Image: Fran West via Flickr

When news broke of two separate crimes in Southern Vietnam within days of one another – the rape and murder of a five-year old by a middle-aged neighbor, followed two days later by the rape of a two-year old child by its family’s housekeeper- it had the effect of rubbing salt into an open wound. If the consecutive incidents were among the most shocking, there were by no means the only recent cases of rape or physical abuse against children at the hands of people they know—a phenomenon which instead affects an estimated two-thirds of Vietnamese children.

This year’s surge in sexual violence across ASEAN and beyond has been labelled by the UN as a “shadow pandemic”. Indeed, while Vietnam has emerged surprisingly unscathed from the coronavirus pandemic despite sharing a border with China, the country has been plagued by soaring incidences of violence against women and children. The fact that these crimes fit into a much longer history of abuse and trauma suffered by the population, particularly during the Vietnam War, means the proliferation of these crimes today strikes an even more painful cord in society.

Even so, Vietnam is not entirely tin-eared to the issue: a landmark national study has investigated the extent of violence against women and a recent government-backed seminar raised public awareness about child abuse. Nevertheless, the government itself has reported that the rising cases of abuse are largely attributable to lack of government-level preventative measures and ambiguous laws which make convictions rare. Still, if Hanoi wants to crackdown on the widespread violence against women and children with credibility, it would do well to start by addressing the ghosts of the past, namely the consequences of the heretofore unatoned war crimes carried out in Vietnam 50 years ago.

Vietnams shirks support for the Lai Dai Han

The fact is that sexual violence has left deep marks on the country to this day. Events that occurred during the war against the Viet Cong, when Southern Vietnam was occupied by US and South Korean troops from 1968, still are a major part of the trauma. Over the following 20 years, as well as carrying out more than 80 civilian massacres, Korean soldiers raped and impregnated thousands of Vietnamese women and girls as young as 12. While many of these women have since passed away, approximately 800 victims are still alive.

But to this day, the Vietnamese government refuses to acknowledge the crimes committed against these women, let alone offer support. In a bid to avoid conflict and maintain bountiful bilateral trade ties with South Korea, Hanoi has failed to ask Seoul for an apology. The disregard of the government for these citizens means that their trauma is still felt keenly, all these years later.

Furthermore, it is not just the women who are ostracized by their own country, but so is their offspring born of the rapes. Known as “Lai Dai Han”, a derogatory Vietnamese term meaning “mixed blood”, they’re stigmatized within Vietnamese society. One of these descendants, Tran Dai Nhat, recounts that “At school they said I was the son of a ‘dog’… Teachers hit me – saying I should go back to Korea with my father.” The government’s failure to recognize the status of these Vietnamese families creates inequalities in their access to education and healthcare, as well as endorsing discrimination by the general public.

South Korea remains unapologetic

But it is not only Vietnam that fails to recognize the suffering of these families. The South Korean government has also turned a blind eye to the acts of sexual abuse committed by their soldiers during the war. Instead of following the US which set up a war crimes tribunal to investigate the conduct of it troops and offered reparations to the Vietnamese, South Korea has opted to do nothing at all. Their radio silence is all the more deafening in the wake of Seoul’s Minister of Gender Equality and Family Chung Hyun-back’s declaration in 2018 that “South Korea should be the mecca for the issue of wartime suppression of women’s rights”.

In the absence of attention to these crimes by the two governments, the fight for justice has fallen predominantly to civic groups and NGOs. One UK-based organization called Justice for Lai Dai Han (JLDH) is giving a voice to the under-represented victims and their children through awareness campaigns. London is now the location of a statue entitled ‘Mother and Child’ commemorating the trauma experienced. On the other side of the world, however, their efforts have been consistently stonewalled by Vietnam and South Korea.

A new chapter of collective recognition

The trauma experienced by these women is all too familiar to many across Southeast Asia, which is home to more than 300 million women. On the plus side, governments are not standing idly by. While the legislation is not legally binding, the “ASEAN Regional Plan of Action on the Elimination of Violence against Women”, ratified in 2016, is a first step to tackling patriarchal norms and the sluggish legal systems which make the denunciation of perpetrators rare and conviction even rarer. Meanwhile, UNICEF has produced a roadmap for reducing occurrences violence against children in the region and raising public awareness.

Encouraging women to report abuse and declare a zero-tolerance stance on sexual violence requires ASEAN to prioritize the mitigation of justice for victims of violence past and present. After a year of a veritable assault on women’s rights, with women taking to the streets in defense of victims of violence during the pandemic across the globe, there has never been a better time.

The fate of April’s two child-victims of sexual violence committed is a haunting reminder of the ghosts that afflict Vietnam’s society, including its unresolved past. As it cracks down on sexual violence today, Vietnam must recognize the ongoing plight of the Lai Dai Han and their mothers and demand justice from South Korea for its wrongdoings. While justice is too late for the victims who are no longer with us, South Korean recognition of past violence could still vindicate those who continue to suffer abuse today.