Will Vietnam Democratise?

Posted by Zuzana Opletalova under Features on 12 June 2001

We bring you a special interview with Doan Viet Hoat (DVH), a Vietnamese based in the US, who is part of a group fighting for democracy in his home country. Find out what its like and whether you can draw any parallels for Singapore.

May 1, 2001

(Interview done by Zuzana Opletalova from Prague, Czech Republic, May 1, 2001).

Q: Authoritative government and economy with aspects of free market, it is a brief description of the present situation in Vietnam. Is this strange situation only temporary period of development in the country? Or can the system, under certain circumstances, become a long-term stage? DVH: The communist leaders have continuously stated that Vietnam is under a transitional period in its process toward socialism (i.e. communism). So for them, the present system is only a temporary period of development. I also think that the present "strange" system in Vietnam (and China, too) is temporary, but in another meaning. First, theoretically, there exists no such system (authoritative government and free market economy) in the communist ideology. Second, will the communist leadership be able to control the development of Vietnam and direct it toward communist socialism as they plan? Free market economy has its own rules and impacts on society in general, and on the political system, in particular (just like Marx himself affirmed). The communist leaders also realize this and try to slow down the process free market economy and, at the same time, try to control and redirect it toward some sort of "socialist" market system (in their own language: "market economy with the socialist direction"), which has never existed in reality in any country so far. I think in the long run, genuine free market system will win and, along with it, will emerge a civil, free society and a democratic political system. How long does it take for this system to take shape depends on how fast will develop in Vietnam the free market economy, with its IT New Economy, an irresistible global force. I believe, in the perspectives of globalization, its does not take too long.

Q: As you said in the discussion held during the One World festival 2001, your opinion is that the Western countries should intervene in human rights issue in Vietnam, but also should deal with Vietnam at the same time. But which tools, when not economic, should the foreign countries use? DVH: I call this a dualistic engagement policy. On the one hand, Western countries should support the development of a free market economic system which implies supporting the private sector, and consequently, empowers the people economically. On the other hand, they should continuously pressure for the improvements of basic human rights and civil rights to create favorable environment and conditions for the development of the free market system itself, and of a civil society. Free market economic development and human rights improvement go hand in hand. Without freedom of expression, free press, and free flow of information, "evils" of development like graft, corruption, lack of transparency, can hardly be dealt with effectively. Without free flow of information, free competition, a must factor of free market economy, can hardly exist. Free market economy, in this context, can be defined as "an economy for the people and by the people" (the people here are customers).

Q: You also said in the discussion that US and EU sanctions could not help to Vietnam on the way to democracy. What is the reason? How are in your opinion concrete bad consequences of these sanctions? And are there any good consequences? DVH: The people suffer more from economic sanctions than the dictators. Economic sanctions weaken the power of the people economically and consequently, often strengthen the governors politically. It is easy for the governors to point to sanctioning governments as cause of poverty and death of the people, and thus, as their enemy. Economic sanctions can bring about good results only when respected by all nations, which will turn the dictators into a desperate situation, and when there is dissenting voices inside the country like in Cuba or Burma now.

Q: In China, the supranational companies support Communist government to keep opportunity to participate on Chinese market. Something similar can also happen in Vietnam. Is there a way to prevent this kind of cooperation, which helps the government to strengthen its power? DVH: I think this is the problem of globalization, or part of what anti-globalization protesters call "corporate globalization". However, bilateral trade agreements like US-VN Trade Agreement ensures free competition, international trade standards, and opening of national market to international trade and global economy. The presence of international corporations in Vietnam will create internationally-standardized business atmosphere and mentality both to the people in general, especially the youth, and to Vietnamese businessmen in particular. This type of business-like vitality, mentality and identity will in turn effect the development of the Vietnamese society in the next decades. Those new type of businessmen, no matter whom are they and what social strata they come from, will emerge as a new force, both economically and politically, challenging the present authoritarian power. The problem here will not be a stronger communist government as much as a weaker Vietnamese cultural identity, and a less humane, non-equitable and unstable society. This is exactly one of the problems that anti-globilization protesters are concerned.

