Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 37, Number 5. 3rd April 1974
The Inside Story on Vietnam
The Inside Story on Vietnam
There are probably more political prisoners now in the areas of South Vietnam controlled by the Thieu administration than there were before the signing of the Vietnam Peace Agreement, according to Andre Menras, a former political prisoner in Saigon.
Menras, who was imprisoned for two and a half years, has just been visiting New Zealand as a guest of RAVPOC (Release All Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience). He quoted an estimate by the president of the Committee to Reform the Detention System in Saigon that the number of political prisoners still held in South Vietnam is 202,000.
Menras stressed that the best way to work for the release of political prisoners in Thieu's jails was to demand the immediate implementation of the Vietnam Peace Agreement. He pointed out that the continued imprisonment of the prisoners was a gross violation of Article 4 of the agreement which stipulates that all civilian prisoners should be released within 90 days after the agreement was signed, i.e. by the beginning of May 1973.
Obstruction of Peace Agreement
Most of the political prisoners still in jail (and still being dragged into prison by the Thieu police) are neutralists, members of the Third Force in South Vietnam. Article 12 of the Peace Agreement states that the Third Force, along with the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam and the Thieu administration, shall form a National Council of National Reconciliation and Concord. This council is meant to organise free and democratic elections throughout South Vietnam, which will be a crucial stage in determining the country's political future.
By suppressing democratic liberties in the areas of South Vietnam it still controls, and especially by imprisoning members of Third Force groups the Thieu administration is trying to prevent the implementation of the Peace Agreement.
Menras stressed that the Thieu government could not continue its policy of repression without the support of the United States government. He pointed out that the U.S. is financing 80% of the Thieu administration's budget, providing $15,217,000 to run the Saigon prison system and to train the Thieu police (according to a June 1973 estimate by Senator Edward Kennedy) and providing millions of dollars of Military 'aid' (see box).
Some people try to explain away the repression in South Vietnam by saying that Asians are naturally cruel. But who taught them the techniques of torture, asked Menras—and he answered that it was the American government, the Japanese who occupied Vietnam during World War II, and the French who colonised the country. He mentioned that Chi Hoa gaol in Saigon where he was imprisoned was mainly built by the French and completed by the Japanese.
Prostitution of Vietnamese Youth
Menras went to South Vietnam in 1968 as a teacher as part of the French government's programme of "cultural assistance" to the Saigon government. He said he wasn't very politically aware when he arrived, but he was horrified by conditions in Saigon—the presence of hundreds of foreign troops pushing the local people around and the sight of young Vietnamese girls from the country forced into prostitution.
Sent to Da Nang to teach, Menras was able to observe firsthand the way in which the Americans destroyed villages in the countryside, as part of their policy of trying to isolate the National Liberation Front from the people. First he said, the villagers would be told to leave their villages because of an impending "Vietcong attack". Then planes would fly over and drop leaflets saying the "attack" was imminent and they would come again and bomb the village to rubble. The people would be taken away by Saigon troops to barbed wire camps around the big U.S. airbase at Da Nang.
Once they had been forced off their land the villagers became totally dependent on the U.S. military and the Saigon government for their livelihood. Menras emphasised that alongside the military destruction of Vietnam there was the bastardisation of the Vietnamese culture. Menras described a visit he made to a wretchedly poor family in Cholon, the Chinese town of Saigon. Outside the the house was a brand-new Honda motorcycle. Hanging on a wall next to the family's ancestral shrine was a pinup from "Playboy".
Torture in the "Movie Room"
Menras and another Frenchman, Jean Pierre Debris, were arrested for distributing leaflets calling for the U.S. to get out of South Vietnam and for raising the N.L.F. flag above a monument to the South Vietnamese marines in Saigon. After being beaten unconscious he was jailed in Chi Hoa prison.
Menras was not tortured while he was in prison. But he witnessed the torture of others being forced to drink soapy water and then being jumped on by prison guards and made to vomit it. Other tortures including applying electric shocks to prisoners' genitals and forcing coca-cola bottles up women's vaginas. Prisoners were also forced to salute the Saigon flag and to sing songs of the Saigon military. If they refused they were locked up in a special torture room in Chi Hoa prison—the "Movie Room"
Up to 300 prisoners were locked in this room at any one time shackled to an iron bar. They were fed meagre rations and forced to stand in their own excrement. Menras knew one prisoner who spent four months locked in this room. The prisoners called it the "Movie Room" because when visitors came to "inspect" the prison the room was cleaned out and used to show visitors movies about the wonderful work the prison authorities were doing in "rehabilitating" their "communist" prisoners. Menras added that when the N.Z. Ambassador to the Saigon regime. General Thornton, toured some of the prisons he was accompanied by Nguyen Van Ve, the director of Chi Hoa gaol and nicknamed the "Father of the Tiger Cages", as interpreter.
The aim of the torture, said Menras, was to break the prisoners' spirits so they would never again be able to play a part in South Vietnamese political life. But despite the repression the prisoners didn't give in.
Unless you Struggle, you Die
Menras recalled that the prisoners in Chi Hoa gaol were able to listen to the N.L.F. radio, that every important date in the history of the Vietnamese people's struggle for independence (such as the anniversaries of the signing of the Geneva Agreement and the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu) was celebrated by the prisoners, and that at 5. a.m., one hour before the Saigon anthem was played, N.L.F. prisoners would sing the N.L.F. anthem.
Menras said that there was an underground network throughout the prison that was so strong that he and others were able to illegally teach the children in gaol to read and write. "They were the best pupils I ever had", he added. "These children had learned at a very young age that if you want to survive you have to struggle, if you don't struggle, you die."
Menras' visit was important in emphasising to New Zealanders that the Vietnamese people's struggle for national independence and freedom has not finished and that the key to the success of this struggle, the Paris Peace Agreement, has not yet been implemented. At his meetings up and down the country resolutions were carried calling on the Labour government to recognise the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam, to organise a broad-based delegation of New Zealanders to investigate the conditions of the political prisoners held by the Thieu regime, and to cut off all aid to Thieu.
Ravpoc, the organisers of the Menras visit, is stepping up its campaign to work for the release of South Vietnamese political prisoners. Donations are urgently needed to help pay for Menras' tour and to finance Ravpoc's overall campaign.