AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 356

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Session 356: Encounters Between the Living and Dead: Practices of Commemorating, Finding, Appeasing, and Burying Dead Vietnamese within and beyond Vietnam

Organizer: Quan T. Tran, Yale University, USA

Chair: Tobias F. Rettig, Independent Scholar, Singapore

Discussant: Ruth Y. Hsu, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

The Vietnamese landscapes of the living and the dead are strewn with wandering ghosts and those who desire to appease them. The whirlwinds of colonialism, wars, and regime changes in twentieth century Vietnam have claimed countless human lives within and beyond the geographical boundaries of the Vietnamese nation-state. The extraordinary and often violent circumstances of these deaths continue to haunt the living. Attempts to cope with such haunting take place in public as well as private spaces, along official and unofficial channels. They also manifest in many forms—material, psychical, psychological, emotional, and musical to name a few. Exploring various practices of commemorating, finding, appeasing, and burying dead Vietnamese in diverse places in Vietnam, Europe, and Southeast Asia—from the ritual of using mediums and psychics for communication with the dead, to the commemoration of the deceased in memorials and in songs, to the return of bodies and personal effects—the panelists consider a wide array of meanings that these practices hold for the dead as well as the living. Crossing temporal, geographical, methodological, historical, and formal borders, this multidisciplinary panel draws attention to the lingering impact of the dead Vietnamese on the living who cross their paths and vice versa as they mutually constitute one another. Drawing from the insights of semiotic and spatial analyses, the panel discussant will help push the conversation beyond the specificity of each case study.

'Voices from the Otherworld': War Martyrs and Their Mediums in Post-Doi Moi Vietnam
Kirsten W. Endres, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany

For the Vietnamese, the unprecedented numbers of fallen (and often missing) soldiers during the Vietnam War had caused a veritable "population explosion" in the Otherworld that not only brought painful grief to the living, but also haunted them in very tangible and threatening ways. When economic conditions started to improve in the mid-1990s, the issue became even more pressing: unable to benefit from the country's new affluence, the hungry ghosts of the war were increasingly felt to impede on the lives of their survivors. Based on ethnographic research in North Vietnam, this paper explores the role of spirit mediums/soul-callers and psychics in alleviating emotional distress and feelings of guilt and moral indebtedness to the war dead. Particular attention is paid to recent efforts on the part of state funded research institutions to render certain mediumistic and psychic techniques 'scientific', thus subtly shifting the hitherto prevailing official attitude towards spirit practices as superstitious mumbo-jumbo to their reconceptualization as scientifically validated mental techniques that have tangible merits and benefits.

“Your Words Echo Forever”: Memorial Songs of the Vietnam Wars (1945-1975)
Jason Gibbs, Independent Scholar, USA

Heroic loss of life is one of the common narratives of war. Though memorialization of individual deaths may be spontaneous and heartfelt, they can also be used in a calculated manner by the state and army to agitate the population. This paper will look at songs written about the heroic fallen by Vietnamese songwriters on both sides during the Indochina Wars (1945-1975). I will look at the affect of the songs, both the lyrics and the music itself. I will also compare the relevance of the message of the songs and propaganda value to the respective regimes of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The diversity of Southern songs reflects the disunity of politics of that state. Northern songs were more often created in a timely manner that was connected to a wider state message and used to mobilize large segments of the people. Finally, my paper discusses the relevance of these songs to Vietnamese audiences since the war’s end in 1975. Northern heroes continue to be extolled in song through the educational system and official state commemorations. While the South’s songs had comparatively less immediate impact during the war, many have remained popular and relevant to the listening habits of Vietnamese audiences, particularly overseas, many who continue to hold grudges with the victorious regime.

Remembering the War Dead of the Vietnamese Liberation Forces: The ‘Operation Wandering Souls’ Project
Bob Hall, University of New South Wales, Australia

A database of Australian and New Zealand contacts with the Viet Cong or People’s Army of Vietnam (the ‘Liberation Forces’) during the Vietnam War has been built by a research team at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Approximately 4500 contacts are recorded in the database. Up to thirty bits of information were captured for each contact. The key bits of information for the ‘Operation Wandering Souls’ project were the date, time and place of each contact and the number of Liberation Forces soldiers killed at each site. Australian Army policy was to inter the enemy dead at the point of contact. Thus the database represents the best available information on the burial sites of over 3700 Liberation Force soldiers killed in combat with Australian and New Zealand patrols. Bob Hall and Derrill de Heer recently visited Vietnam to present the database to the Veterans’ Association of Vietnam and to various government bodies and veterans groups in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, the former area of operations for the 1st Australian Task Force. The creation of the database and presentation of the data will be described. Also discussed will be the technical challenges confronted (and, in some cases, yet to be solved) and how the Vietnamese in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province received the information.

