Report to the United Church of Canada on a trip to Vietnam, May 1986

by David Wurfel, Professor of Political Science, University of Windsor

Travelling at the request of Bonnie Green, Secretary of the Committee on Church and International Affairs and Rhea Whitehead, Area Secretary for Asia & the Pacific, I went to Vietnam with a group of seven Canadian church representatives: Elizabeth Pabst of Edmonton, representing Lutheran World Relief, Nancy Pocock of Toronto, representing the Canadian Friends Service Committee, Kathleen Ptolemy of Toronto, representing the Anglican Church, and Reg Reimer, executive director of World Relief, Canada.

Murray Hiebert, a Canadian Mennonite now with the Indochina Project of the Center for International Policy in Washington, made most of the arrangements, following the extended efforts of Bert Lobe of MCC, Winnipeg to get confirmation from Vietnam for a date for the visit. For Bill Janzen, Elizabeth Pabst and Kathleen Ptolemy it was their first visit to Vietnam. For me it was the first visit to the North (I had made several research trips to the South until as late as 1970), while the others had visited one or more times since 1975. Murray Hiebert, who spoke some Vietnamese, had worked with the MCC for more than a year in the South before 1975, while Reg Reimer had been a Christian Missionary Alliance missionary in the South for several years and spoke fluent Vietnamese.

Originally the trip had been planned to include ten days in Vietnam and four days in Kampuchea, but a last minute change in air schedules to Phnom Penh, which would have required us to stay a total of three weeks in Indochina in order to get to Kampuchea, made it impossible for most of us to see that country. This clearly detracted from my ability to achieve one of my intended goals.

The objectives of the trip to Vietnam, as spelled out in a proposal of Bert Lobe of January 15, 1985, were to visit with representatives of Christian churches and to better understand their situation, to talk with AidRecep about expectations of NGO aid from Canada and to visit ongoing projects, to better understand the realities of the political/economic/social situation in Vietnam, and to build bridges of friendship between Canada and Vietnam. More particularly I was instructed by Bonnie Green and Rhea Whitehead to survey the need for expanded humanitarian assistance from Canada and the prospects of its effective utilization, and to study the tangled complex of problems surrounding Kampuchea, seeking a variety of views on the subject in order to try to determine whether there was a positive contribution which Canada and/or Canadians could make to a solution of the current impasse. Canadian immigration policy and the policies of Vietnam toward emigration were also a matter of interest to the group, but since Kathleen Ptolemy has by far the greatest expertise in this area and gathered the most information on the subject—and since I did not perceive any significant difference between her general views on the subject and my own — I would recommend that those wanting information on that topic should obtain a copy of her report.

After first reporting some general impressions, I would like to discuss my findings first in the area of political/economic conditions in Vietnam, and then move to the more particular topics of the status of the churches, the international conflict surrounding Kampuchea, and finally, the need for Canadian aid.

General Impressions

First, I should say that insofar as we were ignorant of the current Vietnamese and Kampuchean scene, it was to a considerable degree our own fault. Murray Hiebert sent each of us more than 100 pages of reading material which in the view of a leading Indochina specialist to whom I showed it was “an impressive collection of the best academic and journalistic coverage of contemporary Indochina in the last two or three years”. Even though I had been covering the Vietnamese revolution in a course last term, I found important new insights in the material Murray sent. It stood us in good stead in developing lines of questioning during the trip.

The readings provided, of course, an important counterpoint to the information that could be gathered on a tour guided by Vietnamese government officials. We were the guests of the Committee for Peace and Solidarity with Peoples of All Nations, not technically a government organ, but, of course, under Party control. In addition to our interpreter there were always two other representatives of the Committee traveling with us. Our itinerary was a combination of Murray Hiebert’s requests and Committee suggestions. It did include some places on the “tourist circuit”, like the Revolutionary Museum in Hanoi or the Drug Rehabilitation Centre in Ho Chi Minh City (which were in any case quite interesting), but did not include a normal “circuit” stop, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. In only one case were we prevented from talking with someone we all wanted to see, someone to whom we had been officially introduced. But perhaps we did not arrange that as skill fully as we might have. There were no restrictions on our movements outside the group schedule—except those inherent in limited transport options and, except for two, lack of language skills. Occasionally in the South we found the owner of a shop who could speak some English and was eager to talk. The natural hospitality and friendship of Vietnamese was inhibited, however, by the government’s prohibition on the receiving of foreign visitors in private homes.

For me one of the strongest impressions was the contrast between North and South. (It was a matter of some disappointment that we were not able to visit the Center, apparently for reasons of inconvenient air schedules.) I was certainly aware of the demographic, cultural and historical differences between the two regions. But I had assumed that more than a decade under a common regime would substantially narrow the differences, and to some degree it had. But the differences of costume, manner, and especially of level of economic activity were still great. The two hotels we stayed in epitomized the differences we observed elsewhere: both were French hotels built in the 1920s now run by the government. Both served primarily foreign guests and tourists. In Hanoi when the original French elevator gave out, it was removed, and not replaced. The mattresses seemed to have survived several wars (while foam mattresses, unused, were stacked in the halls) and the plumbing, after more than half a century, was only intermittently functional. In Saigon the original elevator had just been replaced with three new Japanese models; many plumbing fixtures were also recent Japanese replacements, and the beds were first class. As of 1975 the new management in the South had certainly inherited a much more modern and commodious building than existed in Hanoi at the same point in time. But government managers in the two cities had also exhibited very different styles since then. The investigation of all the basic causes for these differences would challenge a Ph.D. candidate—and at the moment the data is probably not available.

