For its disillusioned people, Vietnam tinkers with image

Yesterday Defense Secretary William Cohen began a historic visit, 25 years after US-backed South Vietnam fell to the North.

Nguyen Lam is tired of hearing his uncle's stories about the glory days.

When the two are asked how they feel about their government, Mr. Nguyen's uncle, Toai, a retired general, can only point to old plaques hanging in the humble noodle shop he owns. It was here, he reminisces, that he helped plan the 1968 Tet Offensive against the US and South Vietnam that was seen as the turning point in the Vietnam War.

But Mr. Nguyen, who is unemployed, says he does not share his uncle's undying loyalty to the Communist Party, whose celebrations this month and next mark the war's end on April 30.

The party talks "about freedom [for everyone], but they ignore the poor. It just all seems like a bunch of lies," says Nguyen in English, so his uncle will not understand.

As the Vietnamese Communist Party enters its 70th year, its leaders say they want to address the concerns of people like Nguyen, who have lost confidence in the government's ability to improve their lives.

In its "self-criticism" campaign, in magazines and on placards around the city, party members are calling on the people to criticize the government, and letters to the editor in the official papers have poured in.

Yet critics who've grown disillusioned and no longer see Vietnam as the next Asian economic tiger say the move is more propaganda than substance.

Carl Thayer at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, likened the campaign to a modern-day purge of bad party seeds. As far back as 1961, party founder Ho Chi Minh ordered a similar movement. Professor Thayer says he is doubtful this "maintenance device" will truly address the concerns of the people. His critique echoes that of a recent US State Department report, which says the government has made little attempt to be truly representative.

Party officials say new membership was higher last year than it has been for some time. But the total number of new members among the country's 76 million people has risen little over the last decade, and the party remains an elite of roughly 3 percent of the population, Thayer notes. Even as a market economy begins to take hold, party rules dictate that an increasing number of business people are not allowed to join because they aren't true Communists.

To be sure, the party hardly wants average people to forget who's boss here. Swarms of police pull people out of stores just to issue them parking citations, and the amount of red tape one goes through to operate a business can be staggering.

"Most people here just try to ignore the party as much as possible," says Antoine Gautmier, who was born in Laos, educated in France, and came to Vietnam to manage a restaurant. "But you can't. They're everywhere, in everything we do."

To counter this image, the party's "self-criticism" campaign has called on members to admit their faults, expose corruption, and reconnect with the people. "If we don't make a serious effort ... our regime, our independence, and our nation will be at stake," read a statement by party Secretary-General Le Kha Phieu in a party newspaper late last year.

When its supporters in the Soviet bloc fell in the late 1980s, the party began to state its willingness to reform, known here as "doi moi." By the early 1990s, foreign investment began pouring in, and Vietnam was expected to fall in line behind China as ripe for economic change.

Yet foreign investment peaked in 1996 and has been plummeting ever since. Analysts point to the party's continued reluctance to relinquish control, such as its efforts in 1996 to eradicate "social evils" by removing foreign languages from storefronts. New investment in 1999 was nearly as low as it was when it arrived in 1991. Last year, a long-awaited US-Vietnam trade deal stalled when Hanoi wanted more time before signing.

This week US Defense Secretary William Cohen is in Vietnam to establish the first direct military relations since the war.

While the State Department report notes the party slowly is reducing its "control over and intrusion into" people's lives, shopkeeper Huyun Ngoc Minh says he believes only about 30 percent of what he hears about reform.

Here in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, people like him are bound by history to be more disgruntled with Communists who overthrew their city than those living in the North. ""The changes happen too slow. Vietnam looks more like Cuba than any other Communist country," he says. "That's our country's problem. It is stuck in the past."

Looking up at the weathered picture of Ho Chi Minh in the noodle shop, Nguyen Lam entertains similar thoughts as he heads toward his motorcycle to begin a day of job hunting. "The party says it's moving forward," he says. "But it doesn't know how anymore. And I think it's too late to learn."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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