Q: Vietnamese government knows the need of economic reforms. But how to prevent the danger that "transformation of economy" will be nothing else than transformation of the Communist leaders to businessmen and owners of the biggest companies? DVH: As I have mentioned above, a new type of business-minded managers will emerge. If the communist leaders, or more appropriately, their children and relatives -- and of course, not all of them-- become owners of big private companies, they will become a new force and will demand for their own voice and power in the political system. Transformation of economy will lead to transformation of politics. Of course, the question for this irreversible process would be: how long, and in peace or in violence?

Q: China is considered to be hegemony of the Southeast Asia region. Vietnamese economic reforms are inspired by reforms in China and the two countries cooperate very closely in the present. Can you imagine there could be some change in Vietnam before China's political and economic situation is changed? DVH: Four factors will determine this course of change in Vietnam: the vision of the communist leadership; the American policy as an effective factor of change in Vietnam; the development of a civil society in Vietnam (a culturally and economically freer and more opened society); and the democrat dissidents, both inside and outside Vietnam, as a more powerful and more effective opposition force.. If all four factors develop appropriately and in good timing peaceful changes will happen in Vietnam faster and more smoothly. If not, changes might have to come, in no one's wishes, in violence and even in regional instability.

Q: What are the biggest problems of Vietnamese private sector? DVH: The biggest problem for the private sector in Vietnam is the predominance and supremacy of the public sector. If free competition between private and public companies is not guaranteed by law and protected by international arbiters, free market system, and with it, civil society, will hardly emerge.

Q: What is the current situation of civil society in Vietnam? Are there some independent non-governmental organizations? Did you notice some improvement during last years? DVH: All so-called NGOs in Vietnam are now organized by governmental or governmentally-authorized organs, led by communist cadres, and tightly-controlled by the government There are some activities unofficially organized, without governmental authorization, by the people inside Vietnam and/or from abroad. This includes humanitarian, medical, educational, musical and youth activities, not to say secret smuggling of anti-communist materials and documents through different channels. The government tries in vain to control them, or lets them happen unchecked due to local governmental inactivity, and/or bribery. These people's covert activities reflect the need and potential of a civil society which might be able to emerge in de facto, in despite of the government's control, in the prospects of free market economic development, and of the opening of Vietnam to the world and especially to Vietnamese overseas community, which is a de facto civil society by itself.

Q: Which Vietnamese organizations and forces of Vietnamese society can play the main role in potential political and social changes? DVH: No opposition organizations are allowed to exist in Vietnam now. Some dissidents, both political and religious, are trying to organize and/or co-ordinate their activities, but mostly in secret, and thus rather weak. Opposing and dissenting activities, however, are becoming more and more vocal among peasants, ethnic people, religious groups, and intellectuals. I think that three groups are playing decisive role in potential social and political changes in Vietnam. They are: intellectuals, religious groups (mostly in the South), and young government officials and businessmen, each in different ways appropriately to their roles and positions.

Q: Nearly no freedom of press is still a big problem in Vietnam. But during the last years journalists could write at least about corruption of some officials. Is it a good sign for the Vietnamese journalists? Or is it only game of the Communist party and not the first step to free press? DVH: This is not the first step to free press, of course. However, it might be the first taste, and preliminary practice, of free press from the position and view point of the reporters themselves.

Q: Nong Duc Manh became the new general secretary of Communist party in April 2001. He is known as a good manager and he is considered to be a reform-minded politician. How do you see the man, is he able to improve Vietnamese economic and human rights situation? DVH: The problem lays in the policy and the system, and not in the leader. Change of leaders do not automatically lead to change of leadership, not to say, change of the policy and the system. Nong Duc Manh might be a good manager and a reform-minded person. But Vietnam needs a visionary and determined leader, not a good manager. More important, Vietnam needs a new political and social policy and system which allows equal opportunities for all Vietnamese, regardless of their differences in beliefs, leanings and thoughts, to develop their potentials, capacities, and to utilize them for their own advancement and for the advancement of Vietnam. A lot of works and determination need to be fulfilled before Nong Duc Manh would meet the needs of the time and of the country.

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