Tam Ngo (1980) is the leader of the research program “Bones of Contention: Technologies of Identification and Politics of Reconciliation in Vietnam” funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.
As a permanent member of the NIOD, she oversees the building up of a research line on the role of religion and science in social healing, environmental reparation, and the politics of reconciliation in postwar contexts. As a social anthropologist, she builds her theoretical framework with ethnographic settings ranging from, on the one hand, postwar South and North Vietnam, Vietnamese refugees in Europe, Hmong refugees in the US, and Vietnamese Chinese refugees in China, to, on the other hand, different circles of DNA forensic experts working on human identification and genetic and environmental footprints of the Vietnam War.
Besides the program “Bones of Contention”, her current research includes projects on the social memory of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war in China and Vietnam (book monograph in preparation), on spiritual heritage and the politics of reconciliation in postwar Vietnam, and the comparison of German refugees from Eastern Europe (1944-1950) to Chinese refugees from Vietnam (1978-1989) (with prof. Peter van der Veer, MPI), on the social embeddedness of genomics, and particularly on the relation between DIOXIN and DNA among communities who have to deal with the footprints of the Vietnam War.
She has published widely on various aspects of postwar Vietnam, from mass conversion to Christianity, atheist secularism, war memory and religious nationalism, religion, and peace, Buddhism in the Vietnamese diaspora, the popular deification of Ho Chi Minh, sacred geography, and spiritual warfare.
Bones of Contention: Technologies of Identification and the Politics of Reconciliation in Vietnam
Information about this project can be found via this link.
Scene of a former battle field, Quang Tri, Vietnam (Source: photo courtesy of Quang Tri based journalist Phan Tân Lâm)
An exhumation of remains of North Vietnamese soldiers fallen in the 1968 Khe Sanh Campaign, Quang Tri. (Source: photo courtesy of Quang Tri based journalist Phan Tân Lâm)
The Unclaimed War: The Social Memory of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war in China and Vietnam (2012-)
This project addresses the memory politics of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Border War. This destructive war erupted on 17 February 1979, officially lasted only 17 days but in reality, dragged on for 10 full years in which tens of thousands of lives of both sides were lost and ruined. Thirty-three years later, this war stands in both China and Vietnam as a war that-you-aren’t-supposed-to-talk-about and is barred from the states’ permitted national realm of memory and commemoration. For the people whose lives were devastated by it, the daunting memory of this war continues to haunt their daily existence today. The intensity of their suppressed memory is starling especially in the present context of a thriving politics and culture of war commemoration in both China and Vietnam.
In this study, I follow the life stories and narratives of people whose lives were defined by this war, such as the veterans, inhabitants of the borderland both ethnic minorities and Kinh and Han majority groups, the ethnic Chinese people in Vietnam, the ethnic Vietnamese people in China. These life stories have led me to several geographical locations some of which became the main sites for my research, such as Lao Cai, Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Shanghai, Kunming, and Dali in China. Because of the war, half of a million Hoa Kieu (ethnic Chinese from Vietnam) have fled the country and resettled in the West. This project thus also includes the life stories and memory politics among the Chinese Vietnamese population in three European cities; Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. Through my informants’ narrative, I retrace their understanding of the political context that lead to the outbreak of the war. How did that understanding impact the motivation to join the war and the formation of a sense of defiance, or to find a way out of it, or to endure the suffering caused by it, or to make sense of the loss? Inside Vietnam today, when many participants of this war continue to struggle to publicly commemorate this war, to what extent such an enduring effort is to serve the national interests or their memory of the event that had haunted and daunted their life? To what extend social memory can persist independent of public commemoration? Abroad, the commemoration of this war has become an occasion for anti-communist and anti-Vietnamese state demonstration. In this research, I aim to contribute a new understanding of how the memories of such unclaimed war impact local resistance to the center of how the politics of forgetting, ignoring, or unclaimed, is an option for those involved. In this project, I pursue a dual aim. Even as I wish to use the blind spots of public history to throw light on the dominant discourses of the present, I also want to reflect on truth-seeking and commemoration as the currently dominant mode of coming to terms with past violence. As neo-liberalism declines and intra-Asian politics becomes more important, will this product of distinctly twentieth-century declines and West intellectual developments- from psychoanalysis to the transitional justice- be challenged?
