The gradual return of ancient culture and traditions in today's communist Vietnam.
Dr Liem Vo

Vietnam today is in many ways not the communist-socialist Vietnam of the 1970s and 1980s. We still see billboards all over the country urging the people to be absolutely committed to the ideals of socialism and communism. The Leninist-socialist revolution and its principles are still being taught in schools. All seems well in the communist utopia. The only thing that is missing is credibility. Vietnam is a socialist country in name, in reality, the communist leadership in Hanoi has decided to quietly abandon communism and to embrace the good old capitalism. This late conversion has delivered spectacular gains in living standards of the ordinary Vietnamese but is not without concerns for those with a social conscience.

Capitalism in Vietnam today is without the safeguards of the rule of law, checks and balances of power, the independence of the press, freedom of speech, religious freedom and the most important element that affects the weak and the disadvantaged, the absence of a social safety net. As a consequence, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider. The rich people are the city dwellers and those who govern earn 100 to 1000 times more than the worse off and the governed. One third of the population lives in absolute poverty and the average worker earns AU$30 a month according to the current exchange rate but real purchase power is perhaps a little higher than that. Corruption is inbuilt and remains pervasive at all levels of the ruling class. All of this information is no invention. It was made public by the communist government in Hanoi itself through its official media outlets and public speeches of government officials. This widening gap between rich and poor is admitted by the Communist Government of Vietnam to be a big problem.

The government of Vietnam finds it difficult to levy tax on the high-income earners and the rich because those people are mostly connected to the ruling class who make law and collect tax themselves. The combination of unchecked capitalism and absolute power held by the communist party makes the country a fertile ground for social injustice, human exploitation and tragedies. It is an irony that this is the very scenario that Karl Marx once theorised and tried to remedy, as unsuccessful as he might have been. Up to this point most of us see no surprise as to the outcome of this social policy or the political steps taken by the ruling class in Vietnam to deal with a new world without communism.

What has surprised observers is the gradual return of traditional beliefs and time-honoured customs. As what had happened in China during the Cultural Revolution, in Vietnam old customs were denounced and labelled 'feudalism', 'counter-revolutionary' during the early days of the communist revolution. People may accept readily a foreign political system but do not necessarily want to abandon their cultural heritage. Human cultures and traditions have an amazing ability to endure great political changes throughout the ages. In China, social and political changes are initiated from the top of the power pyramid down to ordinary people. In Vietnam, social and political changes are forced from the bottom up and by crises. The history of the last 50 years has demonstrated that the leadership of Vietnam generally does not want to change anything unless crisis point is reached.

Putting aside recent economic liberalisation, political oppression has not changed. Those who dare to say that Vietnam has no freedom of speech are quickly put in jail for crime of "spreading lies". Those who dare to say that Vietnam needs to uphold democratic rights as ambiguously stated in the communist constitution are quickly put on trial for "taking advantage of democratic rights to infringe upon the interests of the state". This is just garden-variety dictatorship that I will not go into in too much detail because it will bore you. Today's gathering is about the Monarchical system. Many of you may wonder what has happened to the Vietnamese Monarchy.

The last legitimate dynasty of Vietnam was the Nguyen dynasty. Present day Imperial records trace the family to the most distant ancestor being the Grand Duke Nguyen Bac who is mentioned in history books at the threshold of independence from China during the Dinh dynasty (968-980 AD). A noted descendant of Duke Nguyen Bac was Nguyen Trai. Nguyen Trai held a doctorate in literature. He later helped a wealthy landowner Lê Loi to defeat the Minh Dynasty to establish the Lê Dynasty, the longest and one of the most successful dynasties of Vietnam. The Nguyen family helped several princes of the Lê dynasty in securing the throne of Dai Viet. Lands, titles and offices of privilege conferred on them in reward for these services. By 1503, the head of the Nguyen family, Van-Lang or Dai-Lang, had been raised to the title of Duke (Trung Quoc Cong). Lord Nguyen Hoang in 1558 AD started his southwards territorial expansion. His successors extended Vietnamese influence to most of the southern part of the Indochinese Peninsula. In 1802 Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen Dynasty defeated the Tay Son rebellion and united the Empire for the first time in history. Gia Long named his new empire: Vietnam. This name is still in use today. The yellow and red stripes flag was the national flag adopted during Emperor Thanh Thai's era. This flag is still cherished by overseas Vietnamese who are anti-communist as a symbol of freedom.

The empire of Vietnam comprises at least seven former kingdoms, inhabited by 60 ethno-linguistic groups. The country was a target for French colonial ambition. It was the Nguyen Emperors who started the struggles for independence. The Vietnamese rulers remained resilient in resisting foreign domination. The French were compelled to depose and exile three (Ham Nghi, Thanh Thai, Duy Tan) out of the six succeeding Nguyen rulers for various acts of resistance or non-cooperation. The people of Vietnam also hold deep affection towards The Marquis Cuong De who died overseas after spending all his life fighting for Vietnam's independence. For this reason alone, neither the people of Vietnam nor the communist rulers can afford not to acknowledge the great acts of courage and patriotism of the young sovereigns of the Nguyen Dynasty.

After years of trying desperately to copy the Soviet Union and communist China, the social fabric of Vietnamese society has reached crisis point. The collapse of the communist world has forced Vietnam into joining the rest of the free market economy world it once considered capitalist devils. In this time of great change, like a pendulum, people feel lost and the desire to return to their roots grows stronger. The desire to find solace in Vietnam's own traditions and culture comes from both within and outside the ruling class. Like a lost man, the communist leadership of Vietnam is left with no alternative but to acknowledge Vietnam's 4000 year history as its moral salvation. They are prepared to overlook the aristocratic and royal backgrounds of Vietnam's heroes such as the Trung sisters, Prince Tran Hung Dao, Kings and Emperors of the Dinh, the Le, and the Nguyen dynasties who had lead the peoples of Vietnam to great military successes against foreign invaders.

