MondayApril 26, 2010

SANDERS: Vietnam, insadness but not in shame

By Sol Sanders


America‘s more than 1.5 million Vietnamese-Americans this weekwill mourn the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the Republic of[South] Vietnam.

Defying conventional wisdom, manywill remember and honor the bravery and sacrifice of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. They want recognition for theheroic struggle that South Vietnamese troops put up against overwhelming oddsafter the withdrawal of American forces and the cutoff of U.S. military aid. Fortunately, anew group of revisionist scholars is setting the record straight, even in theface of the long history of American media and academic malfeasance on the Vietnamdisaster.

The mourners also will recall theenormous loss of life and suffering — “the bloodbath” which,again, conventional wisdom has tried to deny — that followed Saigon‘s fall. Thousands died in “the Vietnamesegulag,” communist “re-education camps” where Prime Minister PhamVan Dong publicly admitted that more than 1 million people had been imprisoned.Few but the Vietnamese remember that in addition to the 255,000 boat people whoreached the shelter of the miserable refugee camps, thousands drowned at , often refused entry by neighboring countries.

That is not in any way to minimizethe enormous loss of life and the sacrifice of Americans in what was a noble iftragic struggle. But it is an effort to retell the whole story of “Vietnam“for fellow Americans, particularly younger generations who have grown up amid avast media and pseudo-scholarly distortion of facts. The remembrance alsoglories in the thousands of young Vietnamese now serving with distinction inthe U.S.armed forces.

Unfortunately, in Vietnamitself, the oppression continues unabated. The communist regime persecutesreligious and ethnic minorities, and in its own ham-handed way, attempts tostamp out political dissent. An endlessly feuding politburo guides theone-party state — so enmeshed in petty personal rivalries and ideologicalconfusion that it publicly arrested the Communist Party official newspapereditor after he wrote an anti-Chinese editorial. And, since 1995, when Sens.John McCain of Arizona and John Kerry of Massachusetts — both veterans of the war —pushed for U.S. diplomaticrecognition without quid pro quos, official Washington has obfuscated the true nature ofthe regime. U.S. policy hasnaively and ignominiously sought favor with Hanoi through economic and trade concessionsin a fruitless effort to promote political liberalization.

Although Vietnam‘s economic team long agoadopted “the Chinese model,” tattered Soviet-style central planning,incompetence and unbridled corruption have led to shortages, inflation andrising debt. Nevertheless, the indomitable Vietnamese entrepreneur, with histraditional thirst for education that finds an echo in the success of America‘sVietnamese immigrant communities, has produced a growing gross national productfor a youthful population nearing 90 million.

Ironically, remittances from theAmerican emigres to unfortunate relatives left behindhas been the most powerful economic prop for the regime, totaling as much as $8billion in 2008. That compares with $5 billion annually in aid from the multilateralagencies and bilateral aid programs. These remittances contribute 5 percent ofthe GDP, adding to the money sent home by a half-million workers abroad andspending by another 400,000 ethnic Vietnamese tourists annually. Capital fromthe American emigres, often arriving via the blackmarket, funds small entrepreneurs who make Greater Ho Chi Minh City-Saigon thecountry’s overwhelming economic hub, the cash cow for Hanoi‘s kleptocrats.The U.S. remains Vietnam‘slargest official investor as well, with some $1 billion in registered capital.More foreign investment would come were it not for the tangle of kickbacks andintrigues between the central Hanoigovernment and regional party bosses.

Trying to counteract the effectsof the worldwide credit crunch and recession, the communist planners in 2009threw more than $1 billion — over 1 percent of GDP — at thecurrency. But while credit expanded by nearly 40 percent, theprice of dollars soared despite two massive devaluations.

Exporters, struggling with thehigh-priced dollar, have difficulty financing dollar imports of raw materialsand components in the battle against their heavily subsidized Chinesecompetitors. And foreign exchange outflows are draining reserves. The businesscommunity is bracing for another round of inflation, probably even greater thanthe crisis year of 2008.

The struggles of daily life,especially among the unemployed youths for whom both the French and Americanwars are a distant past, ignore the continued preoccupation with “Vietnam” in the United States. Hollywood‘s Vietnam War movies, for example,despite the widespread appeal of American popular culture, have elicited littleinterest.

Much more important now, theVietnamese look over their shoulder at their neighbor and traditional enemy, China.Despite border agreements following the short but bitter war in 1979 in which Hanoi bloodied Beijing‘snose, disputes continue over islands in the South China Sea. And a flood of clandestine Chinese imports have wiped outmany of Vietnam‘scottage industries in the north.

Bloggers on both sides keep up asteady chauvinist debate over old issues. And everyone waits for some new andspectacular development that will end the current malaise.

• Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent andanalyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, businessand economics. He can be reached at

CourtesyThe Washington Times

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