The Dream of the Two Phans

By Sidney Tran

           Two of the most revered Vietnamese patriots of the early 20th Century were Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh.  These men shared the same dream of liberating Vietnam from backwardness and weakness in order to reclaim her independence as a free nation.  There are very few Westerners who know about these two patriots much less young Vietnamese.  Among some Vietnamese, the two Phans are still respected men of learning and letters.  In my own personal opinion, I greatly admired these men as they represented all the good virtues of true Vietnamese nationalism.  They were knowledgeable men who knew much about the world and were open minded to learning what the world had to offer.  Their dream for Vietnam is the same as my own and countless other overseas Vietnamese, Vietnamese Americans and native Vietnamese.  Their dream was to see Vietnam be free of foreign domination and for the people of Vietnam to have the same opportunity to partake in the decision of their own affairs.  I highly doubt that had they lived long enough in order to see Vietnam reclaim her independence from European colonialism, the tragic bloodletting of war, division, and totalitarianism would have occurred.  Thus, the tragedy of Vietnam’s history could have had a different fate.  The legacy of a different path continues to haunt us today.  Yes, Vietnam is free from foreign domination but her people are definitely not free.  It is an ironic curse of fate that Vietnam is free from foreign control but yet still enslaved by a wicked doctrine of Marxist-Leninism that came from Europe.  Tragically, the dream for Vietnam on the road to independence has meander into a dead end of a nightmarish communism.

            There is nothing in the historical record that would indicate Phan Boi Chau or Phan Chu Trinh as having totalitarian and dictatorial tendencies.  Hence, it is the virtue of morality that is admirable about these men.  They were willing to partake in political activities in order to achieve a certain goal but did not cross the line by depriving their own fellow countrymen of their rights as human beings.  I often wonder what their feelings were if they could have foreseen the red power arising out of the ashes of France’s declining colonial empire.  Ho Chi Minh was younger than these men but they were contemporaries of each other.  Could these men have moderated the forces that were unleashed on the populace in Vietnam?  There is much to speculate in this question.  No one can say for sure.  What I can ascertain from the thoughts of these learned scholars is that they only wanted what is best for the nation.  They saw the injustice that existed as the result of European colonialism in their native land and worked tirelessly to bring such a condition to an end.  Thus, it is my analysis that the two Phans wanted freedom from foreign rule for Vietnam but not tyranny and despotism for Vietnam.  Phan Boi Chau saw Imperial Japan as a model for a Vietnamese state while Phan Chu Trinh envisioned a Vietnam as a republican state and thus rejected any role for the monarchy.  In my analysis, I think they were too much of a gentleman and scholar to take the totalitarian path of death, destruction of culture, vandalism of spiritual life, desecration of humanistic values, and unbridled power.  Additionally, I think they were wise enough to know about human nature in order not to try to go against it.

            It is only natural that these learned men worked so studiously for Vietnam free from foreign rule.  These men knew about the conditions that existed beyond Vietnam’s natural borders.  What they saw was shocking to them.  Europeans were able to go out onto the world and claim possessions as their own to rule over natives of non-European lands because of their knowledge in technology, science, military organization, and advanced political structure.  Vietnam and other non-European countries were outside the network of knowledge that was developed in Europe during the Industrial Revolution.  Hence, societies that are not able to change and adapt to the changing conditions of the times will be vulnerable to other societies that have made the necessary leap to advance their own individual society. 

                Human beings have a natural, innate need to seek validation from other human beings.  It is a question mostly known as respect.  Francis Fukuyama has elaborated on this concept that was first observed by Hegel.  This observation is known as “the struggle for recognition”.  The motivation and desire that fueled Phan Chu Trinh and Phan Boi Chau were to achieve the level of progress for Vietnam that was the reality for the European powers, the United States, and Japan during the turn of the century.  Essentially, that was the primary motivation for Vietnamese to fight for her independence from foreign rule.  They wanted to be the master of their own house.  Most felt that the reason for the country’s backwardness was the fact that foreigners determined their circumstances.  In order to achieve the level of progress that existed throughout the world, Vietnam needed home rule.  Once that has been achieved, progress will naturally flow and the condition of respectability will be achieved in the eyes of the world.  However, as I write this essay, Vietnam is still in the grip of a primitive despotism.  Henceforth, “the struggle for recognition” will continue for Vietnam.  The dream of the two Phans for Vietnam to achieve parity with the rest of the world, in terms of progress, is still that, nothing more than a distant dream so long as Vietnam is ruled by a group of ignorant ideologues. 

            Just as Vietnam missed out on the Industrial Revolution because the political elites of Vietnam at the time were limited in their world view, the Communist elites of present-day Vietnam will miss out on the Information Revolution that is transforming the world at this very second.  They still behaved ignorantly by enforcing censorship of information and jailing critics of their rule for having the temerity to question the political system of Vietnam.  It is the cruelest of fate that Vietnam has achieved independence from foreign rule but yet is still backward because of the tyranny of ideology. 

            The backward condition of Vietnam is still very much the same as in the time of Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh.  Phan Boi Chau observed the following meeting he had with Phan Chu Trinh, he wrote: “It seems that at that time, deep in his heart, he already had a different aspiration. He and I kept company in Kwangtung for more than ten days. Every day when we talked about the affairs of our country, he singled out for bitter reproach the wicked conduct of the monarchs, the enemies of the people. He ground his teeth when talking about the ruler of the day, who was bringing calamity to the country and disaster to the people; as much as to say that if the system of monarchical autocracy were not abolished, simply restoring the country’s independence would bring no happiness.”  Somehow, this sentiment resonates as profoundly today as it was during the time of the two Phans.  Several decades have come to pass since the time of the two early patriots, Vietnam’s independence has been restored but the happiness for the people is a mirage and is elusive as ever. 

            Moreover, Phan Chu Trinh made the following observation during his stay in a modern Japan to Phan Boi Chau: “The level of their people is so high, and the level of our people is so low! How could we not become slaves? That some students now can enter Japanese schools has been your great achievement. Please stay on in Tokyo to take a quiet rest and devote yourself to writing, and not to making appeals for combat against the French. You should only call for ‘popular rights and popular enlightenment.’ Once popular rights have been achieved, then we can think about other things.”  If one were to compare the condition of Japan today to Vietnam’s present condition, one could draw the same conclusion that Phan Chu Trinh had once observed during his time in Japan at the turn of the century.       

            It is the obtuseness of the mind that has managed to strangle the aspiration of the Vietnamese people.  This Marxian utopianism of Ho Chi Minh has done more harmed to Vietnam than all the years of French colonialism.  When a society does not allow a space or a forum for open debate about the affairs of the country, then the end result is as predictable as any whether it is under Confucian monarchy or Communist dictatorship.  It should be a cautionary indictment of rulers who do not succumb to the prevailing reality of reason.  Politics will be the death of Vietnam if the political question of the day is not allowed to be studied, debated, questioned, or analyzed thoroughly by men or women of the highest caliber of knowledge.  Today’s Vietnam is the result of the worst of both worlds.  Vietnam is organized as a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship that was perfected and hatched by the minds of Europeans but the rulers of Vietnam are home grown natives to the soil.  It is my belief that if the two Phans were to witness what has sprang forth from all their years of struggle for independence, the Vietnam that they have dreamt of would certainly not be the kind that is the reality of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.            

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