Remarks of Dr. Doan Viet Hoat
Keynote Speech of VAS 4th Annual Dinner

 

Dear Friends,

It is my great pleasure to be here with you tonight.  Just one year ago, I knew none of you.  Last August, I was still in jail, isolated from the outside world.  I was deep in a mountainous area near the border between North Vietnam and Laos - a place which you could hardly find on a map.  And yet tonight, I am here with you.  Is this a miracle?  No, I think it is just a normal thing.  Normal in the sense that anything abnormal cannot last long.  To isolate a man from other men is abnormal.  To repress peaceful opposition is abnormal.  To force other people to do what they do not agree on is abnormal.  To deprive people of basic human rights is abnormal.  Nothing abnormal can last.  This idea is one of my strong beliefs.  And with this strong belief I survived, physically and mentally, despite all the ordeals that I had to go through.  Tonight, I want to share with you, this first experience of mine.

The second experience that I want to share with you is about my intellectual encounter with America, with the West.  It happened in the second half of the 1960's, when I came to America for the first time in March of 1966.  My first stop was Honolulu, Hawaii, at the airport.  The first thing that I encountered was nothing else but a simple, normal car parking meter.  I suddenly found this normal thing abnormal.  Abnormal in the sense that a man can be self-regulated not by himself but by a machine;  a manless tool produced by man.  I completely got lost by such a discovery.  Man can be a slave of himself, of his own progress.  Worse, man can live abnormally normally;  normally due to unconsciousness.  I apologize for being too philosophical.  But let us continue.

One day during this three month tour of America, I was trapped in a crowded subway in New York.  The train came in and out so fast.  People rushed in and out of the train.  There was no time to see the face of the person casually told, "Excuse me!"  There was no time for a full, long kiss.  I was so amazed with the speed of life that I could not hold back my spontaneous verse (in Vietnamese, of course):

Each train stops half a minute.
Alike life pieces swiftly in speed.

I stopped by to say
A half good-bye.
I stopped by to miss
A half sweet kiss.

To whom should I say
This half good-bye?
To whom should I give
This half sweet kiss?

Then in 1967, I came back to the United States to discover another America, another West.  I discovered the principle-in-reality:  Unity in Diversity.  Differences are accepted.  Individuality is honored.  Initiative is respected.  And yet order is proclaimed by everyone.  Law enforcement is the rule of the day.  Stability is guaranteed neither by a personal nor by a partisan dictatorship but by the rule of law, which safeguards not the right of the governor but that of the governed.  Unity is obtained neither by coercion nor by seduction but by self-consent, by consensus.

And I realize that the strength of our Time lies not in industrialization, which is, of course, a sine-qua-non of social progress and economic development.  Instead, what humanity can be proud of in the present time lies in freedom and democracy.  Freedom for the individual and democracy for the mass.  Freedom not only in its political meaning, but also mostly in its cultural content.  Freedom not only from a dictator's oppression but also from spiritual repression.  Freedom in the most basic context of freedom of thought, of expression, of belief.  And yet without democracy, freedom cannot flourish;  just as an individual cannot survive alone.

We used to identify democracy with the principle:  government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  No one denies these basic criteria.  And yet, a government elected by the people might still be authoritarian;  might still be not of the people, not for the people - if it operates in a closed system, in a closed society.  To make a government democratic, we must allow for the emergence of an open society.  And the first precept of an open society is this:  no person, no matter how strong he is, how wise he might be, has the right to decide for other people what they can do, what they can believe.  Everyone is freely opened to challenges, to opportunities for justice, knowledge, and progress.  No one has the right to deny others of opportunities nor to obstruct others from challenges.  An open society allows, by law, free flow of information, free exchange of knowledge, free trade of products;  for everyone, with no discrimination.  Only by and because of these means has mankind made endless progress throughout history.

I strongly value all the progress that mankind has made despite the ordeals of war, hatred, and crime.  But the more I value mankind's progress, the more I regret.  I regret that the Vietnamese people have not had a chance to make the long awaited progress that they deserve.  The Vietnamese people have gone through fifty years of war, poverty, and backwardness.  They deserve development and progress.  They deserve peace and justice.  And above all, they deserve freedom and democracy, human rights, and human dignity.  For many, many years, as a free man, and as a political prisoner, I have a dream - permit me to use Martin Luther King's famous phrase - I have the only dream.  That every Vietnamese have an equal opportunity to develop his or her talents, and to utilize these talents for personal and for communal benefit.  From my own experience, I strongly believe that each Vietnamese child has the potential mental quality and talents to equal every other child in the developed countries.  What they need is the opportunity to turn these qualities and talents into reality.  You, my dear young friends here tonight, you have had this opportunity.  Imagine what you would be now if you had remained in Vietnam;  if your parents had not brought you to the United States.  Think about your friends at home.  Think about those deprived of the opportunity to become better human beings.  I am not talking of physical and material opportunities, although they are also in need, I am stressing the mental and spiritual environment.  A person can not grow up mentally if he is not freed of fear;  if he can not decide freely on what he does and on what he believes.

The Communist government in Vietnam now tells us that they have given back to the people all their basic rights.  They say that the people now have 4 rights:  to know (dan biet), to discuss (dan ban), to do (dan lam), and to inspect (dan kiem tra).  It looks like power belongs to the people.  But let us ponder, the people do not have one right.  They do not have the right to decide.  The Communist Party leaders keep only one right, but it is the most crucial one.  It is they who decide what the people may know and not know.  What the people may discuss and not discuss.  What the people may do and not do.  And finally, what the people may inspect and  not inspect.  And now the people may ask:  "What must we do to the Party?"  And not, "What must the Party do to them?"

Dear friends, I would like to conclude my presentation with this assertion:  Vietnam is in need of both a free market economy and a free political system.  A free market system can never develop within a closed political system.  Either the latter stifles the newly born former, or it will lead to social unrest and popular uprising, or both.  Time is running out.  For a better future for Vietnam, I ask you to join me in challenging the Communist leaders to accept free competition in economy, in culture, and in politics.