Bones of contention: technologies of identification and the politics of reconciliation in Vietnam

Tam Ngo

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Finding and identifying missing war dead is an important task for any society after warfare. How this task is performed has a strong impact on post-war political reconciliation. The key objective of “Bones of Contention” is to gain thorough empirical and theoretical knowledge of the processes of war-dead identification and post-war reconciliation in Vietnam.

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’ 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 advanced DNA-based forensic technology, which is also only permitted in the identification of the remains of those who died fighting for, and not against, the communist government.

Using ethnographic fieldwork, the following two main questions are posed: (1) how are the two technologies of identification, i.e., spiritual forensics and DNA-based forensics, applied and discussed by families of the war dead and by state institutions; and (2) how does the differential utilization of these technologies and respective discourses relate to Vietnam post-war reconciliation politics?

The innovation and urgency of this research is the study of the production and reception of scientific methods and knowledge in a highly politicized social environment. What is to be gained is an understanding of the role of different kinds of expertise (scientific and spiritual) in the process of reconciliation in post-war Vietnam. As Vietnam constitutes a major test-case of new DNA technology, this research is directly relevant for the further development of these methods in a culturally-sensitive manner. The insight obtained in this project will be pertinent for the process of war-dead identification elsewhere.

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