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Opinion-Section

North / South

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Saigon in 1965. A propaganda poster in the city centre exalts people to "Unite, to defend the South and liberate the North!" Photo courtesy: Warren G. Reed Collection.
  • The Vietnamese would like to thank the author, Mr. Will Nguyen, who has given us permission to republish his article, North/South, which was first published in New Naratif.

April 30, 2018|I’ve always been into the idea of counterparts—“separate but equal”, to borrow the politically dangerous phrase. Captain PlanetSailor MoonThe Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers—these shows were always particular favourites of mine as a child because each contained an episode or arc where analogues to the good guys arose: Captain Pollution and his team of toxic “planeteers”, the Four Sisters of the Black Moon, or the Dark Rangers. I find the inherent sense of balance in counterparts intensely satisfying, like yin-yang writ large.

As I’ve grown older, this affinity for correlates extended to international politics, in particular, ideologically-opposed, directionally-split countries, i.e. North and South Korea, or East and West Germany.

The time when the modern Vietnamese nation-state existed as two separate entities naturally possesses a particular gravity in my mind, as I’m sure it does in the minds of many overseas Vietnamese. After all, that pair’s existence, its mutual antagonism, and one’s annihilation of the other is single-handedly responsible for the dispersal of Vietnamese people across the globe, a burst of human photons in one of many collisions between communism and anti-communism.

I was born in America; unbeknownst to me at the time, all the Vietnamese I ever encountered were former citizens of the Republic of Vietnam (i.e. South Vietnam) or as I’d known it, Vietnam. There was no alternative, no other. The yellow flag with three red stripes were ubiquitous and the only representation of Vietnam I knew.

The “right” and “wrong” anthem

Encarta Encyclopedia 97 provided me the first hint of another truth, of another “Vietnam” – the “evil” one, I would quickly learn. I remember doing a project in fifth grade which required us to produce a “country profile” on a nation of our choosing. I referred to the CD-ROM encyclopedia and, without giving it much thought, copied out the red flag with yellow star, Vietnam’s official flag as listed within the country’s entry.

My grandmother was the first to “correct” me, scolding me as Encarta played “Tiến Quân Ca”, the national anthem of North Vietnam from 1945-1975, and after the war, the official one of all Vietnam. That was not the “real” anthem, she told me. The information in that article was “wrong”. When I asked her what the real anthem was, she hummed “Tiếng Gọi Công Dân” – the national anthem of South Vietnam from 1948–1975 – a tune I was much more familiar with.

As I finished up my project, I asked my mother to look over my work. What she did, whether intentional or not, resounds with me to this day. Rather than make me remove my drawing of the yellow-starred red flag, she had me draw South Vietnam’s red-striped yellow flag next to it, presenting both flags as equally valid.

It took me at least another two decades to realise this, but my mother’s simple gesture was both an extremely powerful teaching moment and a representation of my intellectual angst with the overseas Vietnamese identity. It was my first taste of the concept of contradictory but co-existing truths.

Growing up, I never gave that distant land of Vietnam too much thought; the framework for that place and its people had been set up for me. We (the southerners) were the good guys; they (the northerners) were the bad. Everything we said was true; everything they said was lies. I never wondered why we were the ones living in another country.

College, membership in an active Vietnamese student association, and a kind-hearted Vietnamese professor ushered in a new era of knowledge for me. I began taking my first steps toward balance, and further steps towards the truth… or rather, truths.

North to South

In Vietnam, “nam tiến”, literally meaning “march to the south”, refers to the expansion of Vietnam southwards, from the Red River Delta down to the Mekong River Delta. This development shapes Vietnam’s long-standing stereotypes between northerners and southerners. Contrary to people who like to compare the shape of Vietnam to a bamboo yoke or the letter ‘S’, I like to think of the state in more metaphysical terms: a past-oriented north that flows to a future-oriented south.

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia.

 

The Red River Delta is held up as the “birthplace” of Vietnam, the traditional seat of culture and politics. The northern region and its people are perceived as conservative, ascetic, and prone to resource and food shortages. This has bred a northern character that prizes resilience, indirect communication, the concept of “face” (linked to the concept of one’s honour and prestige), and a muted cuisine that uses fewer herbs and spices.

As the state advanced into Cham and Khmer territory, a separate centre of power began developing in the south, attracting those drawn to “frontier” life and a multi-cultured existence. By virtue of self-selection, Vietnam’s expansion south drew the free-wheeling, the forward-looking, the liberal, the cosmopolitan. The south was more abundant in food and resources; Saigon – formerly known by its Khmer name Prey Nokor and currently by its Sino-Vietnamese name Ho Chi Minh City – drew traders from the world over, and life was on the whole, easier and more prosperous.

These historical circumstances have defined what it means to be a southerner: we speak with a relaxed drawl and in a straightforward manner, we cook flavourful, vivacious, eclectic dishes, and we possess a progressive, open outlook that embraces global trends. It was no surprise that the south Vietnamese eagerly adopted American dress, customs, and culture during the 1950s – 1970s.

