VIETNAM: A ROAD MAP TO DEMOCRACY

Doan Viet Hoat, Ph.D.
Speech at John Hopkins University, SAIS
Feb 21, 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful to be here tonight to share with you my opinions on Vietnam. I would like to express my sincere thanks to Dr. Fred Brown and his SAIS staff for facilitating this warm gathering. Thank you all for venturing the winter weather to join us tonight for a discussion on a topic, which will certainly draw some hot debate. I only wish this evening event would happen in Hanoi or Saigon instead.

Since the early 1990’s many Vietnamese persons of conscience have tried to make happen such a positive event like this in Saigon. They all have been sentenced to long term in prison or house arrest –myself, Dr. Nguyễn Ðan Quế, Professor Nguyễn Ðình Huy, Mr. Nguyễn Hộ, Mr. Hoàng Minh Chính, Dr. Phạm Hồng Sơn, Mr. Nguyễn Vũ Bình, just to mention some. Some have been incarcerated and house arrested many times since then. Some have just been released after strong pressure from American and international community, but again, they are immediately put under house arrest or close police watch.

Therefore, to have such a free and peaceful gathering like this in Vietnam, much needs to be done by all of us, Americans, Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnamese. However, I strongly believe that if we all do our parts, that day will come soon. Because freedom and democracy, together with free market economy and open civil society, are the trends of our time. Proofs of these trends can be found in recent events around the world and even in Vietnam today.

As we all know, in Iraq the people have just cast their first free votes in the first free election in their history, in despite of doubt, fear and violence. No matter how different we may be on the war in Iraq, free election does provide a better option for a brighter future for the people of Iraq. And not long before that the people in Indonesia had enjoyed the taste of free election too, and the people in Ukraine had also proved that they have the will and the power to make historic decisions for the betterment of their own nation, if only they have a chance. What happened in those countries also highlights the inter-action between national and international interests. This inter-action has become a part of the trends of our time too, simply because we are living in a global village. National and international interests are today intertwined. What happens in one country affects the situation in the region, and in many cases, in the whole world. And that’s exactly why we are here tonight to discuss about the situation in Vietnam, a country half the globe far away.

Some weeks ago some of you here might have a chance to meet Ms. Ton Nu Thi Ninh to exchange with her about Vietnam. I am informed that she had tried to convince you that Vietnam had made progress in many areas, even in human rights. All of us in the Unites States, Americans, Vietnamese-Americans and Vietnamese, are happy to welcome her here to have dialogue with us about Vietnam. We only regret that dialogue has not been allowed inside Vietnam. And I support Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez when she proposed to have dialogue with Ms Ton Nu Thi Ninh in Vietnam instead of here in the United States. It is welcomed to have dialogue here in Washington DC. But it is more convincing and more worthy, if the Vietnamese leaders allow for freedom of expression and freedom to dialogue between the Vietnamese people of different political leanings, communist and non-communist, in Ha Noi or Saigon. This is the ultimate goal of the democracy movement in Vietnam and in America.

It is true that Vietnam has made some progress. This is a fact which needs neither argument for nor against. What needs to be emphasized is another simple fact: Vietnam is better today because it is freer. Freedom is functional to progress and development. Vietnam will advance faster in a more balanced and more sustainable manner if the people have more freedom in all areas of social life, not just in economy, and the government is more accountable to the people.

The leadership in Vietnam today has not accepted this as an official policy. So far they only react to international pressure, and loosen their grip on the people and society only under strong pressure, like the recent release of some prominent prisoners of conscience. Since the IXth National Party Congress in 1991, the communist leaders in Vietnam have added the term “democracy” to their slogan: “xã hội công bằng, dân chủ, văn minh”. But the form of democracy they want to develop in Vietnam is not democracy by its simplest definition.

The Vietnamese leaders still believe that freedom is something that the government gives to the people and not the natural right of the people. A system of “give and take” (chế độ “xin-cho”) still exists in Vietnam. In reality, the people can only ask what they are allowed to ask, and the government only gives what they like to give. There is a slogan in Vietnam today: “dân biết, dân bàn, dân làm, dân kiểm tra”. The Vietnamese people have 4 rights: the rights to know, to discuss, to implement and to inspect. The party only keeps one right: the right to decide. And the party decides what the people may know, what they may discuss, what they may implement and what they may inspect. This is exactly what it means by the idea of a law-ruled government (“nhà nước pháp quyền”), or rule-by-law government. I would like to bring to your attention the distinction between rule by law and rule of law. This distinction is important and relevant to our discussion of democratization process in Vietnam.

