By Magdalena Slezáková
Will Nguyen (age 34) is a Vietnamese-American public policy specialist and an activist for the Vietnamese democracy movement. He was born in Houston, Texas to a refugee family from South Vietnam. He graduated with a Bachelor in East Asian Studies from Yale University and a Master in Public Public Policy from the National University of Singapore. Last June, for participating in an anti- government protest, he was imprisoned in Vietnam; after international pressure, he was released one month later and deported from the country. Photo: Gabriel Kuchta, Deník N.
Wikipedia says the Vietnam War started November 1st, 1955. Of course, that’s according to the Americans. The Vietnamese know well that the long, hellish days lasted much longer than the 20 years before Saigon fell (1975). How could it be otherwise – after all, the vast majority of lives lost in this war were Vietnamese. “In America, the Vietnam War is seen as a strictly American affair. I’d like to remedy that,” Will Nguyen, activist and descendent of South Vietnamese refugees, says in an extended interview with Deník N.
A passage in Michael Herr’s Dispatches reads: “We took a huge collective nervous breakdown, it was the compression and heat of heavy contact generated out until every American in Vietnam got a taste. Vietnam was a dark room full of deadly objects, the VC were everywhere all at once like spider cancer, and instead of losing the war in little pieces over years we lost it fast in under a week. After that, we were like the character in pop grunt mythology, dead but too dumb to lie down. Our worst dread of yellow peril became realized; we saw them now dying by the thousands all over the country, yet they didn’t seem depleted…”
The book written by Herr, an American military reporter, has become symbolic. It cuts like a knife, and it is hard to come by another work that describes as sharply what the Americans experienced in the Vietnam War.
But what did the Vietnamese experience? After all, it was their country. Unfortunately, for nearly its entirety, few saw the war as belonging to the Vietnamese, to their loss. And to this day, the wounds have not healed.
Will Nguyen knows this all too well. He was born in the United States to a woman who fled the communists—a South Vietnamese woman, to be more precise. Except Will doesn’t agree with black-and-white divides, even in his direct experiences with the Vietnamese Communist Party: last year, he was arrested for participating in protests in Ho Chi Minh City. Or is it Saigon? They’re the same city, with two different names; one was used before the communists took over, the other is the name used today. Current maps clearly label the city Ho Chi Minh City, but try using that name with South Vietnamese refugees!
So which is it: Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?
Nguyen: (Laughs) You tell me. I grew up with Saigon; it wasn’t until later that I found out on-paper, it was Ho Chi Minh City. I currently use both, depending on whom I’m talking to. With southern Vietnamese, I’ll use Saigon; in other contexts, Ho Chi Minh City is more appropriate. For me, either name is fine; I let the person across from me decide.
Yellow star, red stripes
You were born in Houston, as part of the South Vietnamese diaspora – you didn’t spend your childhood in Saigon, right?
When I was young, I didn’t really pay attention to politics. The first time politics hit me in the face, however, when I was doing a school report on my country of origin. I didn’t know what the flag of Vietnam looked like, so I opened up an encyclopedia and drew a pretty red flag with a yellow star. My mother saw it and immediately told me that flag wasn’t the “correct” one! I had to then draw the yellow flag with three red stripes, the one that Vietnamese in the US still use, the flag of South Vietnam.
It was until later that I began slowly putting together the pieces of the puzzle. I learned how my aunt fled Saigon on April 29th, 1975, a day before the city fell to the communists; how after she arrived in the States, she helped my mother escape when war broke out between China and Vietnam in 1979. During that time, Vietnam was expelling all those of Chinese origin, so my aunt was able to sponsor my mother and helped her find forged papers claiming Chinese ancestry. My mother reached a refugee camp in Indonesia and from there, traveled to Houston.
In Texas, how did you put together the fragments of war? Americans, and the West by way of the Americans, tend to see the war as a nightmare for themselves. Oftentimes, the Vietnamese are seen as mere accessories, like decoration on military garb, or puppets in the hands of their masters.
I read whatever I could find around me. And the more I read, the more I understood that the majority of books I could find were written by Americans, about Americans; regarding South Vietnamese and the difficulties they faced during the war, you’d be hard pressed to find anything. So I began searching for books written by South Vietnamese. There aren’t very many [in English] and they aren’t very easy to find.
Luckily, I was fortunate enough to study at Yale, with its excellent libraries–whatever books they didn’t have, you could request by order. I read at least 20 or so books written by South Vietnamese authors – government figures, refugees, memoirs of life in South Vietnam before and after the revolution (1975). Similarly, I began researching sources of information from North Vietnam. Generals, spies, and figures in the North Vietnamese politburo.
Because you hit the nail on the head. In America, the Vietnam War is seen strictly as an American affair. Whatever the Americans carried out…
… would have to be suffered.
Exactly! Americans lost about 60,000 lives in Vietnam, a terrible number, but on the Vietnamese side, deaths numbered several million, and this disproportionality is never mentioned. American lives lost is still center-stage. I would like to remedy this. And I believe the first step is researching the war thoroughly from all sides, in order to shed this problematic “black-and-white” framework.
You know, it’s not just the Americans who are guilty of black-and-white thinking. We Vietnamese have a similar tendency. It’s north or south—nothing in between. But its hard to be surprised at such an ideological divide, solidified as it was by a devastating civil war. It’s still a sensitive topic. Moreover, this north-south division has historical roots. Hanoi, in the north, is seen as the cradle of Vienamese culture; as you go further south, its influence weakens. This is still true today; the Vietnamese Communist Party has a stronger base and more faithful party members in the north.
