Why Was Vietnam Elected to the UN Human Rights Council?
Last week, the UN elected serial human rights repressor Vietnam to its 47-seat Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Despite operating a single party communist regime—under which freedom of speech, right to protest, and many other liberties are routinely denied—Vietnam received the most votes from UN members out of the 14 newly elected countries (184 out of 192). Which is kind of ironic when you consider that voting is a practice not many of the country’s 90 million citizens are too familiar with.
The result is just as hypocritical as it is confusing; in the past, Vietnam’s Hanoi regime has stubbornly refused permission for the UNHRC to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. Over 50 dissidents have been imprisoned already this year for exercising their right to free speech, while others are routinely beaten, harassed, and intimidated. Uprisings from minorities and religious groups aren’t tolerated either, and are often crushed with completely unnecessary force. For example, a small group of Catholic protesters in Nghe An Province were recently met bya reported 3,000 police and soldiers wielding guns, batons, and grenades.
Tim Page’s Vietnam War
Tim Page is a photojournalist of the old school. He arrived in Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1965, when he was 20 years old. Over the next few years, Tim saw enough Agent Orange and Viet Cong to last anyone a lifetime, but he didn’t stop going to dangerous places and taking incredible photos.
After Vietnam, Tim freelanced for Rolling Stone while travelling the world, with stopovers in Laos, Cambodia, Bosnia, and elsewhere. In 2009 he was a UN Photographic Peace Ambassador in Afghanistan. He has set up charity organizations like the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation, which honors the legacy of journalists who died covering wars in that region through workshops and tutoring programs, and mentored young photographers throughout Southeast Asia. Oh, and he’s the author of nine books, including the widely acclaimed Requiem, a collection of pictures from photographers who died in the Vietnam War.
I recently got the chance to share a joint with Tim and talk about his time in the Vietnam War, his time in the world since then, and the impending doom of photojournalism.
VICE: Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
Tim Page: No, I had no idea. When I finally left Europe I was planning to be in Australia for Christmas, 1962. I got as far as Lahore in West Pakistan. After I left England for Europe, I worked at the Heineken brewery and a chewing gum factory. I worked as a chambermaid, sous-chef, and also smuggled hash from the Khyber region in Pakistan. I had 15 pounds to get to Australia when I left Europe.
Fifteen pounds of hash?!
No, 15 pounds cash. We sold blood in Greece; I was also an extra in a film in Bombay. I gradually sold off all my possessions—I was down to like two sets of clothes. I’d sold everything else: the cameras, my clothes, even our entire plastic cutlery set… I sold my Kombi van to a bunch of crooked Sikhs—that enabled me to fly to Thailand via Burma. I had a really freaky month in Burma. When I ended up getting to Thailand I sold cod liver oil pills, flashlight bulbs, cheap watches, and encyclopedias and taught English. We used to go up to Laos and buy ten cartons of French-style black tobacco cigarettes, which were about one dollar a carton, and we’d come back to Bangkok and sell them for a dollar a pack. During the second day in Laos I bumped into a few Americans that told me US Aid was hiring third-party nationals to run Lao crews.
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The Secret History of the Vietnam War
If you thought you knew all there was to know about the Vietnam war, you’re wrong. For example: Ever heard of the “mere gook rule,” a code of conduct the U.S. military came up with in order to make it easier for soldiers to murder Vietnamese civilians without feeling too bad about it? (“It’s only a mere gook you’re killing!”)
Well, few people knew about this bit of history either until author Nick Turse discovered it in secret U.S. military archives, which he used as the primary sources for his new(ish) book, Kill Everything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. The book is based on Turse’s discovery of theretofore secret internal military investigations of U.S.-perpetrated atrocities alongside extensive reporting in Vietnam and amongst American veterans and it reminds us that the most significant fact about the Vietnam War is its most overlooked: massive and devastating Vietnamese civilian suffering.
The debate over the U.S. war in Vietnam continues to hang over this country’s most recent and techno-futuristic imperial adventures. Nick’s book makes for timely if extraordinarily painful reading, and I sat down with him recently to talk about the ongoing relevance of Vietnam, massacres, and secretly photocopying whole U.S. government archives.
