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Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Some pits remain in Vietnam's growing bowl of cherries


LOS ANGELES -- The people of Vietnam -- who celebrated the 30th anniversary of the United States' final pullout from Saigon on April 30 -- are getting with the market-oriented, rich-is-glorious, we-love-anyone-with-money (including Westerners), China-clone program of economic reform (while keeping dissidents under the party's boot) aimed at reconciling the internal contradictions of Marxism by making the Vietnamese people too wealthy and comfortable to bother to dissent or try to poop the party.

A prominent conveyor of this with-it message was Ambassador Ton Nu Thi Ninh, who recently completed a charm offensive in the U.S. In a wide-ranging interview, she painted a portrait of a thoroughly reforming Vietnam. Ton Nu claims there is as much raucous internal dissent and debate now in the Communist Party of Vietnam as in the U.S. Congress, adding: "The top-down format is now rare: "Mostly there is a suggestion from the top for discussion, but the discussion is now bottom up."

For its part, America, on the whole, seems comfortable with the new image of Vietnam. Ten years ago diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi were officially normalized. About 4 1/2 years ago, President Bill Clinton made a ground-breaking official visit there. A year later the two countries, once so much at each other's throats, actually inked a bilateral trade agreement. How much the times have changed.

But not everyone has moved on. Some of the more than 1 million ethnic Vietnamese in America don't buy Ambassador Ton Nu's offer of good will at all. They believe a Red is a Red until he's dead, that the Hanoi regime remains the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.

Replies the ambassador: "Back in Vietnam after the war was over, there were so many people who lost more. People back home overcame -- why can't the Vietnamese here in the United States overcome, too?"

It's a fair question, but hard to answer sympathetically as long as one can observe pieces of the "old" Vietnam still in action. Case in point: the continuing harsh crackdown against Vietnam's Montagnard minority. Some are Christian and most are fiercely anticommunist.

Vietnamese officials say the Montagnards are "enemies of the state," and view them as a domestic issue. But while Montagnard refugees are fleeing into Cambodia, Phnom Pen is only meeting them halfway, only granting them temporary refuge status under a bad deal involving Hanoi and the United Nations.

With the U.S. now vowing to accept many of the refugees on to its shores, the issue has become internationalized. In this age of globalization and instant communication, it seems, there are few purely domestic issues.

Undoubtedly Vietnam -- now easily one of the world's fastest-growing economies -- has indeed come a long way over the decades. What's more, many Americans appear prepared to continue to improve relations in the time-honored American spirit of forgive-and-forget. But simple human-rights sagas like that of the Montagnards play precisely into the hands those who will not let go of the memory of the dark days of Vietnam. Those in Vietnam who order these harsh crackdowns -- which inevitably get played back to the West -- are the unintentional true "enemies of the people."

The country needs more diplomats and charmers like Ton Nu -- and far fewer communist warriors who -- in "Apocalypse Now" fashion -- see dangerous counter-revolutionaries on every mountaintop and insist on the cracked-heads approach to dissent.

Tom Plate is a UCLA professor. Copyright Tom Plate 2005


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