50 Years On, Vietnamese Remember Land Reform Terror

2006-06-08
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Spring, 1956: Three Vietnamese Communist Party members watch (background) as an accuser confronts a land owner in Hanoi. Photo: RFA

BANGKOK—Vietnam this year marks the 50th anniversary of a little-known political campaign known by the innocuous-sounding name of “land reform,” in which hundreds of thousands of people accused of being landlords were summarily executed or tortured and starved in prison.

The land reform was a massacre of innocent, honest people, and using contemporary terms we must say that it was a genocide triggered by class discrimination.

More than 172,000 people died during the North Vietnam campaign after being classified as landowners and wealthy farmers, official records of the time show.

Former Hanoi government official Nguyen Minh Can, who was part of the campaign to change direction following the terror, said it amounted to “genocide.”

“The land reform was a massacre of innocent, honest people, and using contemporary terms we must say that it was a genocide triggered by class discrimination,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese service.

Hundreds of thousands died

“Suddenly they implemented a land reform by sending groups of officials to the countryside, and giving them the freedom to classify and accuse people as landowners at will. An additional number of 172,000 people became victims,” he said.

“I am talking about the number of wrongly tried victims that were seriously depressed and furious to the extent that they had to commit suicide. This number was in fact not small. In my opinion this consequence was very serious. It has given a terrible fright to the people,” Can added.

But official figures leave out summary executions of those accused of membership of the National People’s Party, however. Unofficial estimates of those killed by Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam Labor Party, which later become the Vietnamese Communist Party, range from 200,000 to 900,000.

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Former Communist Party official Nguyen Minh Can. Photo: RFA

In the political rhetoric of the time, the victims were “dug to the core and destroyed to the root,” as enemies of the people. Some were committed communists, who cried out “Long Live the Communist Party” before being killed.

Writer Tran Manh Hao witnessed the land reforms, which prompted the evacuation of most of his family to South Vietnam.

“I saw the extreme horror, and I wondered what kind of regime this was, that had no other method than to repress and annihilate people,” he said. “It took them to 'people’s courts' and shot them on the scene without a fair trial and even without any evidence.”

Some say 'genocide'

“The land reform campaign was a crime of genocide like that of Pol Pot,” Hao said.

And another writer, Duong Thu Huong, recalls seeing bodies as a child of eight when he went out to water vegetables.

“Right in front of my house was a hanged man in the year of the land reform. When I was eight years old, I had to accompany the students to public locations where landowners were dishonored and tortured,” he said.

“In the back of my house lay another dead man who had been wrongly classified as a landowner. He cut his own throat by laying it on the railway track. At my age of eight when I went to water the vegetables, I witnessed such tragic deaths with my own eyes. They greatly horrified and scared me,” he said.

Tran Kim Anh’s father, uncle, and grandfather were all staunch supporters of the revolution in the northern province of Thai Binh. They belonged to the National People’s Party, which became a designated enemy organization during the land reform period.

“My father was determined to deny his being a member of the National People’s Party. He was then tortured by having his two toes tied by two ropes that hung him to the ceiling. The ropes were pulled up. This hurt him badly, so he cried hard and asked them to pull down the ropes. Down he was pulled. However, he still cried wildly due to his great pain. They then stuffed cloth into his mouth,” Anh said.

No political rationale

Later, he took food and water for his father and grandfather.

“I used a makeshift scoop made of a coconut crust hung by two wires to give some drinking water to my father. A soldier spilled half of the water. Then he urinated into it and shouted: ‘We give this shit for you to drink so that you will open your eyes, and get rid of ideas of exploiting and bullying the people.’”

The official history of the time characterized the period from 1952-56 as having committed serious leftist errors, as the number of wrongly classified landowners was “too high.”

“To set [the] ratio at 5.68 percent of the population as landowners is ‘far too high to compare with the actual situation,’” according to an official publication, The History of the Vietnamese Economy, Vol. 2 , edited by Dang Phong of the Institute of Economy, Vietnamese Institute of Social Sciences, and published in 2005.

The book describes eight phases of mass mobilizing and five phases of land reform launched in 3,314 communes with a total population of 10 million. It says 700,000 hectares were confiscated from landowners and distributed to about 4 million farmers: a total of 44.6 percent of total cultivated land.

No official remorse

It says 71.66 percent of victims were wrongly classified.

It also cites the official Land Reform Internal Journal published at the end of February 1956, which quotes communist leader Ho Chi Minh as saying torture was prohibited.

“But at that time, the frenzy seemed to become uncontrollable in the countryside…and too many leftist measures were implemented.”

Vu Thu Hien, a self-described idealistic youth at the time, said he later tried to find out the political rationale behind the land reform campaign but failed.

“After a thorough study and investigation we found something wrong. It was the fact that the land reform had not been a real one because if it had been a real one, there would have been a survey of the people’s cultivated lands in advance. I still remember that at that time I could not read any official survey of the situation of cultivated lands in Vietnam at all,” he told RFA.

“This meant that the communists did not actually need a real land reform, that is, they did not want to re-distribute the lands in reasonable and legitimate ways. Instead they wanted a form of political struggle.”

Others who lived through that time described arbitrary methods of classification, such as “multiplication,” which was used to arrive at abstract numbers of landlords for a given area, regardless of whether the families concerned met the criteria.

Apart from a hasty correctional campaign organized by the Communist Party in the late 1950s, which referred to the land reforms as “horrible,” little is now said or written on this period of intensive mass killing in Vietnam’s history, according to former Party official Can.

“In my opinion so far we haven’t seen any clear remorse. There hasn’t been any official proclamation that the policy that aimed at provoking hatred out of differences in social classes was not a right one,” he said.

“While people’s minds and hearts have been apparently calm and peaceful for 50 years, the nourishment of hatred isn’t over yet.”

Original reporting in Vietnamese by Phuong Anh, Nguyen Anh, and Viet Hung. RFA Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Translation copy-edited by Stefanie Carr. Produced for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.