50Years On, Vietnamese Remember Land Reform Terror

BANGKOK—Vietnam this year marksthe 50th anniversary of a little-known political campaign known by theinnocuous-sounding name of “land reform,” in which hundreds of thousands ofpeople accused of being landlords were summarily executed or tortured andstarved in prison.

More than 172,000 people diedduring the North Vietnam campaign after being classified as landowners andwealthy farmers, official records of the time show.

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

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

Hundredsof thousands died

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

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

But official figures leave outsummary executions of those accused of membership of the National People’sParty, however. Unofficial estimates of those killed by Ho Chi Minh’s VietnamLabor Party, which later become the Vietnamese Communist Party, range from200,000 to 900,000.

In the political rhetoric of thetime, the victims were “dug to the core and destroyed to the root,” asenemies of the people. Some were committed communists, who cried out “LongLive the Communist Party” before being killed.

Writer Tran Manh Hao witnessed theland reforms, which prompted the evacuation of most of his family to SouthVietnam.

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

Somesay ‘genocide’

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

And another writer, Duong ThuHuong, recalls seeing bodies as a child of eight when he went out to watervegetables.

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

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

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

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

Nopolitical rationale

Later, he took food and water forhis father and grandfather.

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

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

“To set [the] ratio at 5.68percent of the population as landowners is ‘far too high to compare with theactual situation,’” according to an official publication, The History of theVietnamese 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 ofmass mobilizing and five phases of land reform launched in 3,314 communes with atotal population of 10 million. It says 700,000 hectares were confiscated fromlandowners and distributed to about 4 million farmers: a total of 44.6 percentof total cultivated land.

Noofficial remorse

It says 71.66 percent of victimswere wrongly classified.

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

“But at that time, the frenzyseemed to become uncontrollable in the countryside…and too many leftistmeasures were implemented.”

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

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

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

Others who lived through that timedescribed 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 correctionalcampaign organized by the Communist Party in the late 1950s, which referred tothe land reforms as “horrible,” little is now said or written on this periodof intensive mass killing in Vietnam’s history, according to former Partyofficial Can.

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

“While people’s minds andhearts have been apparently calm and peaceful for 50 years, the nourishment ofhatred 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 byLuisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Copyright © 2006, RFA. Reprinted withpermission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036. http://www.rfa.org/english/news/2006/06/08/vietnam_landreform/

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