Interview with Doan Viet Hoat

By Michou Nguyen 

On December 8, 2000, HAQ editor Michou Nguyen conducted an interview with Vietnamese human rights observer Doan Viet Hoat. Dr. Hoat spoke on a variety of issues, from free trade and economic stability to President Clinton's trip reception by the Vietnamese people.

1. HAQ: You've stated in other forums that President Clinton should use his trip as an opportunity to send a clear message to Vietnam concerning political freedom and human rights. However, it seemed that the President's focus rested instead on economic development and the future of the Vietnamese economy. Do you think that this focus on economics overshadowed issues concerning human rights and political freedom?

DVH: Before President Bill Clinton went to Vietnam his staff made some efforts to brief prominent activists of the Vietnamese community about the trip and to seek ideas and suggestions from them. The Vietnamese diaspora in the United States so far has focused their concern on the totalitarian policy of the present communist government in Vietnam and its violations of basic human rights. The Vietnamese community, at the present stage of their involvement in Vietnam, is not opposed to economic renovation and free trade. However, they do not believe that free trade and economic renovation will succeed within the framework of the present closed and monopolistic political system.

I believe that the United States should adopt the policy of "balanced engagement" with such countries as Vietnam and China, in which assistance in opening up the country should embrace both a free market and a free society. I believe that today no one seriously contends that a free market alone will eventually lead to a free society. Without effective efforts to help bring about an open society, free trade and a free market system can hardly take shape, which, consequently, will lead to popular frustration and social unrest.

In his visit to Vietnam, President Clinton conveyed a clear, though not strong, message of support for human rights and freedom. He touched on some non-economic and sensitive issues --the war of the past and the basic rights of the present. He also tried to add to the bright prospects of free trade and free market economic system by remarking on the "irreversible trend" of liberalization of society. He spoke openly that "guaranteeing the right to religious worship and the right to political dissent does not threaten the stability of a society." He also expressed his belief that it is better off for Vietnamese young people to "have a say in choosing their governmental leaders and having a government that is accountable to those it serves". His positive attitude toward the war, his remarks on the important role of the Vietnamese-Americans, and finally, the unexpected enthusiastic mass gathering to welcome him both in Hanoi and Saigon - all these factors rendered his visit both historical and significant. However, it is also clear that the President believes strongly in opening Vietnam to the world as the best way to liberalize Vietnam. Therefore, his visit should be viewed as a starting point for a new stage of engagement.

2. HAQ: Assuming that President Clinton was successful in conveying a message supporting political freedom and human rights to the Vietnamese people, how successful do you think the people will be in initiating change in light of the authoritarian control exercised by the Politburo? How can President Clinton or the United States facilitate the implementation of change?

DVH: Although the President did not meet with any dissidents, Rep. Loretta Sanchez met with four prominent dissidents in Hanoi and two in Saigon. I believe that the people will become more active and more vocal in their demand for change. In fact, right after Clinton's visit, one of the leaders, the Deputy Minister of Defense, warned against "peaceful evolution". Protests continue and have intensified both in the provinces and in Saigon and Hanoi. In the provinces, during the last few weeks, hundreds of peasants traveled to provincial government headquarters to file their complaints, though in vain. More religious leaders and followers raise protests against the government's persecution; some even go on hunger strike in Hue and in the Mekong Delta. Political dissidents have intensified their activities. Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, a prominent dissident in Saigon, announced the forming of Get-Together For Democracy (Tap Hop Vi Nen Dan Chu) three days before President Clinton's visit. The discontent of the people has become more open and more vocal, as people recognize that they can receive American and international recognition and support.

The next step that the American government and public can take to promote freedom and human rights in Vietnam is to focus on helping to strengthen the people and the private sector in all areas of activities, including economic, cultural, educational, and informational realms. I think that the next Administration should support public as well as private programs and activities to promote the emergence of an open civil society. At least, pressure for more openness and changes on the part of the government should go hand in hand with strengthening the people's economic and cultural opportunities and power.

3. HAQ: You suggested in your comments that free trade and economic stability cannot occur without the guarantee of basic freedoms. Do you think that the Politburo shares this view or do they believe economic prosperity can exist without basic freedoms?

