Independence, Freedom, and Happiness in Vietnam?

It is almost 67 years to the day when the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was revealed on September 2, 1945. The document served to announce, without doubt, Vietnam as a free and independent nation, no longer subject to French or Japanese rule.

Among the first words written are, “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”--borrowed directly from the US Declaration of Independence.

The author of this document? None other than the former leading light of Vietnam’s Communist Party, President Ho Chi Minh. It is perhaps not surprising that the motto of Vietnam --“Independence, Freedom, and Happiness” -- brings to mind the inalienable rights.

Nearly 67 years later, however, those inalienable rights remain a fantasy to the Vietnamese citizen, subjected instead to the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party. The hopeful words that should have inspired a generation of Vietnamese were instead ignored. Independence, freedom and happiness were restricted to those in power. It is with little doubt that the Vietnam today is a product of squandered opportunity.

A desire for independence

The spirit of Vietnamese independence is not hard to understand. Early Vietnamese history was linked to China, whose presence and development long overshadowed the small Southeast Asian nation. French colonialism, followed by Japanese rule, and another brief period of French control further added to Vietnam’s subjugation to foreign powers.

For Vietnamese nationalists following the Second World War, independence was paramount; but not everyone could agree on the direction. Exacerbated by the partition of Vietnam into north and south, the battle for independence became a battle for unification, with the United States and its allies in support of South Vietnam while the Soviet Union and China supported the North. It would be a war won by the Communist North, a war that would see hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fleeing to the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and elsewhere.

With the war concluded, no longer was the discussion centered on developing an independent nation but on maintaining control. Having won the war, the Communists abandoned any talks of nation building, choosing instead to cement their control of the battered nation. The days that followed left Vietnamese citizens mired in poverty until free-market reforms in the mid-1980s helped move the country to join the rest of the world.

Since then, however, the country has limped on. Where China has boomed, no longer a peasant nation it once was for several decades, Vietnam has struggled to find its feet moving forward.

Oppression by any other name

Corruption, human rights violations, and an assortment of other concerns have cast Vietnam in with other undemocratic states. A single-party state all but prevents political representation, unless one belongs to the Communist Party. To speak out against the government and demand change is to be considered propagandizing against the state, subject to harsh penalties.

The Communists overthrew what they believed to be an American puppet government in South Vietnam, and the French colonial regime and Japanese imperialists before it, all under the notion that they were liberators of the oppressed. Yet, as history has demonstrated, they have become what they once detested.

Independence, freedom, and happiness are few and far between in Vietnam today. To say the people are deprived of the above would be extreme -- to degrees, one can achieve independence, freedom, and happiness in Vietnam -- but to say the journey is complete would be naïve.

To say without a shadow of doubt that the Vietnamese people have achieved what they set out to achieve long ago would be disingenuous. Independence from foreign powers they might have (although one could argue just how much influence today China can exert on Hanoi); however, their freedom from oppression and unjust rule remains out of reach.

Whether it is a Chinese emperor, French colonialists, or Japanese imperialists, Vietnam has simply substituted one authoritarian power for another. The Communist Party has worked actively to suppress democratic reform -- reforms that have led Vietnam from one revolution to the next. While there are differences from the current regime in Hanoi and those past foreign powers, the crux of the issue has yet to be addressed: a minority rule of unchecked power, unaccountable to the people.

Is Vietnam independent? It is no longer a colony or blatant in its service to another country. Are the Vietnamese people free? Today, citizens enjoy economic freedoms not known at any point in their country’s past. Regardless, oppression by any other name is still oppression, and the current government has not provided evidence to suggest otherwise. Crackdowns on demonstrations, detaining and jailing political activists, and government corruption seem to exemplify an old saying, “The more things change. The more they stay the same.”

A long road ahead

It is puzzling that the Communist regime has been allowed to govern for so long when that which the people desired remains unrealized. Have the majority simply given up on democratic change? Or is an authoritarian government an acceptable government as long as the powers that be are not foreign?

The answer might be found in demographics, with over 70 percent of the Vietnamese population born after the Vietnam War, or the American War, as Vietnam calls it. Firsthand accounts of the war are quickly fading as those who were present grow old and pass on. Instead, those who were born after are provided history as dictated by the government. To the 70-plus percent of the Vietnamese population, the government they know is normal and expected.

To that same segment of the population, however, their government is not the only form of government they know.

Today, anyone with a computer and internet connection can read and watch news from around the world. The Vietnamese today are perhaps more informed and more aware than their parents and grandparents. Democracy and free and fair elections are not unknown concepts to many of the youth in Vietnam.

Those street protesters and jailed internet bloggers are not senior citizens but young men and women desiring change in their country. It is a long road ahead for democracy in Vietnam; however, if history is any indication, the Vietnamese people will continue to push for change. The seemingly slow move towards democracy may be attributed to caution rather than outright fear.

“Independence, freedom, and happiness” may simply be mere words to the government, but these are words of great meaning to the people.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)