But it isn’t just a matter of character traits and cuisine; regionalism in its extreme form has repeatedly led to Vietnamese killing Vietnamese. Historian Huy Duc describes Vietnam as a home “whose walls are made of flesh and blood”. It’s not just a metaphor.

North versus South

A civil war in the 17th century proved to be an eerie foreshadowing of events three centuries later. The north and the south were split into two separate polities: “Đàng Ngoài” and “Đàng Trong”, literally the “outside” and the “inside”. The Trinh lords ruled over the north, the Nguyen lords the south. In 1802, the southern Nguyen lords ultimately triumphed over their northern Trinh rivals, uniting the country under its Southern aegis. Inklings of this contentious period still remain in our language: to this day, Vietnamese still say they are going “out” to Hanoi and “into” Saigon.

The 20th-century civil war between North and South was a reverse iteration. The 1954 Geneva Accords split Vietnam into directional counterparts once more – a communist north versus a democratic south – with nationwide elections set to unify the country in two years’ time. Ho Chi Minh was predicted to win. Knowing this, Ngo Dinh Diem declared the formation of an independent southern republic that technically was not signatory to the Geneva Accords and thus un-beholden. The United States supported the non-communist South Vietnamese government, pouring in financial aid. The northern victory in the Vietnam War in 1975 unified the country once more, but different perspectives persist. Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 – the day the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured Saigon – is described either as a liberation or an invasion.

Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 is described either as a liberation or an invasion

My mother regularly reminds me I’m from the south. When I first began taking Vietnamese language classes in college and started pronouncing my v’s, qu’s, and final consonant n’s, she and my eldest aunt jested that I’d “become a northerner”. In class, I quickly learned that much of the Vietnamese I spoke at home was heavily marked by southern vocabulary used pre-1975. The enormous amount of South Vietnamese who had transplanted themselves in the 1970s and 1980s had led to the creation of communities that were essentially living time capsules.

The southernness of my spoken Vietnamese comes and goes depending on how inebriated I am, but the pride is palpable. On the first day of my advanced Vietnamese class at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012, the professor asked me where I was from – “Will là người gì?”

Without thinking, I responded, “Will là người nam (I’m a Southerner).”

Taken aback but pleasantly surprised, the professor said that, in her 30 years of teaching, she’d never heard such a response from a “foreign-born”. I quickly corrected myself – “Will là người Mỹ gốc Việt (I’m a Vietnamese-American)” – but the identity ambiguity persists.

Conversations

My investigation of the history between the north and south often involved prodding fellow southerners with sensitive topics. Once, I asked my Vietnamese professor in college in the United States about one of the war’s alternate names in Vietnam – “Chiến tranh chống Mỹ cứu nước (The war to resist America and save the nation)” – which heavily implied that we southern Vietnamese were imperialist collaborators. (For the record, the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were both assassinated with tacit American support for not being compliant enough.) It was a mind-blowing experience to later see the phrase in propaganda posters on the streets of Saigon.

I had, of course, to thoroughly research the other side as well; I read numerous books and watched countless interviews from individuals on the Communist side, both those based in Hanoi as well as those hidden away in the jungles of South Vietnam.

On my first trip to Vietnam in the summer of 2007, I took liberties during my research project on gay culture in Saigon to randomly ask locals their thoughts on the war, on life post-1975, on their current government.

A propaganda poster displayed in Da Nang. Similar posters can be found in Ho Chi Minh City and other Vietnamese cities. By Dragfyre [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

“These colorful billboards… on every corner. They’re so strange, aren’t they?” That was how I broached the topic with the motorcycle drivers. Casual. Open-ended. The propaganda signs, with their blocky, solid-colored, Soviet-style imagery, were a genuine curiosity to me. They were government-sanctioned, overtly political signs, exalting the Communist Party’s leadership in history, in the South’s “liberation”, in developing a “modern”, civilised Vietnam. And they were literally everywhere. As we drove by the myriad signs peppered around the city, I would use the occasion to ask the moto-drivers their opinions of the political status quo.

“They’re a bunch of liars.”

“They don’t really care about the people.”

As one driver zoomed past a particularly large mansion, he told me that it was the residence of a prominent Communist Party member. There was a consistent sense of cynicism among these working class motorists.

An older, southern woman’s story was particularly interesting, as she was old enough to have experienced the “liberation” and the years that followed. I met her through a family friend of my mother’s. (My mother had been terrified for my safety; I was the first family member to return to Vietnam since they fled, and I would be traveling completely alone as the child of a “collaborating” family.)

Upon arriving at the house, I was impressed by how large and modern it was. It had granite countertops, hardwood floors, and classic, imposing cherrywood furniture. This was luxury by Vietnamese standards; with at least four motorcycles sitting in the spacious courtyard, it was clear this family was relatively well off.

Auntie and I were sitting in the living room having a casual chat about our families, when the conversation turned to what life was like immediately after 30 April 1975.

