Monday, July 3, 2006

The top political leadership of Vietnam just changed. A new team of economic reformers emerged; but their ability to move Vietnam toward a more open and democratic future remains uncertain. The question, as we celebrate Independence Day in America, is this: can democratic governments like the U.S. influence Vietnam toward more freedom and democracy?

Last week in Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung was chosen by the communist ruling body as Vietnam’s youngest post-war prime minister, arguably the most significant leadership position in the government. Nguyen Minh Triet, the Communist Party head in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, formerly Saigon), was chosen as Vietnam’s new president, a more ceremonial position. Nguyen Phu Trong was named as new chairman of the national assembly.

The leaders named nine new cabinet members, who were confirmed by the national assembly, including two deputy premiers and the foreign, defense and finance ministers.

Although the communist party has a firm grip on politics in Vietnam, this sweeping political change marked a watershed. From the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975, hard-line communist leadership made that country a backward, repressed, economically depressed failure: the Cuba, or worse, of Southeast Asia. All media in Vietnam is controlled by the Communist Party and the people have no say in their leadership.

Recently, more enlightened thinking has made Vietnam an emerging economic force; not a lion but perhaps an economic tiger cub.

For the future of trade with the U.S and the economy of Vietnam, the news of the new leadership gives great promise. Both Mr. Dung and Mr. Nguyen are economic reformers with close ties to the economic engine of the nation: Ho Chi Minh City.

Mr. Dung, for example, had lunch with Bill Gates when the Microsoft leader visited Vietnam last April. Business leaders we spoke to generally applauded the leadership changes.

In the past six years, the Vietnamese economy has grown at an inflation-adjusted average of 7.4 percent. This year, the government expects GDP to grow by 8.5 percent. This economic surge is helping to lift many from poverty and is leading to general improvements in infrastructure and quality of life.

The new leaders have also taken an active role in eliminating corruption and organized crime: decades-long blights on the communist system in Vietnam.

The new leaders will undoubtedly forge the future direction of Vietnam, according to professor Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy.

“What is this direction?” Mr. Thayer asked us rhetorically. “Vietnam will attempt to fully integrate with the world economy through membership in the World Trade Organization. Vietnam will endeavor to maintain high growth rates over a decade-and-a-half to achieve the objective of becoming a modern and industrial country.”

But even though the economic intentions of these new leaders seem clear, their political backbone remains untested and vague. One experienced diplomat who asked not to be named told us, “Dung is an enigma. He is hard to put a finger on, ideologically.”

Why should the United States care about the political future of Vietnam? Precisely because, as President Bush has asserted time and again, “Democracies rarely wage war on other democracies.”

While Vietnam poses no military threat to anyone, it is important to note that democratic governments tend to cherish freedom, protect their economic growth at almost any cost, resist knowingly harboring terrorists, and generally enforce human rights. Democracy not only makes people free but it also generally makes them more wealthy and improves their quality of life.

The past regime in Vietnam under Prime Minister Phan Van Khai actively persecuted the minority population, the Hmong, in ugly purges that left thousands dead and others forced to migrate away from their homeland. Mr. Khai also supported religious persecution that left dozens of clerics jailed for years on end without hope or recourse.

But people in Vietnam are restless for change. This spring and summer, petitions demanding more freedom and openness are circulating in the cities. One is called “The 2006 Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy in Vietnam.” People are signing and supporting the petition, despite threats from the communist government.

“It’s extraordinary that hundreds of citizens across Vietnam have boldly shown their support for political change in a written petition,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “In Vietnam, the mere act of signing such documents routinely triggers a police investigation, detention and often imprisonment.”

What can the U.S. do, to signal support for the new leaders and the people in Vietnam?

Beyond the normal diplomatic encouragements and niceties, the president should host the new leadership of Vietnam here in the United States. Last June the president hosted then-Prime Minister Phan Van Khai for a meeting in the Oval Office. At that time, because of Mr. Khai’s hard-line views and miserable record on human rights, we objected, in an essay here in The Washington Times. A large portion of the Vietnamese-American public protested the Khai visit.

But the new, potentially much more democratically-leaning leadership in Vietnam would be more worthy and deserving of the prestige and dignity that comes from a White House visit (or even a trip to the Texas ranch).

Finally, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the president of the United States could, at the appropriate time, visit Vietnam. The president’s position world-wide is clear: the U.S. stands for democracy and the dignity of human rights. The U.S. does not want a recalcitrant Vietnam isolated in any way from the world. It may be time to embrace the progress and fully heal the wounds.

The pace of change in Vietnam depends almost entirely upon the Vietnamese; but the United States might encourage progress in the right direction over time. This could fuel an even greater expansion of the Vietnamese economy. More importantly, additional U.S. interest and focus could push the Vietnamese leadership away from the evils of human rights abuses, including the ugly persecution of the Hmong and religious groups, and toward a more enlightened, and eventually democratic, government.

As Americans celebrate their own Independence Day, it seems fitting that we discuss and contemplate the freedom and democracy of other people. Some three decades ago we bravely attempted to secure the peace, freedom and democracy of the Vietnamese people, only to fail. Maybe enough time has passed now to allow a great nation to extend the hand a peace and reconciliation, and to encourage democracy by other than military means in Vietnam.

Honglien Do fled Communist Vietnam. John Carey is former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.

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