For Bouasy Kanlagna, a Laotian ex-major, the reeducation camp in northern Laos near the Vietnamese border was "just like a prison." Every day, he and 800 other officers who served the former U.S.-backed government had to do hard labor under the watchful eyes of communist Pathet Lao guards.
Then one day, Bouasy said at the Nong Khai refugee camp in northeastern Thailand recently, the routine was broken when two ex-officers and a civilian escaped. They were at large for nearly a month before being captured and brought back to the camp, where they were paraded before the assembled prisoners, he said. The camp commander told the inmates they would have to decide the escapees' fate by "democratic means," Bouasy said, by voting either to have them executed or "taken to another place," but the prisoners knew there really was no choice.
"Everybody raised his hand for them to be killed," Bouasy, 40, recalled. "Nobody wants to stay in jail a long time; it's better to be killed," he added, "and if we voted to send them to another camp, they would be killed anyway."
Bouasy may have been luckier than most. Conditions in his camp do not seem to have been as harsh as those described by other refugees, notably those from Vietnam, and he was freed in January 1981 after serving 5 1/2 years. He fled to Thailand four months later, he said, because of official harassment after his release and fears that he was about to be rearrested.
The same fear motivated Danh Thao, 42, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army. Interviewed at the Panat Nikom refugee holding center 65 miles east of Bangkok, he said he fled overland across Cambodia to Thailand in June 1981 when authorities discovered he had lied about his rank on a biography of himself that he was required to write after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.
Today, 7 1/2 years after the communist takeovers in South Vietnam and Laos, tens of thousands of people are still in reeducation camps, according to refugees and Western diplomats. Although many inmates have been released, they say, authorities continue to replenish their ranks by rounding up new dissidents and old opponents.
Besides the years at hard labor, refugees who were in the camps tell of executions, torture, severe malnutrition, inadequate medical care and bribery to gain release. In addition to former soldiers, they say, the inmates include civil servants, priests, monks, dissident teachers, writers and other civilians, all held without formal charges or trials.
Some refugees complain that the camps have aroused little international interest, despite what they say are human rights violations on a massive scale.
According to a diplomat who visited Hanoi recently, a western embassy there now estimates that 100,000 people remain in Vietnamese reeducation camps. Based on interviews with scores of refugees this year, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok reckons that more than 40 reeducation camps were operating in Vietnam as of last year, with a combined population in excess of 126,000.
The last official figure from Hanoi was issued two years ago, when the government said 20,000 Vietnamese remained in the camps.
At that time, the Vietnamese government told Amnesty International that its policy of reeducation was more humane than trials and judicial condemnation, according to the London-based human rights group. It said Hanoi also argued that those still detained were guilty of "national treason" and acts against "public security."
Amnesty International rejected Hanoi's arguments. It charged that many detainees had not been involved in prosecuting the war in Vietnam and that, in the absence of any trials, the system violated what it said was the internationally recognized right of a person to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
The 1982 annual report declared that "the continuing detention without charge or trial of thousands of members of the former South Vietnamese administration in 'reeducation' camps remained Amnesty's principal concern" in Vietnam. It reiterated a complaint about inadequate medical care in the camps. It also noted an increase in use of the death penalty.
Diplomatic reports based on refugee interviews paint harsh picture. For a series of such reports compiled by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, 60 former prisoners from 14 reeducation camps were extensively interviewed, embassy officials said.
The unclassified reports did not name the interviewees but did identify a number of alleged victims of tortures and executions at the camps. A correlation of the refugees' accounts yielded an estimate of more than 44,000 prisoners in the 14 camps, an embassy official said.
According to one official, many releases were reported in 1980, but some refugees subsequently said this was largely to make room for new inmates, particularly those who tried to flee Vietnam or had concealed their identities after 1975. In addition to dissidents, resistance fighters from the central highlands and common criminals were among the newer prisoners, the U.S. official said.
The former prisoners reported two visits to their camps by international organizations that they could not identify. None of the 60 knew of any visit by Amnesty International or the International Committee of the Red Cross. A Red Cross official in Bangkok said that at present "the ICRC is not involved in visiting reeducation camps in Vietnam" but that "negotiations" with the Vietnamese government were going on.
According to the U.S. Embassy report, one of the largest camps -- described by 10 refugees -- is the Tan Hiep camp in Dong Nai Province. It was said to hold approximately 6,000 prisoners, mostly former officers up to the rank of colonel.
