Vietnam Re-education Camps
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook << Back to Vietnam Society
The re-education camp remained the predominant device of social "control" in the late 1980s. It was used to incarcerate members of certain social classes in order to coerce them to accept and conform to the new social norms. This type of camp was one feature of a broader effort to control the social deviant and to campaign against counterrevolution and the resistance. The concept of re-education was borrowed from the Chinese communists and was developed early in the First Indochina War, at least in part because the nomadic government of North Vietnam was unable to maintain orthodox prisons. The process was continued in the North in 1954, but it came fully to the world's attention only after North Vietnam's takeover of the South in 1975. The camps were administered by PAVN or the Ministry of Interior, but they were not regarded as prisons and indeed were separate from the prison system. They were considered to be institutions where rehabilitation was accomplished through education and socially constructive labor. Only those who "deserved rehabilitation" (as opposed to those who deserved jail) were sent to the camps, where their political attitudes, work production records, and general behavior were closely monitored.
The re-education camp system, as it developed in the South, was both larger and more complex than its counterpart in the North. Three types of camps were created to serve three purposes--short-term re-education, long-term re-education, and permanent incarceration. The system was also organized into five levels.
There were two levels of short-term re-education. The first was the study camp or day study center which was located in or near a major urban center, often in a public park, and allowed attendees to return home each night. Courses, chiefly lectures to "teach socialism and unlearn the old ways lasted about thirty days." They were attended mostly by southern proletarians and juvenile delinquents. These level-one camps, which instructed perhaps 500,000 people, were the most common kind in the South in the first few years after the end of the Second Indochina War, but were phased out near the end of the 1970s. The level-two camps were similar in purpose to level one camps, but they required full-time attendance for three to six months, during which time the inmate was obliged to supply his own food. Security was minimal, and it was possible simply to walk away from the camp, although later arrest was likely. During the 1970s, there were some 300 of these level-two camps in the South, with at least 200,000 inmates. Some level-two camps remained in the 1980s, although most had been phased out.
Long-term re-education was undertaken at level-three camps. Termed the collective reformatory, level three had thought reform as its purpose. Whereas re-education of individuals in the first two levels of camps was regarded chiefly as a matter of informing them of the "truth" and making them aware of facts about the new social order, reforming the thought of those in level-three camps required a process of deeper examination and analysis. The orientation was both more psychological and more intellectual. Although the inmate was apt to be better educated, and thus less susceptible to manipulation, than most Vietnamese, the system considered him salvageable. The level-three camps at their most prevalent, in the late 1970s, were found in every province in southern Vietnam and dealt with at least 50,000 persons. Although the camps were still in use both in the North and South, by 1987 the number had decreased.
The third type of re-education camp, the socialist-reform camp, was intended for permanent incarceration, and re-education involved indoctrination and forced labor. When these camps were first established in the South, individuals were assigned according to the probable time that each person's re-education would require. Level-four camp inmates were said to require three years and level-five camp inmates, five years. For this reason the two were commonly termed "three-year-sentence" and "five-year-sentence" camps. Their true purpose, it became apparent eventually, was to incarcerate certain southern individuals--including educators, legislators, province chiefs, writers, and supreme court judges--until the South was judged stable enough to permit their release. In 1987 at least 15,000 were still incarcerated in level-four and level-five camps. When the three-year or five-year period expired, they were simply sentenced to three or five more years of re-education.
Initially, the five levels of re-education were structured in ascending order of perceived individual recalcitrance and ascending length of incarceration. In 1987, however, only the level-three camp remained dedicated to its original purpose. The level-four and level-five camps were simply detention centers for those judged potentially dangerous to the system. Camp conditions were reportedly poor, with little food, no medicine, and a high death rate.
Data as of December 1987