The unavailability of the simplest and most basic statistical data (the kind normally published in international compendiums), or causal explanations, was frustrating for someone accustomed to being provided such data for research in other Asian countries. When speaking to a very well-informed unofficial observer, I asked whether this failure to provide data was because it simply did not exist or because I was regarded as an inappropriate recipient of important information. His short answer was “both”. And in each case the explanation can be traced back to long years of war. The bureaucracy has not been well trained in gathering the kind of data essential for any modern government, especially a centrally planned economy.

And they lack such basic equipment as filing drawers and calculators. But the withholding of data often persists even when it is available, and not only to foreign requests. The decentralization required by guerrilla warfare, or by the prolonged bombing of the North, gave considerable autonomy to primary politico-bureaucratic units. For them, quite understandably, information was power, so that denial of information was a means of restricting the power of a rival, or possibly untrustworthy, political or bureaucratic group. Thus other bureaus or ministries sometimes face the same frustrations in the request for data as foreign visitors. This is a legacy of the war with severe consequences.

The legacies of war which we observed often seemed to be more cultural or psychological than obviously physical — though economic difficulties are certainly explained in part by long years of armed conflict.

The physical evidence of war damage seemed to me to be rather slight only eleven years after the end of fighting, though it is likely to be more visible in southern Tonkin or the Center, where we could not visit. The few bomb craters which remain in farmers’ fields are skill fully disguised as water storage tanks or buffalo wallows. There appears to be no remaining rubble in the cities or towns we visited. But the delayed effects of Agent Orange are still very real. The rows of bottles containing horribly deformed fetuses in a Saigon maternity hospital are only a partial indicator of that legacy.

In comparing notes with friends who had visited Vietnam even a few years ago, however, it seems that as physical reminders of war have disappeared, the mood has changed also. There is little discussion of the war’s consequences in various policy areas. That there may now be a desire to forget is revealed in the nature of Vietnamese attendance at the Revolutionary Museum in Hanoi, which displays the politically correct version of the struggle in intricate detail. On a Sunday afternoon, within visiting hours, we saw no Vietnamese there. It was explained that they come in organized groups from schools and factories.

In concluding this introduction, I should make clear an awareness of my own limitations. No foreign visitor can in two weeks accurately assess from his own observations the political/economic/socio-cultural situation in a large and complex nation such as Vietnam. A foreign visitor, for one thing, almost always enjoys a different life style from that of the ordinary citizen. Regional variations, language barriers, the psychological blinders of pre-conceived notions—all limit the accuracy of particular observations.

In a society without the freedom of speech or press, where certain facts and attitudes are deliberately concealed from the foreign observer, the task is even more difficult. I will try to make allowance for the consequences of these limitations whenever relevant.

However, a visitor who has over the years internalized considerable information from a great variety of sources on the history, culture, politics and economics of a country is able to put his observations into that larger context. My comments will often be an integration of recent observations with the cumulation of prior study. Even so, they will probably not coincide with the perceptions of reality held by recent refugees from Vietnam. This is not only for the reasons stated in the paragraph above but also because they have had experiences and observed events which were unique, which I could not share, and because the intensity of their experiences and the values derived from them tend to create images of reality which exclude some of the phenomena which I have observed. In any case, I would hope to have more chance to dialog with refugees to try to reconcile the different spheres of reality that we have perceived.

The Domestic Political Economy

There were several meetings from which we derived important information about the politico-economic situation. In Hanoi we talked to the Director of the International Bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture, to a vice-chairperson of the Hanoi People’s Committee (like the City Council), to Mr. Phan Hien, the Minister of Justice, to Mr. Hoang Tung, the Secretary of the Party Central Committee, and unofficially to French and Indian businessmen, and to the First Secretary of the Australian Embassy. Northwest of Hanoi in Vinh Phu province we talked to provincial, district and cooperative officials, as well as to individual farmers. In Ho Chi Minh City we talked to a vice-chairman of the People’s Committee, to officials of Dong Nai Rubber Co. (the country’s largest rubber plantation), to the Chamber of Commerce, and unoffically to a Japanese businessman, to a woman lawyer and member of the National Assembly, Ngo Ba Tanh, and to a pre-1975 Deputy Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Oanh, now a businessman and member of the government-sponsored Fatherland Front. In Dong Thap province in the Mekong Delta we talked to provincial officials about agriculture and to a manager of a soy bean processing plant.