At this point, she got up to close all the doors and windows, drawing the curtains. She whispered for the rest of the conversation. Her family had been businesspeople during the Republican era, accumulating a good deal of wealth. After the Communists came to town, local party members, aware of the family’s affluence, found an excuse to confiscate the house. It was impossible to dispute the move, so the family decided to work within the new system, establishing enough political connections to eventually reclaim the house within a decade or so. There was a healthy dose of disdain for the powers-that-be in her stories, but her family’s resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness overshadowed all else for me. It was an injustice corrected through cunning manipulation of an alien political system. That she was still paranoid about being overheard 20 years later speaks volumes of the pervasive and oppressive surveillance state the Vietnamese live under.

A different perspective came in the form of a Northern shopkeep at a propaganda poster shop. She’d noticed my many visits to her shop, and figuring out that I was Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese), took the initiative to engage me in conversation about history and politics.

I was taken aback but excited by her friendliness and eagerness to help me understand Vietnam. She told me to ask her anything I wanted. Aware that I was part of a Southern family that had fled after the war, she knew I’d been served a healthy dose of skepticism regarding Communism and the current political regime, and tried her best to argue for the other side. She’d moved to Ho Chi Minh City, she said, after its liberation.

“When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive”

I got straight to the prickly issues. Why had so many people from the South fled? What of the re-education camps? How can the powers-that-be call the current system “democratic” when there’s only one party in charge?

“People fled because they feared retribution,” she said. “When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive.”

The re-education camps, she went to on say, were not all that bad: “The ones I visited even had nice gardens and flower beds. And in any case, you have to understand the situation that the new government was in. You had an entire population grow up under an enemy’s regime. When you come to power, you have to make sure this group cooperates, you have to make sure this group is educated in the ways of the new regime.”

Her answers started to waver, though, when it came to the current “democratic” system. “We have elections. We have voting. We have representatives who form a national assembly,” she said.

“Yeah, but all that stuff doesn’t really matter when you can only pick representatives from one party,” I argued back. “If everyone is forced to follow the same ideology, the same ideas, choice is a moot point. True democracy involves multiple parties.” She disagreed, insisting that because the organs existed, democracy existed in Vietnam.

Conviction and democracy

To be sure, truth is a sensitive topic on both sides; I’d had just grown up entrenched in the anti-communist camp rather than the anti-capitalist one. Various attempts to remedy the situation have led to some rather awkward moments. I remember a conversation between my aunt and my mother where my mother said she had to give credit to the Communist government for keeping the country together and growing the economy at an appreciable clip, but my aunt quickly retorted that my uncle – who had served in the South Vietnamese army – would have maimed her if he heard her talking like that.

I’m still researching today, adopting a less polarised, more nuanced approach to the war and its competing ideologies than perhaps my mother would like. During a BBC interview, southerner Nguyen Thi Binh, former foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam and prominent Communist figure at the Paris Peace Accords, was asked for her thoughts on Vietnamese dissidents and their desire for a better nation. She retorted: “How are they any different from me?”

The dichotomy of “good versus evil” had been so deeply ingrained in the narratives of north and south that, until I heard that comment, I’d never really thought of it that way. These people, these Communists, laid down their lives for their ideals, for their country, and perhaps most meaningfully, for their countrymen. Can, or should, we cynically believe that those who fought on the northern side sacrificed the spring of their lives, and sometimes their lives altogether, simply to gain power at the expense of their fellow Vietnamese?

What, on the other hand, was the South fighting for? Trudging through American history books, one would be hard-pressed to find any real, fleshed-out answer beyond “the domino theory”, a theory that argued that the fall of one country to Communism would lead to a domino effect among its neighbours. Reading such material, it was hard not to buy into the (Hanoian) idea that South Vietnam was a propped-up American creation. In fact, the more I researched, the more I realised that it was a deep sense of ambivalence among the southern population that lead to South Vietnam’s embarrassingly quick demise.

When asked why they were fighting and what they were fighting for, South Vietnamese soldiers often turned out not to be very firm believers in their own cause. Boots and uniforms stripped off and abandoned in place by soldiers deserting on 30 April 1975 testify to that fact.

The wartime South Vietnamese population might not have been able to answer the question of “what are we fighting for?”, but the next few decades of economic mismanagement and political oppression after unification would provide a resounding answer, especially for those not able to escape the country.

By the early 2010s, after nearly a decade of research and reading, my viewpoint had matured from “acknowledge that our side may have been ‘wrong’, and then find out what happened on both sides” to “never lose sight of the fact that democracy as the South attempted to espouse it trumps the totalitarian communism adopted by the North.” Both were foreign, imposed ideologies, and the fact that one conquered the other has no bearing on virtue. As the Vietnamese author and political dissident Duong Thu Huong so eloquently put it: “Beauty does not always triumph.”

Though film and media are thoroughly dominated by northerners, southern defiance is coming to the surface. “We only learn how to cherish things when we’ve already lost them,” the 2017 trailer of Cô Ba Sài Gòn (The Tailor) begins. The southern voiceover is immediately followed by a close-up of Saigon’s city hall, with the camera focused squarely on the flagpole – there the flag of South Vietnam flutters. Yellow with three red stripes. It is subtle but perceivable for those who look for it.