It’s like with the two Koreas, especially in the older generations. The division between right and wrong, good and bad. And sometimes even in the Czech Republic: in the north the evil communists; the south, the righteous democrats. But South Korea had a period of authoritarianism, and in Vietnam, communism went hand-in-hand with the anti-colonial struggle for independence.
The interesting thing is the communists weren’t always the only players in Vietnam. Especially in the south, there was a strong nationalist movement spearheaded by non-communists. And in the 1940s, they worked with the communists for the sake of a common goal (Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and the Indochinese Communist Party, the Viet Minh – a coalition of northern and southern nationalists formed during the second half of the 1930s in Nanjing, China, was officially re-established in Vietnam in 1941).
Only, the communists had their own vision of an independent Vietnam. They had greater numbers, were better organized, and were more ruthless, so in the end, they swallowed whole the other nationalists, completely obliterated them. Vietnam in the 40s and early 50s was a tumultuous time. French rule followed by the Japanese invasion, famine, then the First Indochina War, then the Viet Minh defeated France in 1954 and the French withdrew. The struggle between Vietnamese communists and Vietnamese non-communists played out against this backdrop and continued through the Cold War era—and it would be this civil struggle that would ultimately determine Vietnam’s fate.
A heavy-handed government
When peace talks began in Geneva in April 1954, Vietnam was de-facto divided: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam declared by Ho Chi Minh in September 1945 ruled the north; the State of Vietnam, aligned with the French, ruled the south. Both Vietnamese states saw themselves as the only legitimate government; the Geneva Accords de-jure recognized this division, establishing a border at the 17th parallel.
Yes, with a plan for nationwide elections in 1956 to determine Vietnam’s fate and unify the country. But the south, led by prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem, knew that they could not win the election. And because the south technically did not sign the Geneva Accords, they refused to hold the elections, claiming that the elections would be rigged by the communists. Instead of the general election, the south held a referendum declaring the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam, with Diem elected president (with a spectacular 98.2% of the vote. In Saigon, President Diem received 600,000 votes out of a total 450,000 registered, according to reports). In Geneva, the US also refrained from signing the accords, which Ngo Dinh Diem counted on.
In the north during that time, the Chinese had convinced Ho Chi Minh to abandon plans for military action in the south and to wait for the election to resolve the big questions. The communists conducted a land reform campaign that killed thousands, while the south pursued its own brutal anti-communist campaign. The CIA embarked on a psychological war, sowing fear and panic among Catholics in the north, convincing perhaps more than a million to flee south.
The Americans encountered the South Vietnamese at the right time. They helped the South Vietnamese in many respects, most obvious of all, financially. I would assert that despite all this assistance, there was one decisive factor: the South Vietnamese had no idea what it meant to be a good citizen in a functioning democracy. To the majority of Vietnamese, the ideals of democracy were in reality, something completely unfamiliar, and as the Vietnamese tried to advance towards democracy…
In short, it was like a circus. Corruption was endemic, clientelism, and on top of that, war with the north. Imagine trying to build a healthy democracy in that environment! The South Vietnamese government was quite heavy-handed and far from resembling any kind of democracy; it was closer to autocracy. During the second republic at the end of the 1960s, after several coup d’etats, things calmed down a bit, elections were conducted properly, and prospects for democracy were looking up. If there was no war, who knows how far it would have progressed. You mentioned South Korea – the path to democracy for them took several decades. Same with Taiwan.
But in South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem’s heavy-handed government only lasted until 1963, when the opposition assassinated him. How were the Americans involved?
Formally, Ngo Dinh Diem was President, but in actuality, he was a dictator. He was a symbol of everything we discussed earlier: authoritarianism, corruption, and nepotism. He came from a well-known family, and his relatives held many high positions of power in a type of oligarchy. There was nothing surprising about him facing powerful opposition.
In the end, a group of South Vietnamese generals decided to test the waters with the Americans. If we wanted to get rid of Diem’s government, the generals probed in a meeting with the CIA, would you support us? Kennedy’s administration gave the green light. But my god! The generals got rid of President Diem in such an awful manner. The Americans didn’t imagine it that way. They thought Diem would live a life in exile, and the government would proceed to reform.
Instead, President Diem’s assassination opened up Pandora’s box. The ironic thing is some of Kennedy’s advisors warned about this very outcome: while Diem was a dictator and corruption was rampant, there existed no viable alternative to him. And it was true; the country was wracked with one coup d’etat after another. South Vietnam not only became enfeebled, but it endured continuous pressure from North Vietnam and communist insurgents in its own territory. The country’s ability to deliver its people from northern communism weakened by the day.
Up until April 30th, 1975, when Saigon was taken over by the communists. To North Vietnamese, that event was a “liberation”, but for Southerners, it was a “fall”. Is this still true?
Definitely. In the memoirs of South Vietnamese diaspora, they remember April 30th, 1975 and the “Fall of Saigon” with anguish, and not just figures from the older generations, but the majority of the diaspora’s descendents also see the event as an invasion.
And in Vietnam, where the communists have ruled for 45 years now?
The current propaganda is powerful. I believe many Vietnamese see April 30th in a positive way, a victory over colonialism, a liberation, a unification of the country. But the interesting thing is, in the south, when you speak with older people—and obviously this doesn’t happen right away because there are dangers in doing so—but when they trust you enough… my mother and I would often encounter more “sensitive” views when we were traveling around southern Vietnam. For example, taxi drivers would often reminisce positively about what life was like before 1975, as they drove us around the city.
In your travels around Vietnam, you were able to absorb a lot of literature and messaging, especially propaganda posters. These displays tap a lot into the past, right?
