Vietnam's New War: 'Social Evils'

Too Global?

Here in this market town not far from Vietnam's border with China, Nguyen Thi Loan, a cloth merchant, absentmindedly rubs her foot as she recalls a son she lost to heroin.

Around her are the benefits of Vietnam's increasing economic integration with the rest of world - silks, chintzes, and synthetic fabrics imported from China. But freer trade and open borders have also meant an increase in what the Vietnamese call "social evils" - drug abuse, prostitution, gambling, drinking, and even Western consumer values.

The phenomenon is a source of gloom for Vietnam's old guard - the revolutionaries who fought to rid the country of foreign domination from the 1950s until 1975, when the US-backed former South Vietnamese government fell. They may be communists, but their complaints have much in common with American gripes about undocumented foreign workers, and French concerns about the dominance of English on the Internet, and Japanese worries about economic competitiveness.

The globalized economy, in short, is a mixed bag. "We realized that when we opened the door, both good and bad things would come in," says Maj. Gen. Tran Giang, who heads an association of Vietnamese war veterans in Hanoi.

Ms. Loan, an elderly woman who seems relieved that someone is listening to her problems, says her son began using heroin in 1991 after he became unemployed. A local hospital wasn't able to stop his addiction, she adds, and he later died under suspicious circumstances that a police investigation did not resolve. "The government has to do something effective to prevent drugs from coming in and to cure the younger generation," she says, gently smoothing a bolt of cloth.

Vietnam's government is doing something - executing convicted drug smugglers, talking about the need to restore traditional and even revolutionary values, and promising to correct economic problems that may contribute to "social evils."

It's not as if these problems are new to Vietnam. Prostitution is as old a profession here as it is anywhere, and the former South Vietnam played host to a booming sex industry and drug trade during the Vietnam War. But during nearly two decades of isolation and strict communist control over society, such activities were curtailed or kept out of sight. Most Vietnamese had very little money to spend on entertainment, licit or not.

But the government's policy of economic restructuring, initiated in the late 1980s, has resulted in greater wealth for some Vietnamese, increasingly open borders, and a more vigorous and cosmopolitan nightlife in big cities. At the same time, as in the case of Loan's son, growing economic inequities are causing despair, which seems to lead some to drugs and crime. Vietnam was poor and isolated during the days of socialist orthodoxy, a common refrain goes, but at least everyone was poor.

Nguyen Ngoc Cai, the director of the state-run drug-treatment center in Ho Chi Minh City, estimates there are about 200,000 addicts in this country of 73 million. Based on surveys taken at the treatment center, Mr. Cai believes about 57 percent use heroin and the rest take opium, abuse medicinal drugs, or smoke marijuana.

Although some opium poppies are raised in Vietnam, officials believe most of the illegal drugs are brought in through Laos and China from Burma. One of the most troubling factors, Cai says, is that the proportion of young people abusing drugs is rising. "They use drugs like a toy," the officials adds. "The situation is becoming very dangerous."

Despite the spread of free-market economics, Vietnam remains a communist country. This is bad news for dissidents and religious figures whose work takes on a political cast, who are often imprisoned for their activities, but it gives officials some options in responding to drug abuse that are not available in freer countries.

Multiple offenders, Cai explains, can be sent to a "special economic zone" if officials believe they are likely to continue abusing drugs. The zone is not so much a drug-treatment facility as a place where former addicts can be taught new skills and get used to the idea of working.

And in a country where the state controls the media, propaganda campaigns get wide exposure. "We think the first thing we have to do is to educate young people," Cai adds. A typical slogan: "Don't try it, even once."

That may sound like America's "Just Say No" campaign, but a key solution proposed by a member of the policymaking central committee of the Vietnam's Communist Party could be heard just about anywhere. "We have to create jobs for tens of millions of unemployed people," says Pham Quang Nghi, who sits on the Hanoi-based Commission for Ideological and Cultural Affairs.

He adds that "social evils" - including official corruption, a problem that has recently spurred political unrest in villages not far from Hanoi, the capital - must be addressed from the top. "The effective settlement of those issues depends partly on leadership," he says. Political analysts say that concern over the perceived downsides to the policy of economic restructuring may strengthen Vietnamese hard-liners who would slow the pace of reform or change direction.

General Giang believes the responsibility for the young remains with their elders. "The older generation has to set an example," he says. The country must "apply all methods" to stop social evils - from new laws and tougher enforcement to propaganda campaigns designed to restore revolutionary ideals. "How to develop the economy and at the same time preserve our values - that's a mathematical exercise that needs to be solved," he adds.

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