During the last few years we have seen royal anniversaries being celebrated commemorating the Trung sisters, the victories of Prince Tran Hung Dao over the Mongols and surprisingly the birthday of Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen dynasty is being celebrated by the royal clans at all the major cities of Vietnam. The most sacred Nam Giao ceremony of the old imperial calendar was revived for the first time in 60 years in the old Imperial capital with big elephants, royal court dancers and loud music. The Le and Nguyen Emperors customarily performed this ceremony. UNESCO has recognised Hue, the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty as world heritage. This recognition has also reminded the people of Vietnam of their pre-war, pre-communist past. It is nostalgia perhaps but the people of Vietnam have had little historical continuity after so much conflict and destruction. Too little physical and architectural heritage is left after the bombs and fires of war. What is left is the culture and tradition that live on in the collective memory of the people.

There has been an explosion in the number of books published by the scholars inside Vietnam about the last Nguyen dynasty. The focal points were old customs, traditions, and way of life of the past. For centuries Vietnam observed an old tradition of worshipping village genies. A village genie was often a mandarin or military officer who led exemplary life and performed acts of heroism. The emperor granted such individuals post-humous titles to be worshipped as the village guardian genie. The worship of the Nguyen Dynasty's village genies is now allowed without hindrance by the communist regime. Old ways of life start to creep back slowly. This is happening partly because of the desire of the people and partly for tourism and as an international public relations exercise. But the changes stop at that.

Despite close to 4000 years of being ruled by absolute monarchs, Vietnam does have democratic traditions. At the village level, according to tradition, people elected their own village chiefs and each village as an administrative unit similar to the Cambodian 'Sok', had their own customs and rules. The popular saying, long accepted by the Imperial court, was 'The king's law comes second to village rules'. During the Tran Dynasty, faced with the mighty Mongol invaders, the Tran King summoned his village elders to a Parliamentarian forum called 'Hoi Nghi Dien Hong' to decide on the fate of the country. Court mandarins were chosen on merit, selected by exams and not by party association or bloodline. There have been calls from within the communist party and some sections of the community for the return of self-rule at the village level by democratic means.

Although there are many members of the imperial family, not that many are interested in politics at the moment. Outside Vietnam Prince Nguyen Phuoc Buu Chanh, Duke of Kien Hoa remains the only imperial descendant who has been campaigning hard for decades for both restoration and democratisation of Vietnam, free from communism. The prince lives in the USA and heads the Vietnamese Constitutional Monarchist League and is also President of the South East Asia Imperial and Royal League. This league comprises the royal houses of Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. The Prince enjoys strong support from Vietnam's main religions overseas, most notably Cao Dai Buddhist overseas groups. Cao Dai and Hoa Hao are strong in South Vietnam, a traditional power base of the Nguyen dynasty. Apart from the Constitutional Monarchist League, expatriates outside Vietnam have formed more than 30 political party groupings and alliances. Members of political alliances come from the over a million or so Vietnamese exiles scattered around 40 different countries... All want democracy for Vietnam but very little progress has been made in the last 30 years due to the tyranny of distance and lack of a power base.

The destiny of the Vietnamese people lies in the hands of the Vietnamese inside Vietnam especially the younger generation and those who are in positions of influence. If you want to hear about human rights or democracy in Vietnam, the news can be quite mixed depending on who you are. If you are Saddam Hussein or Bin Laden the news is good. If you are Nelson Mandela, or the Dalai Lama or Pope John Paul II the news is bad.

The dream of democracy for Vietnam is sadly still a dream and the road to freedom is still long and difficult. For close to a century the people of Vietnam have heard enough, seen enough, and read enough about freedom and democracy. In fact they even fought and died for freedom and democracy. Real freedom and democracy never came under the various types of people's republics that the people ended up getting. For real freedom and democracy to succeed people need independent institutions with real power to keep checks and balances on the competing interests for the benefit of all. More importantly, the people who govern and the governed must be absolutely committed to nurturing freedom and democracy. People may feel tired and jaded after years of futile conflict. Before plunging into another costly fight for freedom and democracy and yet another social and political experiment, perhaps the young generation is now asking what to replace the rotten dictatorship with. In the past, older generations were quite ready to trash the old system yet seemed clueless as to what should replace it. The new, borrowed political systems and ideologies sometimes don't measure up.

In movies good always triumphs over evil. In real life it is not always the case. Dictatorship has won decisively in Vietnam. The communist government of Vietnam today enjoys great financial support and recognition from many world powers with hundreds of millions of dollars unconditionally poured into the country. Japan is the only country that has said bravely that it would make the $830 million dollars yearly aid to Vietnam conditional on progress in human rights, democracy and the treatment of Christian highlanders in Vietnam. The communist government of Vietnam receives $US3 billion in foreign aid every year from 40 different countries.

How far things will change I cannot predict. Each country has its own set of peculiar problems and advantages arising from its history, culture and individual circumstances. One thing that is universally accepted today is that in order to advance, human society has to have freedom and democracy. Be it a Westminster or American presidential system it would be better than communist dictatorship. There is no one-size-fits-all model of democracy. Vietnam may never have the kind of democracy known in the western world even if communist dictatorship finally recedes. On the one hand neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Cambodia that share many similarities with Vietnam's cultural heritage and history are making firm steps towards democracy that are different from Western democracies but at the same time retain strong cultural heritage and individual identity. On the other hand, Japan and Malaysia are both prospering under much different styles of democracy. All four of these asian nations are constitutional monarchies. This system of governance could well be a political system that deserves careful consideration by future leaders of Vietnam. We can only hope for a better future.

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