Most of them do. But that’s logical because the Vietnamese Communist Party derives its legitimacy from history and regularly reminds the people what it has achieved—1945 and the [August] Revolution, the defeat of the French, Ho Chi Minh, and of course, the greatest achievement of all: the liberation and unification of the country in 1975 [the latter technically occurring in 1976]. It’s like a broken record-player, stuck repeating myths.
And because these pages of history bear the hallmarks of the communist party, most people don’t pay it any heed. Is it a heroic story with a fortunate ending, or is it a happy lie? For some, either case is better than the sad truth. More easily stated, one way or another, many people realize the history is suspiciously rosy. But to find the truth, one must put in the work. It takes effort, and most people simply don’t feel the need.
Because they’ve directly experienced in their daily lives that the regime they live under doesn’t give them a voice. So the result is political apathy. This is especially true with young people, who have their whole lives ahead of them. They have no desire to rehash the past; they desire a comfortable future, with a high standard of living.
But of course, not all young people are like this; I’ve gotten to know quite a few young activists from Vietnam who feel the truth is worth pursuing. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s easier now to find information online. It only takes a little research to reveal why the yellow flag with three red stripes is banned in Vietnam. And why the Vietnamese diaspora numbers millions across the world.
To search for truth, to absorb information and then decide for oneself – that is true independence. Not the propaganda that the regime mouth-feeds the people to maintain its grip on power. Protecting the regime is the government’s number one goal. The Party has to make sure the boat doesn’t rock too much under its feet, and along with propaganda, it must also ensure that the economy develops while it conducts a balancing act between opposing China and allowing Chinese influence.
How are relations between the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party?
Very close, in an existential way. Vietnamese communists owe much to their Chinese counterparts, but at the same time, they have to be extremely careful not to be seen as Chinese puppets. This demands sufficiently independent behavior, opposing China in moderation, and at the same time, making sure not to offend their Chinese patrons.
Are they really patrons?
You know, Vietnamese leaders are slowly realizing they’re skating on the thinnest of ice. While I was imprisoned in Saigon, I spoke with police investigators about the situation in the South China Sea, and it was hard to miss the frustration written on their faces. They have to oppose China because that’s part of the Vietnamese national mythology: China is our hereditary enemy, and it’s forever finding ways to swallow Vietnam. If they don’t oppose China, then they face the danger of public opposition. That’s why Hanoi tries to find international support in their case against Chinese aggression. But it’s all one big act. No vociferous pronouncements will change the fact that China currently has the upper-hand in the South China Sea. China is several times larger and stronger than Vietnam, and Hanoi is fully cognizant of this, as well as the fact that Vietnam is economically dependent on China. And besides, the Vietnamese Communist Party imitates the Chinese Communist Party on a fundamental level. Their historic consolidation of power, their land reforms, and more recently, the cybersecurity laws.
And the general secretary? The similarities between Xi Jinping and Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of the Vietnamese Communist Party, can’t be ignored: a strong, hard-line leader, pursuing an anti-corruption campaign.
Of course; if you observe down to a minute-enough level, you’ll always find differences, but the truth is the Vietnamese and Chinese models of rule are quite similar – including the issue of Trong becoming both General Secretary and President. Though for most of its history, the Vietnamese Communist Party has followed the path of collective leadership, Trong has spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign very similar to that of Xi: sure, you’re cleaning up the ranks, but you’re also inserting your own allies into positions of power.
The two parties [and their historical trajectories] are not exact replicas. But there are more than enough similarities to remind us of Mark Twain’s observation: “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Prison bars and television screens
You actually mentioned something I wanted to ask you about: last year, you were incarcerated in Vietnam. You went straight to prison after an anti-government protest in Saigon, right?
I had graduated [from my master’s program] in May and after that, had flown to Vietnam. When I found out [a few days prior] that there would be protests, I decided to attend because I also believed the two proposed laws were harmful to the Vietnamese people.
I walked the streets with protestors, cell phone in hand, recording as much as I could and uploading it immediately onto social media. It wasn’t an easy thing to do because the internet was slowed. The government often finds ways to prevent the spread of information. After a couple of hours, we ran up against a formation of police officers who stopped us and tried to get us to turn away from the city center. But I could tell that the officers were ill-at-ease; they were young, and looked just as worried and fearful as the protestors. It seemed like all it would take was one person to push through to break the line.
So I did it, and they ultimately let us through. But after a few intersections, the police parked a row of pick-up trucks across the road to block it. I wanted to help the people cross the barrier – I knew I could take on a little more risk because I wasn’t a Vietnamese citizen and I didn’t face as serious of punishment as they did. I knew I could be arrested, but to be beaten in the middle of the streets was definitely something I did not expect.
How many people were there around you?
Hard to say, but the streets were impassable, surging with people. They charged me not only with “disturbing public order” but added on the aggravating factor “causing serious traffic congestion”. They blamed me for making 14 people miss their flights.
And what were you facing?
Up to 7 years in prison.
At least you confessed on TV! And that’s yet another similarity between China and Vietnam: a recorded confession broadcast on national television…
It was all for show. In order to maintain their hold on power, the Party choreographs one performance after another and forced televised confessions are just one part of it. I had known about this “song-and-dance” prior to being captured, so I wasn’t surprised when they made me participate. But mostly, nobody was particularly enthusiastic about doing it. It was all pretty tiring: the security officers and I didn’t want to do it, but because the orders were coming from above, we wanted to just get it out of the way.
And you participated?
If I didn’t, it would only complicate things. Not just for me, but also for the investigators, the people who were in charge of (processing) my case. They treated me well enough, though obviously I knew it was related to the fact that I was American and that my case was receiving widespread international attention.
