ALMOST 40 years ago, a Vietnamese lawyer and academic named Nguyen Manh Tuong stepped forward to criticize the mistakes of his government.
Dr. Tuong was an important figure at the time -- he was chosen by Ho Chi Minh, the founder of Vietnam's Communist Party, to argue the case for Vietnamese sovereignty to their French colonizers just after World War II.
The communists did not jail or execute Tuong for his opinions, but he was barred from his two professions. He was allowed to live, but only in silence.
As the US and Vietnam mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the war they fought, Tuong's story suggests what may be the strongest legacy of Vietnam's struggle for a unified and independent country: the authoritarian rule of its communist masters. In terms of the oppression felt by Vietnam's intellectuals, Tuong says, the war's end had ''no significance.''
Recently the party has tried to appear more tolerant of criticism, in part to ease the concerns of the Western countries that are a major source of the foreign investment necessary to Vietnam's ongoing economic ''renovation.'' Last year Do Muoi, the secretary-general of the party, visited Tuong in a gesture of reconciliation. Tuong says the meeting was a courtesy call devoid of substance.
Tuong's 1992 memoir, published in France, is banned in Vietnam, although copies of the book have circulated in secret. To this day, he says, a public speech critical of the party would result in arrest.
Tuong agreed to an interview last month, the first he has given to a US newspaper. He could not have appeared more the intellectual, a label he wears as proudly as the silk foulard around his neck. His manners are elegant, his French is courtly, and his eyes do not mask a sadness caused by what he calls ''the black years.''
Born in Hanoi in 1909, Tuong quickly distinguished himself academically. Sent to France for higher education, he was awarded twin doctorates in law and letters at the age of 22.
In 1946, Tuong was back in Hanoi, practicing law and teaching, when he was called to Ho's office. ''He asked me to formulate ... the official argument that the Vietnamese delegation would present'' to French negotiators at a bilateral conference, he says. The French rejected the argument, but Tuong was subsequently asked to represent Vietnam at three international conferences and named to the board of several leading organizations.
''Unfortunately,'' he says, ''these good times did not last.''
A decade after he assisted Ho, Tuong was part of what is known in China and Vietnam as the ''hundred-flowers'' movement, a period when the communist parties in the two nations allowed opponents to voice criticism. In both countries the communists soon backtracked -- silencing, imprisoning, and sometimes executing those who had spoken out.
Tuong criticized the government's brutal land-reform campaign in which thousands of people, many of them innocent, were executed in the name of redistributing land and wealth in the countryside.
In an October 1956 speech, Tuong declared: ''We have let die, in a horrible way, old people and children whom we did not want to suppress,'' according to an account later published by the South Vietnamese government.
Tuong says he wanted to press for more freedom of speech and for the communists to listen to the country's intellectuals. He says he was not against the party itself -- he praises the ''formidable successes'' of Vietnam's communists in education, the fight against hunger, and other areas -- but against its mistakes and injustices.
Nonetheless, he was suddenly barred from teaching, publishing, and practicing law, and put under police surveillance. What of his acquaintance with Ho? ''All the members of the Communist Party,'' Tuong replies, ''from the president down to the lowest cadres ... could never voice an opinion contrary to that of the party. That's why they let me starve.''
For decades, acquaintances and former students crossed the street to avoid meeting him publicly. To stay alive, Tuong sold the books in his library for what the paper they were printed on was worth. He still depends, he says, on the ''charity of friends.''
What would he say to the world about Vietnam today? ''Despite the economic reforms now under way and the emergence of a business class that can afford to throw money from the window, there is still a majority who are unhappy.''