Vietnam: Open for Business But Keeping Grip on People

EVEN though North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon 20 years ago this Sunday, the Vietnam War has not really ended. The leaders of the Hanoi regime have yet to make peace with the people of Vietnam.

It is true that Hanoi, recognizing the desperate need for American dollars to prop up a sagging economy, has retreated from its post-1975 hostility toward the United States. It has smoothed the way for millions of dollars in remittances from Vietnamese exiles in the US. It welcomes direct American trade and investment, and since 1993, when the US stopped vetoing assistance to Hanoi, it has received $475 million in World Bank loan commitments.

Hanoi has won wide praise for new ''openness'' and progress toward a ''free market.'' But open and free for whom?

Not for the people of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. They are still treated as enemies. The gap between the rich and poor is increasing, as the Far Eastern Economic Review has confirmed. Worker unrest in new enterprises has become so commonplace that the government last year legalized the right to strike. Though that concession might appear to be a breakthrough in recognizing human rights, in reality it was limited to foreign-invested firms. Its practical effect is to increase the leverage of the government and Communist Party bureaucracy because the party maintains its monopoly on labor organization and forbids independent initiatives.

Meanwhile, US businesspeople in Vietnam have formed the American Chamber of Commerce, with more than 100 member firms in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Foreigners, but not Vietnamese workers, are free to associate.

That should not be surprising, since the Party maintains a rigid organizational monopoly in everyday life. Most Vietnamese are Buddhists, and the Party even has an official Buddhist church. Monks and lay leaders who defy this religious monopoly face systematic persecution. Among the Buddhists now under arrest is the Very Venerable Thich Huyen Quang, patriarch of the independent (and outlawed) Unified Buddhist Church. He recently earned the party's wrath by broadening his church's concerns beyond religious freedom.

He charged publicly that the Hanoi regime ''combines the very worst of Communism with the very worst of wildcat Capitalism,'' and called on the party and government to change course and promote ''the development of a civil society by guaranteeing the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience and religion, and freedom of association.''

Mr. Quang is not the only dignitary in Vietnam to uphold human rights as authentic Asian values. A leading physician, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, in 1990 publicly issued a manifesto in Saigon asking the Politburo to respect the ''rights of the Vietnamese citizens to be citizens and property owners.'' He also tried to found what he called ''the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam.''

As a result, Dr. Que, the only known member of Amnesty International in Vietnam, is now serving a 20-year sentence in a labor camp. Pro-democracy Vietnamese and their allies will mark May 11, the fifth anniversary of the manifesto, as Vietnam Human Rights Day in ceremonies on Capitol Hill in Washington and around the world.

The State Department has pressed Hanoi for the release of Dr. Que and the Venerable Huyen Quang. But both insist on freedom, not just release from prison.

Despite shrill political rhetoric in the US to ''rein in'' the federal bureaucracy, many corporations are vigorously digging their spurs into official Washington, demanding governmental action to promote and subsidize commerce with Vietnam. One proposal would qualify Vietnam as a ''most favored nation''; another would qualify Vietnam as a beneficiary under a foreign assistance program, the Generalized System of Preferences. Both proposals would give corporations generous tax breaks (through reduced or no tariffs) for exports from Vietnam into the US. Another proposal would have their investments in Vietnam covered by insurance from a US government agency.

But shouldn't those who traffic with a regime like Hanoi's do so at their own risk and without subsidies? Might it not be appropriate for them to assume personal responsibility for their actions without running to Uncle Sam for help?

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