Disquiet Among the Quiet

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TIM LARIMER Ho Chi Minh CityWhen Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, a prominent Vietnamese dissident, was released from a prison camp in September, his supporters waited to glimpse the man accused of plotting to overthrow the government and detained for 18 of the past 20 years. But the 56-year-old physician slipped away to a seaside resort and declined to talk to anyone, an unexplained reticence as unsettling as his imprisonment. A month later, Que met a Time correspondent at his home near Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown. But he also had some unexpected guests: four grim-faced security officials and a uniformed policeman who stayed through part of the interview in an adjacent room. They arrived two minutes before you, Que said in a panicked whisper. They make things so difficult.That's the ruling Communist Party's stock-in-trade, an adroit skill at stifling calls for political reform that have grown louder in recent months. Vietnam may not look like a totalitarian state--no huge pictures of a great leader, no masses of flag-waving youth, no ostentatious military parades. But a pervasive security apparatus monitors anyone considered risky, and those suspected of harming national security can be detained indefinitely without trial. That's what happened earlier this year to a number of farmers who publicly protested questionable land deals involving Catholic church property. When locking people up doesn't work, the government isolates potential troublemakers in their homes. A United Nations representative on an official visit in October to survey religious practices was barred from entering several pagodas. Security officials routinely surround the homes of several outspoken government critics and stop friends and relatives from visiting.Appearances deceive. Newsstands are crammed with more than 500 publications printing juicy stories about corruption scandals, social problems and crime. But top editors must be Communist Party members, and all are under the direct control of an ideological committee. An editor of a business newspaper was arrested and jailed for more than a year because the government claimed state secrets were revealed in an article about a corruption case the government itself had publicized. A journalist who won a U.N. fellowship was denied an exit visa to claim it. A few Internet cafes have opened. But a college student surfing the Net earlier this year found out how tenuous those businesses are when police raided a Ho Chi Minh City cafe, disconnected the computer terminal he was using and carted it away. People outside hear about the new market economy and forget that Vietnam is a police state, said Que, talking in a hoarse whisper. They think the ability to make money means we are free.The government talks about giving voters, as the state press recently started calling communist cadres, more say in who runs villages. But elections are a charade. People are required to vote; those who fail to show at polling places are visited by neighborhood officials who bring ballots with them. The National Assembly allowed non-communists to run for seats in 1997, but all candidates had to be approved. The few outspoken critics who tried to run were asked to step aside. They told me I was too old, said Vo Tong Xuan, a former assembly member and respected agricultural economist.PAGE 1  |    |  
An outspoken monk is released
 
Leaders are less concerned about ideology than control, and an obsession with maintaining stability is reinforced by the sight of economic and political chaos erupting in neighboring countries. Indonesians took to the streets and toppled Suharto; a new government in Thailand came to power on a platform of transparency and reform; a once-jailed dissident, Kim Dae Jung, was elected President in South Korea. And in Vietnam? I left a small prison cell for a larger one, said Thich Quang Do, a 71-year-old monk who has been in and out of prison for his outspoken criticism of the government. Like Que, he was released in September. Foreigners ask why students don't go to the streets as they did in China or Indonesia, said a recent business school graduate in Hanoi. It's simple. If you're in college, you're either the child of a cadre and you think the system is O.K. Or your family is wealthy and is benefiting from the system. Or you're the first kid from a poor farmer's family ever to go to college. You're not going to ruin your family's chance for a better life by demonstrating for democracy.Since capturing Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City was called before 1975, Communist leaders have succeeded in doing something the governments of South Vietnam never could (though they did try): silencing voices of dissent. They stayed resolute as their ideological comrades wavered around the world. What sets the country apart? Two decades of war. The Communist Party survives unchallenged because a war-weary population credits it with bringing independence and, more importantly, peace. The fear of war returning is so strong, the party leadership is aware of it and uses it, said Duong Thu Huong, one of the country's most respected writers, whose stark portrayals of life under communism so annoyed authorities that they threw her in jail for eight months in the early 1990s, confiscated her passport and refuse to publish her work. They prey on that fear. Declines in GDP growth rates and factory layoffs, features of a current slump, don't alarm a population weaned on minefields and napalm. Conditions would have to deteriorate dramatically to match the war's horrors or the postwar gloom. To many, these are the good old days.Trouble is, young people--60% of the population was born after the war--expect brighter days. A recent survey of Asian youth by Canada's Angus Reid Group found Vietnam's to be the most optimistic. This despite an economy screeching to a halt, with vital foreign investment shrinking 60% last year and currency devaluations elsewhere making exports less competitive and labor more expensive. An 18-year-old entering university this year would have been in elementary school after the government began dismantling the worst of its Soviet-style planning. My son doesn't remember food lines, said a painter in Hanoi. But I don't know if he appreciates how good his life is.That teenage son will be more difficult to mollify than his parents and grandparents. Top leaders promoted last year don't share their predecessors' claim to power as liberators of the country. This leaves a potential leadership void and an opening for an opposition figure for the first time in a generation, a time when there are rumblings of discontent. Riots have erupted in the past two years in several rural provinces over corruption and land allocation. Factory workers have gone on strike. Students have complained about education policies. Disgruntled farmers took the unusual step of camping in a park near the Prime Minister's residence repeatedly in late 1998; they threw petitions over the gates outside homes of Politburo members. There's even an underground student newspaper.  |  2  |  
An outspoken monk is released
 
