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Monday, 8 July, 2002, 13:18 GMT 14:18 UK
Vietnam's unburied soldiers head home
Cemetery, central Vietnam
Burial is an essential rite for Vietnam's Buddhists

Vietnam and Cambodia have agreed to speed up the repatriation of the remains of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers who died when Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge regime from Cambodia in 1979.

Vietnamese soldiers return from Cambodia
Vietnam saw the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge as 'liberation'
A programme of increased co-ordination between local authorities and villagers in Cambodia will start with the dry season later this year.

The sensitive issue of the Vietnamese role in Cambodia is rarely discussed publicly in Vietnam.

A foreign ministry spokeswoman, Phan Thuy Thanh, says the recoveries are a symbol of improving relations with Phnom Penh.

Western estimates put the number of those missing-in-action, or MIAs, at about 10,000.

A programme to repatriate Vietnamese remains for home burial began just last year.

Since then more than 2,000 sets of remains have been recovered. This is despite the difficulty of the work in Cambodia where the recovery teams operate in remote areas, often without maps, and with limited forensic resources which could help to identify the remains.

Vietnam has also been repatriating MIAs from its Communist neighbour, Laos.

Religious beliefs

Ceremonies for the handover of the remains are familiar to those who follow the multi-million dollar search for American soldiers who went missing during the Vietnam War.

The United States MIA taskforce has recovered about 600 sets of remains from an estimated 2,500 soldiers who disappeared in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The heartache of lost relatives is one link of understanding between former enemies in the east and the west.

Many Vietnamese people are Buddhist or hold deep superstitions about the dead. They believe that without a proper burial, the soul of the dead wanders in limbo.

For most households, ancestor spirits are remembered daily at family altars and remain a part of everyday life. Many families turn to clairvoyants in the search for clues about finding and returning the dead.

Under the new agreement between Hanoi and Phnom Penh, the search for Vietnamese MIA's will be stepped-up in the dry season later in the year.

Hanoi says little about the number of dead or the cost of recovery, and there is little public talk about the campaign in Cambodia. Communist Hanoi regards the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent decade of occupation as a liberation.

Many Khmer people see it differently and retain a deep suspicion towards their neighbours.

See also:

02 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
26 Feb 02 | Country profiles
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
07 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
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