50 Years On, Vietnamese Remember Land Reform Terror

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.

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.


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Jul 22, 2015 12:59 PM

Lies, damn lies and statistics.

Sad to say, over ten thousand did most likely lose their lives. But this article is complete trash. It takes 172,000 killed as the baseline "official" number. If you read Nguyen Minh Can's article, its clear where the number comes from. Some nobody named Vo Xuan Minh decided that in Dang Phong's volume, 172,000 represented the number of executions. Dang Phong's volume said no such thing. RFA and Nguyen Minh Can report this outrageous lie as an "official admission".

I won't even comment on the idiotic 200-900,000 figures. Why not 2 million? How did North Vietnam even survive as a country after all this? Yet North Vietnam did survive, and defeated the most powerful country on earth.

Sorry, you lost your stupid war, killing millions in the process. You can't retroactively declare victory by pulling number out of your rear ends.

Mar 03, 2021 05:04 PM

Read Wikipedia on the land reform to see how dirty you made up the figure.You can ask the names of people ,who were killed.,Vietnamese will answer you!.The Vietnamese forgave communists and with them against you!
Until now, they - the communists - were the only forces that could rule Vietnam,
You guys are nothing for anyone to pay attention to.

Jan 24, 2016 02:51 PM

Please remember that the Vietnam War was planned, initiated & conducted by Ho Chi Minh and his communist party. It was actually a terror war, starting with land mines on country roads, throwing grenades into theatres & farmer markets, bombs under bridges, shooting rockets into schools, assassinating people who do not believe in communism and dislike Viet Cong, etc... The South Vietnam fought the War to defence the democracy and freedom for the Vietnamese people in the South, and to prevent the spreading of the Communism. The actual winner of the Vietnam War was China, not North Vietnam; and the actual looser of the War was Vietnam, not just South Vietnam.
The South Vietnam may lose the battle to defend its territory but they succeeded in stopping the Communism from spreading to South East Asia. After the end of the Vietnam War, communist parties in Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia were wiped out because Asian people saw the true face of the communism.
The real Vietnamese people understand the War this way, only people who were brain washed by Viet Cong believe the War was to fight USA and to liberate Vietnam.

Jul 29, 2015 04:32 AM

My father lived thru this communist land reform when he was about 14-15 years old. He remembered it very clearly. One day, the communist cadres showed up in his little village, làng Miễu, and drag out the richest man in the village. He was rich becacuse he had 2 buffaloes and a few more hectares of land than everybody else, but he sleep on the ground in his grass hut house just like everbody else. They put him in the center of the village and forced everybody to throw stones at his head until he died. After that they took his land and threw his family and children out into the street and made them homeless. After a few days, they found out that there were now another richest man in the village, and they killed him too. They pulled the buffalo and made it stomp on the man's head until he died. They took his land and house and divided among themselves. Every night they made everybody attend re-education classes on communism, and they would bring out the dead men's homeless children and use that as an example of why capitalsim was evil. My father said he sat in the back of the class and thought how hypocritical of them, but after a few weeks, even he forgot how those children were made homeless in the first place. My grandfather told my father to get married and escape to South Vietnam in 1954. He was the only brother in his family to have escaped the communist. His own brothers became soldiers and some had died in the war fighting for the communists. This is a true story. Ho Chi Minh's land reform genocide was a copy of Mao's genocides.

Aug 04, 2015 05:20 PM

just want to leave this here: https://youtu.be/JE2RyvUWwgU?t=3405

Still images from this FICTIONAL MOVIE are frequently posted as HISTORICAL PHOTOS of the land reform:



Ronald Reagan said it best: "Trust but verify."

Oct 30, 2016 03:42 AM

I read Hoang Van Chi's detailed study of North Vietnam's Land Reform Campaign more than 40 years ago and found it very convincing. The numbers he alleged were at least a large as those suggested in this article, and the categories of the victims he posited very similar. Chi's credentials appeared outstanding, as he had been an active Vietnamese nationalist all his life, having served the Viet Minh from 1946 until 1954, and the Diem Government only 5 years, leaving Vietnam to become an independent writer and critic in 1960. The remainder of his life, Chi remained a beacon of honor and concern for his tortured country, trying to find a way for it to progress. His analysis of Land Reform was challenged almost immediately by half-baked American would-be scholars whose own accomplishments arguably came nowhere near to his own. I've never become convinced that he erred in his analysis. Almost certainly, it is his critics who erred. The mode of operation which Chi alleges for the leaders in North Vietnam at that time mirrors precisely what had been done both by the Soviets in the Ukraine in the 1930s, and by Mao Tse-Tung in China just a few years before. Chi alleged the presence of Chinese advisers actually on the scene to help direct the process, and it mustn't be forgotten that Ho had been closely associated with both the Soviets and the Chinese for years before he took charge of the Viet Minh movement itself inside Vietnam. The main purpose of the land reform alleged here is clearly identical to that of both the other actions I mentioned, Soviet and Chinese: not to give land to needy peasants, but to atomize any possible centers of resistance by breaking them down economically. It was a political rather than economic purpose, and - as in the Soviet and Chinese cases - it had its desired result. It parallels the Soviet-inspired massacre of the leadership of all opposition parties which Ho carried out in 1946. So, when the Communist-dominated Viet Minh were ready for the next stage in their aggregation of centralized political power, there was no one left to object. Victory complete. Ho later 'apologized' for 'errors,' but there weren't any. The whole thing was carried out in complete cold blood - an illustration of the Vietnamese saying 'kill a chicken to teach teach the others.' Everyone got the message: shut up and do what you're told. And they did. Thank heavens we have Hoang Van Chi and his book to tell what really happened. Rest in peace knowing you did your best for your country, Mr. Chi.

Aug 19, 2014 02:18 PM

What's a shameless lie. Northern Vietnam's population at that time was only 15 mil and this article estimated 900,000 people were killed in land reform :) What's a joke. If it's true, how could Northern Vietnam still send that many people to fight against US....
Listen to my own grand father's story: he himself were accused in those time but were not sentensed, his possesion were later returned to him (but not all lands). In his suburd, there were only 3 people were killed during that period. Even if we assume 5 people killed per suburb on average, there would be 50 people killed in a province, and at that time Northern Vietname included about 10 provinces, so it would make the number of 500 people died. Use you mind don't just make up number.

Apr 13, 2021 05:37 AM

Such statements are false and are used as capitalist propaganda, issued by the American government. This is obviously fabricated by the White House's CIA.