Many would think that rule by law is better than rule without law, or rule by ordinance and by the Party’s resolutions. Generally speaking this is true. However, a scrutiny into the system of rule by law reveals the situation which I call the “legalization” of human rights violation. A brief review of the Constitution of 1992 clarifies this.

In the 1992 Constitution, all fundamental rights of the citizens are listed and “respected”. But these basic rights are “determined by the law” or “in accordance with the provisions of the law” (Article 50, 54, 68, 69). The laws can thus define or determine the citizens’ rights guaranteed in the Constitution. And in reality the laws have actually limited these basic rights of the citizens, or even deprive the people of these basic rights. This is the case of Decree 31/CP which gives the police at the village level the power to put any citizen under “administrative detention” up to 2 years, with no need for any court decision.

Another example of the rule by law. The most powerful person in Vietnam is the General Secretary of the CPVN. And yet there exists no such a position in the Constitution. The highest political position of the country does not exist constitutionally. He is above the Constitution, and thus, is not bound by any law. He rules the country with the ultimate power and yet no article in the Constitution mentions even his title, or his duty. Constitutionally speaking he does not exist.

For the Communist Party of Vietnam, only one article, Article 4, gives it the ultimate power over all other institutions of the nation. And there is no article to limit its power and to define its responsibilities. In 1991 when the party allowed for a national discussion of the new Constitution, one lawyer in Saigon proposed to have a chapter on the Communist Party. His proposal was disregarded.

What I want to convey is simply this: rule by law is not democracy. It is another form of dictatorship, dictatorship with law which might by better than dictatorship with no law, but it is still dictatorship. Democracy requires many things of which both the governed and the governor, including the highest leaders of the country, must respect laws. No one, and no political party, can be higher than and excluded from the Constitution. Rule of law should replace rule by law. Democracy will prevail if rule of law is respected.

Researches and theories of democracy point out that during the last few decades democratization has become a dominant phenomenon in developing countries. Huntington calls this “the third wave of democracy” (Huntington, 1991) which for him began in the early 1970’s. In the last half of the 20th century, the number of countries with some form of democracy have increased from 30% to more than 60% –120 countries over 192 in 2000. Democratization has become one of the most fascinating achievements of the twentieth century, together with free trade and market economy. Two important events mark the end of the twentieth century –the establishment of the World Movement for Democracy in India in 1999, and the first meeting of the Community of Democracies and the first World Forum on Democracy in Warsaw in June 2000.

Although there are different forms of democratic governance, and different approaches to the democratization process in developing countries, there seems to exist a consensus among democracy theorists that democracy is not only the trend of our time; it is an inclusive part in the sustainable development of a country. Nobel laureate economist, Amartya Sen, even believes that democracy is a factor of development and not its result (Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom, Anchor Books, 2000).

The question now is not why democracy but when and how. Democratization has become a domain of research and teaching in the social sciences. Many democracy theorists have focused their research on the transitional aspect in the democratization process, in which they try to find out the relationship between economic, educational, cultural aspects of development and democracy. It is relevant to our discussion to review briefly their findings.

The relationship between economic development and democracy has drawn great attention among researchers. Many of them believe that the level of economic development relates directly to the development of democracy, with the emergence of the middle class, higher educational level, higher standards of living, more democratic family…However, many researchers, when focusing their researches on developing countries, argue that economic development by itself does not automatically bring about democracy. This is because in developing countries values and attitudes play a dominant role in shaping individuals’ thinking and way of life, and the relationship between the people and the government. Economic development does bring about changes in values and attitudes, but without a comprehensive approach to development, these changes usually come too slow and among a limited section of the population –the richer and better-educated people. Values and attitudes, if only limited to, and nurtured by economic advancement, do not naturally lead to democracy. Many researchers point out the important role of what they call “civic culture” in developing democracy. The attitudes of the people toward their government determine not only the nature but also the speed of the transition from authoritarian regime to democracy. Other researchers believe that national elites play the most important role in the transition period. They suggest that the intelligentsia should have an important role in the advancement of the nation in general and of democracy in particular.

