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Vietnam: What Was It All About?

14 January 2011
Vietnam: What Was It All About?
By Gwynne Dyer

    Communist Party congresses are generally tedious events, and the eleventh congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (12-17 January) is no exception. The changes in personnel at the top are decided by the elite inner circle of the Party long before the congress opens, and the rhetoric is in the same wooden language that Communists always use.

    The nation must “renew the growth model and restructure the economy to speed up industrialisation and modernisation with fast and sustainable development,” outgoing Party leader Nong Duc Manh told the congress on its opening day. “The strategy is to strive towards 2020 so that our country will basically become an industrialised nation.” Well, that’s a novel approach, isn’t it?

    The talk is all about fighting inflation and corruption (there’s quite a lot of both those things in Vietnam), while maintaining a high economic growth rate (6.8 percent last year). Ordinary people are struggling to maintain their standard of living (although they are far better off than they were twenty or forty years ago), and resent being bossed around by the Communist elite – but they feel helpless to do anything about it.

    In other words, it’s not all that different from the situation in, say, Thailand, just a little to the west, apart from the fact that  the economic elite in Vietnam are Communist Party members and their businessman cronies.

    Thailand is technically a democracy, but if you are a rural “red shirt” in Thailand your views on those in power will be little different from those that many Vietnamese peasants privately hold about the Communist Party. It’s a more traditional elite in Thailand, but it clings to power just as tightly, and rewards itself even more lavishly.

    So what was it all about, then? Why was there a 15-year war in Vietnam (1960-75) that killed 58,000 American soldiers, and between one and three million Vietnamese? The US government insisted at the time that it was about stopping Communist expansionism in Vietnam before it swept through all of South-East Asia. The Communists, who controlled North Vietnam, said it was only about reuniting the country. Who was right?

    In retrospect, it’s clear that the Communists were telling the truth. They won the war in Vietnam despite all the efforts of the United States, but the “domino effect” in the rest of South-East Asia never happened. In fact, the Vietnamese Communists never even tried to knock the dominoes over.

    Apart from invading Cambodia in 1978 to drive the Khmer Rouge, a much nastier group of Communists, from power, Communist-ruled Vietnam has never sent troops abroad or interfered in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. After a decade all the Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia, and even there Hanoi has virtually no influence today.

     As for some vast Communist plot to overrun South-East Asia, it was never more than a fantasy. Indeed, within four years of uniting Vietnam, the Communist regime in Hanoi was at war with Communist China over a border dispute. In a perfect world, most people would probably prefer to spare their country the burden of a generation of Communist rule, but Vietnam is not a disaster, and it is no threat to anyone else.

    So, once again, what was the war about? How did three American presidents allow themselves to be misled into fighting such a pointless, unwinnable war? Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all intelligent men, and Eisenhower also had much experience at the highest level of military and diplomatic decision-making.

    To varying degrees, they all fell for a strategic vision of the world that was mere fantasy, driven by ideology. Or rather, in Eisenhower’s case and to some extent also in Kennedy’s, they found it politically impossible to resist the demands of those who did live fully within that fantasy. So American foreign policy had little connection with reality for several decades, and a lot of people died.

    The point is that this sort of thing happens all the time. The “war on terror” now is functionally almost indistinguishable from the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s and 1960s, although the actual wars involve much lower levels of casualties. For Vietnam in 1960, read Iraq in 2003 – or, perhaps, Iran the day after tomorrow.

    It doesn’t only happen to Americans, of course. The various British invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century were driven by the conviction that the rapacious Russians wanted to seize Britain’s Indian empire, although the thought hadn’t even occurred to the Russians. Germans spent the decade before the First World War worried that they were being “encircled” by the other great powers.

    But these delusions mainly afflict the great powers, because weaker countries cannot afford such expensive follies. They have to deal with reality as it is – which is why the Vietnamese Communists, for example, never dreamed of trying to spread their faith across the rest of the region. They were and are pragmatic people with purely local ambitions, so the resolutions of the 11th Party Congress are of little interest to anybody else.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“The nation..it”; and “As for…else”)

If using after 17 January, change the verbs in the first paragraph to the past tense.

Thailand: A Close Call

18 May 2010

Thailand: A Close Call

By Gwynne Dyer

“The government does not want to negotiate, so I think many more people will die,” said “redshirt” leader Sean Boonpracong in Bangkok on Monday. “This will end as our Tienanmen Square.” Mercifully, it didn’t.

