Vietnam: struggling to win the peace
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I saw more patched clothing in Ho Chi Minh City than I ever remember seeing during the war years. Fewer women wear the traditional Vietnamese dress, the beautiful ao dai, which billows out from the waist over trousers with a split at the thigh. The ao dai, I was told, is now both too expensive and too impractical to wear.Skip to next paragraph
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A combination of factors - storms, drought, war damage, poor planning, and economic mismanagement - seems to be responsible for Vietnam's plight. Vietnam's invasion of Kampuchea, China's invasion of Vietnam, and economic isolation have added to the strain.
By forcing many of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese to leave the country, the government managed not only to get rid of some of the worst exploiters of the economy but also of some of its best technicians.Many of the best Vietnamese technicians, meanwhile, have had to go into the Army. According to some estimates, the government spends as much as half of its budget on the military forces.But Vietnam's difficulties are not just economic. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, Vietnam entered the past year facing, in addition to an unprecedented economic crisis, ''acute social problems and a dilution of the government's moral authority.''Antigovernment guerrillas are reported to be active in the Central Highlands. In the Mekong Delta, the richest part of the country, many of the rice farmers have resisted moves to organize them into cooperatives and collectives.Despite all this, the communist regime seems to have little to fear in the way of a threat to its hold on power.Yet the regime is still insecure enough, six years after the end of the war, to be keeping some thousands of former military officers and supporters of the old regime in reeducation camps.Large numbers have been set free, but nearly everyone I talked with thought there might be 20,000 to 40,000 still in the camps. Those numbers apparently do not include prisoners who might be held in provincial, district, and village detention centers.So far, Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, and its consumer society, simply seem to be too much for the new regime to swallow. Banned books have supposedly been reappearing. I heard the music of a banned composer, Pham Duy, in one of the restaurants.The problem of controlling Saigon is compounded by regional chauvinism. Northern Vietnamese tend to regard the southerners as lazy and slow-moving. Southerners tend to consider the northerners to be too rigid and too aggressive. It is not surprising then that one hears that southern resentment of the northern domination of the country extends even to southern communist cadres who feel that the north has too much control.One Vietnamese claimed that this feeling of resentment surfaced at soccer games. Every time a team from the north played in the south, he said, the crowd pulled wildly for the southern team. The team from the north got the silent treatment, he said, with a gleam in his eye. Such games were one of the few things this Vietnamese seemed to take pleasure in these days.The regime is intolerant of most criticism. Last year, the only independent, nongovernment daily newspaper in the south, Tin Sang (Morning News), was closed down.But the regime's economic failures have forced it to experiment and liberalize. It has encouraged the establishment in Ho Chi Minh City of private import-export companies and a trade promotion center to be run by former businessmen.In mid- 1979, the Communist Party decided to relax central control of the economy and to use incentives to boost workers' and farmers' production.I got the positive side of the story, such as it is, from two Vietnamese who are enthusiastic supporters of the regime, Ngo Ba Thanh and Ly Qui Chung, both former southern political figures who were opposed to the American-supported regime of Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu.Ngo Ba Thanh, a leader of the left wing of the ''third force'' opposition to Thieu, does not claim to be a communist. But she says that in her new role she has easy access to leaders in Hanoi, where she is a member of the National Assembly. In Ho Chi Minh City, she lives in a small house near the old South Vietnamese National Assembly building, where she used to lead antigovernment demonstrations. That building is now a theater.Mrs. Thanh, holder of a degree in comparative law from Columbia University and a fluent English-speaker, argues that on the economic front, the communist-led government has learned lessons from badly planned ''new economic zones'' and other mismanaged projects and is taking corrective action.Ho Chi Minh City is being given special status as a port for overseas exports, allowing it to trade directly with foreign countries. On the political front, she asserted, a new constitution and Ministry of Justice will help to guarantee rights and place checks on a Communist Party that ''did anything it wanted during the war.''As for the complaints one hears from many of the citizens of Ho Chi Minh City, Mrs. Thanh says simply: ''The southerners are still spoiled.''Ly Qui Chung was information minister in the short-lived government of Gen. Duong Van Minh, popularly known as ''Big Minh.'' Minh's government lasted only a matter of hours before surrendering to the communists on April 30, 1975. Ly Qui Chung was not a communist, but he and a number of his colleagues, most of them southerners like him, had worked in parallel with the communists to help overthrow the Thieu regime. He now writes for Tuoi Tre, a youth publication, and for Saigon Giai Phong, the official newspaper of Ho Chi Minh City. He lives in a modest house down an alley near the Chinese suburb of Cholon.