Vietnam: There Is More At Stake


Ton-That Quynh-Du

For more than a decade the liberalisation of the Vietnamese economy, reactive in nature and initially intended to be limited in scale, has progressed and has brought a level of reasonable well being to a large section of the populace - mostly those in the cities with good connections. It has also spawned a great deal of official political rhetoric on the wisdom of the Vietnamese Communist Party, stressing that it was the VCP that made the decision to liberalise the economy and to 'save the nation from total economic collapse'.

In short, a consequence of having economic management at the centre of political discourse is that the notion of performance legitimacy has been gaining some grounds. In fact some commentators have even said that economic management may well begin to replace past achievements of the VCP as the justification for the continuation of the VCP's hold on power.

It is at this juncture that some dark clouds are gathering on the horizon: stalling rate of growth and declining foreign investment, both of which are direct consequences of the Asian economic crisis. And there is internal tension as well, which is not.

The state of dissension in Vietnam is not in any way black and white. There is not a single focus for criticism nor is there a single common rally call, but a range of people have voiced their concern over a number of issues.

In one corner, mostly suppressed so far, are the calls for Vietnam to do away with the single party system and embrace a multi-party system from dissidents such as writer Doan Viet Hoat and Dr Nguyen Dan Que, recently released from prison after substantial periods of detention for their advocacy of democracy.

Former revolutionaries, including Dr Duong Quynh Hoa, novelist Duong Thu Huong, and now former General Tran Do, have openly questioned whether the present reality is worth the past sacrifice. They have either called for a return of a purer form of socialism (as in the case of Dr Duong Quynh Hoa) or for a more equitable process of economic reform which would address the growing social inequalities of the past years. Last year social unrest broke out in the province of Thai Binh in the north - regarded as the cradle of Vietnamese revolution - in the form of a riot during which peasants burned public buildings and kidnapped the local police. The riot was a protest fuelled by the frustration felt by the poorest sector of the population over local corruption. Corruption is now a major concern for the government of Vietnam, reflected in the plea made last month by Pham Van Dong, a former Prime Minister and Ho Chi Minh's right hand man, for the VCP to take action to stamp out corruption.

And there is the postwar generation. Pham Van Dong may be well and revered by Vietnamese communists at 92 years of age, but the reality of present day Vietnam is that a huge proportion of Vietnam's population is younger than 40. To the postwar generation, political causes are far less important than the day-to-day well being, which depends on how well the economy is managed.

For a decade the VCP have had it both ways. They have enjoyed the political kudos for backing a process of reform and at the same time holding back genuine reform. The time may have come for the VCP leadership to embrace faster economic reform. In so doing they will be achieving a double goal: to lay the foundation for longterm sustainable recovery and to bring Vietnam into a single-party political system based on a notion of performance legitimacy, which is not so different from other neighbouring countries.

WATCHPOINT: Vietnam is facing the impact of the Asian economic crisis at a most crucial time.


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