But of course, if that is too subtle for you, you can always rewind a few seconds and there staring you in the face from the very moment the trailer starts is the flag on the áo dài. The tailor’s hand gently caresses a swath of yellow with three red stripes. Genuinely ask yourself if this is all coincidence. Of all the patterns in the world that the filmmakers could have featured on the dress, why this one? And why does the voiceover make the statements she does as this pattern is displayed?

A slow zoom-out, followed by shots of economic prosperity and vibrant displays of traditional áo dài to emphasise the blossoming of Vietnamese culture under a “fascist”, “puppet” regime. That these scenes managed to make it onto the big screen directly undermines the communist narrative of Saigon needing to be “liberated”. A particularly salient question asked among dissidents, both in and outside the country, is “who liberated whom?” Did the impoverished North really liberate the wealthier South? Or was it the other way around? Moreover, what exactly did the South need liberating from? A comfortable, prosperous, peaceful life?

The film champions the preservation of the áo dài – the traditional Vietnamese outfit – over Western fashions in 1960s Saigon, but the subversive message, wrapped in the garb of an innocent movie about fashion, is unmistakable. For South Vietnam, the loss is more political than cultural: no longer do citizens possess freedom, democracy, and a vibrant civil society. Even if imperfectly practised in South Vietnam, greater freedom of expression brought prosperity and a society of better quality than what Vietnam has today. Many Vietnamese, unable to express dissatisfaction with the status quo at the ballot box, vote with their feet. Leaving the country is the dream for those who have means to do so; Hanoi readily acknowledges that Vietnam suffers from brain drain.

Even so, it must be acknowledged that the war was a manifestation of North and South both wanting the best for the Vietnamese people while choosing drastically different paths. It would be unforgivably cynical to believe otherwise, to view either government as monolithic entities not made of Vietnamese individuals who loved their country. The root of the conflict stemmed from both sides competing to be the only good. Both the North and the South had causes they believed to be just – a fact which native and overseas Vietnamese have yet to fully accept.

On paper and in diplomatic circles, there is only one “true” Vietnam. Although the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist after 30 April 1975, it lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Vietnamese who abhor communist totalitarianism. It lives on in its enforced absence within Vietnam’s national discourse. A silent, de facto ban of the yellow flag with three red stripes, of any positive mention of the southern republic, of anything related to the former state is, in a way, perpetuating South Vietnam’s existence. And if history is any indication, the South remembers.

About the Author:

  WILL NGUYEN

Will Nguyen considers himself a “Schrödinger’s cat” of East and West. He is Vietnamese or American, depending on who’s looking. Will graduated from Yale University in 2008, with a Bachelor’s in East Asian Studies. He is currently completing his Master in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS), where he has pursued topics of Vietnamese history, culture, and politics.

Opinion-Section

September, School, And The Politics Of Memory

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Vietnamese students at their first day of school. Photo Source: Nguoi Lao Dong Newspaper.

September is when the school year starts in Vietnam. However, this academic cycle is like no other, as the country is struggling with a deadly virus that claimed more than 10,000 lives last month. [1] How will this pandemic be remembered by those who survive? How will it be taught in schools in the years to come? Who will remember the missteps of the government, and will they demand justice for those whose deaths should have been avoided? We must not forget that a large part of Vietnam’s political landscape is the politics of memory, because as George Orwell once said in 1984, ‘he who controls the past controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past.’ My journey through schools, first in Vietnam and then overseas, illustrates why education and the politics of memory are intimately connected.

‘Under the roof of the socialist school’

I am a researcher, and most of the people I interview for my research are activists and supporters of various social and political movements in contemporary Vietnam. These people are also around my age and come from Vietnam’s post-war generation. Every time I ask about their school experience, they almost always jokingly start with “under the roof of the socialist school”; they then tell me about a time when they were completely unaware of, or even lied to, about many historical events, including the 1968 Hue massacre, the fall of Saigon, the existence of re-education camps, the boat people exodus, or the border war with China. If the truth of these events was widely known, it would raise serious questions about the crimes North Vietnam’s government committed against central and southern Vietnamese and the legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

For us who come from the post-war generation [2], our education has been entirely engineered by the government under the leadership of the VCP. Thus, there is little surprise that some people and events were glorified while others were vilified or completely erased from public consciousness [3]. After all, one cannot secure one’s rule without being seen as legitimate, and in the case of the VCP, the spectre of the past is a constant threat to its contested legitimacy. The singular narrative in which the VCP is portrayed as the brave and glorious liberator of the Vietnamese people was told and repeated throughout the 12 years of our education through textbooks, symbols, rituals, and an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to reinforce these ideas.  

Needless to say, I grew-up to become a VCP-nationalist – someone who equates loving Vietnam with believing blindly in the VCP. Likewise, I also ended up believing that modern-day Vietnam was the culmination of the VCP’s countless victories, especially during the ‘War Against America to Save the Country’ (Kháng chiến chống Mỹ cứu nước); I was made to believe that the VCP was “on the right side of history.” This singular narrative is easy to digest for children and teenagers because of its simple dichotomy of hero and villain, supported by a complex system of other institutions – especially the media – that echoes the same story.

