What Kind of Landing Awaits Vietnam’s Communist Leaders?

What Kind of Landing Awaits Vietnam’s Communist Leaders?

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Editor’s note: A spate of recent skirmishes between Chinese vessels and that of neighboring countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, point to escalating tensions in the South China Sea. In Vietnam, the communist government is under increasingly pressure on multiple fronts, including from demonstrators who want Hanoi to do more to halt Chinese encroachment into Vietnamese territory.

Political analysts assert that the communist system can survive only if it retains the control of: a) the stomach; b) the movement, and c) the mind of the people. I would add another tool that allows the communist leaders to hang on to power, and it is the environment of fear and terror fostered by a relentless pursuit of a policy of hatred and retribution. As a matter of fact, immediately after their 1975 victory, the Vietnamese communist leaders built at least 150 so-called “reeducation “camps to incarcerate the former officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and government officials.

A 2001 study by California’s Orange County Register, for example, found among other things, that:

- An estimated 1 million people were imprisoned without charges or trials

- 165,000 people died in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s “reeducation camps”

- Thousands were abused or tortured: their hands and legs shackled in painful positions for months.

-Prisoners were incarcerated for as long as 17 years.

-One in three South Vietnamese families had a relative in a reeducation camp.

In Vietnam today, things have changed for the better: the food rationing system (or ho khau) no longer exists; the people can move relatively freely within the country. But the control of the mind - the last bulwark defense of the communist system – is being shattered by tremendous advances in information technology.

However, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) is not ready to capitulate, because the greater it feels threatened, the stronger it cracks down on dissidents. Bloggers demanding freedom and democracy are slapped with long-term prison verdicts. The police and the cong an (or public security agents) brutally beat up and/or arrest the farmers protesting against massive land grabs or demonstrators against rampant corruption and the government inability to counter China’s aggression in the South China Sea (known in Vietnam as Bien Dong, or Eastern Sea).

In the course of human history, violence, even terror, are often used to quell political unrest. Toward the end of the 18th century, for example, Maximilien de Robespierre, a leading figure of the French Revolution, had sent thousands of French to their death under the guillotine, in order to quell the post-revolution chaos and attempted restoration of the French monarchy. It is significant that Robespierre considered virtue and terror as the two pillars of the revolution.

“If the basis of popular government in peacetime,” Robespierre wrote, “is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue without terror is baneful; terror without virtue is powerless.”

Recent developments in Vietnam have proved Robespierre right. The VCP, obviously, is not known for its virtue, and without virtue, according to Robespierre, terror is powerless.

As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese people are no longer afraid of the communist regime. They even beat up the cong an who tried to disperse their rallies and demonstrations. On the occasion of the 39th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in April 1975, thousands of demonstrators protested in front of the U.S. Consulate in Saigon against the oppressive communist regime. They carried the yellow flags of the former Republic of Vietnam, hurled anti-communist slogans and called for the dismantlement of the VCP. In the meantime, one unthinkable event took place near by: The Catholic Archdiocese of Saigon organized a big reception to honor the former wounded and disabled veterans of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Over 400 veterans attended the reception, some of them wearing their ARVN uniform.

There is a Vietnamese saying : "Gieo gio, gat bao” (“Who sows the wind will harvest the storm.”)
It is increasingly clear that the Vietnamese communist system is cracking under popular pressure. To avoid a rough landing and potential blood bath - similar to the ones that had killed Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and Lybia’s Muammar Gaddafi, the present leaders of the VCP would be well advised to relinquish power to the people and help build a free and democratic Vietnam. Otherwise, as the saying goes, they will harvest the storms of their own making.

After all, Robespierre, who had sowed so much wind during the revolution, had harvested his own unforgiving storm: His political rivals in the Jacobin Club had sent him to his death under the very guillotine he had created.

Thi Lam, a former general in the South Vietnamese army, is the author of "The Twenty-five Year Century: A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon" and most recently, "Hell in An Loc: The 1972 Easter Invasion and the Battle That Saved South Vietnam."