Our introduction to Vietnam was from the charming and knowledgeable chairman of our host Committee, Mr. 00 Xuan Oanh, who gave us a remarkable overview. He caught our attention with an unusual phrase, “Now everything is irregular”, which I put down at the time to excessive Asian self-deprecation. But as our visit proceeded we understood that this was simply one way of saying that Vietnam is a society very much in flux. The political leadership is firmly in control, so that “flux” does not include the prospect of political instability. Nor does the image of transition refer simply to the inconclusive interaction between the different cultural and economic outlooks of North and South, though that is certainly part of the pattern. What it does mean is that traditional (including capitalist), revolutionary, bureaucratic, and recently reformed ways of doing things (modes of problem solving, styles of work) exist side by side. And one can never be sure which mode, which style is going to govern a particular situation. Sometimes they compete. It is this flux which makes Vietnam so interesting today. And it is also a source of hope, since the traditional, revolutionary and bureaucratic modes are clearly inadequate approaches to present problems, and it is the reformist mode which is of growing importance. Hopefully the Sixth Party Congress, which is now scheduled for the end of this year, will confirm the ascendancy of reformism. Comments by Hoang Tung led us to believe that this is the dominant mood, though other officials, in bursts of frankness, warned us of the malevolent staying power of bureaucratism.

Bureaucratism was decried, in fact, by a cabinet minister as Vietnam’s most serious “illness”. It is, in part, a natural aftermath of war. The revolutionary fervor has waned; long years of sacrifice, after the goal is won, have now produced a self-centered reaction. Self-protecting and self-aggrandizing activities by bureaucrats are on the increase, while the only pressure for high quality performance is ideological exhortation, now of declining potentcy. Material incentives are almost all of an extra-legal nature. Rumors of corruption were reported at great length by unofficial observers.

There seems to be considerable hope that these problems can be overcome with new leadership. In any case, they are apparently being examined by the criticism and self-criticism meetings which form a part of the preparation for the Sixth Party Congress. The need for leadership change is obvious when one realizes that most of the Party Politburo members (the real center of power) are over 70, and party Chairman Le Duan is ailing. Inherent in the muffled debate over leadership choices is the controversy — which in China in the 1960s was raised to the level of an open ideological debate — between “Red vs. expert”, or political experience vs. technical expertise, especially in economics. This debate itself has overtones of generational difference since “technocrats” are usually younger than “politicians”. Some observers characterize the debate as between dogmatists and pragmatists, essentially the same dichotomy.

Whatever leadership changes take place, the process will be smoother because the revered memory of Ho Chi Minh is much more powerful than the personality of any present official. It is his picture alone which appears in schools, offices, hospitals, and every other public place. It is his name alone which is spoken with unqualified affection and awe. Only Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who was also Ho’s premier, has the kind of popular respect that, despite his age, might make his replacement some kind of problem. Many other top figures are tainted with tales of high living, bureaucratism and even corruption.

The outcome of the leadership struggle will be most important for its impact on economic policy. (We were assured by top officials that differences over foreign policy were few. But there may be implications for foreign policy change in certain economic policy shifts which even some officials do not recognize.) Generational differences and debate over political versus technical qualifications are entangled in the discussions of economic liberalization, which apparently focus not on “whether”, but on “how far”.

There are hints, for instance, that some of the old war horses who guided the revolution for 35 years are wary of economic reformers whose proposals reek of capitalism, even though couched in Communist jargon. Nevertheless, the push for liberalizing reforms seems quite strong, and certainly has the support of Le Duan. Much has already been accomplished in the last few years.

As early as 1981 experiments began in agriculture with the “contract system”, first at the cooperative, and then at the farm family level. Now this system seems to apply to most farmers in basic crops. At the same time the cooperative farm has ceased cultivating most of its acreage by communal effort. Whereas previously farmers only went to the fields on orders from cooperative officials—and were paid wages for their efforts, now families in most coops are assigned plots “on the basis of available family labor” in which they are fully responsible for re-planting, weeding and harvesting.

Communal work brigades are now limited to maintenance and construction of irrigation systems, planting of seedlings, and, in some cases, plowing. These generalizations are based primarily on northern experience. In the South best indications are that most cooperatives never instituted communal farm work, so that adoption of the contract system was not a radical shift, as it was in the North.

There are production contracts accepted by the cooperative which fix its delivery of rice to the state at a price determined by the State Price Commission, and contracts by the individual farmer, who delivers to the cooperative at a price determined by what the cooperative received from the government, with the amount said to be determined by the average of the previous three year’s harvest on the land. Farmers who produce more than the contracted amount may sell it on the free market, at prices far above the contract price. (Officials would not tell us, however, what the ratio between these two prices actually was.) There are apparently a number of crops which are not bound by contract, thus allowing the farmer to sell his entire production on the free market. In that case, however, the farmer must pay a tax to the cooperative to cover its provision of health, education and other social services. The coop also sells the farmer tools, insecticides and other agricultural inputs at below-market prices.

Food production in Vietnam rose by more than 20% from 1981 to 1985 and it is officially admitted that this change in the structure of incentives was a major cause for the increase. (In some coops rice production doubled after the first year of individual contracts.) Urban workers on wages and salaries are very quick to point out the contrast between the peasant’s prosperity and their own economic squeeze. We saw many new brick farm houses—several in each village it would seem—in both North and South, which gives evidence that some, at least, do indeed enjoy that prosperity. (Conveniently, farmers often put the year of construction on the front of the house.)

