WHEN SERVING the U.S. Peace Corps as a high school teacher in the African nation of Togo, I was often asked why I left my homeland after Vietnam had won the war over the Americans. My African colleagues and students wondered why I left to come to the United States and why I am happy to be an American after it lost the war in Vietnam. They also wondered why so many Americans would forgo their comfortable lives to come to such a place as Togo where they cannot enjoy even the basic needs like running water and electricity. They were puzzled when my answer was that America is a land of true freedom and democracy. Americans are free to do whatever they wish, even to give up their good lives to help others.
Why I left Vietnam is a question that haunted me for the first few years after arriving in the United States. As a university student at the war’s end I felt I should stay to help in rebuilding the country as many of my friends did. But later I came to realize my decision was correct.
Coming to America was a very difficult decision. When the war approached its final stage in April 1975, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, I hastily stepped into a merchant ship at the Saigon River bank and left the country without knowing my destination. I left just before the communist tanks ran into the city and pushed through the gates of the Presidential Palace.
The event marked the end of a decade-long confrontation with 58,000 American lives lost and billions of dollars spent and America’s failure in containing communism from spreading south.
I felt uneasy when passing through the refugee camps in the Philippines, Guam and Camp Pendleton in Southern California. But this feeling was not strong enough to make me sign up for repatriation as more than 1,000 Vietnamese did in October 1975 (and many of these returnees later wound up in Vietnamese re-education camps).
Although I realized that the United States supported an unpopular government headed by President Nguyen Van Thieu, I could not sympathize with the Viet Cong who terrorized people as my memories could recall during the Tet Offensive in Hue. I wanted to see America and judge for myself if this was truly the land of freedom and democracy, advanced technology, a dream land for many people like me. So I came to America, believing that if I wanted to return to Vietnam I could still do so later.
After having settled in California I was able to communicate with old friends still in Vietnam. Many of them were not allowed to continue their university education for political reasons — they had relatives serving the old regime. Others were prohibited because they were Catholic. Saigon University’s School of Law, which I attended, was closed down, and there are no law schools in Vietnam today.
Under the present communist regime, Vietnam still has a criminal code that punishes with harsh prison terms individuals who peacefully and non-violently express their views for social justice and basic human rights. Virtually all religious activities require permission from the local or provincial authorities. Several well-known prisoners have received worldwide attention, and are considered political prisoners by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Asia Watch.
Father Chan Tin, a progressive Saigon Catholic priest during the war, has been under house arrest since 1990 for delivering a series of sermons in the church appealing for national repentance.
Doctor Nguyen Dan Que, founder of a non-violent movement and the only member of Amnesty International in Vietnam, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in November 1991 because he called upon the government to initiate genuine social and political reform. Professor Doan Viet Hoat, former vice rector of the Buddhist Van Hanh University, has been detained without trial since November 1990 for circulating a news magazine advocating freedom and democracy.
Venerables Thich Huyen Quang and Thich Quang Do, the two highest ranking monks of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (An Quang), well known during the war for its anti-war, “third force” stance, have been under house arrest for the last 10 years for protesting the government’s creation of its own Buddhist church, to which all other Buddhist organizations are required to belong.
Since April of last year, Quang and other Buddhists have begun a protest movement to demand religious freedom in the country, despite government efforts to suppress them.
Since the war ended almost 18 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people have been detained in re-education camps. Many artists, writers, journalists, Buddhist monks and Catholic priests are still under arrest.
It has been 20 years since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 to withdraw all American troops and free all prisoners of war and political prisoners in Vietnam. The treaty also promised to bring peace and reconciliation to Vietnam, but the Vietnamese people are still struggling for their own dignity and basic rights.
Recently, the United States sped up its effort to normalize relations with communist Vietnam without much attention to political prisoners and the need for basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religions, and the guarantee of free multi-party elections.
In the post Cold War era and the dawn of the new world order, economic pressure seems to be effective in fostering democracy around the world. In Togo, the United States last year halted all financial support and development aid to the government of Gnassingbe Eyadema to force him to nominate an opposition leader, lawyer Kokou Koffi, as the prime minister to head the interim government and promise a general election in the near future.
My Togolese friends feel encouraged by the U.S. sanctions. In other countries, the United States has brought similar pressure on dictators to open up their country politically.
If the United States maintains such pressure on the communist leaders in Vietnam, democracy will prevail and the Vietnamese people will have a chance to exercise their basic rights. Then the objectives that the United States had when it first got involved in that part of the world more than 40 years ago will be achieved, this time without such a great cost in human lives.
I did not realize the value of the American style of freedom until I lived in the United States and became an American citizen. But I would also not understand its value if I had not lived in Vietnam, and if I did not have relatives and friends who suffered so grievously from the deprivation of freedom.
I hope my fellow Americans will understand how valuable the freedoms enjoyed in this country are to those of us who come from other countries, and how important it is for America to promote the cause of freedom throughout the world. The United States should maintain pressure on Vietnam until it is free.
Phu Bui currently is a public school teacher in Oakland. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and United Nations educational supervisor in Southeast Asian refugee camps.
[San Jose Mercury News (CA) – February 23, 1993]