Spiritual heritage and the question of post-war reconciliation in Vietnam (2012-)
This project focuses on how aspects of identity politics are reflected in and re-worked through contemporary reconstruction and recollection of these traditions’ myths of origins and legendary materials. More importantly, using the religious discourse as a lens, this project aims to address the larger question of Vietnam’s post-war reconciliation, between living and dead population as well as between its atheist ideology and forever dependence on spiritual and religious consolation. Due to a century of successive wars, Vietnam’s landscape is filled with millions of displaced human remains which causes utter concern for a population that maintain a great fear of “bad death” and the strict observation of secondary burial. The frenzy of bone finding missions have taken place all over Vietnam have opened up moment and occasion for grievances of war lost and past sufferings, which were not generally allowed under the Vietnamese state’s control of post-war emotion. Despite the alleged honor of martyr sacrifice the Vietnamese state also fails to provide its population proper aid in this search for the war dead. This leaves the people no choice but to turn to spirit communication, a traditional and popular method to locate and identify war death. Banning the employment of such a method, as the Vietnamese state did for some time, puts the state in such confrontation with its grievous population that it has to soon loosened control over what it once deemed “superstitious” and instead encouraged scientists to find scientific reasoning to such practices. This state’s compromise comes with its new consequence; a twisted marriage between spiritual and sciences which turned scientists into spirit medium and illiterate spirit medium into lecturers in the scientific seminar.
This project explores various aspects of the booming spiritual industry in Vietnam. In particular, it zooms onto the revival of many folk religious practices in Vietnam such as the complex and ambiguous reemergence of ‘spirit writing’ as well as the intervention of a new religious movement, the Ho Chi Minh religion, both as the latest addition to the market. Spirit writing was banned by the state as superstition until recently after it was employed as a method to communicate with the deceased communist leader Ho Chi Minh in the early 1990s, this tradition is revived and practiced by a large portion of the Vietnamese population within and outside of Vietnam. However, both the revival of spirit communication and the invention of the Ho Chi Minh religion are watched carefully by the state and provokes skepticism among the more secular part of society. As a response, practitioners have begun to adopt the concept of ‘spiritual heritage’ in an attempt to gain respectability and legitimacy.
One part of the project, the fieldwork research, and collection of material about the emergence of the Ho Chi Minh religion has been completed through the collaboration with the Center for Research and Promotion of Cultural Heritage (CCH) in Hanoi (Vietnam), directed by Professor Nguyen Van Huy and with Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Kenneth Young Professor of Sino-Vietnamese History at Harvard University. In the next phase, while writing up, more material needs to be collected through fieldwork research among the Vietnamese population in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city.
A spiritual battle to defense Vietnam from China, organized by spirit medium and patriotic intellectuals from Hanoi at the Ghostly Gate temple near Sino-Vietnamese border. (source: Tam Ngo)
Trying to communicate with the spirit of the dead at a temple in Hanoi (Source: Photo by Tam’s research assistant, Nga Mai)
The Enigma of Repatriation: The flight and expulsion of German (1944-1950) and Vietnamese Chinese (1978-1989) compared.
Peter van der Veer (MPI), Tam Ngo (MPI-NIOD), and Wu Da (Minzu University Beijing)
In this project, we want to compare the situation of German refugees after the Second World War who want to the BRD and the DDR with that of Chinese-Vietnamese who went to China before and after the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979.