The economic reforms impinging on urban areas have not been as beneficial to the consumer on fixed income. Reforms have generally been of two types: one affecting the autonomy of the state-owned firm and the other affecting the character of salaries and wages. “Socialist accounting” is now a buzz word which essentially means nothing more revolutionary than that the firm must keep records to show whether or not it made a “profit” and is encouraged to do so, without government subsidy. Decision-making autonomy is a necessary corollary. But judging from the attention focused on the issue, this has involved a major change. Whether the accounting is accurate, or whether unprofitable firms will be “punished” remains to be seen. Some firms are seeking even greater autonomy. In the South the spirit of enterprise is so much alive that corporations owned by provincial governments have been spurred by possibilities of profit to get directly involved in foreign trade, even sometimes illegally. The benefits of this type of reform have been primarily in allowing reductions in the state budget and in stimulating exports.

Reforms affecting the character of salaries and wages came in mid-1985. At the same time that coupons for a family ration of subsidized commodities were discontinued, cash salaries were very substantially increased. A link to productivity was also introduced into the salary wage scale. The stimulus to production in the second reform was obvious; the first was supposed to raise production by increasing demand. In September the economic situation was complicated by a currency reform which was designed to penalize those with large caches of dong. It could not be effective, of course, without complete secrecy and surprise, but the secret leaked. Wealthy merchants quickly transformed their cash into commodity stocks, so prices were driven up overnight. And while the stimulus to productivity in the new wage scale took time to have an effect, the increase in the amount of salaries and wages was immediate. Well-informed unofficial observers estimated that inflation in the last year has been over 300% (But officials refused to divulge any statistics which might make possible such a calculation.) Even though it had been announced that the new salary/wage system would include built-in inflation protection, the government could not afford to implement this provision. Thus wage and salary workers were worse off than ever before. Commodity coupons as supplement to salary were “temporarily” re-introduced, and on the day we left Vietnam, May 15th, a national price freeze was decreed; teams of youths were mobilized in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to tour the markets to insure enforcement.

What was most significant was that in the aftermath of such a major policy bungle: 1) there was no overt evidence of unrest; 2) top officials pUblicly admitted that the timing and manner of implementation of the currency reform was a mistake; but 3) there seemed to be a determination to proceed with wage and salary reforms that emphasized individual incentives for productivity and moved to full cash reimbursement. (The coupon system had produced its own black market.) In the face of considerable grumbling — especially among the hard-hit low level party cadre and bureaucrats, the leadership did not flinch from its course of expanding the market economy and introducing capitalists incentives into industry, all in the name of strengthening “socialist production”. Vietnamese policy-makers have much to learn (especially from their under-utilized Western-trained economists), but their course for the near future appears to be clear. It is well to remember that ever since Ho Chi Minh came to power, while there have been policy changes, Vietnam has never lurched from one extreme to another to the degree China has. In recent years the Chinese have been praised by the West for their pragmatism, but it has taken them longer to reach that stage than it has the Vietnamese. Thus it is reasonable to assume that the

Vietnamese are capable of the same rate of economic growth in the coming decade that the Chinese have achieved in the last, especially if a peaceable solution to the Kampuchean problem is found. It is undoubtedly on the basis of some such calculation as this that the major Japanese trading companies have made such an important commitment of personnel, in Hanoi and especially in Ho Chi Minh City.

In agriculture the most crucial steps towards improving individual incentives—without, of course, completely abandoning “socialist concepts”—have already been taken. Thus both economists and party leaders are realistic in suggesting that the next great boost in productivity must come from improved technology, e.g. the expansion of high yielding varieties of rice (which are already planted in nearly half of the country’s rice acreage), the application of more fertilizer and insecticides, as well as the expansion of irrigation. But unlike the increase of individual incentives these measures require either foreign exchange or domestic investment. The promotion of small gravity irrigation projects, of composting and the use of manure are, of course, low cost ways of expanding production. But they will not suffice. Thus one can understand the drive to find new sources of foreign credits and to make the domestic economy more efficient.

The moves toward more autonomy for firms and coops and greater individual incentives, which imply a more important role for market forces, would seem to be consistent with trends in Eastern Europe, China or even more recently in the Soviet Union itself. But we found Vietnamese officials loath to admit foreign models, least of all Chinese, of course. Both critics and spokesmen of the regime did recognize, however, the importance of experience in the South as a stimulus to change in national policy. Whereas in the late 1970s the great task was seen as the need to “socialize” the South, in the last few years there has been greater recognition that the South has outproduced the North. (Despite the direct exports from several Southern provinces, Ho Chi Minh City alone provides more than half of the nation’s export income). Thus the stimulus of domestic examples may have been even greater than the allure of economic success in other countries under Communist Party rule. Still foreign Communist models are undoubtedly essential for providing ideological legitimacy for change, since it is not long ago that “capitalist remnants” in the South were being bitterly condemned.

