Lessons From Burma for Viet Nam
By Sidney Tran

The recent display of people power in Burma was an illustration of the indomitable spirit of man to overcome the machinery of oppression. It is another manifestation of the will of the weak to overcome the might of the strong. One cannot help to notice the contrast between two sides. Pictures are worth a thousand words as the old saying goes. And nothing more illustrates this contrast than the image of the two sides. One side was the barefooted monk dressed in his monk’s saffron robe the symbol of spiritual life, while the other side was dressed in a steel helmet, boots, club, and a rifle as the symbol of state control. Burma and Viet Nam are the two countries in Southeast Asia which have the unenviable reputation for despotism. Burma is rule by a military junta which brooks no opposition. Viet Nam is still a Marxist Leninist state which does not tolerate any organized opposition. Such a form of government seems rather quaint and outdated in the 21st Century. In the competitive world of Globalization a non-pluralistic government would be a disadvantage. For Viet Nam the state controls all aspect of life. It is pervasive and intrusive. The level of open dissent in Viet Nam as we have witnessed in Burma has not yet occur. But there are meaningful lessons to be learned about Burma’s experience. These lessons hold valuable insight for the democracy movement inside Vietnam.

One of the lessons Burma provided was that in the 21st Century repressive governments can no longer beat, shoot, and kill peaceful activists without the whole world not knowing about it. Even in an isolated outpost such as Burma where internet access is low and the junta has quarantine the populace from the outside world, information was still leaked out for the world to see the massacre as it was unfolding. Images and pictures convey a message that words cannot. The site of peaceful monks who are armed only with their spiritual teachings marching into the jaw of a despotic regime can invoke inspiration and awe for such a display of courage. In fact, such a civilian onlooker said, “the monks gave us the courage to overcome our fear of the government”. The monks embodied the moral authority and respect that the unpopular regime lacks. It also conveyed to the world a sense of righteousness in contrast to the blatant injustice that exists in Burma. Clearly, world public opinion was on the side of the monks. The images are powerful because the citizens of the world felt their own conscience under siege when they saw the beatings and brute force being unleashed. The lesson for Viet Nam is that no longer can Viet Nam carry out such blatant brutality in front of the world’s audience on such a massive scale. Viet Nam is far more integrated into the world’s economy than Burma. The foreign investments in Viet Nam are coming from various sources and regions. If such widespread brutality were to occur in Viet Nam, then the FDI would shrivel up and endanger Viet Nam’s economy. Another aspect of the images was how instantaneous the images were transmitted to wide world audience. I’m sure Viet Nam security services are taking notes. It is far harder for totalitarian governments to control the flow information in this day and age. For democracy activists in Viet Nam, they should know the importance of blogs, cell phones, internet access, and local citizen journalism as these things helped to transmit to the world what was happening in Burma.

The other lesson to be learned from Burma’s experience of civil disobedience is that activists have to look beyond the political elites that run the country. Behind the junta is a Chinese connection. They are the big power protector of the junta. China’s economic growth has made China to cozy up with the junta in order to secure energy and other natural resources for the benefit of the China’s continuing economic growth. Even as the world’s public opinion expressed outrage at the massacre, China has continued to obstruct the international community to censure the Burmese junta at the United Nations Security Council. Since the regime is so isolated, international pressure will not pay dividends unless other regional powers like China, India, and Thailand take a harder line against the generals. China also plays a significant influence in the domestic politics of Viet Nam. China and Viet Nam are two of the last five remaining Marxist Leninist states. They cling to each other like the last two remaining passengers left in a sinking ship. Thus, activists in Viet Nam have to face the interference from Viet Nam’s northern neighbor because it is not in the interest of China to let Viet Nam democratize.

The most important lesson that can be gained from the Burmese experience was the importance of economic factors in sowing and uniting the discontented populace against the ruling junta. Nothing unites people with diverse viewpoints more than the pocketbook issue of the day. This issue has led to the downfall of empires, regimes, and governments of various stripes. Most members of society are simply apolitical no matter what system they live in but the issue that resonates to ordinary people is economic survival. Historically, a country with an inflexible, autocratic system has fared poorly in providing the economic goods for its citizens. Most of this is through bad governmental policies set by ignorant bureaucrats or policies design to protect the power of the ruling elites at the expense and the detriment to the rest of society. One can see the examples of this occurrence with the downfall of the Suharto’s regime in Indonesia and the discontentment in Burma when the government announced huge fuel price hike. This action was enough to inflame the monks to march in the streets to demand a change in the way the country is being led. In Indonesia in 1997, the Asian financial crisis caused a major contraction of the Indonesian economy. The contraction led to deteriorating conditions in Indonesia. The government could no longer subsidize low fuel prices which anger many Indonesians. So the anger and resentment of corruption, nepotism, and autocratic rule exploded into a wave of anti-government demonstration which brought down the more than 30 year rule of the Suharto regime.

What can one learn from these events coming from different countries? Viet Nam is more integrated to the global economy than ever before. The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam can no longer control events or fluctuations of a global free market economy inside Viet Nam. The economic liberalization albeit rudimentarily has taken the state control of the economy in Viet Nam out of the hands of the state bureaucrats. She is therefore susceptible to a political crisis if her exports start to fall precipitously or FDI should dramatically be reduced stalling the economy. People in Viet Nam have the expectation that economic growth will continue for the foreseeable future. If the CPV cannot deliver on the continuing economic progress after being in the economic wilderness for so long, then there will be a showdown as who will be the new rulers of Viet Nam. These types of occurrences can embolden democratic activists, human rights activists, and other opponents of the regime to unify and press for change. Viet Nam’s economy is healthy currently but the future is hard to predict or decipher. One thing that is for sure is that all authoritarian, totalitarian dictatorships certainly do not last forever. Viet Nam’s dictatorship is no different. The people in power will cling tenaciously on to power no matter what the tea leaves are foretelling.

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