Photo for Understanding the politics behind Vietnamese

Book cover of In Camps (2020) by Jana Lipman, cropped

Professor Jana Lipman from Tulane University calls for unsettling dominant accounts of Vietnamese refugee migration after the war to better address the nuances of place in post-1975 Southeast Asia.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Places of refuge in-between

"One of my main goals is to focus on the spaces in-between [the refugee camps] and to not think of them as interchangeable or amorphous," began Jana K. Lipman, associate professor of history at Tulane University. "We need to understand that the places in-between have their own local politics and that the individual politics on the ground matter."

In a talk hosted by UCLA Southeast Asian Studies Center, Lipman shares how her new book In Camps (University of California Press, 2020) explores how Vietnamese people transformed from "de facto refugees to individual asylum seekers to repatriates" in places such as Guam, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. While decentering the United States, she urges us to think of refugee activism as fluid and not stationed at a singular site.

The use of the stereotyped image of Americans rescuing the Vietnamese erases the more complex histories of war and underscores why it is critical to interrogate how refugee status is determined and changed over time.

Two case examples: Guam and Hong Kong

In April of 1975, approximately 120,000 Vietnamese people were brought to Guam for processing before resettlement. "Guam had no control over this. Guam is a U.S. colony," explained Lipman. "It is still a U.S. territory with no voting rights and the Guamanian government could not say no the United States."

Lipman said many Vietnamese people in Guam wanted to resettle in the U.S., but a small percentage, who desired to return to Vietnam, organized hunger strikes and protests. These protesters knew that having these demonstrations would be more successful in Guam because of the transitory period and because they were so far removed from the mainland United States.

However, when they did ultimately board a ship and return to Vietnam, the Vietnamese government did not trust the people, thinking they were CIA or anti-communist agents. Many who returned therefore ended up in reeducation camps. This experience highlights the liminality of Guam, recognizing U.S. colonial legacies, and shows an extreme example of activism where people might not expect it, Lipman added.

In contrast, in the 1980s, the Vietnamese faced a completely different set of dynamics in Hong Kong. First, Hong Kong, which was a British colony at the time, set up "open camps" where people could work. Because many who came as refugees were Chinese Vietnamese, they could speak Cantonese and get by. However, Lipman noted, some Hong Kong people felt resentment towards the Vietnamese for being allowed to come with refugee designations, while Chinese migrants were actively deported back to China. In addition, because Hong Kong would become part of China in 1997, many were uncertain what the actual resettlement process would look like or how the future for refugees would unfold.

"Why do we have to listen to the Americans that they are all refugees if the Americans are not resettling them?" Lipman explained of the Hong Kong government’s perspective. From 1988 onwards, Vietnamese asylum seekers would have to prove their refugee status upon coming to Hong Kong and if their application was denied, they would be forcibly sent back to Vietnam. "This lead to massive protesting in the camps and diasporic activism."

In the United States, at places like UC Irvine, people raised money to bring legal support as well as to lobby Congress for policy changes. On sites in Hong Kong, the Vietnamese again used hunger strikes and traditional protest methods to demonstrate, although this time it was against repatriation.

Lipman argued that the different ways in which the situation played out in Hong Kong and Guam illustrate how the political climates and conditions of the host country influenced the way refugees were accepted, or not, and what their activism strove to achieve.

Vietnamese activism across the diaspora

From the 1970s to today, Asian Americans have been lumped under the model minority myth, which affirms this good versus bad immigrant narrative to perpetuate ideas of a quiet, "good" Asian American. However, anti-communist politics and propaganda also framed Vietnamese people as the enemy. Lipman said what is missing from these discussions is the fundamental understanding that Vietnamese peoples have and are still organizing for their communities and rights.

While some might have stayed quiet if they were in the middle of resettlement, many spoke up to advocate for themselves and their futures. According to Lipman, it is crucial to pay close attention to host territories and Vietnamese activism in the camps and diaspora to understand how the refugee narrative changed across time and place.

"Who gets to be a refugee is not an a priori fact. Being a refugee depends on time, place, who is asking the question and when you show up. It’s not a fixed entity. The place where someone goes and ends up really matters," concluded Lipman.



Published Icon

Published: Tuesday, November 10, 2020