Vietnamese Concepts of Appeasing Wandering Souls as a Methodology of Psychological Healing for American and Vietnamese War Veterans, Their Families, and Their Communities: a Powerpoint, Film Clip, and Oral Presentation
Wayne Karlin, Independent Scholar, USA

On March 19th, 1969, in Pleiku Province, First Lieutenant Homer Steedly, Jr. shot and killed Sergeant-Medic Hoang Ngoc Dam of the People’s Army of Vietnam, and took Dam’s notebook and other papers. Dam’s death came to signify to Homer, who suffered through decades of PTSD, all of the death and suffering he had witnessed and participated in during the war. At the same time, Dam’s fate remained unknown to his family, and his remains unidentified, a situation shared by an estimated 300,000 soldiers in Vietnam. In Vietnamese village tradition, unless the body and/or possessions of the deceased is returned for proper burial and commemoration, taken back into the familial and communal fold, that person becomes a “wandering soul,” and the family feels it has not fulfilled its obligation to the dead. By the same token, Homer and thousands like him became living wandering souls; their experience kept them outside of family and community. Homer’s journey to find Dam’s family, return his documents and recover his remains allowed him to enact for both himself and the family the pattern of recovery from trauma, as described by such psychiatrists as Dr. Judith Herman and Dr. Jonathan Shay: the traumatic event must be disinterred, contemplated for meaning, commemorated, and then buried in peace. Homer’s journey suggests the possibility of a mutual healing by using traditional Vietnamese models for incorporating the dead into meaningful narratives.

Commemorating the Vietnamese First World War Dead, 1915-2011: French Hegemony Uncontested?
Tobias F. Rettig, Independent Scholar, Singapore

About 3,000 of the roughly 90,000 Vietnamese who served ‘their’ imperial mère-patrie during WWI as soldiers and workers in France and the Mediterranean theatre paid the blood tax with their life. With the exception of Captain Do Huu Vi, whose remains were repatriated by his family in the early 1920s, other families lacked similar means and status. Based on descriptions in contemporary and later ethnographic studies, the first part of the paper conjectures about family members’ likely socio-spiritual anguish, their milieux de mémoire, and chosen mourning and remembrance rituals. The paper’s second part will compare and discuss memorialisation projects such as cemeteries, memorials, livres d’or, public ceremonies, Ph.D. theses, books, and the world-wide web. Furthermore, it examines the motivation of the organisations and individuals behind these memorialisation projects – e.g. the French state and subsidiary bodies such as the army and the Ministry of Anciens Combattants; civil society organisations such as the Souvenir indochinois and the ANAI; and scholars and publicists.

Objects of Tension: The Vietnamese Boat People’s Memorials and the Politics of Memorialization
Quan T. Tran, Yale University, USA

This paper examines the biographies of two memorials built by former “boat people” from Vietnam in 2005 on Pulau Bidong in Malaysia and Pulau Galang in Indonesia. Commemorating boat refugees who perished at sea while fleeing from the Vietnamese communist regime in the post-1975 era and expressing the refugees’ gratitude to the international community that had assisted them, these memorials stand at the crossroads of personal, local, national, transnational, and international politics. Their existence and disappearance raise important questions about the political and contested nature of history and memory for diasporic subjects. Under what circumstances and through what means can diasporic subjects claim historical significance in sovereign territories that crossed their migratory trajectories? What is at stake in their commemorative projects? The precarious life histories of the memorials on Bidong and Galang islands not only shed important insights into the subjectivity, the politics, the capitals, and the vulnerability of their builders, they also yield significant knowledge about inter-diasporic dynamics and implicate the various nation-states involved in the memorials’ materialization and ultimate destruction. Moving beyond the homeland-resettlement country binary that dominates most studies about the Vietnamese diaspora, the memorials’ histories and the intriguing politics surrounding them offer us concrete insights into diasporic Vietnamese subjectivity and the various networks that link diasporic Vietnamese together.