The Status of Religion in Vietnam

Because we were a delegation representing Canadian churches, we requested meetings with Vietnamese religious groups and pursued questions of religious freedom with officials. For the delegation as a whole it was probably a more important priority than understanding the politico-economic situation. In Hanoi we spoke with the head of the State Committee on Religious Affairs, with the head abbot of Quan Su Pagoda, the headquarters of Vietnamese Buddhism, and with Pastor Bui Hoanh Thu, leader of the northern Protestants. Some of us attended both Catholic and Protestant services. In the South we had a fruitful session with Archbishop Binh and a talk with the lone Protestant pastor to join the government’s Fatherland Front. Again we attended both Protestant and Catholic services. Our greatest disappointment was our inability to have a longer session with Thich Minh Chau, the Southern Buddhist leader — after our initial brief encounter with him in an official meeting on our first day in Ho Chi Minh City — despite the fact that he had invited us to call on him. Thich Minh Chau had been prominent before 1975 and speaks fluent English, but has played a skillful mediating role between government and his fellow Buddhists, who make up more than half of the population. He is also a member of the National Assembly. We suspect that the decision to block our scheduled meeting with him was made at a fairly low level, but we did not appeal it. In a chance encounter with clergy of the Southern syncretic Cao Dai sect — the offshoot of an officially approved photo opportunity in Oong Thap province — we were also invited in for a discussion, but our guides vigorously insisted that there was no time. Our firm request for a meeting with the Protestant pastor in Dong Thap finally led to the arrangement of an awkward and pathetic ten-minute encounter during which the Pastor’s daughter played American hymn tunes on the organ and a local Party cadre answered some of the questions directed to the Pastor.

The barriers to communication placed by our guides, the four long sessions in which we listened ad nauseum to the official, often quite unfactual, version of the religious situation, concluding with a rather tense interchange at the final dinner on May 14th, need to be explained in context. On the one hand, it appears—after checking with participants in American religious delegations —that we asked more detailed and critical questions in the area of religious freedom than have most similar delegations in the past. On the other hand, the political role of religious groups in Vietnam is an historical fact. While the limitations now placed on the activities of religious organizations may be wrong from the standpoint of our values, and perhaps counter-productive even in terms of Communist Party goals, the Party has had to deal with some highly politicized and hostile religious entities.

French imperialism conquered Indochina with the cooperation of and by coming to the assistance of the Catholic Church. Then in the South after 1954 Catholicism became the primary political base of President Diem. It is a tribute to the diplomatic skills of Archbishop Binh and the moderation of the Vietnamese Party leadership that ties with the Vatican were not entirely cut, as happened in China earlier. While Catholic schools, orphanages and hospitals were confiscated by the State, and at least a few churches were closed, we saw many well-kept churches, and in Hanoi and Saigon found the Cathedrals full to overflowing for multiple services on Sunday, including a large contingent of young people.

The Protestant Church in Vietnam, Tinh Lanh, is primarily the result of missionary work by the Christian Missionary Alliance. Under the French they suffered from a number of restrictions, but after 1954 in the South they entered into a symbiotic relationship with the American-backed regime. The Church was, in fact, an enthusiastic supporter of the anti-Communist war. Many Tinh Lanh pastors, as well as Catholic priests, were chaplains in the South Vietnamese Army.

The political character of the two peculiarly Southern sects, the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, a Buddhist offshoot, was even more pronounced. Both had their own armed forces, enjoying financial support first from the Japanese and later from the French. In fact, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao strongholds in the Delta supported the war against the Communists right down to the end. Many imposing Cao Dai church buildings still dot the Delta, though a few appear to have been put to non-religious purposes. (The Hoa Hao usually meets in private homes.)

Buddhism is not only the largest, but the oldest religious community in Vietnam. Despite its Chinese origins, over the centuries Buddhists have not only blended with Vietnamese culture, but in some periods were its champion against a heavily Sinicized Confucian imperial regime. Thus the Buddhist emergence as the leading symbol of nationalist opposition to Pres. Diem in 1963 was not an historically unique role. After the death of Diem, however, succeeding regimes in Saigon had the sense to be more accommodating to BUddhists, despite occasional crackdowns. At the same time efforts of the Communists to incorporate Buddhists into their political movement in the late 19605 encountered the fierce independence of some bonzes. Thus by the early 1970s some Buddhist leaders were using an anti-Communist idiom. The irony now is that some of the Buddhists monks and nuns who were most opposed to American policy in the 1960s and 70s are among those who have been arrested in recent years. Government claims of foreign links are less credible against the Buddhists than against other religious groups, but they do constitute an autonomous sub-culture and in a state which wants to dictate values as well as policies, that is sufficient threat.

While atheism is still official State policy and the Communist leadership have good historical reasons to be wary of the political potential of religious groups, their policy has been as much an effort at cooptation as it has been repression and restriction. The negative dimension is still sufficiently strong, however, to be most disconcerting to Christian visitors.