Looking back, I can still vividly recall how proud I was when I became a member of the Communist Youth League at the age of 15. I remember humming one of the Party’s hymns as I walked home after attending the membership ceremony. It was not easy for me to escape the preconceptions of my childhood and the sad reality is that many Vietnamese people cannot. 

Pedagogy of the oppressed [4]

When I left Vietnam to pursue my bachelor’s degree, my sociology and history classes challenged this singular narrative from my childhood and managed to deconstruct the VCP’s simplified and skewed perspective of the world. Yet, my most eye-opening experience did not happen in the classroom. 

I remember stumbling upon a stack of books in the university library. They were a collection of stories about the Vietnamese Boat People who survived their exodus. These pages held more than just tales of tragedy and of sinking ships. They held the sorrow of husbands and wives separated by circumstance with little to no hope of ever seeing each other again. They carried the rage and despair of fathers watching their daughters being raped and killed right in front of their eyes. They contained the hopelessness and ennui of throwing corpses into the sea and of the countless lives left broken even after rescue. These stories stood in stark contrast to the image of Vietnam peddled by the VCP. Yet, I could not deny them; the pain and suffering of my countrymen were too raw and too real. The Vietnam I once knew, a Vietnam built on a shoddy foundation of strategically crafted lies and upfront deception, slowly began to crumble. 

It was this evening in the library that changed me forever. Since then, I have become my own educator, gradually undoing what had been done to me “under the roof of the socialist school.” After getting my bachelor’s degree, I continued my education and had the opportunity to study the history of the Vietnam War (instead of the “War Against America”). I also write about contemporary events in Vietnam with the knowledge of how the past helps shape the present. This path I have chosen, albeit not easy, is nonetheless deeply rewarding. Its reward is both personal, as it gives me an avenue to re-build and express my authentic self and collective because I can speak for those whose stories have been erased from history.

Having said all this, education is not confined within formal institutions; I just happen to follow an academic path. Most of my research interviewees have learned through their own means. While I found my first moment of truth in the library, they may have found theirs as they participated in the street protests of the early 2010s in Vietnam, read blogs and websites that have become widely accessible thanks to the rise of the internet in the country, talked to their church members, or met with people of the Vietnamese diaspora. Regardless of the different routes we took, what we share in common is the self-awareness we gain as members of disenfranchised groups: Catholics, “the losing side,” southern Vietnamese, northerners who did not side with the victors, or protesters who were beaten up simply because they peacefully exercised their rights. We also share our role as keepers of the stories the powerful would rather erase.

Free schools and revolutionary journalism

I do not foresee the education system in Vietnam undergoing any radical change. I anticipate that the pictures of the long line of vans waiting in front of the crematorium in Saigon, the thousands of faces behind the death statistics, the grief of their loved ones, the indignation of those who have been pushed further into poverty because of the collapsed welfare system, and countless others whose lives have been overturned in the past weeks with endless confusing and incoherent decisions made by the government, will once again be at risk of being written off of history. It is likely that students will not be told about the year 2021 the way it has happened. Thus, no difficult questions will be raised about the (lack of) competency, accountability, and morality of those in power [5].

However, if history – the history of the oppressed – has anything to teach us, it is the power of Free Schools and revolutionary journalism. We must not forget that Phan Chu Trinh established Free Schools across Vietnam to teach what the French did not allow us – their subjugated people – to learn. We must not also forget that Phan Boi Chau spent his entire life conducting revolutionary journalism, not only to educate and inform but also to cultivate a sense of authentic identity for the Vietnamese people, without which we would not have had the basis to organize ourselves and achieve national independence [6]. I trust that if we could revive the spirit and practices of the days of the two Phans, with Free Schools and revolutionary journalism being once again a vibrant part of civic life in Vietnam, we will not only do justice to the past and to those whose stories would otherwise not be told, but also to our future generations and to the prospects of a better Vietnam we all deserve. 

References:          

  1. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. “New deaths” for August was 10,067. Available at: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/region/vietnam. Retrieved on 3 September 2021.
  2. Vietnam’s post-war generation is defined as people born between the end of Vietnam War in 1975 and the years of Đổi Mới 1986-1989.
  3. See Vu, T. (2014). Triumphs or tragedies: A new perspective on the Vietnamese revolution. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 45(2), pp 236–257. Reviewing the contents of textbooks used in the cultural revolution led by the VCP, Vu concludes that such education “sought to indoctrinate people, not to enlighten them in the normal sense of the word”, and one of the consequences could be “enslav[ing] people by limiting their information to one particular way of thinking in order to create obedient subjects of the state” (p. 252).
  4. We borrow the name of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first written in 1968, for this section.
  5. We suggest readers to also read Bia Dua’s article Chúng ta còn lại gì nếu ngày mai hết dịch?, published on Luat Khoa on 1 September 2021, to get a more detailed picture of the devastation in Vietnam, and the author’s thoughts and sentiments as a resident of Saigon in these sad and difficult days. Available at: https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/09/chung-ta-con-lai-gi-neu-ngay-mai-het-dich/?fbclid=IwAR1FtFrxrw3aHp_Pii1D3S2mOMh2muTbjThwIZ4VeLLDGi_JOZcEJN_-Zdk
  6. See Duiker, W. (1976). The rise of nationalism in Vietnam, 1900-1941. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press. An elaborate discussion of Phan Chu Trinh’s Free Schools, Phan Boi Chau’s journalism, and the significance of these works in creating the identity of the Vietnamese people, can be found in Part 1 Scholar-Patriots (pp. 21-101) of the book.

