Vietnam’s Human Rights Issues In Contemporary Perspective


 Doan Viet Hoat



        Almost thirty years ago, in 1971, as soon as I finished my doctoral studies at Florida State University, I decided to go back to Vietnam. My wife, just obtaining her Master degree in education, also followed me home. We brought with us our four-year old son. We could have stayed in the United States to enjoy a stable and happy family life.  I could easily find some job.  But we decided to return home because we believed that we could be of more help for Vietnam than for the United States. The war would be over soon and Vietnam would need more educators and more experts. We both worked at Van Hanh University, the only private Buddhist university in Saigon at the time. We both wanted to contribute our knowledge to the improvement of higher learning for Vietnamese young people. I myself would prefer to concentrate on teaching and doing research for my whole life. And that’s exactly what I had been doing until April 1975 when the Communists overran South Vietnam by force.

        I decided not to leave the country just because Vietnam is so much beloved deeply in my heart. I just wanted to share with my relatives, my people all the happenings, good or bad.  Although my father had had some bitter experiences with the communists, with his eldest son killed by them at the age of 15, I still believed that time had changed. The Vietnamese people would have had an inspiring opportunity for the betterment of their lives now that the destructive war had been over. But the communist leaders had soon destroyed this opportunity. They continued to hold on to the communist view of proletarian class struggle. They took away shops and enterprises from the entrepreneurs and businessmen, crushing the emerging market economy, the system which 15 years later they would try to revitalize. They confiscated all private cultural and educational institutions which 15 years later they again allowed to emerge in difficulty. They monopolized and controlled all activities --economy, culture, religion, education, media, and politics. The communist party became the omnipotent power over the entire populace, over all institutions, legislative, executive and judiciary. 

        I soon realized that my beloved country, Vietnam, had lost a challenging opportunity to move forward, toward progress, development and civilization. The opportunity wide opened to many countries in Asia and around the world, which South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia have capitalized successfully. I soon realized that I could no longer concentrate on training and research.  In fact, Van Hanh University was confiscated and most of its buildings was turned into student dorms. Our ten-year effort to build up a Vietnamese high quality institution of higher learning in the model of Harvard or Oxford were shattered to pieces.  I knew that my life had come to a new turn, in despite of my longing. But before I could do any thing, I was incarcerated. The authority accused me of being “anti-revolutionary”, “reactionary”, “CIA cultural agent” with no evidence. An “expert“ was sent from Hanoi to investigate my case. Although after intensive investigations, he could not find any evidence to substantiate the authority’s accusation, he concluded in his report that although I had not been a CIA agent, I could become one at any time! As a consequence, I was imprisoned for 12 years without trial.

        In 1988, after the United States and Vietnam had agreed to close all re-education camps as one first step toward normalization, I was released from Chi Hoa prison, only to realize that I could not keep silence. My two older sons had left Vietnam as boat children since 1981, one at the age of 14 and the other, 12.  My wife thought that that was the only way for them to have a better future. I traveled along the country, from South to North, accompanied by my wife and our youngest son. And I found that my country was devastated with poverty, backwardness and dictatorship. I remembered two scenes which we witnessed on our trip. We came back to my own village, about 10 miles from Hanoi. The people were so poor. My relatives even did not have enough wooden chairs for us to sit. And yet the villagers dared neither complain nor to say anything against the cadres and the government. I left my village in 1954. Thirty five years later I returned to find my village deteriorated, cut into two parts by a new road, with the symbolic cidar tree leafless and the dình (village shrine) desolate.  I felt like I had lost a valuable part of my life.

       The second scene saddened me more. On the way back to Hanoi from Ha Long Bay, we came to a river and had to wait for the barge. We saw a young woman tied to a pole under mid-day summer sunshine. She was untied when we came close in a car full of foreign tourists. The woman, too angered to fear, walked around spectators, crying and shouting out her grieves. She lost her only son who died in fighting in Cambodia while the officials in her village kept their sons safe at home. She became mad and walked around the village every day to call names at the officials. They tied her in the open air to keep her silent. I had never seen such a moving scene since my birth.

        In Hue, I went through another experience which deeply touched me. We met a man on the bus from Saigon to Hue whom we soon knew to be Vice-Chairman of the Prosecution Institute. Just being released from prison, and editing the underground newsletter Freedom Forum. I first kept a distance from him. But he showed sympathy to us knowing that we wanted our son to visit Hue before he went to America. He was a native of Hue and loved the city with all his heart. He volunteered to be our guide for four days. When we visited the Forbidden City in the Imperial Palace, completely destroyed in Mau Than Tet Offensive, my son asked me why the city had disappeared.  I told him of the sad story. The Vice Chairman of the Prosecution Institute turned to my son and said: “I feel guilty of all this. I share the responsibility of destroying one of our national cultural heritage.” Later in Saigon I knew that he belonged to The Club of Former Resistance Fighters, the first group of southern communist dissidents which was crushed down by the security forces in the middle of 1990.