Best indications are that about 125 Christian pastors and priests are still in “re-education camps”, but we were unable to learn the comparable figures for Buddhist clergy. We were frequently told by officials that these were all former South Vietnamese military chaplains detained in 1975, but we have information from reliable sources both inside and outside Vietnam that this is not true. While some priests and pastors have been released from detention since 1975, others have been arrested for activities perceived to be “political” or “criminal”. It is very difficult for a foreign observer who does not devote a great deal of time to the project to sort out the claims and counterclaims about what really happened. But at the very least the government misunderstood the significance of some of the activities of the clergy detained. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine that some of them harbor a considerable hostility against the government. When one top official clearly implied that the preeminent sin of the Vietnamese Protestants was that they criticized the government, we reminded him that if that had been a cause of imprisonment in Canada our entire delegation would be in Canadian jails—for our efforts to assist the Vietnamese people. Though a very articulate gentleman, to this he had no response.

At the same time we heard of one fascinating incident that indicated that officials were not entirely insensitive to religious feelings and did want to avoid unnecessary confrontation with the Church. Apparently the Ministry of Interior, the most feared of all government agencies, had produced a film that was a scurilous attack on Catholicism; it was to be released in Saigon for the Lunar New Year holidays. A small group of priests made a private protest to the government about this plan, warning of its long term consequences. Apparently this triggered wider concern both within the Church and the government, the voice of reason prevailed; the film was withdrawn.

The area of concern on which I would like to concentrate, however, is that of theological education. This is because I believe it to be most crucial to the survival of organized religion and because the basic facts are not in dispute between government and churches. It is a topic on which I would hope that the United Church could send an official communication to Vietnam. It is certainly an area in which government policy does not coincide with guarantees of religious freedom in the Vietnamese constitution.

In spite of the official approval for six Catholic theological seminaries in the South, the first is to be opened in Ho Chi Minh City later this year. Only one seminary, with 25 students is now operating, in Hanoi.

Ten parishes in the South are already without priests. But not only is there a severe restriction of numbers; the government, now acting through the recently formed State Commission on Religious Affairs, wants to undertake political screening of students who enter the seminary, and again over graduates. Government approval for ordination is required and a number of seminary graduates have not yet received that approval. (At the same time, we heard several reports that students who declared themselves “Christian” on their identity cards found it very difficult to get entrance to universities, which are, of course, all government operated.)

In proportion to their share of the population the Buddhists are even worse off. The largest training center for priests and nuns is Van Hanh Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, with only 60 students, half female. This is to be seen against a total of 16,000 priests (or monks) in the entire country, a decline from 1975. The Protestants, on the other hand, have no seminary at all. Existing ones were closed after 1975 and no approval has been given since for one to open. The State Religion Commission explained that the Protestants “had enough pastors.”

These tight controls on the education of future religious leadership may be in the minds of some government officials part of a long term strategy to smother religion—which, in the light of the church’s history seems a most unlikely prospect. Ironically the consequence of this policy has been to insure the continued dominance of the pre-1975 church leaders. Hopefully a recognition of that fact alone will lead to a relaxation of policy in this area.

In any case, even if the United Church is able to play a more prominent role than it has in the past in providing humanitarian assistance to Vietnam and in advising the Canadian government to strengthen ties with that country, as I would hope that it will, this does not lessen the need to support Christian brothers abroad by dialoging with a government which is placing improper restrictions on religious activity. In fact, it is only when at the same time we are being of positive assistance to Vietnam that such a dialog could ever hope to have a fruitful outcome. It is also important that while we urge the Canadian government to accentuate the positive in expanding links with Vietnam, we as a Church do not ignore the negative, or fail to deal with it.

The Kampuchean Question

My ability to comment on this issue is, of course, limited by collapse at the last minute of the planned visit to Kampuchea. But in addition to considerable reading on the issue, we did meet people in both Vietnam and Bangkok who broadened our understanding of the question. In Hanoi we talked with Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien, who had accompanied Foreign Minister Thach on his most recent visit to Bangkok; with the First Secretary of the Australian Embassy; and with Hoang Tung, spokesman for the Party Central Committee; with Bill Janzen I also talked to Mr. Phan Binh, director of the Institute of International Affairs attached to the Foreign Ministry. In Saigon we got some historical perspective in talking with Pham Van Ba, former Vietnamese ambassador to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. In Bangkok we visited the Canadian Embassy; the whole delegation met Tatsuro Kunugi the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Kampuchea before going to Vietnam, and I had a lengthy conversation with him on return as well. (We were good friends at Cornell.) We also had a very useful conversation on Thai policy with a high ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thanks to the efforts of Luise Buhler of the MCC I had a chance to meet personally with two leaders of the anti-Phnom Penh coalition: Boun Say, Minister of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (representing Son Sann’s Khmer People’s National Liberation Front) and Prince Ranarith, son of Prince Sihanouk and now the day-to-day leader of Sihanouk’s group, the second non-Communist faction in the tripartite CGDK. (I made no attempt to meet a representative of Pol Pot.)