DVH: There are two major differences between the Politburo and the dissenting democrats. First, the Politburo does not want to develop a free market system. Le Kha Phieu, Secretary General of the CPVN, told President Clinton: "The doi moi (renovation) goal is to achieve an independent, sovereign, socialist-oriented economy....Vietnam has private economy, but Vietnam is not privatizing the economy...the State and co-operative economic sectors play a significant role." Second, Le Kha Phieu consistently reaffirms the ideological nature of the Vietnamese political system. He told President Clinton: "The US Secretary of State the other day asked me whether socialism would continue to exist. I replied that socialism would not only exist but continue to develop successfully." And he informed the President that he made similar statements during his visits in France, Italy, and the European Union.

In short, the free market system and democracy are not in the present Politburo's agenda, at least for the next ten years. Their priority is not prosperity for the country but consolidation of their power in the name of "socialism". Will they succeed? I doubt that they will. They are facing a dilemma: In the contemporary context of globalization, prosperity for the people must accompany openness in society and transparency in the government. I visualize the following scenario: Under the pressure of the time, the party leaders will have to accept more openness and more loosening of their control. This irreversible process will finally lead to a critical point when the monopolistic power of the party will be brought to an end. The party strategists and leaders fully understand this scenario, and they have been seeking to avoid this fatal close of their power. This is the dilemma, both for the party and for the country. To avoid the end of the monopolistic political system means both to scale down and to slow down the process of reformation and development.

4. HAQ: Do you think that the President's visit had an impact on the rural population of Vietnam, considering that they have less ready access to the media and as a result less information about the President's visit?

DVH: In the rural areas some families have TVs and many have radios. Many villagers heard about Mr. Clinton's visit, and certainly this is the most important news in Vietnam at the present time. However, the visit will not have an immediate impact on the northern rural population, who had no direct contact with Americans in the past. For many peasants in the South, especially for older people, the visit may kindle some expectation for drastic changes and a better future. Before 1975 the South had enjoyed the beginning of a free market economy, which was later disrupted by the communist northerners. Right before Mr. Clinton's visit to Saigon, the police disengaged about 100 peasants who had staged a demonstration in front of the Office of the Central Government for more than two months. In the Mekong Delta, where the peasants have recently suffered the most severe flood in 70 years, the government has encountered strong protests by the Hoa Hao religious group, whose leader was killed in 1946 by the communists.

5. HAQ: Would you say that the President's visit was a success from the viewpoint of the Politburo? the Vietnamese people? the United States?

DVH: I think that each of the three parties benefits differently from President Clinton's visit. The Politburo may enhance its political prestige in having Mr. Clinton visit Vietnam while the communist party still holds power. Closer relations with the US also help to create a balance of power in the context of sensitive regional security problems. For the Vietnamese people, Mr. Clinton's visit may give a boost both to their expectations and to popular discontent. Political and religious dissidents will become more confident of their activities and will expect stronger support from American and international circles. For the United States, President Clinton gave to his Vietnam agenda a historical ending. However, whether the visit will be a success in reality for all three parties is still unclear. From the viewpoint of the Vietnamese and Americans who want to see a new Vietnam emerge, the road ahead is full of expectation and uncertainty.

6. HAQ: What else do you think President Clinton should have done but did not do during his visit?

DVH: The President should have talked more directly of political and religious prisoners. He should have met some prominent dissidents. He did see Archbishop Pham Minh Man of Saigon, but only for 10 minutes. He should have met Rev. Thich Quang Do, the internationally renowned leader of the banned Unified Buddhist Church. He was rather soft in his remarks on human rights and freedom. Perhaps he is using his "carrot" more than his "stick" in his first visit to unified Vietnam under the communist regime.

7. HAQ: Do you think that the First Lady made any significant contribution during her visit?

DVH: Mrs. Hillary Clinton offered a more human, less political touch on the President's visit. She certainly won the hearts of the people on the street and thus left a great impact on young and ordinary Vietnamese people. However, her meeting with the Vietnamese Women Association helped to promote government-controlled organizations rather than independent NGOs (non-governmental organizations), which have yet to develop in Vietnam.