        In 1990, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and Soviet Union has opened a new page in world history. Loosing its communist international support, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) had no choice but adopting “renovation” policy which literally means returning back to the market economy which they had destroyed since 1975. Renovation was officially marked by the Constitution of 1992 which recognizes private economy as a part of the multi-sector economic system. Renovation saved the country from total collapse. Living standards were improved. The country became the third world exporter of rice only five years after the peasants were liberated from agricultural cooperatives. GDP was increased from over US$100 in the 1980’s to about US$370 in 1999 (1). Vietnam began to attract more foreign investors. But Renovation reached its momentum in 1996 and began to slow down and on the way to decline in 1997. In November 1997, Prime Minister Phan van Khai acknowledged that foreign direct investment had decreased 30% in comparison to 1996 (2). And until today, this declining trend has not been stopped. In his speech delivered in November 18, 1999,Prime Minister Phan van Khai admitted that Vietnam experienced the “lowest rate of economic growth since 1990” (3). As of June 30, 2000, FDI decreased 46% in comparison to 1999 while total domestic investment decreased 14,7% (4). Although Vietnam continues to rank the third rice export nation in world market, peasants’ income in 2000 decreased 30% over 1999 (5).

        Of course, the Asian financial crisis did blackened the investment picture because Asian newly-industrialized countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, contributed the biggest part of foreign direct investment in Vietnam. However, experts agree that Vietnam was less effected by the crisis than many other countries in the region. The present economic recession in Vietnam has its internal causes. Although a multi-sector economic system is accepted, to uphold a market economy “with socialist direction”, Hanoi gives the state economic sector “the leading role” (Constitution, 1992, Article 19). Consequently, state enterprises receive substantial subsidies despite the fact that most of state enterprises suffer losses, creating a heavy burden to the state budget (6). Hard-line Politburo members give party’s survival the number one priority over development. They are reluctant to accept reform recommendations of World Bank and IMF, especially in the areas where reforms lead to weakening the party’s control and power, such as finance, banking system, national budget and state owned enterprises. Slow reforms in these areas have hindered the development of free market economy in Vietnam, which in turn brings the economy to a deadlock. Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, as early as December 1996, recognized that Vietnam was in a second crisis.  World Bank and IMF experts since then had continuously urged Vietnam to carry out new reforms, Renovation Phase Two. In 1997, they even warned the communist leaders that half-way reforms did not only bring about crisis, but would lead to chaos threatening the survival of the regime itself (7). In fact, riots have occurred in many villages both in North and South of Vietnam, from Thai Binh province in 1997 to Nam Dinh in June 2000, and recently in Ca Mau province in the Mekong Delta, where peasants destroyed all the dams. Young people often fight with the police in Hanoi, Da nang, Ho chi Minh city whenever they have a chance. Unemployment rate in the cities has reached about 20% of the labor force. At the same time, the population becomes younger than ever, with over 50% under 35 years old (8). Most of them only haveunstable jobs due to weak private economic sector. Most of them can only finish secondary education due to inadequate and costly higher learning institutes

        Thus, poor and ill-treated rural peasants, who constitute about 80% of the population, and frustrated and unemployed young populace comprising over half of the population-- these two large and powerful groups of people, emerging out of the ups and downs of Renovation Phase I, present a dim picture of Vietnam today and a great threat to social and political stability in the near future. Renovation Phase Two is urgently in need as recommended by IMF and World Bank experts. In January 1999, the representative of IMF in Hanoi warned that without significant changes in policy, the situation was difficult not only for 1999, but  “the next 5-10 years will be very difficult.”(9).

