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Lecture | Research Seminar

Between spiritual care and forensic care: situating the remains of war dead in contemporary Vietnam

  • Tam Ngo
Monday 4 April 2022
Pieter de la Court


Due to the changing measurements regarding COVID-19, this event might take place online. Please keep an eye on this page for the latest information.

The wars that Vietnam fought in the 20th century claimed millions of Vietnamese lives. An estimated 1.2 million died while fighting for the Vietnamese communist state and were recognized and honored as martyrs. Nearly half of these martyrs are either buried as unknown combatants in state-designated martyr cemeteries or are reported missing. Like many societies after warfares, Vietnam perceives finding and identifying missing war dead as one of its most important tasks.

My research since 2011 has been focusing on two different procedures that Vietnamese families and state institutions use today to find and identify the war dead: spiritual forensics and DNA-based forensics. Facing the challenge of finding and identifying millions of missing war dead, Vietnamese families since the 1990s have resorted to “spiritual forensics”, a variety of spiritual techniques to locate and name the dead. The success of ‘spiritual forensics’ has challenged Communist atheism and the state’s arbitrary control over whose bodies can be unearthed and repatriated and whose cannot. To counter spiritual forensics, in 2013 the Vietnamese began to import top-notch DNA-based forensic technology, which is exclusively used for the identification of the remains of those who died fighting for, not against, the communist government. 

In this talk, I shall explain the impact of the use of forensic science on the identification process and on the politics of remembrance in Vietnam. Whereas scholarship worldwide demonstrates that the scientific progress in identifying the war dead leads to shifting modes of remembrance, the case of Vietnam seems to suggest an opposite development. My research data points to the fact that the introduction of DNA technology is largely another way in which the Vietnamese state tries to control its population. Besides discontent among living relatives of the missing about the intrusive way state officers are handling the process of identification using DNA technology, there is also a fear of again losing hold of their missing loved ones, this time as an impersonal number in the state bureaucracy. Moreover, the act of extracting DNA is seen by many as an act of posthumous violence done to the remains of the dead. This raises the question to what extent science can frame Vietnam’s commemoration of war, particularly in shaping what recovery efforts and identifications mean to families of the missing. The contentious bones of the Vietnamese war dead continue to juggle between spiritual care and forensic care while testing the limits of science and structuring the intimate relationship between the living and the dead in Vietnam.

About Tam Ngo

Dr. Tam Ngo studies religious changes, the dialogues between spiritualism and sciences, and memory politics in post-war late socialist Vietnam and China using anthropological methods and discourse analysis. She also conducted ethnographic fieldwork among Vietnamese former guest-workers and boat refugees in Germany. Listen to a podcast about her first bookThe New Way: Protestantism and the Hmong in Vietnam (Seattle, 2016) or a read a review of it.

While researching that project, she frequently came across local narratives about the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Border War, which formed the core of her second book project, provisionally title: The Unclaimed War: The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Border War and its memory politics in Vietnam and China. Part of the findings of this book project has been published in “Dynamics of Memory and Religious Nationalism in a Sino-Vietnamese Border Town (Modern Asian Studies, 2019) and “Bones of Contention: Situating the Dead of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Border War” (forthcoming, American Ethnologist).

At the NIOD, she will be leading a research project (Vidi, NWO) , titled: “Bones of Contention: Technologies of Identification and Politics of Reconciliation in Vietnam”, which investigates the use of spiritual and DNA forensics to find and identify war dead in Vietnam and its implication for the country's reconciliation politics."

In 2021, she has been nominated by the Max Planck Society to be a member of the  AcademiaNet: Profiles of Leading Women Scientists. View the profie of Dr. Tam Ngo. 

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