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However, in describing Vietnam today he characterizes it as not especially repressive, not really a police state, and a country where the people can do pretty much as they want, aside from opposing the government.
Anyone visiting Vietnam as a tourist and especially as any sort of VIP will receive that impression, and also will note the great improvement in the lives of the people compared to the first decade after Saigon fell. But anyone visiting Germany in 1936 would have come away with equally positive impressions of Hitler's regime, and in fact some famous Americans (e.g., Charles Lindbergh) of the time did exactly that. The economy was bustling, the severe political unrest and social instability of a decade earlier were gone, the trains ran on time, and the people in the streets looked happy.
Of course, if you tried to stop by that little camp just outside Dachau that had been in operation for three years by then, or interview any of those who had opposed National Socialism, your stay in Germany would have become somewhat less pleasant and certainly much shorter.
Today, if you want to get to most of the highland regions of Vietnam where the various Montagnard tribes live, you will find it very difficult or impossible to do so, and if you wish to interview any of the Vietnamese Mennonite pastors currently under investigation you will receive short shrift from the authorities. If you want to talk to the head of the Unified Buddhist Church (UBC), which was the largest religious body in South Vietnam and a thorn in the side of Ngo Dinh Diem (its monks were the famous self-immolators protesting his government), you will discover there is no longer any UBC. When its leaders would not accept government domination after Hanoi took over, the government simply dissolved the church, and its head monk, Thich Huyen Quang, has been under house arrest for over 20 years.
If you talk to young children about their schooling, you discover that their ability to sing the songs and recite the poetry about Ho Chi Minh are as key to promotion to the next grade as is their regular schoolwork. If you talk to young adults about the war, all they know is that the United States invaded as an imperialist power and was defeated through the inspired leadership of the Communist Party. They know almost nothing about the role of the South Vietnamese in defending themselves, and have never heard of the National Liberation Front, the nationalist body allied with Hanoi that was supposed to lead the South after liberation but instead was dissolved by Hanoi within a few months.
It's true that there are no swaggering storm troopers on the streets of Saigon today, but every Vietnamese knows that the government has very limited tolerance for any sort of dissent. Once World Trade Organization membership was achieved, a crackdown on dissidents began which has been noted by several international humanitarian agencies and characterized by one (Human Rights Watch) as the worst in 20 years. The iron fist is still there, even if the velvet glove is now thicker and prettier. Mail is opened, phone calls monitored, and internet messages analyzed whenever it suits any government agency. Our ambassador, Michael Marine, recently resigned after an incident in which he and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez were blocked by Hanoi police from trying to help the wife of an imprisoned journalist. In his April press release Ambassador Marine listed numerous problems in Vietnam today, including harsh suppression of all dissent and widespread corruption. Corruption has achieved levels far beyond what went on under the Saigon regimes, but there is little appeal for the average citizen under the unchallengeable bureaucracy of the Party.
There is something that says a great deal about Vietnam today. In the thousand years of Chinese domination, and entire French colonial period, no one ever sold Vietnamese young women abroad. But today there is a thriving business in Vietnamese brides, and men in Taiwan, China, Korea, and Thailand purchase young girls in various forms of bridal markets. No occupying force was ever able to erode Vietnamese culture and values, but the past thirty-plus years of direct transition to socialism have done more to change things than ever before in the country's history.
Vietnam has lost the great majority of its native forests, due in part to uncontrolled clear cutting for the export trade. The government tries to blame much of this on Agent Orange, even though the greatest losses in forest area took place from 1990 to 2005. Those of us who were there to see re-growth in sprayed areas within months know that the effects of the defoliants were far from permanent. Agent Orange is also blamed for essentially every birth defect in the whole country, including children I saw this year in an orphanage with brittle bone disease and hydrocephalus, neither of which is remotely related to dioxin exposure.
During the war, the politburo considered dich van, the propaganda arm of their policy, to be as important as the military arm. They honed those skills, and in the end it was (by their own admissions) that which contributed most to their final victory. When you discover an effective tool, you keep it for more use, and they are masters of cynical but highly effective use of publicity and misinformation to further their ends. Yes, things are enormously better in many ways in Vietnam than they were; but it is a police state, run by an oligarchy whose primary focus is the benefit of the ruling elite. The vision of an enlightened system taking care of a happy people is an attractive one, but it is a deception that we should not allow ourselves to accept. The road to human rights in Vietnam remains a long, unpaved one stretching into the distance.
R. J. Del Vecchio