But the problem for political dissidents is that they have no marquee name among their ranks, no Cory Aquino or Aung San Suu Kyi--or a Ho Chi Minh, for that matter. Voices of dissent fall into four broad categories, and their inability to work together makes the government's job of stifling opposition all the easier. The first are disgruntled supporters of the old Saigon regimes. Almost all now live overseas, and they are hobbled by bickering that mirrors infighting of the old Saigon governments. The second group consists of southern intellectuals like Que and Doan Viet Hoat, another pro-democracy activist released from prison in September, who accepted asylum in the U.S. Not necessarily supporters of the old Saigon regimes--in fact they were anti-war activists--they are fierce critics of communism and advocate free speech, religion and democracy. The third category is made up of religious figures, both Buddhist and Catholic, though decades-old animosities prevent them from joining forces. The fourth group may be the biggest threat to the government because its dissent comes from within the Communist Party, which has been riddled with schisms throughout its history. Contemporary dissidents like writer Huong trace their lineage back to the early revolutionaries. A purge against writers and intellectuals in the 1950s created an anti-war clique in Hanoi in the 1960s that in turn spawned a new generation of disillusioned cadres after the Vietnam War and into the 1980s. Our talent for solidarity and rallying together is only successful in war time, said Huong, 52, herself a former party member who joined a women's brigade during the war. It's difficult to organize any kind of movement during peacetime. The communist regime knows that and capitalizes on it. For Que, his unwavering hope is that people of various political stripes will finally join together in shared disappointment with the current leaders.The two antagonistic blocs that existed for so long--nationalists and communists--are both obsolete, said Dr. Que. The alternative to communism, he said, is not a return to the old Saigon regimes. We have to create a new political line uniting all the people. The opportunity, he said, derives from economic reforms the government itself ushered in, a Pandora's box that Que and others believe irreversibly let loose democratic ideals. The working man will demand greater autonomy. People will stand up and seize economic control, and then demand political rights to decide on a new regime with free elections, while the Politburo fights among itself and falls to People Power.That may be a pipe dream of a man who has sacrificed much of his adult life for his beliefs, but those beliefs have gained currency in places they were once considered unthinkable. In a recent article in a labor newspaper, Huu Tho, a high-ranking party member, hinted at internal dissent, saying arbitrary arrests have been violations of democracy. With their grip on power so firm, why have Vietnam's leaders bothered to lock up dissidents? The explanation rests with the history of Vietnam's Communist Party. Its members were, after all, the country's first dissidents. They were Asia's original People Power movement. They know what it is they have to fear.  |    |  3
An outspoken monk is released