The Next Vietnam War?

The country's peasants are staging violent protests and threatening the communist leaders' regime.

By Thi Lam

Published October 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

luckily for Vietnam's rulers, they didn't have to deliver a State of the Nation address when their National Assembly convened in Hanoi recently. The news would have been so bleak that a revolt might have broken out there and then.

After a decade of "doi moi" ("economic renovation"), Vietnam's economy, once touted as Asia's next "tiger," is in serious disarray. Rampant corruption, self-serving bureaucracies and huge money-losing state enterprises are the order of the day. Foreign investment, prompted by the currency chaos sweeping Southeast Asia, is fleeing, leaving a massive property glut. According to Vietnam's official news agency, exports are down and industrial production has fallen off-target.

For the 450 delegates attending the first open session of the Assembly last month, there were even greater worries. Urban crime and violence are up, but way more significant is the mounting unrest in the countryside, long the backbone of Vietnam's communist revolution.

Last February, hundreds of peasants from Kim No, a village on the outskirts of Hanoi, openly battled security forces after local party officials sold off village land to a South Korean conglomerate planning to develop a golf course. According to reports from residents smuggled out of Vietnam, the officials pocketed the proceeds.

But the Kim No incident paled in comparison to the violent protests raging since May in Thai Binh province, 50 miles southeast of Hanoi. The Foreign Ministry played down the unrest, claiming it was caused by "discontented elements and those harboring private disagreements." But Reuters reported on Aug. 6 that 3,000 farmers from neighboring villages converged on the city of Thai Binh to protest new taxes and corruption by local officials. Thoi Bao and Xay Dung, two Vietnamese-language publications based in San Jose, Calif., reported that the farmers even arrested local party officials and razed their homes. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the protest movement has spread to three neighboring provinces.

Vietnam watchers attribute the unrest to worsening economic conditions in the rural areas. Farmers in one province near Thai Binh reportedly have to pay eight types of taxes to the central government and make six contributions to local officials. Meanwhile, the income gap between urban dwellers and rural residents is widening. The average annual income per head in Ho Chi Minh City is estimated to be around $1,000, while it is stuck at about $50 in places like Thai Binh.

Peasant discontent also stems from the way the government has implemented its agrarian reforms. In 1988, the government deactivated the country's inefficient state cooperatives and distributed lands to peasants to encourage production. However, local party officials took the most productive lands for their families. In some instances, district and provincial party officials who were not local residents wound up with the best plots in the village.

Even as their country's problems mount, right next door China is busy dismantling the economic and political model Vietnam's leaders have been so determined to follow. Last month, the 15th Party Congress approved the mass privatization of state enterprises, the underpinnings of China's claims to socialism. The question now is whether Vietnam will follow China's dramatic reforms. The country's new leadership is younger, more educated and more pragmatic. One thing is certain: The rulers cannot afford to further alienate peasants who represent 80 percent of the population and whose support was critical in the country's victorious wars throughout this century.

Thai Binh, in particular, was the cradle not only of the communist revolution but of the struggles for freedom from French colonial rule in the 1930s. Vietnam's new leaders cannot fail to notice the striking similarity between the uprisings of recent months in that province and its much glorified revolutionary activities of earlier decades.

By Thi Lam

Thi Lam is a former army general in the Republic of South Vietnam and author of "Autopsy: The Death of South Vietnam."


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