According to the refugees, prisoners accused of "careless talk" or other violations of camp rules frequently are beaten and shackled in metal containers in the sun and without water. The containers, called connex boxes, are about the size of a large refrigerator and were used for shipping U.S. equipment. They were left behind by the thousands.
The camp itself consists of about 25 concrete buildings with tin roofs surrounded by multiple barbed-wire fences and a mine field, the refugees told U.S. Embassy interviewers. They said watch towers at the corners of the camp were manned by guards armed with machine guns and that searchlights were used at night to discourage escape attempts.
The site, near Bien Hoa north of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), once was used by the South Vietnamese government to hold North Vietnamese Army prisoners, the U.S. report said.
Refugees reported being tied in a painful position for a long period, with this treatment sometimes accompanied by brutal beatings. According to a U.S. official in Bangkok, American ex-POWs have reported the same punishments at the hands of North Vietnamese captors.
The former prisoners at the Tan Hiep camp said that at Christmas 1978, 400 inmates staged a demonstration against camp authorities, according to the U.S. report. They were subsequently tortured and sent to Chi Hoa prison in Ho Chi Minh City, they said.
The refugees also reported that two South Vietnamese ex-majors who tried to escape were shot after a one-hour trial and that others were gunned down during attempts to flee. Bui Huu Nghia, a suspected resistance leader in the camp, died after being shackled for three months, and ex-captain Nguyen Thanh Long committed suicide after being beaten and shackled inside a connex box, the refugees said.
At the Con Cat camp in Hau Giang Province near the village of an Thanh Nhut, two former inmates reported, guards shackled Nguyen Van Tich, a Roman Catholic priest, for four months and 10 days for trying to teach English to other prisoners.
The refugees said other forms of punishment included reduction of rations and being locked in "tiger cages." They said guards sometimes tortured or shot prisoners caught trying to escape.
According to the U.S. Embassy reports, the former prisoners also spoke of widespread illness and malnutrition in the camps because of insufficient food and medicine.
Former inmates of the Ben Gia camp in Cuu Long Province said 50 percent of the prisoners had malaria and that their diets consisted of 300 grams (about 10 ounces) of rice a day, supplemented by sorghum and sweet potato. When available, meat, fish and salt were provided in tiny rations, and one refugee reported that one duck would be shared among 200 prisoners.
Although indoctrination sessions were routine when the camps first opened, refugees report there now is little actual "reeducation" at the sites. "The term 'reeducation camps' now in reality is a misnomer," said a U.S. diplomat who has conducted scores of refugee interviews. "They're labor camps."
In Laos, the indoctrination function seems to have been preserved to a greater extent, according to the accounts of former inmates. Ex-major Bouasy recounted that after doing hard labor during the day, the prisoners at his camp in northern Laos had to attend daily "political training" sessions from 7 to 9 p.m.
"Every day they told us not to believe in capitalist government, to believe only in communism," he said. "They told us the United States is the enemy number one in the world, and that the communist system would never end."
Another Laotian refugee, Kamtan Natiwan, who arrived at the Nong Khai camp in February, said he was accused of being a CIA agent because he had worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development before the communist takeover of Laos. He recalled political "reeducation" sessions in which communist cadres told the prisoners that Thailand was an enemy and would eventually have to be "liberated."
Although apparently eligible for resettlement in the United States under U.S. criteria for Indochinese refugees, Kamtan and numerous other Laotians and Vietnamese have become victims of "humane deterrence."
This is Thailand's policy of discouraging refugees from coming here by declaring them ineligible for resettlement abroad and holding them in austere camps for indefinite periods. Some U.S. officials regard the policy as unjust, but concede that it has been working. The number of Laotian refugees arriving in Thailand has dropped sharply from last year, and arrivals of Vietnamese by boat and overland are down, too.
As part of the "humane deterrence" policy, Thailand has closed the Nong Khai camp to new arrivals and ordered inmates moved to a detention center at Ban Na Pho in eastern Thailand that is off limits to most visitors.
For those who fled their homelands anyway after their release or escape from reeducation camps, the situation is especially frustrating.
"We came from prison in Laos and they put us in prison here," said Dee Senesouvarn, a former lieutenant colonel in the Laotian army who said he spent five years and seven months in a reeducation camp. Interviewed in a part of the Nong Khai camp fenced off by barbed wire and guarded by Thai soldiers, Dee said he and his fellow inmates faced uncertainty.
"We have no chance to go to a third country, and no chance to go back and fight," he said.