In short, democratization is a process which involves many factors of which economic development, with free market system, is necessary but not enough. What has been happening in China and in Vietnam proves this. A more comprehensive approach to democracy should be initiated in developing countries. To have democracy in a country like Vietnam we cannot wait for a higher level of economic development. As Amartya Sen has stated: “Democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of general prosperity.” (“Democracy as Universal Value”, Journal of Democracy, July 1999). Democracy is a value of a civilized society, a way of life of our time which every man and woman on earth has the right to have. The Vietnamese people deserve to live in a democratic and prosperous society after more than half a century struggling for independence, freedom and prosperity. Democratization is the demand of our time.

The question, as I said above, is when and how. Basing on academic findings, on what’s happening in Vietnam today, and on my own experiences, I propose a comprehensive plan for the democratization of Vietnam. This plan envisions two major tasks: the liberalization of all aspects of the citizens’ life, and the democratization of the government. It recognizes the need of, and provides the opportunity for the participation of all sectors of the population –workers, peasants, intellectuals, writers, politicians–, in all areas –economy, culture, education, humanitarian works, media, and politics. It also envisions the participation of and the inter-action between the people inside and outside Vietnam in the process. The proposed plan of actions aims at empowering the people and opening up the government simultaneously.

To achieve this, the comprehensive plan for democracy for Vietnam proposes a three-stage scenario, of which the first two stages focus on the liberalization of economic and cultural activities, whereas the democratization of the government will occur in the last stage. Three stages of liberalization and democratization do not occur independently but interact and intertwine. We do not have to wait for the economic transformation to be finished before pushing for the liberalization of cultural and social activities. Instead, economic liberalization creates demands and conditions favorable for freer cultural, educational, information activities, which in turn demand, and help step up the democratization of the government. The more the economy become market-oriented, the more free competition between private enterprises and SOEs is activated and protected by the law, the better environment and conditions for the liberalization of cultural, educational and social activities will emerge. This interaction between economic improvement and cultural and social liberalization transforms the society, and creates new values and attitudes of the population which are freer, more civic, and more democratic. Facing this new economic and cultural environment and conditions, the party’s leadership will have to make decisive choice: either to accept democracy or to confront with the population who is moving forward no matter what.

I strongly believe that this scenario is the optimum choice for Vietnam because it is feasible and benefits all concerned. First, it is feasible because it is in the main stream of development of our time. The present leadership of Vietnam has accepted the first stage, the economic transformation. Thanks to this, Vietnam has attained tremendous economic development, and the standards of living of the people have been increased. Vietnam now needs to move to the second stage, liberalizing cultural, educational, information activities, and move fast to meet the needs of integrating into the regional and international community both economically and culturally speaking. Free competition and free trade pose a great challenge to Vietnam which cannot be met by the present conservative, closed and authoritarian policy in culture, education and information. The people, especially the young people, need to have opened and free access to the most advanced knowledge and information of the world. Fair and free competition, guaranteed and protected by the law, opens a wide door for advancement and progress not only in economy and also in cultural, educational activities. I am glad to know that the Vietnamese government plans to allow for private universities to be opened although this is a rather slow move after many foreign universities have been allowed to operate freely in Vietnam for the last few years. I challenge the leaders in Vietnam to have the vision and the will to move faster in opening up opportunities for the young people in Vietnam to have access to a more advanced education and culture of international standards. Freedom of thought and the autonomy of the university are two keys for modernization and development in Vietnam today. The intellectuals and the writers in Vietnam urgently need to be liberated from all forms of control so that they can develop their potentials to be on the same level with their colleagues in South East Asia and around the world. They should have the opportunity to play their creative and independent role in the advancement of the nation. In fact they are playing this role whether the leadership accepts it or not. Many of them, like Prof. Phan Ðình Diệu, have voiced their opinion in support of multi-party political system. Time has come for the leadership in Vietnam to accept a more visionary roadmap to democracy for Vietnam.

Vietnam, together with all human kind, is on the threshold of the third millennium. The Vietnamese people are ready for a journey toward the new age of development. A new Vietnam is emerging, a Vietnam of the globalization era. Time has also come for all of us to do all we can to help the Vietnamese people overcome all obstacles and wide open the doors for this national journey to their brighter future.

Thank you for your attention.

Doan Viet Hoat
John Hopkins University,  SAIS
Feb 21, 2005

 

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