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Vietnam Through Rose-Tinted Glasses

Wall Street Journal Asia via Dow Vision Page: 12 March 25, 1997

When Douglas "Pete" Peterson arrives in Hanoi next month, he will fill a hole left when America's last ambassador, Graham Martin, was forced to flee from the embassy rooftop in 1975 ahead of advancing Communist troops.

For the United States, it will launch a new era. Mr. Peterson will set up residence in Hanoi, the capital of America's erstwhile enemy, rather than in Saigon, the seat of power of the U.S. wartime ally. For Mr. Peterson, a former U.S. fighter pilot who spent nearly seven years as a prisoner of war, it will be something of a homecoming. What, if anything, it will mean for the people of Vietnam is yet unclear.

The best thing that Mr. Peterson could bring both sides is a healthy dose of realism. For almost a half century now, Vietnam has played host to a series of Americans who have seen Vietnam as the country they wanted to see, not as the one actually before them. "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," wrote Graham Greene of his protagonist in "The Quiet American," in a phrase meant to sum up the Americans. Greene's quote, of course, could be said today to apply equally to the hordes of investors with rose-tinted glasses who insist on seeing Vietnam as the latest "emerging market." In the past the consequences of this muddled vision have been tragic for both peoples.

Clearly Vietnam's leaders today face immense challenges today they could scarcely have imagined only a few years ago. Back in 1975, when a Soviet-made tank crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon, the newly united Vietnam seemed an affirmation of history. Yet history has had the last laugh. Despite the much-heralded economic growth of the past decade, victory in wars against three foreign powers (the French, the Americans, and the Chinese) and its recent admission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Vietnam remains one of the poorest nations on earth. The rest of Asia has long since passed the Vietnamese by, and with the Berlin Wall now down, the statues of Lenin overlooking Hanoi's parks seem more pathetic than menacing. The one Communist power remaining in the region, China, has shown itself less a fraternal brother than a strategic threat.

Foreign businessmen are but the latest group to find themselves betrayed by the promises of Hanoi's leadership. After an initial spurt of well-publicized openings, the government seems to have retreated to form. In the last few months alone, Hanoi has launched a crackdown on foreign advertising, insisted on placing party cadres in joint ventures to ensure ideological purity in foreign enterprises and has used all its official media to warn of the danger of "peaceful evolution," i.e., letting economic investment lead to political liberalization. That, of course, is what would happen if Vietnam's leaders really did open up their system. But the government have no intention of doing so, which is why the country remains stuck on half measures.

The results are plain for anyone to see. According to the official Nhan Dan Daily, almost a fifth of Vietnam's state-owned enterprises are running at a loss, and experts think the real figure may be much higher. True, the Ministry of Planning and Investment announced that the figure for approved investment for 1996 represented a 29% increase over the year before, but the announcement was made possible only by a December 30 decision to grant licenses worth $3.1 billion -- representing more than a third of the total approvals for 1996 to two urban residential complexes. Add to this a current-account deficit hovering at about 12% of GDP and it is easy to see why the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy has just ranked Vietnam the most difficult business environment of the 11 Asian nations it surveys.

But if Hanoi is suspicious of foreign investors, it reserves a special animus towards Vietnamese. I know this first-hand, because my brother, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, remains an example of what happens to someone who attempts to create a better Vietnam. My brother is the founder of the Non-Violent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam. On May 11, 1990, the movement issued a manifesto demanding that the regime stop violating the human rights of the Vietnamese people, that it accept a multiparty political system, and that it schedule free and fair elections so the people might choose their own form of government.

Afraid of his growing influence and the movement's popularity, the government sentenced my brother to 20 years of hard labor, to be followed by five years of house arrest. Nor is he the only one -- thousands of other Vietnamese remain in prison simply for the crime of speaking out against abuses. Mr. Peterson knows this better than most: As a former prisoner of war, he is well aware of the meaning of Communist justice.

Undeniably, the Vietnamese are trying to shake off the noose of the Marxist-driven economy now strangling the country. The government today is like an able-bodied drug addict: His head is empty of goals and ideas; he lives for the sake of existence. Vietnam's recent openings of its market to international commerce reflects this instinct to survive. By partially introducing capitalism into its veins, the Party hopes to keep itself alive.

In the immediate future, Hanoi's leaders may well make up for their lack of funds by turning to the World Bank and investors abroad. To make up for their lack of technology, they can turn to imports. However, if they really wish to be a part of a future prosperous and secure Vietnam, they must begin first to care for their own people, and above all to create an environment where everyone, regardless of political affiliation, religion or background, can contribute to the development of Vietnam. Vietnamese and Americans alike have reason to hope that this is one U.S. ambassador who understands the government he is dealing with.

Dr. Nguyen, a member of the Nonviolent Movement for Human Rights in Vietnam, lives in Annandale, Virginia.

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