Moreover, I refused to lie. When they wanted me to apologize for causing traffic congestion or for making my friends and family worry, that wasn’t a big deal. But there was a part where they said I tried to flip a police truck and other things. I refused to read that. They accepted it and moved on.
As in there was a script?
The whole thing was so surreal. First, I wasn’t wearing the appropriate clothing, because I was a prisoner, so one of the police officers gave me the button-down shirt off his back to wear. Then, they styled my hair and had me sit down in front of the camera – we did around 5 takes, until I read the script convincingly enough.
The banality of evil
It all sounds like a joke, but in actuality, it’s nothing to laugh at right? Especially those with Vietnamese and not American citizenship.
Exactly. Suddenly, I had fallen into the belly of this oppressive regime I had researched for so many years; it was there that I was able to fully realize that the system ran on fear. It doesn’t have to be the kind of fear that stops your heart or takes your breath away. But as long as that fear becomes an abided part of your life, like an old coat, mundane and commonplace, then the system remains in place.
Like Hannah Arendt has written of, it’s all about the diffusion of responsibility: “I was just following orders!” You’re sitting behind bars, observing how police officers observe you. And you realize that they’re just cogs in the machine. But it’s precisely all of these small cogs that keep the machine going. If they weren’t there, the entire system would collapse. At the same time, they’re all just normal people. Outside of work hours, when they weren’t interrogating me, we would talking to one another like normal people.
With the small detail that you were behind bars and the police officers were in front.
Of course. You know, dehumanizing the other side doesn’t help anyone; don’t even get me started on caricaturing them as demons. I grew up in an environment where people spoke of communists as man-eating devils, and dissident propaganda often depicts Ho Chi Minh with horns. What is this good for? The more you put pressure on them in this way, the more they will dig in their heels in siege mentality. And that mentality leads to an increasingly oppressive regime. I believe in doing the opposite. Jettison the black-and-white paradigm and fracture an otherwise monolithic ideology.
By treating these individuals like human beings. By convincing them that those who want to reform the system are not their enemies. As long as overseas Vietnamese communities across the world continue to demonize the communists as they do, then nothing will change. The banality of evil works both ways: people mold the system, but the system also molds the people. We have to work to fill the gap between the two sides, or at the very least, build some kind of bridge. I’m purposefully avoiding the word “reconciliation” because the communists used it after 1975, and then ultimately sent southerners to re-education camps.
This reminds me of the situation in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution. It’s a shame how the party and corruption went hand-in-hand, but enough people were able to “change outfits” after the transition [to continue their behavior]; some didn’t even bother to change. What’s going to happen if the same people are able to survive reform efforts in Vietnam?
I believe the Vietnamese Communist Party has a right to exist – this is something anti-communists have excluded me for saying, even accusing me of Stockholm Syndrome. But then there are anti-communists who are impressed with Trump and openly support him, and that’s something that’s completely absurd to me.
But most importantly: the Vietnamese Communist Party has four million party members. Their numbers are decreasing, and the Party itself is purifying in an ideological sense, getting smaller and older. But four million is still a lot. What are we going to do with them? Vietnam has suffered several decades of war. Millions have lost their lives, several more million have had to flee their homeland, and hundreds of thousands have lain their corpses at sea in pursuit of freedom… is this not enough? I understand your question, and I can’t say it doesn’t worry me. But what other way do we have to pursue reform but this?
I’m not so naïve as to think that we only need dialogue to reform a totalitarian regime. Obviously you can extend your hand across the table, but if the other side is not willing, then there has to be something to push them to the table. The people must speak up for themselves; they have to march if need be. Reform can’t be achieved without it. And in a similar vein, I also hope that young people reconsider joining the Party.
The economy plays a huge role: Vietnam’s labor productivity is quite low because the regime robs people of their initiative. Those with enough drive, those who can overcome the apathy find happiness overseas, where they go to work or study. But a number return with open eyes. For others, the internet opens their eyes. And people are slowly realizing, it doesn’t pay to be politically apathetic – if you don’t want to decide politics, then someone else will decide for you.
The above article is an English translation of https://denikn.cz/222401/o-valce-ve-vietnamu-se-siri-stastna-lez-namisto-smutne-pravdy/ and was originally published on October 31st, 2019, in the Czech newspaper Deník N.
Election in Vietnam: The Whims Of The Few Or The Will Of The Masses?
This article was written in Vietnamese by Vo Van Quan and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on February 4, 2020.
On February 2, 2002, Vietnam’s Politburo officially announced Regulation 214 on the Standard Framework for titles of cadres belonging to the Central Executive Committee, the Politburo, and the Secretariat.
Accordingly, the Politburo amended and supplemented specific provisions on the required qualities and capabilities of important internal party positions.
To put it simply, Regulation 214 is comparable to job descriptions and position requirements that we often see in job listings. As for members of the Party Central Committee, Regulation 214 requires them “to be a representative of political courage, ethical qualities and working ability; have the capacity to organize the successful implementation of the Party’s policies and duties.”
If one is a member of the Politburo and the Secretariat, the candidate must be “an official member of the Central Committee for a full term or more; has experienced and completed essential tasks in key leadership positions at the provincial level.”
However, it is worth mentioning that Regulation 214 does not set out specific criteria for certain titles such as the president, prime minister, or chairperson of the National Assembly, all of which are state positions. Theoretically, these are not party positions and are therefore outside the influence of the VCP’s internal politics.
