Vietnam Prime Minister Phan Van Khai met President Bush on July 21, 2005, the first of such visit since the end of Vietnam War. The US-Vietnam relation had progressed far, only little than ten years ago there was no relation. When the US normalized relation with Vietnam, I was one of the strongest critic. At the time, Vietnam was still a dictatorial regime and I was one of their victim. Naturally I opposed the idea. At the time, I thought that violent armed struggle was the only course of action.
Well, I had a change of heart. Not that Vietnam has became a free democratic nation, or that I have forgotten my misery living under the regime. Vietnam is still a one-party ruled country with the Communist Party as the only legal political party. But I have to admit that it has gotten little less oppressive politically and much more opened economically.
When I left the country in the late 80s, Vietnam was still in full Communist mode. It economy was completely under the control of the government and the oppression was unbearable. Much had changed. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the normalization with the US, Vietnam liberalized it economy. Almost half of its economy is now privately owned and private enterprise is encouraged. People are no longer starving and destitute. In the 80s, my father went to prison for crime of association, he befriended a dissident. Now the very same dissident, the poet Ha Si Phu is out of jail, under house arrest. Vietnam is still oppressing dissidents, but the common tactics are no longer imprison, torture, and execution. It is still occurred but less common; in fact execution is now unheard of. House arrest or internal exile, and other less harsh measures are the new modus operandi. Vietnam is still far from being a Jeffersonian democracy – but no longer a blood thirsty Stalinist state.
I credit the normalization process for this improvement. I was too young and bitter to see the potential benefit of normalizing relation with Vietnam. Tie between the US and Vietnam allow the US to pressure Vietnam for reform; there was economic incentives for reform instead the old threat of sanction. But there are much more works to be done and the US now, due to economic tie, has more leverage with Vietnam than ever before. We should demand more reforms from them, both on the economic as well as the political front.
Phan Van Khai came to the US for several reasons. First Vietnam want to garner US support for The World Trade Organization membership. Second Vietnam want to improve political as well as military tie with the US, with the threat of Chinese hegemony in mind. The US should support Vietnam on both counts, but with conditions.
Vietnam need to go forward with its economic liberalization. After the initial wave of reform, it has been dragging its feet for the last several years. More than half of the economy is still state owned, most of the state own companies are unprofitable, incurring large loss and survive on expensive state subsidy. The US need to press Vietnam for further privatization. It needs to loosen its grip on the banking sector, allowing private banks to operate freely. Vietnam need to come up with a comprehensive commercial laws. There is no law in Vietnam currently governing commerce. This lack of certainty discourages foreign direct investment and encourage rampant corruption. Corruption is one of the major obstacles foreign companies doing business in Vietnam face.
On the political front, the US should use its leverage to bring about reform. I am not expecting a pie-in-the-sky result, small progress is what I seek. The one-party system need to change. But the first step should be the legalization of political party. Parties other than the Communist party must be allowed to formed and organized. I am not so bold and delusional as to demand free and fair election, simply free political parties. The next reform is freedom of the press, which encourage transparency and discourage corruption.
Lastly, the reform most dear to my heart, freedom of religion. Supreme Partriach Thich Huyen Quang
, the leader of my religious denomination, is currently internal exiled and house arrested in a remote village, his health is deteriorating. His sole offense was to demand that the government stay out of religion – a separation of church and state. The government of Vietnam has no business appointing Buddhist clergies and decide who can be ordained, only the congregation can do that.
It is time the US pressure Vietnam in observing the minimum of human right standard, mainly freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Not only it is the right thing to do but it is in the US interest that Vietnam become more democratic and free. The Bush Doctrine of spreading Democracy is the result of lesson learned that democratic nation make better and more reliable ally than undemocratic one, and there are serious long-term consequences in supporting undemocratic regime. With the geo-strategic calculation of allying with Vietnam to balance the growing power of China, a democratic Vietnam as ally only enhance the US status and credibility in the region.