        The Party’s leaders are well aware of this difficult situation and of the need for a new phase of reform. But what this new phase of reform should be to move Vietnam out of stalemate and imminent chaos?  The answer is not simple, mostly from the view-point of the present Politburo. On the one hand, they know that economic development and the betterment of the people’s life are sine qua non not only for the nation, but also for consolidating the party’s political legitimacy and power. On the other hand, economic liberalization, with national markets freed from rigid governmental control and opened to global markets, seems to be the only path toward development. But, as Barro Robert J. has put it, “in the long run, the propagation of western-styled economic system would also be the effective way to expand democracy in the world.”(10). And French President Jacques Chirac, in his visit to Hanoi in 1997, more bluntly affirmed that “in the process of globalisation, economic reforms would naturally lead to political liberalization”(11). This projection  of political liberalization is not in the agenda of the present leaders of Vietnam, at least not when they still can control it. On the contrary, the dark perspective of losing political monopoly through “peaceful evolution” has obsessed them since the collapse of Eastern Europe and Soviet Union. And this is the real cause of the present deadlock. I do not see any solution other than the communist leaders give first priority to the development of the country, and not to the ideological and political monopoly of communism and the communist party. 

        And this is not only my own thinking.  A veteran communist leader, Le Gian, in a letter sent to the Politburo on September 22, proposed  “to temporarily put aside the slogan of socialism” because, for him, what Marx and Lenin predicted of communism and socialism has proved to be wrong. He even proposed to change the name of the country from Socialist Republic of Vietnam to Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or simply Vietnam (12). Democracy advocates and dissidents in Vietnam, communist or non-communist, share most of his liberal ideas simply because this is the only way out of the present situation of dilemma.  Economic liberalization is necessary for economic efficiency and development.  But economic freedom can not exist in an authoritarian polity, in view of globalisation, of the global new economy, the economy of knowledge, of high-tech. Moreover, we are now moving to a new century of the New World.  This will be a world of compassion and tolerance, a global community of multi-racial, multi-faith humanity.  This New World is wide opened before us, reflecting in all international events, from Yugoslavia to East Timor, from Khmer Rouge to Pinochet. Just some weeks ago, the Olympic in Sydney unveiled in front of billions of people this global community of openness and compassion, in which forgotten minorities were honored, old animosities were reconciled. The New World we are witnessing is both globalized and diversified. Globalized, because it is human, representing the quality and characteristics common to all people of all races. Diversified, because it accepts and absorbs diverse faiths, opinions and initiatives. Only free and open societies can develop and sustain in such a New World.

      The crisis in Vietnam today is not merely economic in nature. It is more a crisis of high politics’ policy, of national direction and strategy. It is the conflict between communist ideology and the trends of the time. Before 1975, the Vietnamese communists benefited from a strong and quite solid international foundation and support, both communist and non-communist, for many decades. Of course, they had to proceed in between China and Soviet Union. But all three nations at that time had one common enemy, the United States. Right after the war, this situation had changed, and the CPV had decided to choose Soviet Union against China only to find themselves isolated after the collapse of the Soviet block in 1990. Since 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet block and the war with China, the CPV have tried to maneuver the fragile and sensitive relationship between China on one side and the United States, ASEAN and other democratic countries on the other.

      This new relationship is quite different in nature from the cold war alliance. It is no longer the clear-cut front line between communism against capitalism, between national liberation against imperialism. A new front line has emerged since then. Yalta bipolar world was replaced by Malta new world order. A new battle has begun: the battle between progress and backwardness, between human dignity and inhuman acts, between democracy and dictatorship. In this new global battle, democracy, human rights and development –and neither communism nor capitalism-- became international concerns. In June 14-25, 1993, the first largest governmental and non-governmental international conference on human rights sponsored by the United Nations, the second one since World War II, the World Conference on Human Rights, convened in Vienna. The Conference declared that “the universal nature” of human rights and all basic freedoms “is beyond question”, and that “it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The Conference also affirmed that: “Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing”. (13)

        In their newest world development report, World Bank experts have pointed out that  democracy is one of the most apparent trends on the globe in the last decades of the 20th century.


             The proportion of countries that are considered democratic has more than doubled

             since 1974.  In a worldwide shift, people are demanding a larger say in the way  

             their governments are running. In addition, demands for increased decentralization

             of power often accompany democratic trends. (14) 


        These global trends of human rights and democratic decentralization conflicts with the principle of “democratic centralism” in communist Vietnam. The party leaders gives the people and the party members 4 rights: the rights “to know, to discuss, to do and to inspect”(15). They keep only one right, but the most crucial one, the right to decide. By doing this, they decide what the people can know, what they can discuss, what they can do and what they can inspect. This political model of “democratic centralism” can hardly work in a global informatics, economic and political reality where fast, inter-related, and multi-faceted actions and initiatives dictate success or failure. It is not conducive to the development of the country and hinders the process of integration of Vietnam into the modern world. Consequently it had stirred up strong protests from human rights and democracy advocates inside and outside the country.