The danger was real enough. If the army had used all the force it had available in trying to clear the thousands of protesters out of central Bangkok, which they had occupied since mid-March, there would have been a massacre. And if hundreds of poor peasants (for that’s what most of them were) had been killed by the army, then it would have been trapped in power permanently.

If you commit a massacre, you HAVE to stay in power. Relinquish it, and in a year or two you will be facing a court charged with heinous crimes. So Thai democracy was at stake in Bangkok this week in a most fundamental way. Fortunately, the army used much less force than it might have when it cleared the area on Wednesday (only six people killed), and the protest leaders avoided further bloodshed by surrendering.

One is tempted to say that this demonstrates the basic common sense of Thais, except that we have just had such vivid demonstrations of unreason from the very same people.

Two weeks ago Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had agreed to the protesters’ key demand: new elections this year. Instead of closing the deal, the protesters insisted that Abhisit also order the arrest of his deputy prime minister for having ordered an earlier attack on their encampment in which about 24 people were killed.

Abhisit refused, of course – and then cancelled his offer of elections this year as well. That is why another forty people were killed in the past two weeks, and why democracy in Thailand ended up in real danger. The obstinacy of both sides needlessly prolonged a confrontation that might have ended in much blood. It was more by good luck than by good judgment that the Thais got through this phase of the crisis without mass killing.

But there was a lot of killing: sixty-odd dead over a period of weeks, almost all of them protesters shot by the army, is certainly not a success story. The Thais went right to the brink of civil war over the past two months, and the crisis is not over. Abhisit has withdrawn his promise of elections this year, and shows no sign of reinstating it.

The “redshirts” who feel cheated by the political manipulations that put Abhisit in power have retreated from central Bangkok, but they are still very angry and they certainly predominate in northern and north-eastern Thailand, the country’s rural heartland. They could seize control of much of it tomorrow, if they chose to do so.

The roots of this crisis are in the military coup of 2006, when the Thai army overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, an ex-policeman who became a telecommunications billionaire, was not an ideal prime minister: his “war on drugs” involved thousands of illegal killings of dealers and addicts, and his response to unrest in the Muslim-majority far south was clumsy and brutal. But he endeared himself to Thailand’s poor.

Thailand has been a democracy since 1992, but Thaksin was the first politician to appeal directly to the interests of the rural poor rather than just bribing their local village headmen to deliver their votes. He promised them debt relief, cheap loans, better health care, and he delivered – but that was not how the urban elite wanted their tax money spent.

A “yellowshirt” movement seized control of the streets of Bangkok, seeking Thaksin’s removal and demanding curbs on the voting rights of peasants because most rural people were too ignorant to make wise choices. After months of confrontation in the streets, the army took control in 2006, ejecting Thaksin from office – but it was not unequivocally on the side of the “yellowshirts” either.

The soldiers allowed a new election in late 2007 – and Thaksin’s supporters won again, of course. His opponents used the courts to dismiss two prime ministers drawn from the pro-Thaksin party for “conflict of interest” (in one case because the prime minister appeared on a television cooking show), and ultimately simply had the whole party banned and its members ejected from parliament.

The rump of the parliament, cleansed of most representatives of the rural poor, then voted in the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. The “redshirts” started their occupation of central Bangkok two months ago in order to obtain his resignation and a fresh election. They have not changed their demands, nor is there any good reason why they should.

The basic issue in dispute here is whether Thailand is really a democracy or not. If it is, then one way or another the “redshirts” must get their way, for they represent a clear majority of Thais, and they were cheated of the government they chose. But there is no obvious way to get from here to there.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“If…surrendering”; and “But there…reinstating it”)

After Bhumibol

19 October 2009

After Bhumibol

 By Gwynne Dyer

People get long jail sentences in Thailand for criticising the royal family, so the Thai media have been silent on the question of what happens after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But the king is 81 years old and he has been in hospital for a month now, so there are widespread fears that he is dying. Last week the Bangkok stock market fell by 8 percent in a day on rumours that his health is worse than the Palace admits.

Bhumibol has been on the throne for 63 years and he is universally revered. Thailand is three years into the worst political crisis it has seen since it became a more or less democratic country two decades ago, and the king is just about the only unifying and stabilising factor that remains. His death would make matters much worse.

The crisis is the result of democracy. Thailand has become a semi-developed country – average income has risen forty-fold since Bhumibol came to the throne – but most of the population is still rural and quite poor. Their votes used to be bought by powerful local politicians and delivered to whichever urban-based party paid the highest price, but no more.

