Vietnam: Freedom's Meanings In Vietnam And The Philippines


Ben Kerkvliet

Recent debates about Asian values have shown convincingly that people in Asia frequently disagree about the meaning of key ideas in political and social life. As China specialist David Kelly has argued, 'Asia is not all of a piece....' Neither are individual countries.

An illustration is the meaning of 'freedom' in the Philippines and Vietnam. In each country since at least the late 19th century-early 20th century there have been different, often contentious notions about what freedom is or should be. Many of the ideas can be clustered under three headings: national freedom, personal and civic freedom, and social-economic freedom.

National freedom means freedom from foreign domination, the right of people to govern their own country. Today, decades after both countries have become independent, the content of national freedom remains contentious among some people in both countries. Many Muslims in Mindanao and Sulu islands argue, indeed rebel, against the Philippine nation as presently constituted. They seek their own independence, to be free from domination by the Philippine nation state headquartered in Metro Manila. Some Vietnamese, meanwhile, continue to see their country oppressed by foreign rule - not colonialism any more but communism. For them, national freedom requires an end to communist party domination of the country's political system.

Personal and civic freedoms include freedom from coercive and abusive rules and rulers, freedom to develop one's potential, and freedom to criticize authorities and engage in public affairs. Such values annimated many Filipinos who opposed martial law rule of President Marcos (1972-1986). In recent months, thousands of Filipinos critical of government interference in the publication of certain newspapers marched in the streets of Manila and other cities to defend freedom of press. In Vietnam, despite constitutional provisions protecting freedom of speech and assembly among other civic rights, government restrictions on what people can say, publish, and do are considerable. Many Vietnamese citizens object, risking imprisonment and other penalties by calling for a more open and free political system. The internet, which the Vietnamese government has greater difficulty controlling than other media, has become a means for circulating contentious ideas about civic and personal freedoms.

Social-economic freedoms involve freedom from hunger and poverty. Marcos justified martial law rule in part on the idea that authoritarian measures were required in order to reduce the power of the economic elite and bring the masses out of poverty. That he never made good on those promises contributed to his eventual downfall. The Communist Party government officials in Vietnam today often point with pride to much greater freedom from exploitation and deprivation for peasants and workers under its rule than Vietnam had before. They often go on to warn against domestic and international forces who, hiding behind a pretence of 'human rights' and 'democracy', are hostile to Vietnam's achievements and seek, instead, a political system operated for and by the rich capitalists. Those authorities have a tougher time dismissing complaints from villagers, such as those in Thai Binh province in 1997, demonstrating against local officials who have become rich off fees, bribes, and extortion at their expense.

WATCHPOINT: : Outbursts of discontent over growing inequalities in Vietnam and continuing inequalities in the Philippines.


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