Fleeing the peace in Vietnam

By Hoi Trinh , asia_times_logoApr 19, ’13
April 30, 2013 will mark the 38th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the annihilation of South Vietnam by communist forces in the North, or otherwise popularly known as the end of the Vietnam War. Without this day, there wouldn’t be as many Vietnamese restaurants in your ‘hood. And without this day I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.

Having spent nearly two decades abroad before returning to Vietnam in 2007, I am often asked about growing up in post-war Vietnam and how the country is faring 38 years after the communist takeover. What often strikes me is the fact that when I ask what they already know about Vietnam, there are generally only two versions of the country’s post-war experience. 

The first is filled with horror stories and images of a ravaged land once torn by an American-led war. The second is of a new emerging Asian economic tiger and an exotic ‘It’ destination for the young and famous.

Hordes of backpackers from Australia, Europe and America have diligently followed Lonely Planet mantras and dropped in from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, the new name for Saigon, to marvel at Vietnam’s distinct culture and beauty on shoestring budgets.

Many say they have seen with their own eyes that it is peaceful now and the people seem happy and content with their newfound fortunes. Or at least it seems that way, until I inform them otherwise.

Like two other million Vietnamese who have left the country since that fateful day 38 years ago, my family came to Australia as refugees in the aftermath of the war. We were in fact part of the first ever exodus of Vietnamese leaving our homeland.

Despite multiple wars with our northern neighbor China, a century old struggle for independence against French colonialism and a devastating famine caused by Japanese occupiers during World War II followed by the Vietnam War until 1975, our people have always stayed put and stoically chosen Vietnam as their homeland. Despite all the bloodshed, despite all the losses.

But for the very first time in our history and soon after the war had ended, people started to leave, first in droves, then later in the tens of thousands, by boat and on foot. Regardless of the dangers on the high sea and what awaited them on the other side, they fled persecution by the communist North.

The United Nations once estimated some 30% of all boat people never made it safely to shore. Between 1975 and 1997 at the end of the exodus, approximately one million Vietnamese made it to neighboring countries. This thus begs the question: why flee the peace?

The answer, of course, is simple. Even though the war ended and peace triumphed, truth and justice have never prevailed in Vietnam. The current UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly, Maina Kai, recently referred to this as a “peace coma”, that in the name of peace we choose to ignore flagrant violations of the most basic human rights by the world’s most repressive regimes.

Three months after April 30, 1975, my father, along with hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese officers and intellectuals, were duly sent to ‘re-education’ camps without trial. Upon his release three years after, he was not allowed to work as a teacher again but instead, like other families deemed ‘anti-revolutionary’, we were evicted from our home in Saigon and forced to relocate in so called ‘new economic’ zones to make way for a new utopian socialist state.

This created the first wave of boat people from Vietnam, my father among them. The new Communist victors then set out to nationalize all businesses and embark on a new socialist economic platform where properties and land titles belonged to the state rather than individuals.

This created the second wave of refugees from Vietnam and it only stopped when Hanoi realized that continuing to do so would lead to a total collapse of the country’s economy and with that the entire social and political system. Driven by the spirit of ‘Perestroika’ in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, party leaders then began a series of economic reforms which over the past two decades have helped lift Vietnam out of abject poverty.

But its social and political systems remain unchanged. To this day all land still belongs to the state. Hundreds of dissidents still remain in prison for challenging the one-party rule of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Facebook and pro-democracy blogs and websites are banned, no independent media is allowed, protests are forbidden, and civil rights defenders face constant harassment and persecution.

Some activists have fled the country, seeking asylum elsewhere; others who have stayed have been imprisoned up to 16 years for their human rights and pro-democracy advocacy. The hard truth is that refugees continue to flee from Vietnam. Neither peace nor justice has ever been achieved under communist rule.

I know often wonder where are all the well-meaning anti-Vietnam war protesters of the 1960s and 70s? Have they not cared to learn about what happened after the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of US troops? What can they do now to help make Vietnam a better and freer place, like they had so passionately professed to care four long decades ago?

Hoi Trinh is an Australian lawyer of Vietnamese origin. He currently works for VOICE, an NGO that helps develop civil society in Vietnam. He may be reached at: hoitrinh@gmail.com.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.
(Copyright 2013 Hoi Trinh)

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