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Human Rights

Journalist Pham Doan Trang Can Still Be Freed In Vietnam. And The US Could Help Win Her Release.

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Pham Doan Trang at her home. Photo: Thinh Nguyen.

While in Vietnam, Vice President Kamala Harris has significant leverage to make a change: free one of the most prominent journalists and democracy activists in the country.

For the Vietnamese Communist Party, political prisoners are bargaining chips in international negotiations. They sell their own citizens to gain a trade deal or a more favorable security treaty. That’s because they know human rights are the soft spot of major powers, such as the United States and the European Union. 

Thus, they release political prisoners in exchange for economic and political gains. The problem is the prisoners are released conditionally: they are expelled from the country. Most of them settle in the United States.

But journalist Pham Doan Trang, one of Vietnam’s most respected journalists, is a different case. Unlike other political prisoners, she has not been indicted or convicted yet; she is a detainee under investigation and still has a chance to be released in Vietnam.

Once the police have determined that an accused person did commit a crime, there is absolutely no way that person can avoid conviction and sentencing. The only option left is to negotiate a settlement in another country, as had happened with some other political prisoners.

Of course, the investigators have now gathered more than enough evidence to make a case against Trang and put her away for up to 20 years. Chances are, the Communist Party has not decided yet on how to move forward with her case to maximize its own interests. All options are still on the table. 

Doan Trang has insisted that she doesn’t want to leave the country until it becomes a democracy. As a close friend and colleague of hers for over a decade, I know how painful it is for her to be forced out of her only home, her beloved Vietnam.

As one of the most prominent and talented journalists and democracy activists in Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, she has always aimed at breaking down the censorship curtain that puts the country at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Her writings and activism include various samizdat political books, two independent magazines (Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese), many protest movements, and international advocacy campaigns.

As a result, she was awarded the Homo Homini Prize from People in Need (Czech Republic) in 2017 and the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Without Borders (France) in 2019. But more importantly, Doan Trang’s way of working and living inspires other Vietnamese to stand up for their rights and a better, kinder country.

No authoritarian regime would tolerate her. After years of cat-and-mouse games with the authorities, and many physical assaults, the police have detained Doan Trang since October 7, 2020, charging her with spreading propaganda against the state. The criminal provision has been widely condemned by human rights groups as a way the government silences critics – a clear violation of free speech protected by the Constitution and legally binding international treaties.

Doan Trang was on her way to meet then-president Barack Obama in May 2016 in Hanoi before the police kidnapped her and detained her for the rest of the day. Vice President Harris may not be able to meet Trang in the detention center, but she can surely do a lot to free her in Vietnam.

The trade relations, especially the semiconductor supply chain and strategic partnership are believed to be the reasons Vice President Harris is paying a visit to Vietnam.

In such circumstances, I believe that the United States, and Vice President Harris, in particular, have an excellent chance to push for Doan Trang’s release right in Vietnam while the case is still undecided. And there is a precedent for that.

In June 2007, Vietnam released attorney and democracy advocate Le Quoc Quan after three months of temporary detention and two days before Chairman Nguyen Minh Triet visited the United States. Attorney Le Quoc Quan had not been indicted yet, and a major reason he was freed was a mountain of pressure from the United States government and civil society, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, where Quan did a fellowship before his return to Vietnam.

It is now urgent to push for Doan Trang’s release, before it’s too late.

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Opinion-Section

Panorama of Flags, Panorama of Lies

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A street in Vietnam. Photo: Asia Democracy Chronicles

The panorama of flags

Foreigners visiting Vietnam can hardly miss the abundance of flags, posters, statues, and slogans that remind them of who is leading Vietnam and of the Communists’ “glorious” struggle against the French, Americans, and the South Vietnam regime throughout the last century. 

However, isn’t it a bit too archaic to still flash the symbol of the hammer and sickle these days, when the means of production and the economy no longer rely on these tools? Farmers and factory workers neither drive nor fuel modern-day politics as well. Likewise, what is the point of having the statues of Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Lenin in public parks and in the meeting rooms of schools, universities, and governmental departments? Do ordinary people who showcase the red and yellow flag in front of their houses every April 30 cherish the fact that the country was “reunited” in 1975?[1] Do police officers–who check and remind households that fail to do so–love the flag so much and wholeheartedly believe in the cause? In essence, what is the significance of this panorama of symbols? 

