COMMUNISM IS no longer a vital force in Vietnam, and the country is moving toward a market economy. Thanks to Hanoi’s bold economic reforms, many Vietnamese are enjoying a new lifestyle, with Korean gas stoves, Australian telephones, Singaporean beers, Japanese vehicles and refrigerators, which are the products of joint ventures between Vietnamese and foreigners.
After reunifying the country in 1975, Hanoi’s leaders vowed to turn Vietnam into an economic power by taking the socialist path. Le Duan, then secretary general of Vietnam’s Communist Party, promised that by the year 2000 every Vietnamese household would have a refrigerator. Duan died in 1986, as did the socialist model. His vision, however, probably will become a reality — as a result of the policy of doi moi, or renovation, initiated by party chief Nguyen Van Linh in 1986, which set Vietnam on a new course of economic development. New policies allowed private enterprises to operate and gave Vietnamese incentives for hard work and creativity in making products.
Vietnamese farmers produced 21.5 million tons of rice in 1993. Construction, food processing and tourism industries also expanded enormously. Foreign investments have totaled $7 billion since 1989, $1 billion in the first quarter of 1994 alone. In the past three years, Vietnam’s economy enjoyed an impressive 7 percent annual growth. With the trade embargo against Vietnam lifted, Americans now can compete for a lucrative market.
However, Hanoi’s economic reforms have outpaced its political ones. The government-controlled media frequently publishes articles to warn the people of a “peaceful evolution” aiming to overthrow the communist regime. This is a pretext for arresting those who peacefully express their opposition to government policy.
Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, who was educated in the United States and is a former vice rector of Van Hanh University in Vietnam, was arrested for circulating Dien Dan Tu Do, or Freedom Forum, a magazine with articles calling on the government to implement political freedom. Last year, Hoat was sentenced to a 20-year prison sentence.
Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, head of an underground human rights movement, is serving a 20-year sentence for sending an appeal to the outside world calling for freedom, democracy and pluralism in Vietnam. Que’s devotion to the cause of human rights inspired several U.S. lawmakers to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Doan Thanh Liem, a lawyer, was given a 12-year sentence for “disseminating propaganda against the socialist regime.”
Nguyen Ho, a former National Liberation Front leader, recently was put under house arrest for appealing to the government to initiate social and political reforms.
Religious people suffer the same fate. Thich Huyen Quang, the leader of the independent Unified Buddhist Church, was forced into exile in Quang Ngai province for more than a decade. He continues to defy the government’s repressive policy. Government intervention in church affairs has raised protests in several cities. A dozen monks and lay people were arrested on charges of agitating for reforms. Subsequently, Thich Tri Tuu and others were sentenced to prison terms. Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan, after spending more than 10 years in prison, was allowed to travel to Rome, then Hanoi prohibited him from returning.
According to Puebla Institute, a Washington-based human rights group, 130 preachers are under arrest in Vietnam for their religious activities. And these are just a few stories of human rights abuses in Vietnam.
Undoubtedly, the nation is flexing its economic muscles to catch up with neighboring countries. Can Vietnam become another economic dragon in Asia? The answer depends on Hanoi’s willingness to listen to the dissidents’ call for social and political reforms.
That is the next step that Vietnam must take. A more open society will bring stability and further advance economic growth. It will also encourage the Vietnamese to continue building a prosperous and democratic country.
Phu Bui is a teacher in Oakland. He previously worked with the Peace Corps in Africa and the United Nations in Southeast Asia.
[San Jose Mercury News (CA) – August 5, 1994]