The Kampuchean question has undoubtedly been the most crucial element in Canada-Vietnam relations since the Vietnamese invasion in 1978-79. Canada stopped bilateral aid, cut out matching grants to NGOs, and allowed trade to nearly sputter to a stop. This brought Canadian policy in line with the announced positions of the US, Japan and ASEAN countries, who all believed it was necessary to punish Vietnam for her gross violation of the Kampuchean right of self-determination, hoping that this punishment would also bring leverage for policy change. At the same time Canada joined ASEAN in supporting at the UN the claims of a fragile and improbable coalition of the Khmer Rouge butchers and anti-Communist groups under Sihanouk and Son Sann.

But the Khmer Rouge remains as the only major armed force fighting the Vietnamese and their Khmer allies, because of substantial Chinese military aid which comes by way of Thailand. Due to Pol Pot’s unprecedented bloodthirstiness, he is still intensely feared by most Khmer. Thus the continuation of a credible armed threat by the Khmer Rouge is the main—perhaps the only—source of legitimacy among the Khmer for a continued Vietnamese military presence in their country.

Without getting into a long treatise on the complexities of the Kampuchean tragedy, there are nevertheless some essential points that need to be highlighted. Most ASEAN spokesmen claim to believe time is on their side, that eventually Vietnam will find present policy too costly, and agree to withdraw-though privately some are not at all confident of this assessment. Well-informed observers have nevertheless pointed out that Thailand has a number of reasons for accepting the status quo, showing no eagerness for negotiated settlement. One thing is sure, the non-Communist members of the CGDK, even though caught by great power politics in their present awkward alliance, do not believe that time is on their side. They have an exaggerated notion, in fact, of the degree to which Vietnam has already accomplished economic and cultural integration of Kampuchea. But even if their reports are only partly true, they are probably accurate in assuming that Vietnamese military withdrawal, if completed by 1990 as promised, will still permit dominant political influence, or perhaps even control, from Hanoi. A few hundred thousand Vietnamese do seem to have settled in Kampuchea since 1979 and are playing an increasingly important economic role—in some sense a replay of conditions under the French protectorate at the turn of the century. In fact, the only realistic prognosis would seem to be that Vietnam will exercise dominant influence, or perhaps control, for the forseeable future. No other power has both the capability and determination to exert such influence, not even China, if one judges by the events of the last two years. The only way that Kampuchean autonomy could increase would be a result of the ferment of Khmer nationalism, but, in turn, this could turn against the Vietnamese only if other foreign threats subside.

In any case, a concerted policy of Western & ASEAN economic pressure on Vietnam is not working, partly because it is not consistently practiced.

Japan, which diplomatically backs ASEAN all the way, now enjoys more than half of Vietnamese trade with non-Communist countries. And Singapore, the most hawkish of ASEAN states, is since last year the fastest growing trading partner of Vietnam! Only the US adheres officially to a trade embargo, and even some US companies—whose spare parts are so desperately needed in Vietnam—appear to be selling through intermediaries. Anyway, in the last few years the Vietnamese economy has been growing, albeit at a slower rate than it might have with greater links to the West. But any growth would appear to be a failure for a Western policy of economic strangulation. The cost for Vietnam, of course, has been increasing reliance on Soviet aid. Vietnam has shown its eagerness for closer economic ties with the West in a number of ways, most recently in the preparation of a draft law on foreign investment!

I share the view of other members of our delegation that Canada could play a much more constructive peacemaking role—most consistent with our own diplomatic tradition — if we were to follow the Australian lead and temper our ‘stick’ with some ‘carrots’. Although in deference to ASEAN Australia has not resumed bilateral economic aid, it has in the last two years provided matching grants for NGOs working in Vietnam, increased funds for international agencies with Vietnam projects and actively promoted trade. Some funds have also been allocated to facilitate cultural exchanges. I believe that Australia has correctly concluded that in the long run Vietnamese policy in Kampuchea, and elsewhere, will soften only insofar as relations with the West are seen as beneficial and Western policy is not viewed as a threat. Those who have labeled Australia’s modest efforts at reconciliation a “failure” are clearly premature; Britain herself sent a parliamentary delegation to Vietnam last month with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and may be ready to follow the Australian path. India, of course, already has close ties with Vietnam. A wider Commonwealth effort would certainly be most likely to have an impact. Canada, rather than continuing a moderately negative and quite ineffectual stance, should capitalize on the most positive Vietnamese statement of the last year, the promise to withdraw troops from Kampuchea by 1990. With the cooperation of Commonwealth partners, Canada should seek to initiate an international conference that would establish the mechanisms to monitor such a withdrawal, and at the same time mobilize pressure on China to scale down its military aid to Pol Pot, with a commitment to phase it out when the Vietnamese completed their withdrawal. Neither act of disengagement can take place without being linked to the other. And if Canada’s primary concern is for the welfare of the Khmer people and the peace and stability of the region, emphasis on this parallel disengagement must be primary.

Canadian Aid and Exchanges

The estimates of Vietnam’s per capita GNP, making her one of the poorest countries in Asia, is evidence enough of the human need for assistance. I would not at this point, however, suggest that Canada go farther than Australia in reinstituting bilateral government to government aid. Let that remain a carrot to reward completion of the announced withdrawal from Kampuchea. But that leaves ample room, without straining the overall aid budget, for several million dollars next year in NGO matching funds and aid to the Vietnam projects of international agencies, generosity which might well extend to Kampuchea itself.