Vaclav Havel, the dissident intellectual of communist Czechoslovakia and later president of post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic,[2] can point us to the answer.

The panorama of lies

Following the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communists. The iron fist of Communist rule drove dissidents out of the country and clamped down on those who remained. Other than the Prague Spring of 1968, an unsuccessful effort to steer Czechoslovakia back towards democracy, there was hardly any resistance. 

However, communist Czechoslovakia was not just about who held the government; life itself had to adjust in a way that fit the current political climate. Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), who is arguably one of the most respected dissidents in the history of Czechoslovakia, lived most of his life under Communist rule. He grew up to become a playwright, and at the same time, he established himself as a prominent and well-loved politician. A high point of Havel’s dissident writing, The Power of the Powerless, [3] does not concern itself with formal politics; rather, it deals with the “hearts and minds” of the people.

A significant character in The Power of the Powerless is the greengrocer who puts the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” in his front window every day, along with his vegetables. He is neither passionate nor concerned about whether or not the workers of the world unite, but he does this anyway. This irony reminds me of my family who obediently and diligently displays the Vietnamese flag at times in the year when they should, but remains so apathetic that they do not even care if the flag is hanging upside down. There also seems to be other households quite similar to my own which led to the government’s legal guidelines (3420/HD-BVHTTDL) that specifically address this violation.[4]

The greengrocer’s act is the observable tip of the iceberg of how the hearts and minds of the people work in communist Czechoslovakia; they want to avoid trouble with those who have power. By displaying the slogan, the greengrocer implies: 

I, greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.  

(Havel, 1978, p. 6)

I am once again reminded of my family. I recall that every time my father was late in hanging the flag, my mother would berate him. She would constantly tell him to do it now because she didn’t want the hassle of dealing with the police. When I asked my parents about this, they said that they just wanted to be “left in peace” (yên thân). Likewise, if you ask teachers, students, or employees of governmental departments about the statues of Ho Chi Minh and Karl Marx in their buildings, they would probably tell you something similar.

But, why do the authorities punish such a trivial thing? Whether or not the greengrocer displays the slogan would certainly have little to no effect on the workers’ movement, nor does it pose any tangible threat to the existence of a government that possesses the hard power of the courts, the military, and the police. The greengrocer does not even replace the slogan with another one that is critical about the regime. 

To address this question, Havel points out that, in fact, people would ignore the greengrocer’s slogan, but they do so precisely because such sayings are everywhere – in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletins, and buildings. The key here is that while they ignore individual slogans, the people are well aware of the panorama of these slogans as a whole. The existence of this panorama tells people that dishonesty goes hand-in-hand with obedience here; this is normal, everyone does it, and so must you. In the same vein, transgressions must be punished because “anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself” (Havel, 1978, p. 8). 

Therefore, if a Vietnamese policeman, school administrator, or government official reproaches someone who questions the phrase: “Live, fight, work, and study like our great Uncle Ho” (Sống, chiến đấu, lao động, và học tập theo gương bác Hồ vĩ đại), it is extremely likely that this policeman/school administrator/government official himself has also questioned, albeit in private, the very same slogan! Yet, they also believe that nobody should disrupt the rules of the game and that everyone should blindly follow what the system demands.  

My next question is, how do people live with themselves when their existence is surrounded by so many lies, ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies, including those of their own making? Would they feel embarrassed and ashamed of themselves for being so afraid and thus becoming unquestionably obedient? These questions, Havel argues, boil down to man’s dignity and authentic identity. To be able to live in lies, the greengrocer deludes himself into believing that there is nothing wrong with the workers of the world unite; he separates the part of himself that questions the slogan from the other half that accepts the excuse. Living in a world of lies and deceit for so long warps our perspective and this bastardized reality becomes our “new normal;” the greengrocer becomes accustomed to the state of his compromised dignity and comes to accept the deception and inauthenticity of the system as part and parcel of life. In effect, he loses his authentic self. 

On the question of dignity and identity, it is interesting that the slogan “Sacrifice for the country and serve the people” (Vì nước quên thân, vì dân phục vụ) is hung in every police station, in a country where police, alongside tax officials, are seen as the most corrupt group (Towards Transparency and Transparency International, 2017). A few years ago, when I passed by one of Vietnam’s border checkpoints, I was baffled by the contradiction between the arrogance of the border control officer and the fact that he was sitting right under a “serve the people” banner. My subsequent conversations with poor Vietnamese migrants who often cross the border for work revealed that this was how they were always treated; they often bribed these arrogant officers and kept their heads down to avoid trouble. 

As I listened to these migrants and recalled my own experience, I wondered how these officers could look at themselves in the mirror. They see the “serve the people” banner in their office every day but shamelessly extend their hand through the small window of the checkpoint to receive bribes from the people they look at with disdain – the “lowly” people they are supposed to serve. On the other hand, the migrants are left with little choice but to comply and are forced to accept being treated with less than half the dignity they should be afforded by the simple virtue of being alive.