Some fifteen million people were forced out of their Heimat east of the newly established Oder-Neisse Border and Bohemia, Eastern, and South-East Europe. The Second World War turned almost seamlessly in the Cold War. The territorial division of Germany in a capitalist and a communist part (very much like North and South Vietnam or North and South Korea) ended only in 1991, while large areas that had been previously part of Germany remained forever part of Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia after the BRD accepts the Oder-Neisse border. Not only Germans expulsed from the now Russian, Polish, or Czech areas were received in Western Germany, but also some twenty percent of the DDR population, about three and a half million people with specially skilled manpower, who left the DDR before the building of the Wall. Such migration from East to West picked up again after the Wall fell and has only recently abated.
Given varying definitions of the German refugees like Heimatvertriebene or just Vertriebene or Flüchtlinge, one cannot come to a definite statistic about the German refugees in the first years after 1945, but in 1950 there were some twelve million refugees from Eastern Europe, around four million in the DDR and eight million in the BRD. At the local level, they were regarded as intruders, and at the national level, they were watched by the intelligence services.
In 1978, preceding the Sino-Vietnamese Border War (also called the Third Indochinese War), hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam were forced to leave the country. Despite their sometimes centuries-long settlement in Vietnam they were still considered to be Chinese with loyalties towards China. Many of them chose to return to China. Chinese authorities resettled them in numerous Huaqiao Nongchang refugee villages) in many provinces. While many soon after tried to leave China via way of seafaring to Macau or Hongkong, the majority of Vietnamese Huaqiao remained in these agrarian villages until they found opportunities to be a part of Chinese society. After China and Vietnam normalized political relation and resumed border trade in 1991, many Chinese Vietnamese moved to border towns near the Sino-Vietnamese border to work as interpreters, tour guides, traders, or start a business in townships along the Sino-Vietnamese border.
In this project, we want to trace the expulsion of ethnic Germans to Germany and the expulsion of ethnic Chinese to China. We want to compare the politics of settlement as well as the politics of resentment in the context of the changing relations between Germany and Eastern Europe on the one hand, and China and Vietnam on the other. In both cases, we also want to explore the memory of death and loss in relation to trans-border economic opportunities.
Vietnamese boat refugees awaiting admission into refugee camps in Hong Kong in 1979.
Toxic and explosive legacies: Living with war pollution across the globe
Modern chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare has resulted in unprecedented environmental hazard in many parts of the world. Across the globe, accounts of environmental destruction caused by civil and international armed conflicts have been highlighted by politicians, diplomats, journalists, and scholars alike. Instead of Genocide, Ecocide refers to the war in which the environment of the enemy is destroyed and rendered unlivable decades if not centuries after the war ended. In analyzing war pollution one can distinguish three kinds of narrative: a critique of modernity (of human destructive creativity with its polluting war technology), a moral narrative of war and its impact, and a developmental narrative of urgency (to clean and clear the environment of war remnants). While war's impact on the environment is well-documented, it is curiously underrepresented in transitional justice and postwar reparation as well as in the wider environmental concerns of today. Given its long-lasting nature, it is pertinent to ask how war-resulted environmental pollution continues to impact individuals and society trying to rebuild life on war’s footprints and how coping with toxic and explosive legacies of war is not only a local concern with preventing a recurring circle of violence but also a global moral obligation towards people and their environment. Despite some recent efforts of anthropologists, we still know very little about how people who live in landscapes, sometimes permanently damaged by war, cope with the dangers buried in the land. Much less is know about how communities whose bodies have been contaminated by toxic chemicals may carry an uncertain genetic future. The Project has three foci:
- War and the Anthropocene
This workshop calls for scholarly attention not only to the impact of war on the environment but more specifically to the impact of environmental damage, caused by war, on the lives of people living in it. We want to pay particular attention to the toxic and explosive remnants of war. We wish to explore how the after-effects of war, materialized in military waste (landmine and chemical), transform forms of life in the post-war polity. We want to clarify how the ongoing presence of military waste radically transforms the environment and the very condition of livability for those who dwell in such spaces many years after the actual conflicts have finished. We call for ethnographic accounts of military waste and its entanglement with people’s attempts to remake livelihoods and reengage with their environment in the aftermath of civil or international conflicts. How does the presence of military waste in the land and in people’s DNA constitute the very condition of new forms of discrimination and precarity? The presence of landmines and military waste renders the landscape and people’s livelihood not only radically uncertain and distressing, but also often indeterminate, and thus open to the generation of unexpected forms of engagement, cohabitation, and value creation. By treating military waste as indeterminate, we ask what forms, practices, and potential for value-creation military waste engenders in a given Spatio-temporal configuration of a post-conflict society.
