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Coming To Terms

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 216 - February 1991

Coming to terms

It's time to try and make sense of what I've seen. This has been a disturbing trip for me. Not because of the poverty and desperation I have witnessed, depressing though that is. Sadly, poor people in trouble were one thing I did expect to find in coming to Vietnam.

No, the trip has been disturbing because it has challenged some of my own basic assumptions. The pro-American leanings of people in Saigon that I mentioned in the last chapter are a case in point. I have always seen the US involvement in Vietnam as a criminal mistake. And nothing I have seen or heard on this trip has changed my mind about that. But I have also always thought of the Americans and their puppet regime as chronically unpopular with ordinary South Vietnamese people. I now know things were a bit more complicated than that.

The new economic thinking is often disconcerting, too. I've always argued against the injustices of a free-market capitalist system. The arthritic central planning of the Soviet Union and its allies has never been any sort of alternative. But that doesn't rule out all forms of planning and, besides, socialist countries like Vietnam, Cuba and Angola have seemed quite justified in keeping at arm's length a global economic system founded on the exploitation of the Third World. So it is rather alarming to come to Vietnam and find it tearing up its own blueprint as a failure, to find it plunging enthusiastically into the implacable ocean of the global market.

Time and again I find myself in the bizarre position of worrying more about the dangers of the free market than the Government advisers and senior Communist Party members I interview. I talk in Hanoi, for instance, to the head of the government committee charged with encouraging foreign investment. I ask if he isn't worried about the damage multinational corporations are going to do in Vietnam if they are allowed a free rein. Surely he must be learning from the experience of other developing countries?

'The only thing we are learning from our neighbours is what deal they are offering the multinationals in order that we can undercut them,' he says. 'We want to offer foreign companies more profit, more freedom to operate, so that we can attract as 'much of their money here as possible.'

It turns out this man, who was once Mayor of Hanoi and a stern advocate of socialist central planning, now sees South Korea as the model for Vietnam to try and emulate. This is an answer to delight the World Bank, which last year applauded the boldness of price and exchange-rate reforms which 'went further than any previous such reform in planned economies'. Yet even it is concerned that 'the development of indigenous entrepreneurs and firms can be hampered if the economy comes to be dominated by foreign firms'.'

I may worry about Vietnam entering the global economy naked and vulnerable; about the impact of its reforms on health and education. But hanging back in principled poverty and stagnation is simply not an option. Vietnam has explored one alternative to the free-market orthodoxy and found it to be a dead end. You can understand why it now wants to join the economic highway on which everyone else is travelling.

Yet another challenge to my own assumptions is in the area of human rights. Now I must admit political repression in countries like Cuba and Vietnam has not been at the top of my campaigning agenda over the years. Western governments have seemed to make enough noise about it not to need me.

But it is clear that in Vietnam before 1986 there was widespread fear of informers and the neighbourhood police. Doi moi has changed things dramatically - people can speak much more freely and I have all kinds of conversations that a Western journalist could not have had a few years ago. Yet I am shocked by the amount of self-censorship that has to go on even now. People still steer clear of politics: again and again they trail off, saying something like 'this is getting dangerously political...'

In only one case do I really penetrate this understandable reserve and find dynamite underneath. I have been given Thuy's name and address by a Vietnamese in the West. I am careful when I make contact with her and keep our two evening meetings quiet from my interpreter and the Ministry of Information (who generally try to 'control' my itinerary). On the first evening Thuy (a pseudonym) is very cagey: the conversation doesn't venture out of safety. But in the course of the second evening she decides she has enough confidence in me to talk freely.

She and her friends in Hanoi's student or intelligentsia circles are very impatient for faster change. 'The Party leaders are geriatric and right out of touch,' she says scornfully. 'We can't trust them to bring in the changes we need. We need other political parties apart from the Communists - we are all talking about pluralism now (in private). We need democracy as well as dollars here in Vietnam.'

Dangerous Impatience
Thuy's attitudes, even her phrases, vividly recall the impatient talk of students in China in the summer of 1989. I end up counselling caution for fear that Thuy and her friends might push things too far, too fast, so that something similar to the Tiananmen Massacre puts an end to reform. In truth she and people like her are a tiny minority still a long way from taking to the streets - they know that most Vietnamese are more concerned about living standards than greater democracy, and the Government can hardly be accused of timidity on the economic front.

But the Chinese parallel is a valid one since, as it did in Beijing, a battle is going on within the Vietnamese Communist Party between reformers (led by the Foreign Ministry) and conservatives (led by the Interior Ministry). In general since 1986 the reformers have had the upper hand but every now and then they suffer a reversal. In the run-up to the 100th anniversary of Ho Chi Minh's birth last year, for instance, there was a clampdown, with Western journalists and aid workers expelled for alleged CIA destabilization.

