Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Vietnam's Disheartening Anniversary

Under Communist leadership, Vietnam has failed to make its mark on the world.

April 30, 1975, holds great significance for the Vietnamese. For some, it is the day when their country was lost. For others it is the day when their country, once divided between North and South, was finally reunited.

For them, April 30 is a date to be celebrated. Ultimately, however, it is the day when Saigon fell to the Communists, and Vietnam and her citizens were forever changed. In wars there are winners and losers; and for those loyal to the government of South Vietnam or opposed the Communist regime, they were the defeated, forced to flee and settle abroad.

Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, these refugees have by and large succeeded in integrating into their new community and rebuilt their lives.

Conversely, those who remained behind, willingly or unwillingly, were subject to poverty and poor leadership of a single-party state.

Today it remains to be seen where Vietnam will head. However, it is clear that real changes must occur. Since 1975 when the Communists assumed power, it was hoped by loyal subjects to the party that Vietnam would change for the better. As the passing of time has revealed, Vietnam and her people have instead suffered. The few economic changes enacted in the late 1980s and 1990s have improved living conditions for a fortunate minority. However, the bulk of the populace remains mired in poverty, with 2011 per capita gross domestic product the equivalent of US$3,300, ranking it 166th in the world of 226 countries. Moreover, little has been done to empower the people. On the Gini coefficient index, which ranks countries by income disparity, Vietnam scores 77th in the world.

Need for reform

The necessary changes to modernize Vietnam are political and constitutional reform. It is not enough to pay lip service to human rights. The government must respect human rights. It is not enough to say free speech exists, but then deny said right when citizens criticize the state. Any political reform must fundamentally change the government. What is required is not a Band-Aid solution but a new way (and new rules) of governing.

The success of any real reform requires the current regime to relinquish much of its power and authority to provinces and local authorities. A degree of decentralization is necessary so that the central government will be limited in its ability to act unilaterally and undemocratically. Of this, change will come slowly; however, the people must take charge in affecting change. To live on the same land and breathe the same air as their leaders, common citizens are entitled by the laws of nature to the same opportunities given to those they follow.

A most pressing concern will undoubtedly be the fate of the Communist Party. The party that has for long afflicted the nation with poor leadership must not be forced into oblivion. Democracy entails majority rule and minority rights. The minority, however unpopular and controversial, must be provided the same opportunities as the majority. The opposition serves the necessary purpose of holding the ruling government accountable, not to itself (the opposition) but to the people.

Beyond the usual rhetoric for change such as democracy and human rights, there are other equally important reasons. Just as businesses reevaluate strategies in order to stay current and profitable, so too must government. A one-party state may be provide the most efficient model in reaching consensus, but it is extremely cumbersome, overlooking details at the grassroots level. Though a democratic form of government may at times appear frustratingly inefficient, but it is still the fairest form of government.

Necessary reconciliation

Assuming that the Communist Party of Vietnam has taken drastic steps in constitutional and political reform, releasing human rights activists and political dissidents from jail; assuming that elections have been held at every level of government, and the elected party has put into motion plans to further modernize and democratize Vietnam—what will happen next?

It is reasonable to expect feelings of hostility directed against the previous regime. It is difficult to imagine that bygones will be bygones, and all will be forgiven. There will be those individuals who feel that Vietnam’s leaders must answer for their transgressions, real or imagined. And they should. But mob justice must not be allowed to displace the rule of law.

For Vietnam to truly move forward, it must first make peace with its past and experience a moment of catharsis. Although politically and historically different, an example to follow is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid. Again, differences in Vietnam and South Africa are wide, but such a commission could help heal old wounds. The commission would not bring to justice past crimes, but it could bring them to light. It could introduce transparency where previously there was none.

It is unlikely the commission will be welcomed by all, but dwelling too much on the past will not help the new Vietnam focus on rebuilding for the future.

Necessary change

Vietnam, as it exists today, is not ready to face the future. Its method of doing business is rooted in the politics of the past. The politics of the Communist Party has been one of self-preservation, holding onto whatever power they can. Though members of the party can no longer be described as real communist ideologues, it must be realized that they are being outpaced by their neighbors who have adapted to the changing times.

Vietnam has made efforts to modernize, but they are being overtaken by those countries who have taken radical but necessary steps. Should Vietnam wish to play any significant role in the 21st century, it must first join the 21st century; however, this cannot happen without real change. Chance must occur at the top, but it must be supported at the base.

Thirty-seven years after the fall of Saigon, the people of Vietnam have a choice to make: They can continue to relive the past thirty-seven years, or they can begin shaping their future.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)

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