- Expertise in demining and detoxification
Clearing and cleaning the environment of war polluting artifacts have been regulated by the international community after the Second World War. While not all parties committing wars have done their job to repair the earth, demining and detoxicating landscapes of war have become a global industry and developmental expertise. The former bombarded state becomes the one who possesses skills and experience in demining and detoxicating the war landscape, which becomes new expertise in the labor market of the postwar economy. Bosnia has become a training ground in demining activity (not only in DNA testing). While there are still plenty of mines to clear in Vietnam, the Vietnamese army is one of the generous sponsors of international demining missions with their personnel. In this project, we want to know how the power hierarchy of the global new order influences the configuration of this industry.
- Necropolitics: the state regulation around compensation and care for war-related injuries.
In many countries, the calculation of the human toll of war stops after the conflict ends. Yet, afterward, thousands of people have died or are injured by explosive war remnants. This human cost is not calculated in the negotiation of a postwar settlement between combatant states nor in the regime of care, if available to the population in many postwar societies. Dioxin contamination resulted from the US’s intensive spraying and dumping of Agent Orange in Vietnam in the late 1960s has been the largest bone of contention in the US-Vietnam postwar relationship. In the early 1990s, the US government has already acknowledged and compensated for the destructive effects of Agent Orange on American Veterans served in Vietnam, but only in 2020 the US finally acknowledged the similar effect of this chemical weapon on not only the environment and but also on the heath of the population of Vietnam. Financial and technical commitments were made to support Vietnam’s effort to detoxification. While the political story behind this development is certainly interesting, it is important to reflect on the consequence of this new international cooperation for the people whose lives are affected by dioxin. Here the question is to what extent the expert knowledge (with all the scientific research findings to establish a causal link between dioxin contamination and health problem) helps to confirm or challenge what indigenous knowledge has already established. To what extent has new knowledge, produced by scientific research, especially in genetic science, caused by Dioxin revealed knowledge that eased some old fears but at the same time generated new ones? How do people who have no choice but to live in a contaminated environment envision their future and reinterpret past sorrow? How much is the calculation for damage, especially scientific research established the indeterminate nature of chemical destruction that span not only spatial (it leaks and drifts far away from the point of being drops and travel widely in the ecosystem and food chain) but also temporal (unknowable generations of victims will be affected due to genetical mutation) dimension? How much is enough?
A mountain top remains bare nearly half a century after it was sprayed with Agent Orange, Quang Tri, Vietnam (Source: photo courtesy of Quang Tri based journalist Phan Tân Lâm)
Ngo, T. (2016). The new way: Protestantism and the Hmong in Vietnam. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Ngo, T., & Buck Quijada, J. (Eds.). (2015). Atheist secularism and its discontents: A comparative study of religion and communism in Eurasia. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Contributions to a Collected edtion
Van der Veer, P., Ngo, T., & Smyer Yu, D. (2015). Religion and peace in Asia. In R. S. Appleby, D. Little, & A. Omer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of religion, conflict, and peacebuilding (pp. 407-429). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ngo, T. T. T. (2019). Dynamics of memory and religious nationalism in a Sino-Vietnamese border town. Modern Asian studies.
Ngo, T. (2019). Identificatie oorlogsslachtoffers rijt Vietnamese wonden open. De Volkskrant.