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Friday, April 4, 2008

The power of Vietnam's feminine side

HO CHI MINH CITY — Powerful women seem to be appearing frequently in Asian news these days. Recent headlines have trumpeted the continued defiance of Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi while mourning the assassination of the Pakistani heir-apparent Benazir Bhutto.

The truth is there's nothing that new about powerful women in Asia.

They are omnipresent throughout the region, embedded even in otherwise sexist or patriarchal cultures. Over the decades, national liberation movements have spawned prominent female insurgent leaders. Even the long-established political dynasties throw up their fair share of powerful matriarchs.

So, while the U.S. electorate goes about deciding whether the next American president will be a woman, in a country where no woman has even been vice president, I was able to sit down with a legendary — indeed, in this region — Vietnamese woman who helped spearhead her country's reunification struggle against both the ill-fated French and American interventions.

Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, now in her 80s, has aged quite gracefully, thank you. Even today, she packs such punch and panache in her eyes and such bouncy incandescence in recollecting her involvement in the historic Paris Peace Talks of 1972 and the ultimate U.S. troop withdrawal from her country, that you can't imagine how we Americans might ever have thought we could possibly prevail here.

Vice president of Vietnam for 10 years from 1992, Madame Binh looks every bit the part of the Asian woman of steel and destiny. She is happy to comment, diplomatically, about things American, especially as they relate to Vietnam.

"That Iraq war will go on too long," she says, at once tugging at her brown socks, then sipping Vietnamese tea from a large glass. As with Vietnam, "the U.S. considered itself a big power and behaved like a big power. And because it was such a great power, it could not accept that the Vietnamese people would actually fight against them."

It was only "after great losses," as she put it, that America withdrew from Vietnam. With Iraq she fears our big-power hubris will delay the inevitability of withdrawal: "With Iraq, it's different from Vietnam, but the general purpose is the same — the U.S. wants to impose its rule and its rules on other countries."

This view of U.S. hegemony through socialist eyes that have seen much over the decades might strike Americans as far more ideological than historical. The American intervention, after all, was justified to prevent the spread of communism from North Vietnam to the south and then (presumably) through all of Southeast Asia.

But, as Madame Binh notes, the Cold War is over, and America and Vietnam have gotten on with the job of trying to relate in a businesslike manner. And she is not at all reluctant to admit that Vietnam has made its own share of mistakes in its struggle to escape Third World underdevelopment.

"Socialism does need to be democratic," she admitted, "and we really have not implemented it well enough. But if we want to implement true democracy in Vietnam, we need to have much better education for our people. You can't have intelligent public participation without sufficient public education."

That, she points out, will take lots of money or, in the fancy phrase of our times, economic development. To that end, Vietnam needs to make friends with every country, make no more enemies than necessary, and be warm and gracious to all visitors and tourists, especially those with money to burn.

In truth, the Vietnamese can be the friendliest of hosts. At times the buoyant energy of the place feels like a surging South Korea a decade or so ago. To be sure, the country must not only overcome the enormous cost of its past wartime struggles but the continuing cost of an oft-overbearing communist bureaucracy characteristically suspicious of any move it cannot control.

Madame Binh has seen it all, of course, and expects that in the course of time Vietnam's political culture will measure up to its economic development needs. It will have to or Vietnam will fail.

Such issues rise above gender, in Asia or elsewhere. Although their sisterhood makes her "very happy" for U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the values and the decisions of America's next president "are what is most important," she says, rising to say goodbye.

In effect, despite all the time that has gone by, very little has changed in that regard.

Tom Plate, UCLA professor and syndicated columnist, is currently traveling in Southeast Asia. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate

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