VICE: Your book documents how the American war in Vietnam was a fight systemically waged against the civilian population. How does this account that you documented differ from the Vietnam war as it’s popularly remembered in the United States today?
Nick Turse: We have 30,000 books in print on the Vietnam War, and most of them deal with the American experience. They focus on American soldiers, on strategy, tactics, generals, or diplomacy out of Washington and the war managers there. But I didn’t see any that really attempted to tell the complete story of what I came to see as the signature aspect of the conflict, which was Vietnamese civilian suffering. Millions of Vietnamese were killed wounded, or made refugees by deliberate U.S. policies, like the almost unrestrained bombing and artillery shelling across wide swaths of the countryside. That is, deliberate policies dictated at the highest levels of the U.S. military. But any discussion of Vietnamese civilian suffering is condensed down to a couple pages or paragraphs on the massacre at My Lai.
This isn’t the book that you initially intended to write. Tell me about the War Crimes Working Group and the documents that you found.
I was working on a project on post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. Vietnam veterans. I would go down to the National Archives and I was trying to find hard data, military documents, to match up to the self-reports that we had from veterans about their experiences during the war. And on one of these trips I hit dead ends at every turn. After two weeks I had nothing to show for my research. I went to an archivist I worked with. I told him I couldn’t go back to my boss empty handed. He thought about it for a second. He asked me, “do you think witnessing war crimes could cause post-traumatic stress?’ I told him, “excellent hypothesis” and asked what he had.
Within an hour I was going through this box, many boxes actually, these reports of massacres, murders, rape, torture, assault, mutilation. Records put together by this Vietnam War Crimes Working Group impaneled in the Army Chief of Staff’s office in the wake of the My Lai massacre, to track any war crimes cases or allegations that bubbled up from the field, to make sure that the Army wasn’t caught flat footed again. And whenever it could it tried to tamp down these allegations.
Like Vietnam All Over Again
Over the last 50 years war reenactment has gone from something guys at the Elks Club did on the weekend to get away from their wives to a full-blown obsession among history buffs with enough free time to make the experience as true to life as possible. Along with the increased intensity has come more demand for variety. The Vietnam War has typically been forbidden territory, but reenactment groups around the country have begun collecting their rice hats and period-appropriate M16s for pretend skirmishes with fake Viet Cong.
Thomas Morton embeds with the Virginia-Carolina Military History Association as they embark on their first tour through Vietnam… in North Carolina. WATCH IT HERE
Loving Gay Couples in Vietnam
Three months ago, about a 100 bike-riding homosexuals pedaled through Hanoi in what would come to be seen as the Vietnamese capital’s first ever gay pride parade. Not too many eyebrows were raised by that, at least in our little Western corner of the world; I guess we all thought it was about time those guys on the other side finally celebrated the wonders of crossing swords. What should cause a stir is that only one day after the parade, rumors began to circulate that the Vietnamese government was considering the legalization of same-sex marriage. Considering that Vietnam is still operating under a communist regime, this is sort of newsworthy, don’t you think?
I thought so, which is why I got in touch with photographer Maika Elan, who spent last year photographing Vietnam’s gay couples in their most intimate moments for her photo series The Pink Choice. She sort of stood me up on the day of the interview, but that’s OK because she’s the sweetest Vietnamese with a mushroom haircut I’ve ever met.
VICE: Hey Maika, why did you stand me up?
Maika Elan: Hi, I’m really sorry. I got up this morning to go to the UK Embassy and sort out a visa—I’m visiting in a few days to prepare for an exhibition—and ended up spending the whole day there. Which I should have expected but anyway…
OK, I hate bureaucracy too, so I forgive you. Tell me about your project involving gay people in Vietnam. Why is that an important enough subject to photograph so extensively?
In Vietnam, there is talk of legalizing gay marriage. This would make Vietnam the first Asian country to do so, so it’s a big deal, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. People like to say they are open-minded, but they don’t act like it. For example, every time a story about a gay couple is in the press or on TV, either their faces are blurred or they pose with their backs to the camera. And those stories almost always have to do with drugs, AIDS, or some sort of sexual scandal. When it comes to movies, homosexuals are either idealized or, again, presented as sexual deviants. You never see the actual people. You don’t see that they are real people. I thought it’d be nice to change that.