Regulation 214, however, dictates that the person in the position of State president is required to have “high prestige,” a “solidarity center”, and “comprehensive, outstanding” talent; while the prime minister must “stand out comprehensively … in strategic planning for socio-economic development, national defense and security, [possess] sensitive thinking, [be] dynamic, decisive”.
Obviously, it can be understood that the VCP was setting the criteria for its members to consider in order to have a basis for nominating, recommending, voting, and selecting “ideal” candidates for the National Assembly and the People’s Council in 2021.
However, with the electoral mechanism in Vietnam, it is completely understandable that the Party’s Regulation 214 will be used to determine leading positions in the State. However, these regulations still have to be approved by a group of 17 members of the Politburo.
So, are the above rules able to replace the popular vote? Are the Vietnamese people so incapable of choice that they must give authority to the elites (such as the VCP) to choose their leaders?
The political elite
An argument exists to justify the Communist Party’s electoral mechanism. This argument is that the Vietnamese people are not well educated, are easily provoked, and are unsuitable for democratic elections. So, it is better for an elite minority to choose the country’s leaders; this elite minority is now believed to be the VCP.
Such an argument is found not only in Vietnam but in other parts of the world as well.
For instance, theories such as technocracy (a model of governance that believes that only experts in certain fields can be elected to corresponding positions in government related to their field of expertise) and epistocracy (a system that assumes only “qualified” citizens with enough information and political authority can vote or run for government) are not really new.
The famous 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill used to support an electoral system based on voters’ caste and professional work. Experts who have complex knowledge and skills get six votes, farmers and merchants get three or four, skilled workers two, and unskilled workers one ballot.
More recently, Jason Brennan in his article The Case Against Democracy also promotes a political environment where only qualified and knowledgeable citizens should be allowed to vote or stand for office.
He writes that most of the political questions in contemporary life have become too complex for common voters to understand; they are too fond of simple answers to complex questions. Worse, he argues that the common people are not only ignorant, but that they also believe that they know more than what they actually do; they even claim that they are right. He believes that this makes their political decisions ignorant and stupid.
Brennan does not propose a voting model based on qualifications and educational levels like Mill, but rather recommends a test of voters’ political capacity before allowing them to vote.
The rules of the VCP electoral mechanism seem to be loosely based on or inspired by these two aforementioned technocratic and epistocratic theories:
- Party members are considered “qualified” citizens who make the initial decisions regarding the formation of government through voting among themselves to elect members of the Party Central Committee. Then, the members of the Party Central Committee who are considered “high quality” citizens choose the “elite” members who will sit in the Politburo and the Secretariat seats, and also thoroughly become the state leaders, regardless of the outcome of local popular elections.
- Meanwhile, the Politburo, which claims its membership to be the technocratic masters, sets the required standards for the new leaders, and then nominates and fills in the state positions for Vietnam.
The VCP considers this a brilliant method to select the top leaders for the country. But is it?
The defects of democratic elections
Democratic elections are clearly not liked by everyone, and some even find them to be very disappointing. The election of former US President Donald Trump is a very fitting example.
During the primaries in the 2016 US presidential election, as many as 50 Republican Party members openly voiced their disapproval of Donald Trump.
Specifically, General Michael Hayden (a four-star general, and former director of the CIA and NSA) said that Trump did not have the right temperament to lead. More specifically, he said that Trump lacked the personality, patience, disposition, knowledge, curiosity, or even the willingness to learn. These qualities, according to Hayden, are needed by candidates to be deserving of the title of president of the United States.
Using similar language, David French, a writer of The Dispatch, never concealed that he belonged to the “Anti-Trump” movement. He strongly affirmed that personality is essential in being a world leader. A person’s temperament, knowledge, and integrity will shape his or her behavior. And even though the democratic process and expert advisors can help shape and steer a president lacking in these qualities, mistakes can still happen, especially for someone as stubborn as Trump.
In the end, with his victory in the 2016 election, Trump showed that he was well supported by a large number of American voters, regardless of how many critics said that he was not worthy enough or deserving of the US presidency. In fact, during the middle of his impeachment fiasco, Trump’s ratings were not only stable, they also increased.
I will not go too deep in regards to Trump, because his assessment is still very controversial, even among the Vietnamese. However, this entire situation gives us this sliver of truth: people sometimes may vote for unworthy candidates.
The above-listed statistics is rather a detailed study conducted by Pew Research on voter views of candidates for elected positions in the United States, which found that voters did not take into consideration the quality and competency of political candidates.
Only 47 percent said that the quality of the candidates was good, and even less than 5 percent rated the quality and competence of the candidates as very good. The remaining 52 percent had a negative view. As for the presidency, 58 percent said they were not satisfied with the choices they had.
Furthermore, according to Pew, people in democratic countries tend to be dissatisfied with the way their countries operate. The list includes centuries-old democracies such as the United States and Great Britain. In line with this, the people’s opinions of their elected officials are also not high.
For instance, in Greece, up to 90 percent of the population believes that their elected officials do not care about the will, views, and aspirations of ordinary citizens.
Also, more than 58 percent of the US population share this opinion about their own politicians. Even though the indicators of transparency and corruption in the United States have always been evaluated positively by independent organizations, up to 69 percent of respondents agree with the opinion that national politicians are both corrupt and decadent.
In some African countries, democratic elections have turned into a game of those who can spend the most money to rile the mob.
So then, why have most nations in the world still chosen to maintain a universal electoral system? Why has most of the world not surrendered political power to the elites who are allegedly more knowledgeable, educated, and are supposed to have leadership qualities that can help them steer and rule a country?
Popular elections are still the best method
There is much to discuss about leaders who are chosen by the people, and those chosen by the elite.
