Wednesday, March 18, 2009



The Vietnamese Gulag

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The Vietnamese Gulag is a book comparing post-war Vietnam to an archipelago of prison camps, along the lines of the description of the Soviet Union in The Gulag Archipelago.

"A revolution betrayed - the shocking first-person chronicle of a former supporter of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam who survived his country's descent into totalitarianism" (d/w sub-title).

The book was originally written in French (Le Goulag vietnamien) by Doan Van Toai. After his escape from Vietnam, he asked Ed Poor to help him translate it into English. Poor had no wherewithal to do this, and Toai received help from David Chanoff who became a co-writer of the English edition. It was published in 1986 by Simon and Schuster Publishing Group, New York (ISBN 9780671603502 ISBN 0671603507) , 351 pp.

The book is a harrowing tale of the frightful corruption of Communist society. Despite Toai's enthusiastic support of the expressed ideals of the Communist reformers, their initial embrace of Toai soured when he had a minor administrative tussle with an official and he was punished with prison and had to bribe his way out.



[edit] About the author

"In 1943, two years before his birth in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, Toai's father and older brother joined the Vietminh, the communist underground movement in Vietnam. Toai became a National Liberation Front (NLF, Viet Cong) supporter as a high school student and rose to be an important student leader at Saigon University during the late 1960's. He published a student magazine Tu Quyet, (Self Determination) and unswervingly followed the Viet Cong's highly-attractive propaganda line, "Peace, Freedom, Independence, Neutrality, and Social Welfare." Toai never formally joined the Viet Cong, but, for nationalistic and idealistic reasons, he served it superbly. He led takeovers of the Vietnamese National Assembly and the Cambodian Embassy in Saigon, and lectured at Berkley to American anti-war activists (who thought his views were too tame). After the North Vietnamese Army imposed peace in 1975, he became a senior official in the Ministry of Finance under the Provisional Government. He soon disagreed on purely professional grounds with a superior official and was quickly and unceremoniously tossed into jail...." [1]

Doan Van Toai is also author of these books : Documents on prisons in Viet-Nam ; A Vietcong Memoir (Mémoires d'un Vietcong, w/ Nhu Tang Truong, David Chanoff); 'Vietnam' A Portrait of its People at War (w/ David Chanoff); PORTRAIT Of The ENEMY The Other Side of Vietnam, Told Through Interviews with North Vietnamese, Former Vietcong and Southern Opposition Leaders (w/ David Chanoff).

[edit] Excerpt

"I was thrown into a three-foot-by-six-foot cell with my left hand chained to my right foot and my right hand chained to my left foot. My food was rice mixed with sand…After two months in solitary confinement I was transferred to a collective cell, a room 15 feet wide and 25 feet long, where at different times anywhere from 40 to 100 prisoners were crushed together. Here we had to take turns lying down to sleep, and most of the younger, stronger prisoners slept sitting up. In the sweltering heat, we also took turns snatching a few breaths of fresh air in front of the narrow opening that was the cell’s only window. Every day I watched my friends die at my feet…One South Vietnamese Communist, Nguyen Van Tang, who was detained 15 years by the French, eight years by Diem, six years by Thieu, and who is still in jail today, this time in a Communist prison, told me:…‘In order to understand the Communists, one must first live under a Communist regime ... My dream now is not to be released; it is not to see my family. My dream is that I could be back in a French prison 30 years ago..."

[edit] Reviews

Publishers Weekly described the book as follows:

Toai spent time in jails in South Vietnam for antigovernment activities as a student leader, including a trip to the U.S. to deliver antiwar speeches at California universities. When the Communists took over in 1975, he went to work for the Revolutionary Finance Committee and observed at close hand the workings of the new regime. Then, without warning, he was thrown into prison, where for 28 months he suffered torture, starvation, disease and despair. Just as abruptly, he was released and allowed to leave the countrystill not knowing why he had been arrested. In this effective, absorbing memoir, the authors describe in detail the "insidious inhumanity" of the Communist government ("far worse than that of the foreign oppressors") as it took control in Saigon. Toai, who now lives in California, accurately refers to himself as the first articulate messenger of the new order, and his message is directed at "the Vietnamese community abroad who had supported the revolution, and the foreign antiwar movements that had done so much to bring it about." ISBN 0-671-60350-7

Library Journal said:

Every Communist party in power has established prison systems that mix torture, brutality, starvation, and the use of informants to crush real and imagined enemies. Toai, a Saigon student leader in the 1960s and early 1970s, spearheaded opposition to the pro-U.S. Thieu regime, but failed to cast his lot with the Communist revolutionaries. He was swept into a Communist prison in late 1975, and here tells the story of a would-be Third Force intellectual's struggle to survive over the following two years. His vivid descriptions of prison life are interspersed with memoirs of his days as a student leader. ISBN 0-671-60350-7

Washington Monthly wrote :

As prison memoirs go, this one is arresting, if fairly standard, with its cast of cruel, sad, and pathetic characters inside the prison--the former South Vietnamese Army officers turned stool pigeon, the stoically persevering Buddhist monks, the bewildered teachers, lawyers, and students like Toai who' had long championed the National Liberation Front. One particularly poignant portrait is drawn of a former nightclub comedian who used to satirize Thicu's admonition about the communists: "Watch what they do, not what they say.'
"Many of these new-era prisoners,' Toai writes of his former cellmates, "are traumatized by what has happened, by the consequences of the victory they and their comrades have fought 30 years to bring about. Some, especially the old communists, are too shell-shocked to do anything but cling pathetically to the tattered remnants of their faith.'
Toai' story should trouble, if not sicken (as it did me), anyone who once believed that a social democratic government led by communists could succeed in South Vietnam --or anyplace else--if only America would leave it to itself. This and other testimony coming out of Vietnam today has inescapable ramifications for liberals trying to figure out a sensible position for the U.S. elsewhere in the world. Along with A Vietcong Memoir, a riveting inside account that Toai earlier co-authored with Truong Nhu Tang, the former Viet Cong minister of justice who defected in 1978, The Vietnamese Gulag is disturbing evidence that Hanoi's leaders never intended to share power in the south, certainly not with liberals or even with the southern communists. [2]

The New York Times :

Shortly before he leaves prison, Mr. Toai has a final talk with his closest mentor, a veteran party man, whose doom was sealed when he ran afoul of the system. He is admonished to be careful and is told, You have to stay alive, so you can tell our story one day. It's over for me. . . . All I can do is try to keep my dignity.
The Vietnamese Gulag is, according to the title page, based on the English translation from the French by Silvie Romanowski and Francoise Simon-Miller; in this version, it is indeed well written and graphically told, though with more indignation and injured pride than dignity. Having bought a different kind of time, he is purged of his attentiste predilections. But like many Vietnamese now in the United States and elsewhere, he admits to a longing to return to Vietnam, knowing that to live in a land that will always be half alien, with our children who belong to this land as much as they belong to us, that is the burden of our failure.

[edit] External links

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