The very worthy and, on the whole, very well administered projects of the Mennonite Central Committee and the Canadian Friends Service Committee provide appropriate models for expanded Canadian effort. For instance, we visited a village in Vinh Phu province which was benefitting from an MCC drainage project. By providing the relatively small foreign exchange requirements for the construction of a large pumping station, nearly 700 hectares in three villages would be protected from the frequent flooding that they experienced in the past and enabled to grow two or even three crops on land that had never before yielded more than one. As indication of the recognition of benefit by the farmers in the three villages, nearly 3000 persons gave unpaid labor to help build the dikes and canals that were necessary to make the pumping station operate as planned.

Though understaffed and underequipped (with filing cabinets, for instance), AidRecep, the government agency through which all Western aid is channeled appears to be making a sincere effort to supervise the effective implementation of projects. We did not hear specific reports of corruption in NGO aid implementation—though the possibility cannot be ruled out. Furthermore, in suggesting possible future projects AidRecep seemed to be guided by the principle of maximum benefit for local communities with the smallest possible foreign exchange contribution. AidRecep’s attention also to the criteria of “appropriate technology” was well-received by our delegation, but we learned later that this was, at least in part, the consequence of an “education program” over the past few years by Louise Buhler, MCC. Among the projects suggested were apiculture, which takes little space and adds an important nutritional supplement; equipping a workshop to make agricultural hand tools; pilot project on pig feeding; providing of equipment and basic medicines for a primary health care unit, with emphasis on health education; providing equipment to allow relatively large scale processing of native herbs for proven medicinal purposes; as well as other projects in agriculture and nutrition, health care, social welfare and education. The expenditure of less than $10,000 by a Canadian church could have a major impact on the health and welfare of thousands of Vietnamese villagers.

Given the intensity of Vietnamese needs, especially in the areas of health and nutrition, expanded Canadian aid is a necessary part of strengthening ties with Vietnam. However, the initiation of other kinds of exchanges, to which the United Church should at least lend moral support, are also important. Both Australia, and more recently Britain, have sent Parliamentary delegations to better acquaint themselves with the Vietnamese situation. In 1985 the Australians sent three major trade delegations to Vietnam, with government support. Though the base was small, Australian-Vietnamese trade has doubled in the last six months. Clearly Japanese traders regard Vietnam as the country in Asia with the most rapid growth potential in the next decade.

Scholarly exchange is also an area in which Australia is ahead. More than one delegation to Vietnam has already been sent. When I visited the Saigon University of General Studies (read “liberal arts”), I found the Rector, deans and associate deans whom he assembled eager to talk about the possibility of exchanges. That university now has only one exchange program with a Western counterpart, in France, and they appear to be quite pleased with its progress. (Though there seems to be at least as many faculty educated in North America as in France.) Updating of Western-language library collections is a high priority. The possibility of a CIDA-supported institutional linkage arrangement should be explored. Vietnamese intellectuals clearly yearn for greater contact with their counterparts in the West; even government officials note that such contact could be useful for Vietnam in the field of science and technology. A rather modest Canadian effort in this area could be of tremendous benefit to both countries.

Probably the sending of an academic delegation to Vietnam should precede the negotiation of an institutional linkage.


Even though it is only 11 years since Vietnam won its protracted armed struggle for independence and reunification, the moves toward economic liberalization and expanding Western contacts are much more substantial than was true of China at a comparable point in her history. Vietnam, as a much smaller country, has always been more aware of the fact that autarchy is not possible and that the proliferation of international contacts and exchanges brings national benefits.

Nevertheless, the important steps toward individual incentives and the introduction of market forces into economic decision-making may have longer term political consequences that even the leadership does not fully appreciate. The economic pressures for reform are so great that some may underestimate the political side-effects; opponents of the reforms, on the other hand, undoubtedly exaggerate the dangers of political liberalization. Communist Party control will not be lost any more than it has been in China. If domestic reform takes place in the context of greater positive interaction with the West, there is, in any case, a solid basis for hope that both in the areas of human rights and foreign policy there will be steps toward the moderation Canadians believe to be desirable.

Our delegation found Vietnamese in all walks of life very open to greater contact with Canadians. It is in that atmosphere that we should assess future prospects. It seems to me that the United Church of Canada has now both the moral obligation to meet human need and the opportunity for positive influence in areas of our concern. Only through greater involvement of many kinds could it be possible far us to have an impact on human rights policies or on the peaceful settlement of the Kampuchean question.

And, at the same time it acts as a responsible Christian body, the United Church has the potential to provide leadership toward a more constructive national policy in Indochina. I sincerely hope that this is an opportunity that will not be missed. There are, of course, more urgent crises that attract our active concern in other parts of the world, but moments of opportunity are not necessarily associated with intense, headline-grabbing crisis.

Categories Vietnam, Postwar Vietnam