Time is running out to account for Vietnamese war dead

November 21, 2022 - 09:26
As the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end nears, the US is helping Việt Nam find wartime remains, furthering postwar reconciliation.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Vietnamese support unit searches for Americans’ remains, Thừa Thiên-Huế Province, Việt Nam on June 17, 2016. — Photo usip.org

By Phuong Vu, Ph.D and Andrew Wells-Dang, Ph.D, United States Institute of Peace

HÀ NỘI — As the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War approaches in 2025, Vietnamese families continue to search for the fallen.

Finding these war remains not only helps provide closure, but is critical to furthering postwar reconciliation, addressing the war’s legacies and advancing the story of US-Việt Nam relations as an example of the practicality and possibility of peace after war.

But, as the years pass, finding these remains becomes increasingly challenging. A critical component of US-Việt Nam postwar reconciliation has been bilateral cooperation to search for American MIAs since the mid-1980s. Since last year, the US has helped Việt Nam’s Government find Vietnamese war dead and is helping speed up the process as the passage of time adds more challenges.

‘Time Is not Our Friend’

The scope of Việt Nam’s wartime losses is truly colossal. According to Vietnamese Government sources, the remains of 180,000 fallen soldiers from the People’s Army of (North) Việt Nam and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (“Việt Cộng”) are not yet recovered. And over 300,000 unidentified remains are buried in cemeteries across the country. In addition, an unknown number of civilians and Republic of (South) Vietnam soldiers are also unrecovered. Vietnamese families’ search for closure is hampered by poor record keeping, degradation of evidence in tropical soil and the dwindling number of witnesses with memories of the war.

Việt Nam’s ambassador to the US Nguyễn Quốc Dũng told participants at USIP’s recent Dialogue on War Legacies and Peace: “For reconciliation between Vietnamese and Americans, time is our friend. But for finding the missing, time is not our friend.”

The US-Việt Nam bilateral cooperation to search for American MIAs has resulted in more than 1,000 Americans repatriated and identified. On the request of the Vietnamese Government, the US Government has turned over information about Vietnamese remains, as have individual US veterans with knowledge of mass grave sites. Working together with the Việt Nam-USA Society, Vietnam Veterans of America has provided files relating to 12,000 Vietnamese fallen soldiers and helped to search for and excavate the remains of about 1,300 people.

Most recently, the US Department of Defense launched the Vietnam Wartime Accounting Initiative to assist in locating and identifying Vietnamese war dead, with involvement of USIP, USAID, Harvard University, and the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). USIP’s roles in this initiative encompass policy dialogue, public education and communications, including online and in-person events, and a set of video interviews with Vietnamese and American families.

On October 25, 2022, USIP co-organised a workshop in Hà Nội with the Vietnam Martyrs’ Families Support Association (VMFSA), one of the key stakeholders in the search for and identification of wartime remains. With about 10,000 members nationwide, the association plays a critical role in mobilising social resources and promoting the use of DNA testing. According to papers presented by 11 VMFSA members and provincial coordinators, their main challenges are access to information, a lack of high technology DNA testing capacity and centralised data, and insufficient funding support.

To deal with these difficulties, VMFSA members asked USIP to connect with US partners and veterans’ groups and help stimulate communication among the American and Vietnamese publics via dialogues and workshops. VMFSA is prepared to work with Vietnamese Government agencies to develop a DNA database and use new technologies to analyse DNA of low-quality bone remains.

In July 2022, Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính requested the ministries of labour, defence, and information to collaborate with the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) to establish a national database for DNA assessment. Việt Nam’s current DNA testing technology has identified 1,389 fallen soldiers over the past ten years.

VMFSA leaders with USIP Senior Expert Andrew Wells-Dang in Hà Nội in October 2022. — Photo usip.org

Addressing Capacity Challenges

The US-supported Wartime Accounting Initiative is stepping in to speed up forensic technology transfer, develop data management and analysis capacity, and train Vietnamese forensic workers. On October 31, ICMP signed an implementation agreement with the Centre for DNA Identification of VAST, one of three labs assigned by the Vietnamese Government to analyse DNA to identify fallen soldiers’ remains. ICMP will introduce SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) analysis, which is better suited for degraded samples and produces unique matches, compared to previously used mitochondrial DNA markers that are shared by all relatives of a matrilineal line.

The new technology is expected to come by 2024. Before then, outreach and communication will be essential to build public awareness and support. The Vietnamese Government views the identification of unknown war dead as an “important socio-political task” that requires collective efforts to develop human resources, promote public-private partnerships and enhance international cooperation.

VMFSA is one of the social organisations with potential to contribute to successful outcomes. While it will never be possible to recover all the bodies from the war, the Vietnam Wartime Accounting Initiative aims to achieve results to the extent possible in the coming five years. USIP is honored to participate with Vietnamese and international partners in this initiative, which has direct importance for families of the missing and broader significance for US-Việt Nam reconciliation. — VNS

* The story was originally published at https://bit.ly/3AuVNwc