The first misconception of those who oppose popular elections is that they think the majority will end up choosing the wrong candidates. In the same vein, they also believe that this choice should be left to the “elite.” They think that this small group of people can accurately decide without being influenced by interest groups, personal preferences, or other hidden agendas. These claims are utterly baseless.
Even Mill himself realized that countries needed to build a system that fully reflected current attitudes in society, and the idea of an administration full of economists frightened him.
For instance, why should a lawyer get three times the votes of a skilled worker when law is such a broad and diverse field? Politics and welfare issues are just small specializations in law and not all lawyers are knowledgeable enough to talk about them, let alone determine the best course of action in a field they may not be trained in.
Regarding Jason Brennan’s voter-competency test model, David Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge University, identifies that this model just pushes his questions to the starting point and fails to answer any more.
Who will be considered qualified to prepare this test model? College professors? They also have their own political interests and opinions. Economists? They may be talkative on a variety of market rules, but their predictions about the future of the market are often incorrect.
And Brennan, himself a university lecturer, has probably also seen countless students cramming knowledge into their heads just to pass exams.
Proponents of the “epistocracy” model also have to deal with the fact that the educated, and also the elites, are in fact influenced by the crowd and are biased just like everyone else in the world.
As social scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen pointed out: History shows that intellectual groups, elite or not, can be as deviated from political morality and political thinking as anyone else.
There are shortcomings and problems in today’s modern electoral and representative democracy, but this does not mean that it is neither efficient nor just. As in marriage, anyone can choose the wrong partner, similar to how we can elect the wrong person. But with democracy, various checks and balances exist that can help ensure that the system can function as intended. As with marriage, we can get divorced and then marry again.
And when the people’s decision-making power is taken away, words such as “ability,” “quality,” “elite,” “technocrat,” or “epistocratic” are just flimsy excuses for control.
The Women Of Possibilities
This article was published in Vietnamese by Luat Khoa Magazine on March 8, 2019. The translation was done by Will Nguyen. More than two years after the Vietnamese article was published, all three women in this article have been arrested and charged with national security laws in Vietnam. We do not want their stories to go in silence, so we translate them to tell the world about who these women are: the women of possibilities.
March 8, is International Women’s Day, and Vietnam celebrates this holiday wholeheartedly.
However, no mainstream newspapers will write about the three women in this article. No organizations will honor them. No solemn ceremony will have them as guests. And among those who “care” about them the most are usually…the Vietnamese police.
They say things few people say.
They do things few people do.
They’ve accepted risks that few people dare accept.
In actuality, they’re part of a world that few care about or dwell on; for these individuals, few are willing to stand by their side.
The women we speak of in this special piece represent the hidden aspirations, the beautiful reflections, the burning dreams of an entire nation. They’re singing for us a song of freedom, nurturing a better future for each and every one of us.
Nguyen Thuy Hanh
In February of 2016, a wave of independent candidates competed for seats in the National Assembly, setting off a movement that was the largest of its kind in post-1975 Vietnam. Approximately 30 candidates had signed up, only for the “consultation” process to remove them from the roster. Nguyen Thuy Hanh was among them.
Different from Party-nominated candidates, independent candidates announced their action plans. And different from nearly all independent candidates, Nguyen Thuy Hanh was the rare voice that included women’s rights in her platform. She called for stricter laws on violence against women and human trafficking, encouraged job creation, and pushed for education policies and legal support for women.
Born in 1963, Nguyen Thuy Hanh is a Hanoi woman whose soul is full of art and romance. She has participated in civil society struggles since the 2011 anti-China protests, when protesting was especially taboo not just in the minds of state officials but the vast majority of ordinary citizens.
Over nearly eight years, having participated in tens of protests and having been beaten and arrested many times, she has witnessed Vietnamese society slowly change, from opposing the right to protest to respecting and then supporting it. When boisterous, nationwide protests broke out on June 10th, 2018 and tens of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the Special Economic Zones and Cybersecurity Laws, Nguyen Thuy Hanh was perhaps one of the most elated, for her contributions had normalized what had previously been one of the most “sensitive” acts in society.
However, Nguyen Thuy Hanh’s name is more often connected to the “50k Fund”, which she created to financially support prisoners of conscience and their families. The fund started at the beginning of 2018, originating from a brief, online fundraiser to help a number of activists on trial. Hanh had received several fold the amount requested and thus, the idea for a future fund to help activists at-risk unexpectedly came into being.
The 50k Fund aimed to help with difficult situations lesser known to the public, and its name was purposefully chosen to encourage people to donate small amounts, rather than >50,000 VND (~2.20 USD), popularly believed to be the minimum for charity. Such small amounts also assuaged donor fears of police harassment.
To this day, Nguyen Thuy Hanh’s 50k Fund has received thousands of donations, totaling many billions of VND (~hundreds of thousands of USD), all of which are documented in detail on her public Facebook account.
The 50k Fund’s meaningfulness goes beyond providing prisoners of conscience everyday material support. It also awakens the emotions of ordinary citizens, encouraging them to care more about politics and helping them overcome the intangible fear constraining their hearts and minds. The 50k Fund normalizes and makes concrete that which is considered “political” or “sensitive”, bringing to citizens the full splendor and meaning of civil society struggle.
A lover of beauty and romance, Nguyen Thuy Hanh draws a long, brilliant stroke for the Vietnamese democracy movement.
Can Thi Theu
People normally think of peasant leaders as something from their history classes, as figures only found in textbooks. But Can Thi Theu is a real-life, flesh-and-blood peasant leader, a heart beating strongly within the body politic.
