976, it became apparent that the new administration was more focused on building a socialist state than it was on working to heal the mental and physical scars of civil war.
The new Vietnamese government also took actions that harmed national reconciliation. It labelled the former Republic of Vietnam (RVN) regime an illegitimate, puppet regime (chinh phu nguy) and its servicemen and women ‘non-legitimate’ servicepersons (quan nguy). It established 30 April as the day when Vietnamese from the North ‘liberated’ the South. It confiscated the private properties of former RVN officials and businessmen, and divided it among party officials.
For the next 10 years, people associated with the former RVN regime were sent to re-education camps or forced to resettle in ‘new economic zones’. These actions undermined the rights, properties and freedom of the ordinary people, and did lasting damage to the cause of national reconciliation.
Throughout the 1970s and right through to the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese chose to endure harrowing nights at sea on small, barely seaworthy boats in search of the freedom they had not found in their own homeland. Many died and the lucky refugees landed on islands in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Forty years on, reconciliation remains difficult despite the Vietnamese government’s efforts to encourage overseas Vietnamese to return ‘home’. The government first attempted to encourage repatriation more than a decade ago when the politburo issued Resolution 36, a resolution that emphasised the idea of ‘great unity’ (dai doan ket) of the Vietnamese people around the world.
Some overseas Vietnamese did return to invest in Vietnam and many other sent remittances. Statistics provided by Western Union show that in 2013 overseas Vietnamese sent US$11 billion to assist families and friends in Vietnam. Remittances are still necessary as ordinary Vietnamese in rural areas remain impoverished. Recognising the wealth of overseas Vietnamese, the Vietnamese government has relaxed visa programs and reformed land laws to allow foreigners to own property.
Despite these links, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese living overseas remain opposed to communist rule and have not forgotten the past. As the Vietnamese government led celebrations on 30 April, overseas Vietnamese communities around the world held demonstrations to highlight Vietnam’s poor human rights record.
But talk of national reconciliation has re-emerged in 2015. This time, motivated by a desire of all Vietnamese to oppose Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, overseas Vietnamese communities — particularly from the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia — have worked together with civil society groups in Vietnam to exert pressure on China.
In an interview with the BBC, one prominent member of the overseas Vietnamese community, Professor Le Xuan Khoa, stated that animosity between Vietnamese cannot last and that national reconciliation will come in due course. Khoa made the point that there were people on both sides of the war who had strong nationalist spirit and he called for both sides to make compromises. Yet Khoa also emphasised that the government commitment to national reconciliation should be judged by actions and words that are more than symbolic. Khoa suggests that the government must reflect and re-assess its responsibility for the damage caused by its early policies.
Former president Nguyen Minh Triet has also spoken in favour of national reconciliation, talking of the need to mend differences for the sake of the motherland. He advocated for a formal reconciliation meeting between representatives of the two sides. He stated that the aim of the meeting should be to conduct a ‘grand amnesty’ (dai xa) to the participants. In making this proposal, Triet appears to echo the sentiments of former prime minister Vo Van Kiet who said in 1998, ‘if there are a million people who feel joy on the 30th April, there are also a million people who feel sad on this day’.
National reconciliation is likely to be successful if the government takes steps to heal the wounds of war suffered from both sides. But in a speech to mark 30 April celebration this year, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung referred to the mighty victory achieved over the ‘American imperialist and non-legitimate’ RVN army regimes. The spirit of triumphalism and lack of sensitivity to the other side of war has antagonised the overseas Vietnamese.
The discourse of national reconciliation showed the government has not grasped opportunities to unite the Vietnamese people. The government’s willingness to re-open the wounds of war has set back the cause of national reconciliation between it and the overseas Vietnamese communities. In the meantime, the ordinary people will hope that the next generation of leaders are able to free themselves from the battle-scars of war to make historic decisions that will advance national reconciliation and Vietnam’s national interest.
Toan Le is a Lecturer in the Department of Business Law and Taxation, Monash Business School, Monash University.