Commentary by Thai Nguyen-Khoa
New America Media (April 30, 2011) – April 30 marks the 36th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam. For many Vietnamese Americans, the date is infamously known as The Day of National Shame, but this year two other events cast a shadow on the anniversary, and give faint hope to the dream of democracy in Vietnam: The “Arab Spring” in North Africa and the Mideast and the death of Madame Nhu (Trin L Xuân), the wife of a key political figure in the former South.
Mme. Nhu was married to Ngô Dình Nhu, national advisor and brother to Ngô Dình Diem, the president of South Vietnam’s first republic. Both reviled and revered, she was a controversial figure within and outside of Vietnam for her outspokenness and forceful manners. Ahead of her time, she was probably Vietnam’s first women’s rights leader, and played the role of First Lady, as President Diem remained a confirmed bachelor all his life. Her husband and Diem were killed in a 1963 coup, marking American military intervention. She lived in exile abroad – never returning to Vietnam – and died in Italy away from the land she loved.
In all these years of exile, Mme. Nhu’s consistent message tempers the voices of many of Vietnam’s conscientious objectors: Don’t believe in the United States. Despite its professed desire to promote self-determination for Vietnamese, the U.S. has sold out Vietnam in the name of this very nation-building process.
Today, Vietnamese may remember George W. Bush’s motto: “If you stand for democracy, America will stand with you.” But no one dares dream that the United States will go into Vietnam in the same way it has joined with Europe to intervene in Libya. Yet, many do wish that instead of coddling Hanoi, Washington would listen to political activists and cut the purse strings that perpetuate the corrupt regime.
While the sorry end to that sad chapter of Vietnam involvement is relegated to the trash heap of American history, the struggle for democracy and human rights inside Vietnam continues.
More than a dozen peaceful dissidents and bloggers are imprisoned. Cu Huy Ha Vu, the outspoken French-educated legal scholar, was sentenced by a kangaroo court to a seven-year prison term, plus three years of house arrest for daring to tell the truth about Hanoi’s shady schemes and collusion with China against the nation’s interest. Vu had criticized the country’s government for allowing China to mine bauxite in central Vietnam and ceding a huge swatch of land along the Sino-Vietnamese border.
Blogger Nguyen van Hoi, jailed since October 2008, has disappeared. Believing he might be killed, his wife pleaded with authorities to allow her to visit him, but her requests have been denied.
While Vietnamese democracy activists take note and remain hopeful about events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, they remains cautious. Many are wary of the entrenched security system around them.
According to one dissident writer: “Vietnam has a tighter rein on people’s movement, thanks to its security apparatus. The Central Mechanized Police division alone is 50,000 strong, not counting the province, districts and village levels. Plenty for crowd control!”
Another blogger from Vietnam writes: “The party remains, the police will continue to exist! They exist to do each other’s bidding.”
At the trial of dissident Vu, which the government claims is open to the public, no one is allowed within 200 meters of the courthouse. Dr. Pham Hong Son – who has been imprisoned for five years for translating prodemocracy materials on the U.S. Embassy website – and attorney Le Quoc Quan were arrested again when they came to the courthouse.
Today, after two decades of teaching U.S. history and American democracy, I feel it is a constant lesson in humility, bordering on a wavering of principles: American idealism on the one hand and Dollar Diplomacy on the other. I could not teach or delve into the complexity of the Vietnam War without taking alternating roles – that of a democracy-seeking Vietnam versus America’s national economic interests. For when does idealism merge with realpolitik? As for the Vietnamese point of view, does it reflect the North’s or the South’s?
For the United States, the high ideals of democracy and freedom versus propping up an autocratic regime seem to flip flop according to the exigency of its foreign policy. Coddling Hanoi to wean Vietnam away from its ideological influence of China seems to necessitate its abandoning the people’s aspiration for American-style democracy and the conscience of Vietnam.
One wonders whether the din of repressed voices inside Vietnam – like the passing of Madame Nhu – register at all in the consciousness of the Obama administration. Is America still haunted by the ghost of Vietnam when it considers the nagging affairs of Iraq and Afghanistan? After all, President Obama was not yet three years old when President Lyndon Johnson goaded Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, signaling war with Hanoi.
Thus, 36 year after that infamous day in history, and with people’s voices inside Vietnam still being gagged, I am reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
Thai Nguyen-Khoa taught social studies in the San Francisco Unified School District. He writes for various Vietnamese and English-language websites.