The life of this courageous woman is connected to the phrase “Duong Noi’s disenfranchised citizens”. Duong Noi is a ward in Ha Dong District. Prior to 2008, it was part of Ha Tinh Province, but today, it has been incorporated into Hanoi. Can Thi Theu’s name is probably not mentioned very often in domestic or international press, and she doesn’t have her own English-language Wikipedia page. From 2007, she became one of thousands of disenfranchised citizens who lost their land when the government forcefully reclaimed agricultural and cemetery land in Duong Noi for new urban construction projects.
The “disenfranchisement” of farmers like Can Thi Theu lies in their complete exclusion from the process, from project planning all the way to land acquisition.
They were not consulted about compensation or relocation assistance, and the government did not provide them any kind of vocational training after taking away their livelihoods. Furthermore, the gravesites of their ancestors were leveled without notification of their displacement.
As a woman born in the year of the Tiger (1962), Can Thi Theu rose among the thousands of disenfranchised citizens to become leader, with her strategic mind, her ability to see in the short- and the long-term, and her skill in thwarting police tactics.
Her leadership skills also manifest in her ability to endure and sacrifice for others, forever taking the hit while protecting those in her care. She is patient and looks past the small, unimportant details to achieve the peasant movement’s longer-term goals. It must be remembered that these farmers lost their land 12 years ago; it’s not easy to keep Duong Noi a hot topic to this day.
The price that Can Thi Theu had to pay was not small. She was twice imprisoned (2014 – 2015 and 2016 – 2018) for a total of two years and 11 months, for obstruction of officials and disturbing public order.
From prison in the Central Highlands, she wrote a letter home to her fellow citizens before the 2017 Lunar New Year: “Fight to the end, to demand the return of our land, our right to live, and our rights as human beings, which the communist regime has stolen from my family and those who share our plight.”
You read that properly. Northern farmer Can Thi Theu is not afraid of calling out the “elephant in the room”, the direct perpetrators of the injustice that she and farmers like her have had to endure.
Can Thi Theu became the face of one of the greatest forms of injustice that Vietnamese citizens contend with, when she fell victim to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s larcenous land policy, which it has consistently carried out for decades.
She is also a living representative for those fighting to abolish “universal ownership” of land, seeking to establish legitimate, private land ownership rights for every individual. Every act in Vietnamese history has been intimately tied to land, and Can Thi Theu has placed herself center-stage for the next.
Pham Doan Trang
If someone believed that it was impossible to be a bona-fide journalist in Vietnam’s mainstream media environment, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite. She has 12 years of experience as a sterling journalist at VnExpress, VietNamNet, and Ho Chi Minh City Law, with reams of critical stories and excellent documentations.
If someone believed that journalists and intellectuals in Vietnam faced insurmountable political restrictions, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite.
She constantly embarks on endless explorations to (un)cover the most sensitive, most dangerous, most censored topics.
She also does not limit herself within the rigid confines of mainstream newspapers; instead, she uses all the tools at her disposal to write and publish. Independent newspapers, overseas newspapers, blogs, social media, samizdat—Doan Trang has adeptly utilized them all to convey information to her readers.
For Doan Trang, the concept of “hitting the ceiling” is completely foreign; she is forever someone who lifts those ceilings so that others may have more breathing room.
If someone believed that they were unable to surmount material, physical, and even spiritual difficulties, then Pham Doan Trang proves the opposite.
A small and frail woman with numerous scars and injuries, she has had to endure countless assaults by police, drifting through more than 35 different locations across the country over the past 20 months to escape police pursuit and continue her work.
She lives frugally, no different from those provincial students in the 90s, who left to study in the city, but people would see her write consistently and prolifically.
Politics for the Common People, Non-violent Resistance, and Studying Public Policy Through the Case of SEZs are just some of the many titles she’s penned over the years.
Born in 1978, Doan Trang belongs to the post-war generation and grew up when the country and the world were changing at dizzying speeds. Unsatisfied with the disorderly state of the country, people like Doan Trang saw it as their role to address these disorders. For her, there is always work to do, and she does so, without rest.
Doan Trang swears by a lifetime oath: to never leave Vietnam, not even for a day, while it remains without democracy.
Doan Trang personifies fierceness and does not compromise with evil or cowardice. But she is also full of romance and forever searches for beauty in the strums of a guitar.
She inspires people to stand up, to take steps and discover the beauty of politics. With knowledge and vigor, she represents for many the aspiration for a democratic Vietnam, the light of hope in the dark depths of despair, and the ability for oneself to embody that hope.
Doan Trang talks the talk and walks the walk, inspiring many with what could be; her life, simply put, is a powerful testament to what could be.
The three women in this piece embody the possibilities. They have defied political and gender stereotypes that weigh down their every step. The meaning of March 8th has never lain in flowers or gifts; it lies in the women who fight for what is right and just.
This March 8, we reserve flowers for women like Nguyen Thuy Hanh, Can Thi Theu, and Pham Doan Trang.
Ho Chi Minh – From Political Monument To God Of Prayers – Part 2
This article was written in Vietnamese by Vo Van Quan and was previously published in the Luat Khoa Magazine on February 1, 2021.
The religion Way of Uncle Ho aims to start a spiritual revolution in order to save the nation from foreign enemies, both past and present. This revolution also aspires to harmonize the balance between the worlds found in this religion’s metaphysical framework. These worlds include the Heavenly realm, the Buddha’s realm, the Earthly realm, and the Yin realm.
“A spiritual heavenly revolution.
Replace the old, change to the new. This religion will bring the people and our country up and we will no longer be slaves of others.
From now on there will be a new order. By the law of God, by the demand of our ancestors.”