As in China, the Communist Party knows that economic change is inevitable - but it finds political reform much more difficult to accept. The Party now acknowledges some of its past mistakes and there are campaigns aplenty against bureaucratic corruption. But the revolutions in Eastern Europe scared the Communist hierarchy witless, with the result that 'pluralism' or multi-party democracy is as taboo as it ever was.

Besides, there may well be a case for soft-pedalling on the political front - and not just because pushing too hard might provoke a backlash. In Saigon I speak to the editors of a Catholic newspaper who are certainly of that view. Intelligent and articulate, they seem able to say most of what they want in print - even though they have to meet monthly with a Party Propaganda Committee.

I ask them if they would be allowed to advocate multiparty democracy. 'Now that's another matter. We can talk of pluralism but not of multi-partyism - an important distinction. Besides, we're not necessarily of the view that a multiparty system would be the right thing here at the moment. Look at the convulsions in Eastern Europe where they've tried to switch over immediately and become very unstable - you can be sure things would be worse in a poor country like Vietnam. We have to change bit by bit. But we'll arrive in the end in our own Vietnamese way - which usually means waiting for what you want a bloody long time.

The risk of a clampdown is real enough, mainly because of the economic dangers ahead. Vietnam's only aid since the War has come from the Soviet bloc (with the notable exception of Sweden). But that dribbled to a halt in the course of 1990 as old priorities gave way to new in Moscow. Vietnam was in dire enough trouble even with this help and at the moment the West shows no sign of moving into the breach.

As a result Vietnam could be forced into a rapprochement with its age-old enemy, China, which has offered aid, but on one condition: that there is no more political liberalization. If the West does not change its tune soon, the conservatives are going to have hard cash on their side.

So, even leaving aside questions of humanity, it is in the political interests of the West to end the economic embargo and start offering some aid - and thereby stop a new hard-line Asian Communist bloc of China, Vietnam and Cambodia coming into being. There are commercial benefits to be had too: I am assured by a Japanese entrepreneur visiting Danang that 'the Vietnam market has great potential' (you can trust the Japanese to get in early).

The Western ban on trade and aid - 'this barbarous embargo', the Assistant Foreign Minister calls it when I meet him in Hanoi - has been all too effective. Vietnam may have won the War but in a very real sense the US has won the peace. Yet again (as in Nicaragua) an economic embargo has proved much more effective than military action in bringing a recalcitrant Third World country to its knees. Vietnam is now not only desperate to make friends; it has also discarded all but the rhetorical shell of its old Communist principles. What more does the US want?

A great adventure
That sounds a very negative conclusion for those of us who have sympathized with Vietnam's stand over the years - it has been ground into submission and accepted the way of the (Western) world. But there is no need to see it that way if you take your cue from the Vietnamese people. Far from feeling a sense of defeat, they are full of enthusiasm for the changes sweeping through their country, excited by the idea that they might at last be able to cast off their pariah status and make friends with all the world. They see their fresh start as a great adventure.

And they have such energy and ability that it is not so far-fetched to imagine an economic miracle taking place here. Imagine the courage, commitment and skill that the Vietnamese showed in defeating the greatest military power on earth and then imagine all of that focussed on commerce and trade, on making headway in the global marketplace. Give them half a chance and watch them fly.

Vietnam is more than ready to forgive and forget. I lose count of the number of times people tell me: 'all we want now is to live in peace'. The war is over. Give peace a chance. George Bush, are you receiving me?

* * *

In Nhatrang, which boasts the most beautiful beach in Vietnam, I get up at dawn for a swim before continuing my punishing car journey. The water is so warm that it is hard to swim and I lie back in the shallows as though I were in a bath. Even so early there are hundreds of people out on the beach exercising and swimming, making a vigorous start to the day. Petty traders are already out: commerce is in full swing. As I walk back past the beach café I notice a woman picking through a garbage bin for interesting scraps. And one of those old Communist Party loudspeakers is fighting a losing battle against a song by that most all-American of pop groups, the Carpenters. But everyone I see is smiling.

1 Vietnam: Stabilization and Structural Reforms, World Bank internal report, April 1990.

The key group in your country to contact if you want to take action on Vietnam.

Vietnam Action and Information Network,
P0 Box 9716, Wellington.
Tel: (Kath Kelly) (04)-850-703.

Australian Vietnam Society,
PO Box 435, Jamieson, ACT 2614.

Anglican Church Primate's Fund,
600 Jarvis St, Toronto M4Y 2J6.
Tel: (416)-924-9192.

Britain Vietnam Association, c/-Len Aldis,
Flat 2, 26 Tomlins Grove, London E3 4NX.
Tel: (081)-980-7146.

American Friends Service Committee,
1501 Cherry St, Philadelphia, PA 19102.
Tel: (215)-241-7150.

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