[hepr-vn] EPA: Vietnam needs to remember famine of 1945

Vern Weitzel vern.weitzel at gmail.com
Thu Aug 21 11:56:06 EST 2008

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: [vnnews-l] EPA: Vietnam needs to remember famine of 1945
Date: Wed, 20 Aug 2008 18:40:44 -0700 (PDT)
From: Stephen Denney <sdenney at OCF.Berkeley.EDU>
Reply-To: Stephen Denney <sdenney at OCF.Berkeley.EDU>
To: vnnews-l <vnnews-l at coombs.anu.edu.au>

sent to vnnews-l by Stephen Denney <sdenney at OCF.Berkeley.EDU>

The Straits Times (Singapore)

August 21, 2008 Thursday

Vietnam needs to remember famine of 1945

BYLINE: David Koh, For The Straits Times


LENGTH: 675 words

THE Socialist Republic of Vietnam declared its independence on Sept 2,
1945. The declaration came at the tail end of a famine which began in
1944. The famine still haunts the consciousness of many who were alive

An estimated two million Vietnamese, or 10 per cent of the population
then, died during the famine. By comparison, three million Vietnamese were
killed during the Second Indochina War, from 1954 to 1975.

The causes of the famine are hardly in dispute. In 1940, the Japanese army
occupied Vietnam but left Vichy France in charge of its administration. By
the terms of the May 1941 Franco-Japanese treaty, French Indochina had to
supply grains to Japan. From 1941 to 1944, Vietnam supplied 700,000 to 1.3
million tonnes of padi and maize to Japan, roughly equivalent to 50 to 80
per cent of its grain production. And a fairly significant acreage was
forced into the production of jute, hemp, cotton and castor-oil plants -
also for Japan - thus reducing food production. The wartime destruction of
roads and other transport infrastructure made it difficult to transport
excess food from southern Vietnam to the north. What ensued was tantamount
to genocide.

Many victims walked long distances to provincial capitals, and thousands
marched on the capital, Hanoi. Survivors resident there then tell of long
lines of ghost-like figures trooping into the city. Hanoi families often
found corpses in front of their homes. Huge pits were dug in rural areas
near Hanoi for mass burials. The wages paid to burial workers went down by
the day, and in Hanoi people were soon burying bodies just for a bowl of
gruel. The dead in rural areas were left in the open to rot because people
did not have the strength to bury them.

Extreme conditions drove many people to extreme behaviour. The vomit of
one became the food of another. People followed horses and oxen to eat the
dung or to search for the occasional undigested pieces of food in the
dung. Food in the mouth was not necessarily secure, because there were
frequent fights to force food out of mouths. People stole, robbed and
killed for food.

One family that made cakes for sale reports how it made cakes from earth
to guard against theft. Customers would pay for the earth cakes and redeem
them for real ones later elsewhere.

There are stories of how infants were eaten up by hungry dogs. Parents
would leave their children at home to go look for food, only to find blood
and bones in cribs when they returned.

Vietnam has not set aside a special day in the year to remember the
victims of the 1945 famine. The narrative of Vietnam's independence and
reunification often mentions only in passing this dastardly crime
inflicted on the Vietnamese.

What purpose would a special day serve? Food security has again become a
matter of concern. Vietnam is now the second top rice-exporter in the
world. The government enforced a suspension of rice exports earlier in the
year, but it has been lifted since. Then there are the higher frequency
and intensity of natural disasters that strike Vietnam every year, in
particular the typhoons that bring flooding, damaging crops and harvests.

Still, in a global economy, Vietnam's obligations to export rice must be
observed but remembering the famine will encourage people to plan for a
rainy day. Steady growth over the past two decades has brought about
levels of consumption that are unreal and even unsustainable. Vietnam now
has only US $20.7 billion (S $29.4 billion) in reserves, roughly
equivalent to the government's annual budget. One day, the good life will
come to an end and the Vietnamese will wonder where all the money has

The Vietnamese government should think about how the entire country, not
least the government itself, can put aside more in reserves - not just in
money but also in kind - in times of abundance. It should think too of a
more comprehensive scheme of security, especially food security.

The writer is a senior fellow and Coordinator of Regional Strategic and
Political Studies at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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