       Since 1997, under strong pressures both within the country and from international community, the communist leaders have softened their grips on dissidents in Vietnam. They released prominent political and religious prisoners. They modified their methods of suppressing the dissidents. Local governments, down to the level of villages, are allowed to put any citizen under “administrative detention” from 6 months to 2 years without trial (16). Thus, instead of sentencing dissidents and sending them to long-term forced labor camps, the authority now harasses and house-arrests them, isolating them from their friends and colleagues. The regime also continues to reject multiparty, political pluralism and human rights, labeling these as “lies and cheating” (17). The army even issued White Paper in September 1998 to denounce “the plots to interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs in the disguise of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’…for the purpose of replacing the current political and social system…” Instead of concentrating on economic problems, the Politburo continues to stress on political stability and party supremacy. Vietnam, in the beginning of the year 2000, “is again faced with the danger of falling behind and living under the shadow of its traditional enemy while retaining a system that has proved to be a failure.”  (18)

       That is the situation in Vietnam before the trade agreement. Last year, on July 25, Vietnam signed a trade protocol with Washington only to freeze the accord in October. The prospect of opening Vietnam’s markets to foreign competition is too scary to conservatives in the Politburo. The historic accord was signed three months ago, on July 13, with some adjustments aimed at assuring the conservatives in the Politburo. It takes one more year before the agreement will be ratified, and from 3 to 9 years to be implemented in some sensitive areas, mostly related to cultural, information and publication business. The hard-line conservatives of the CPV want to buy time to hold back the unavoidable: democracy.

        The problem lies not in the trends of liberalization and democratization, but in their speed. The reluctance of the communist leaders to smoothly transform Vietnam from authoritarianism to democracy creates a time bomb of social unrest and political upheaval. Significant changes in political and cultural areas are urgently needed to avoid this. We all understand the positive effect of free trade on liberalization of the society. But I do not believe that free trade by itself will bring about freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. Free trade should go hand in hand with an open society, with transparency and accountability of governance. Free competition provides a key factor for development, but it should be applied not only to business but also to politics and culture if we want to build a Vietnam of peace, of justice and sustainable development. I also believe that free trade would benefit the people only if it goes along with a government democratically and freely elected by the people.

        To dismantle the time bomb of riot and chaos which would threaten regional instability I suggest to open for the Vietnamese people all the doors –economic, cultural, educational, information-- to the world. I support an open-arm policy between the Vietnamese Diaspora and the people inside Vietnam. Let us encourage people-to-people relationship between Vietnam and the United States, in which Vietnamese Americans, with their intellectual and financial strength, will play a decisive role in modernizing and democratizing Vietnam. Let us work together, both American and Vietnamese Americans, to build a New Vietnam in de-facto, in despite of and challenging the present dictators who want to control and slow down the process of integration in Vietnam. Let us break the closed doors set up by the dictators and open Vietnam to the global community, expanding Vietnam both geographically and intellectually to the New World, to the new age, the Age of Knowledge. Let us create means and opportunities to help bring together the global Vietnamese Diaspora and the people inside the country to create a New Vietnam as a part of the New World. In so doing, I strongly believe that in a near future we shall see emerge a Vietnam, and the whole Asia Pacific, of prosperity in peace, compassion and respect for human dignity./.





(1), IMF estimates, 2000.

(2) (Dow Jones, November 21, 1997.

(3) Xinhua, November 26, 1999.

(4) Thoi Bao Kinh te Vietnam (Vietnam Economic Time, June, 30, 2000)

(5) Saigon Giai Phong (Saigon Liberation), June 26, 2000  

(6) IMF figures, 2000.

(7) (Far Eastern Economic Review, December 18, 1997.

(8) IMF estimates, 2000.

(9) Reuters, January 26, 1999.

(10) As cited in Juan D. Lindau and Timothy Cheek (edt.), Market Economics and Political Change,  Maryland: Roman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,1998), p. 87.

(11) AP, November 13.      

(12) Personal Document in Vietnamese. century,

(13) “Vienna Declaration And Programme Of Action”, General A/Conf.157/23, 12 July 1993, (Original: English) (UN General Assembly Document), I.: 1,5,8

(14) The World Bank. Entering the 21st Century. World Development Report 1999/2000.  (London: Oxford       University Press, August 1999), p. 28.

(15) "dân biết, dân bàn, dân làm, dân kiểm tra"

(16) Administrative Detainment Regulation, Directive No. 31/CP issued by the Prime Minister, April 14, 1997.

(17) South China Morning Post, August 17, 1999.

(18) Nguyen Manh Hung, “Vietnam in 1999. The Party Choice,” Asian Survey, January/February 2000, pp. 110-111.





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