Furthermore, Havel argues that the panorama of lies is internally solid, for there is a “metaphysical order binding all its components together,” thus “guarantee[ing] the inner coherence of the totalitarian power structure” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). Through all the examples I have provided, isn’t there a sense of such order emanating from Vietnam’s panorama of (pseudo) symbols? The checkpoint officers and those who bribe them, my parents’ disinterested flag-hanging, the equally disinterested policeman who checks the flags, and the people who put the statues of Ho and Marx in their meeting rooms are all parts of a system that everyone who lives or has lived in Vietnam knows all too well; it is a system where “the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class, [where] the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation, […] [and where] the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). 

In fact, one of my interviewees [5] told me that before he left Vietnam and started to look at the country from a distance, life there was quite “smooth” for him, because “things hung together…everything I heard in school, in the newspaper, in the street etc. was in harmony with each other…I didn’t feel the urge to question things.” This “harmony” is the glue that holds the panorama of lies together. Secondly, as my interviewee’s response also points out, this panorama is solid because those who lack the individual will and instead excel in the use of empty phrases are the ones who thrive (Havel, 1978, p. 13). 

Havel thus concludes that “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 9). This conclusion runs contrary to what many intellectuals and laymen alike often think about authoritarianism as entailing an evil ruler and people who are controlled against their will, or a class that oppresses all other classes, and where the line of struggle is between the oppressor and the oppressed. The concept of “the panorama of lies” goes beyond such binary definitions and shows that the line of struggle “runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 16-17).      

Conclusion

I work with and observe a wide range of activists who work tirelessly and voice their opinions hoping to one day make Vietnam a liveable country for ALL and not just for those with unearned privileges and unchecked power. They pursue different paths of change; some try to run for seats in the National Assembly, others focus on analysing the actions of the government, and there are those who try to nurture a different kind of Vietnamese. For them, a different kind of Vietnamese means Vietnamese citizens who feel anger when their own dignity, or the dignity of others,’ is negated; they are those who strive for “what should be,” instead of settling for “what is.” They are those who are honest with themselves about right versus wrong, instead of surrendering their own judgement, mindlessly obeying the state and condemning those who do not conform. 

Vaclav Havel and his people saw the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989, but the democratic miracle did not immediately follow. Havel, then in the position of president, argued that democratic politics and the market economy, both carrying the promise of a good life, cannot happen in the face of “post-communist morass” (Havel, 1997). The ghost that kept haunting post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic was called out in Havel’s speech before Parliament in 1997:

Many people believe that democracy or no democracy, the people in power are again people who cannot be trusted and who are more concerned about helping themselves than about the greater good….The prevalent opinion is that it pays off in this country to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties – though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words – are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.

(Havel, 1997)

I understand that the different paths of change I mentioned above ultimately feed into each other. However, with the lesson from Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic and Havel’s thoughts, I cannot help but wonder how best to prioritise these tasks and decide when to pursue which. 

I would also like to believe that Havel’s thoughts give Vietnamese activists hope, especially during the present time when a relentless crackdown makes revolutionary change seem like an utterly unreachable dream. After reading Havel’s work, I see the sparks of our own “Vietnam Spring” starting not in the places representing the power of the system – the National Assembly, the election, state-owned media, or the police – but in the very hearts and minds of ordinary Vietnamese people. The revolutionary Vietnamese of the present day are those who dare to live in truth.

Bibliography:

  1. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnam forces entered Saigon and officially ended the existence of the Republic of Vietnam as a nation. North Vietnam and South Vietnam were then joined and ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), and Hanoi became the capital of the whole of Vietnam. In the narrative of the VCP, April 30 is called reunification day and a cause to celebrate, whereas people who sided with South Vietnam call it ‘Black April,’ amongst other names that convey pain and sadness for the loss of their country.  
  2. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992-1993. Vaclav Havel’s presidency was from 1989 to 2003, with some intervals in between.
  3. To be fair to this great work of Havel, I should be clear that the panorama of lies is only a small part of it. I focus particularly on this concept in order to unpack the omnipresence of (pseudo-) symbols in Vietnam.
  4. I am not saying that all Vietnamese display the red and yellow flag in the same disinterested way as Havel’s greengrocer. We will not know unless we ask every single Vietnamese. However, we can always make an educated guess. In Vietnam, there are pockets of the population who resent or distrust the regime for many good reasons, from the historic 1975 event and family members lost at sea during the Boat People exodus to forced evictions and rampant corruption. Growing inequality and poverty drive young people from rural areas to cities or overseas, and also expose even more the lies about the socialist utopia which the VCP claims it pursues and which it trumpets with slogans and posters in public places.
  5. This interview is part of my PhD research on activism under authoritarian rule in the 2010-2019 period in Vietnam.

References

Havel, V. (1979). The Power of the Powerless. Available at: https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/resource/the-power-of-the-powerless/

Havel, V. (1997). Address to the Czech Parliament. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/1087560.html

Towards Transparency & Transparency International (2017). 2017 Global Corruption Barometer: Vietnam. Hong Duc Publishing House.

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