According to the teachings of this religion, the Heavenly realm rules over the other three realms. However, the blasphemous behavior, attitude, and way of worship in the Earthly realm destabilizes the harmony of the other worlds.
This religion espouses that, because of Ho Chi Minh’s achievements, the purity of his soul, and his moral conduct on earth, his soul was “elected” to become the leader of the Heavenly Palace upon passing away. Henceforth, he leads the spiritual revolution which claims to promote the right path to reach heaven in the material world.
In Chapter 4 of “New Religions and State’s Response to Religious Diversification in Contemporary Vietnam,” the author Hoang Van Chung summarizes the eight issues that this revolution wants to address:
1. A mistaken understanding of the origins of the Vietnamese people and the their neglect of ancestor worship;
2. The overuse of joss paper and objects;
3. The incorrect performance of traditional rituals to the Mother Goddess;
4. A mistake in dating the death anniversary of Ho Chi Minh;
5. The invalidity of rituals of spiritual possession;
6. The pervasive worship of foreign spirits and gods, such as the Indian Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Chinese spiritual figures (Guan Yin or Bodhisattva);
7. Disrespect for heroic martyrs; and
8. Making mistakes in medical diagnosis and the treatment of illnesses caused by spiritual entities.
The religious texts of the Peace Society state:
“In the twenty-first century
The first Vietnamese Buddha was born.”
Monism has since become the motto of Ho Chi Minh’s religion. This religion states that the Vietnamese people can only worship the Vietnamese Buddha: “Uncle Ho.” Worship of any other foreign power also goes against their tenets and beliefs.
“Do not worship foreign gods
We worship our own Buddha in our country.”
Most importantly, Vietnam is seen as the leader of the entire revolutionary process that determines the future of mankind; this demonstrates a somewhat extreme form of nationalism.
“Vietnam is the eldest son of the Emperor.
Born first in the Earthly world.”
If people disobey the Jade Buddha’s commands, natural disasters, epidemics, wars, and social disorder will befall human society. This punishment is therefore not limited to just one nation or to one group of people, but extends to the entire world.
What is the Way of Uncle Ho’s religious practice?
The Ho Chi Minh religion has its own form of exorcism and this practice, in general, is very popular in the north. However, Madam Xoan believed that those who perform this act, if they come from the Mother Goddess religion or other popular sects, would often lose their cognitive abilities. On the contrary, Madam Xoan claimed she was a disciple of the Jade Buddha, so she could hear and preach the voice of the Jade Buddha without losing her reason.
As for worship, adherents of this religion are guided to worship Ho Chi Minh at home.
These worshipers have an altar that includes a statue or photo of Ho Chi Minh, the Communist Party’s version of the Vietnamese flag, and a bowl of incense. This altar should also be higher than all other altars in the house. Each day believers are required to offer fresh flowers, cakes, or fruits. Prayer is optional, but burning joss paper and other objects is prohibited. Their holidays also follow the official Vietnamese national holiday calendar which somewhat shows the religion takes a political stance.
With respect to mass religious gatherings, the Peace Society spends most of its time performing activities such as the annual ancestral worship ceremony, which obviously includes Ho Chi Minh and the martyrs. They also provide magic spells and incantations.
It is also quite interesting to note that the Way of Uncle Ho has a very high anti-Chinese sentiment.
According to the leaders of the Peace Society, evil spirits are the wandering souls of the Chinese invaders who died years ago. They still haunt Vietnam, harm the people’s health, and negatively influence the future of the nation.
“Don’t listen to evil spirits. In the past, they were the enemy who deceived us and harmed us.
They admired evil and always wanted to invade our country.”
When the Hai Duong 981 drilling rig entered Vietnamese territorial waters in 2014, Madam Xoan and 400 other followers gathered, prayed, and condemned the behavior of the enemy in the north, the Chinese.
“I pray to Uncle Ho, he will pour out the safe water
[…] So that he could protect our sovereignty over seas and islands
from being invaded, in heaven and on earth.”
Madam Xoan has repeatedly tried to register this religion with the Vietnamese government, but the answer from officials is usually to wait for a decision from their superiors. She is also believed to have close connections with more than 30 figures in the central government, including scientists working in state agencies, ministry officials, and intellectuals interested in studying and learning about this religion.
According to research estimates, there are believed to be more than 10,000 official followers of the Way of Uncle Ho, and major ceremonies take place with more or less a thousand believers in attendance. This is a significant figure if you consider the fact that other domestic religions are slowly dying.
In addition, although not officially recognized, the followers of Ho Chi Minh’s religions, such as the Jade Buddha, receive approval from the government, along with the ability to exercise their freedom of religion easier than others.
However, these were the study’s conclusions up to the time of publication (2017).
In more recent times, the Way of Uncle Ho as the Jade Buddha has also fallen under the close scrutiny of local authorities. For example, the People’s Public Security newspaper published an article that claimed the Way of Uncle Ho had used Ho Chi Minh’s image with “misguided claims,” such as alleging that it “received Uncle Ho’s blessings” and its leaders offered some medicinal leaves to cure all diseases of the people. The authorities of some provinces, such as Vinh Phuc, also warned that this religion was an act of “illegal” religious activities.
The Vietnamese government is now in a dilemma. Should it maintain the treatment of Uncle Ho as a well-loved political figure and expect all Vietnamese citizens to continue worshiping his life? Or will the authorities rein in the Way of Uncle Ho and other cults and illegal religions involving Ho Chi Minh, and deal with these religious activities as it has often dealt with other different religions in the country? Only time will tell us how the authoritarian government of Vietnam will act on this issue.
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