Why aren't Vietnamese more vocal about Agent Orange?

August 7, 2022 | 05:05 pm PT
Se Gun Song NGO director
I often see similarities and resemblances between my native Korea and Vietnam, where I lived for nearly four years, probably due to their similar experiences in modern history.

People in both countries suffered from occupation by colonial powers and then shared the pain of seeing their countries divided by the foreign powers.

But one area where I see a major difference is how people remember the historical events of the past through their collective memory or "social memory."

Though it is nearly 80 years since the end of the second World War, the issue of female sexual slavery during the colonial period and the demand for a sincere apology from the Japanese government remain a hot topic among Koreans.

Koreans count how many sexual slavery victims are still alive (11 as of May 2022) and fear a day when there will be none left.

Many Korean people support the demonstrations organized weekly in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, which have taken place more than 1,500 times since 1992.

On the other hand less than 50 years have passed since the end of the war in Vietnam. More than 4.5 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange/dioxin, and an estimated one to three million have some form of health issues as a result. But surprisingly, I do not hear much about Agent Orange or its victims while I live in Vietnam.

The case of Agent Orange is often described as "forgotten" in the U.S. and most of the western world, reflecting low public awareness.

Children at Tam Ky Agent Orange Center in the central province of Quang Nam. The young victims run social enterprises that produce incense. Photo by Se Gun Song

Children at Tam Ky Agent Orange Center in the central province of Quang Nam. The young victims run social enterprises that produce incense. Photo by Se Gun Song

As a foreigner, it is difficult to accurately gauge the level of public interest in Vietnam.

I would occasionally see individual Agent Orange victims singing and asking for donations under bridges and other places in Hanoi. However, I had not heard this issue discussed much in the public sphere in Vietnam.

When I surveyed my Vietnamese friends, I was told that the Vietnamese people would never forget though the topic is not discussed much these days.

But why? Why don't the Vietnamese speak up? After starting my research on Agent Orange in Vietnam, I realized that there is a difference that makes any comparison difficult. Agent Orange is an incredibly complicated matter whose developments cut across multifaceted areas between diplomacy, politics, science, and humanitarian work.

Underneath is another layer of factors such as traditional beliefs, identity, shame, social stigma, and community relationships, all entangled, further obscuring the issue.

For an outsider, it is not feasible to comprehend the whole breadth of factors involved.

The Pulitzer-winning Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote that historical events are constantly reinterpreted, recreated and manipulated, thus getting registered in the public psyche differently as time goes on.

For example, Hollywood and Korean film industries produce movies about the Vietnamese war and get large audiences worldwide.

They can make the audiences experience the war differently and form a new version of social memory. Even those individuals who fought in the war changed their views about the event as time passed.

We have seen U.S. veterans return to Vietnam and become friends with former enemies who understood the inevitability of war.

While the Vietnam–U.S. relationship improved, scientific knowledge about Agent Orange got updated, and international laws on the use of chemicals were strengthened, unfortunately, the issue of Agent Orange and its status has not changed much.

The debates on scientific evidence and legal and moral technicalities we have had for decades continued even as the topic gradually faded from public memory.

There was almost an ‘Agent Orange Movement’ in Vietnam soon after the 2004 landmark U.S. court decision dismissing legal suits against American Agent Orange manufacturers.

However, the momentum did not last long. It is not easy to maintain interest in a past event in this forward-looking country where economic development for younger generations precedes many other social aspects.

Every year August 10 marks the day the U.S. army first sprayed Agent Orange in 1961.

Though I am not American or Vietnamese, I feel shame and guilt for those victims who endured pain and suffering even after 50 years and the new generation of victims whose links to the war are inconceivable.

While matters such as litigation and justice may take a long time, the humanitarian violation persists if we do not take necessary measures to assist Agent Orange victims and find ways to stop future generations of victims.

This is not just a Vietnam–U.S. issue, but a matter for every soul without borders.

One of the best things about living in Vietnam is seeing young people everywhere.

While many parts of the world worry about the aging population, this country is full of young people with positive energy.

I am often impressed by the Vietnamese youths' awareness of global issues and how well they are equipped to deal with them. For instance, their knowledge about environmental protection and the level of actions they take in their daily lives are on par with youths in developed countries.

The younger generations in Vietnam are creative and agile and already integrated with the rest of the world.

Agent Orange is one of the worst environmental disasters we have had. Young people in Vietnam can mobilize themselves to bring up the issue, build a global alliance and educate the whole world if grown-ups pave the way for them.

Whenever I meet Agent Orange victims during my work, particularly children, despite my preconceived ideas about people with disabilities, I mostly see smiles and sense a strong impulse to live a life full of joy and happiness.

When I hear their dreams, hopes and difficulties, I quickly realize that they are just like us – individuals whom we cannot just label and stigmatize as victims.

They only need some extra attention and care to stand on their own. Now it is up to us to transform such an impulse of hope into a lasting reminder of peace and human dignity.

*Se Gun Song is director of the Asian Youth and Culture Council in Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.

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