On April 30, 1975, the Los Angeles Times noted that “U.S. marines and civilians (were) using pistols and rifle butts to smash the fingers of Vietnamese clawing at the 10-foot wall of the U.S. embassy. Some tried to jump the wall and landed on the barbed wire. A man and woman lay on the wire, bleeding. People held up their children, asking Americans to take them over the fence.”
Thursday marks 40 years since the fall of Saigon — or Black April.
Similarly, in Cambodia, American personnel had been pulling out just 18 days earlier when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Then, later that year, Laos fell to the Pathet Lao regime.
Former U.S. president Gerald Ford remarked that the war was “finished as far as America is concerned.” Though many remember “Vietnam” as a horrible chapter in the history of America, it was, in fact, the United States that was an appalling 30-year chapter in Southeast Asia’s Mekong region.
These legacies of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia led to the execution, hunger, reeducation and displacement of millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, including the marginalized Hmong and Iu Mien peoples.
After all, U.S. foreign policy went beyond Vietnam. It completely disregarded borders when more than 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped over Cambodia and Laos. In Thailand, rest-and-recreation bases industrialized the region’s sex trade that we know of today. Then, there is also the My Lai Massacre and the degradation of millions of acres of land attributed to the use of heavy bombing, scorched-earth campaigns, defoliants and herbicides (i.e. Agent Orange). The United States never apologized for its destructive actions, by the way.
Black April was the inflection point between U.S. intervention and the Southeast Asian diaspora. Although these seemingly arbitrary dates might “fade from view,” however, the long and complicated history of colonialism — as well as the atrocities mentioned above — make the dates significant for narratives of Southeast Asian communities.
Here in the United States, Southeast Asian Americans are not often taught these histories. Instead, the only time we hear of Vietnam is when it is connected with the war. News flash: It is a country, not just a war. And what about Cambodia or Laos? Well, we are taught that these are just peripheral fields.
Even at home, Southeast Asian Americans rarely hear about the fall of Southeast Asia. Whereas many of us find these dates significant to our experiences, they are taboo points of discussion in family settings. Our parents, who witnessed the wars as children, remain silent.
In the Southeast Asian student community at UC Berkeley, these complicated histories are hardly forgotten. Even with the usual challenge of disconnect, the spaces within the Southeast Asian Student Coalition, or SASC, here allow students with common narratives to come together and share these experiences. We also seek to relate these everyday struggles with contemporary issues in our communities and with the complicated legacies of the war.
Although Asian Americans make up the majority of students on campus, Southeast Asian Americans are a huge minority. Sadly, the lack of data disaggregation overlooks the small presence of Southeast Asian Americans. UC Berkeley’s Southeast Asian community also addresses this issue and even attempts to combat it by fostering high school youth mentorships. Through the Southeast Asian lens, we mentor and support these young students because of the fact that while the number of high school and college graduation rates for Asian Americans are high, they are very low for Southeast Asians. Thus, the “model minority” myth undermines this issue.
But, of course, it would be Southeast Asians who are left out — the same people with a complicated history of American interventions. This is no coincidence.
In remembering the falls of Southeast Asia 40 years later, UC Berkeley’s Southeast Asian student community is holding events aimed at empowering the community with our stories and discovering what exactly these dates mean to us. On Thursday, we are holding a community project on Sproul Plaza to reclaim our histories in a memorial that invites others to write down short stories, quotes and names of the countless Southeast Asians whose lives took a sudden turn because of war. That evening, the community project will be the centerpiece of a candlelight vigil on Sproul.
A social media project has also been organized on Facebook, under the hashtags #fallofSEA and #40yearsofsilence, by the 40th Anniversary of the Fall of Southeast Asia Committee, which encourages individuals to share their stories. By using social media, we hope to reach out to a larger audience that not only consists of Southeast Asians in various networks outside UC Berkeley but also includes non-Southeast Asians who will be exposed to our historically silent narratives.
As we continue to cope with the impacts of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, the Southeast Asian student communities provide a welcoming atmosphere for those seeking to associate with others who have experienced similar struggles. Black April reminds us, the Southeast Asians in the United States, that the reason we are here in the country is because of U.S. foreign policy. Although our narratives have been silent since the fall of Southeast Asia, it is now more necessary than ever to reflect on our histories — both the struggles and the progress. Finally, these dates should also be remembered by other communities of color as a reminder of our similar histories of struggle. In light of this, the dates also serve as signals for a more cross-cultural community of solidarity.
Jonathan Chau is a UC Berkeley student involved in the Southeast Asian Student Coalition. Kevin D. Reyes is a UC Berkeley student studying history and political economy.