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Vietnam , Three Decades Later

Do you want to know how much Vietnam has changed over the last three decades?

Let’s put it this way: Would you believe that earlier this month, the country put on its first-ever national golf championship?

The internal aim is to narrow down the field of golfers who will go on to compete in the upcoming Southeast Asia Games, but the message to the outside world is: We’re no longer that Westerner-eating, fire-breathing, guerrilla-steaming, anti-American screaming, red-neck commie nation that hews to its Marx, laps up its Lenin and insists that you’re either Red or dead.

On the contrary, the people of Vietnam , which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the United States’ final pullout from Saigon on April 30 , are getting with the market-oriented, rich-is-glorious, we-love-anyone-with-money (including Westerners), China-clone program of economic reform (while keeping dissidents under the party’s boot) that will hope to reconcile the internal contradictions of Marxism by making the Vietnamese people too wealthy and comfortable even to bother to dissent or try to poop the party.

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A prominent conveyor of this with-it message was Ambassador Ton Nu Thi Ninh, who recently completed a charm offensive in the United States, hosted here as the guest of the nonprofit Pacific Century Institute. This sharp lady , Vietnam’s most internationally prominent woman diplomat , is widely known for her Hillary Clinton smarts, Margaret Thatcher toughness and apparent ease with Westerners that makes her Vietnam’s best-liked saleswoman abroad.

In a wide-ranging interview, Ambassador Ton Nu painted a portrait of a thoroughly reforming Vietnam (in truth, historically the scourge of Southeast Asia). Ton Nu claims there is as much raucous internal dissent and debate now in the Communist Party of Vietnam as in the U.S. Congress, adding: “The top-down format is now rare: Mostly there is a suggestion from the top for discussion, but the discussion is now bottom up.”

For its part, America, on the whole, seems comfortable with the new image of Vietnam. Ten years ago , and two decades after the war’s end , diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi were officially normalized; about 4 & #733; years ago, Bill Clinton, in his waning days as president, made a ground-and-ice breaking official visit there. A year later, the two countries, once so much at each other’s throats, actually inked a bilateral trade agreement. How much the times have changed.

But not everyone has moved on, to be sure. Some of the more than 1 million ethnic Vietnamese in America don’t buy Ambassador Ton Nu’s offer of good will at all.

Replies madam ambassador: “Back in Vietnam after the war was over, there were so many people who lost more. People back home overcame , why can’t the Vietnamese here in the United States overcome too?”

It’s a fair question, but hard to answer sympathetically as long as one can observe pieces of the “old” Vietnam still in action. Case in point: the continuing harsh crackdown against the besieged Montagnard minority. These are the legendary mountain people of Vietnam; some are Christian and most are fiercely anti-communist.

Explains Ken Bacon, the president of Refugees International, which has been working hard to help out the Montagnards: “This may seem like a small issue. But at a time when people are marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and commenting on the wonderful improvements in relations between Washington and Hanoi, this is one area where the Vietnamese are up (to) their old tricks.”

When I raise this issue with Vietnamese officials, they take the view that the Montagnards are “enemies of the state” and that the question is a domestic matter, not an international one.

Undoubtedly Vietnam , now easily one of the world’s fastest-growing economies , has indeed come a long way over the decades. What’s more, many Americans appear prepared to continue to improve relations in the time-honored American spirit of forgive-and-forget. But simple human-rights sagas like the Montagnards’ play precisely into the hands of those who will not let go of the memory of the dark days in Vietnam. Those in Vietnam who order these harsh crackdowns , ones that inevitably get played back to the West , are the unintentional true “enemies of the people.”

The country needs more diplomats and charmers like Madam Ton Nu , and far fewer communist warriors who , in apocalypse-now fashion , see dangerous counterrevolutionaries on every mountaintop and insist on the cracked-heads approach to dissent.


Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the

Los Angeles Times

and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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