As the people of the overwhelmingly rural north and north-east acquired more education and sophistication, they started using their votes to back politicians who promised to defend their interests and not just those of the Bangkok-based economic elite. In 2001, they elected a populist politician of humble origins called Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister.

Thaksin had made a fortune in telecommunications, and he probably couldn’t have won the elections if he wasn’t rich. But he did govern in the interests of the poor, and he was re-elected with an increased majority in 2005. It was how you would expect a maturing democracy to work, for the poor always outnumber the rich.

But you would also expect a backlash from the traditional ruling elite, and it came in the form of the People’s Alliance of Democracy (PAD), a yellow-shirted movement that actually aimed to roll back democracy. By provoking confrontations in the streets with Thaksin’s supporters (who took to wearing red shirts), the PAD created a pretext for its allies in the army to seize power in a military coup in 2006. Since then, Thailand has been in permanent crisis.

Thaksin was convicted of corruption in questionable circumstances and now lives in exile. His political party, Thai Rak Thai, was forced to disband after being found guilty of “electoral fraud” by the Constitutional Court, whose impartiality in this case is open to question. However, Thaksin’s supporters remain devoted to him, and when the army allowed Thais to vote again at the end of 2007, a new party that was essentially a continuation of Thai Rak Thai won the election.

The voters had got it wrong again, so the crisis continued. Two successive prime ministers who were standing in for the exiled Thaksin were forced to resign by PAD demonstrations and occupations that included a blockade of both of Bangkok’s airports. The new pro-Thaksin party was also forced to shut down by the Constitutional Court, and late last year a new government was installed that was more to the taste of the yellow-shirts.

The PAD’s urban, middle-class supporters can control the streets of the capital (with some help from the army) and even overthrow governments they don’t like, but they cannot force the rural majority to abandon its own loyalties. The country is dangerously polarised and politically paralysed – and many Thais believe that only King Bhumibol can hold the country together.

Maybe it’s true, although there are suspicions that he actively supported the 2006 coup rather than just acquiescing in it. (Again, that cannot be openly discussed in Thailand. A well-known former journalist, Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison after she suggested in a public speech that the king had backed the coup.) At any rate, the king’s death would greatly deepen the crisis, for his likely successor is not loved.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has led a turbulent personal life, including three marriages. His attitude has probably not been improved by living for 57 years in the shadow of his father. He would be a perfectly serviceable constitutional monarch in normal times, but the Thai people have decided, fairly or unfairly, that they do not like him very much.

Vajiralongkorn is so lacking in the respect that has enabled his father to play a mediating, calming role that there are those who quietly suggest that his sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, might perform the duties of the monarchy better. It’s not impossible. Thai law has been changed to allow women to occupy the throne, and the constitution leaves the final right to designate an heir to the 19-member Privy Council of senior advisors to the king.

They are unlikely to change the succession, but the mere fact that it could happen introduces another element of uncertainty and potential conflict into the equation. Which gives Thais another reason to pray for Bhumibol’s recovery.

The almost daily reports from the Palace on the king’s condition are always upbeat, but there have been references to a “lung inflammation,” which is a delicate way of saying pneumonia. That is potentially a killer in a man of his age, and the worries of the Thai public are justified. Long live the King!


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Thaksin…yellow-shirts”)

Class War in Thailand

15 April 2009

Class War in Thailand

 By Gwynne Dyer

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was humiliated last week when red-shirted protesters overran the summit of Asian leaders that he was hosting and forced him to evacuate them by helicopter, but now he is back in control. The “reds” have been driven off the streets of Bangkok by the army, and the “yellows” who fought them last year have not come out in force either. For the moment, peace has been restored.

It sounds as arcane as the street battles of the blues and greens in Byzantium fifteen centuries ago. It certainly doesn’t sound like modern politics, and indeed it is not like politics in mature democratic countries like France or India. But it is (apart from the coloured t-shirts) a great deal like 19th-century European politics.

Thailand’s democracy is less than 20 years old, and it was the growing Thai middle class that made it happen — just as it was the middle class in European countries that made the revolutions happen there in the 1800s. In both cases, they were doing it for themselves, not for the poor.

As the history of a hundred ancient empires demonstrates, the poor and the downtrodden never launched a democratic revolution. It didn’t occur to them to demand their democratic rights, because they lacked the education and the perspective even to think in those terms. Democracy only got onto the political agenda when a large and literate middle class appeared.

What the middle class were after was mainly political equality, since they were already doing quite nicely economically. But no sooner had they won it than they discovered to their horror that the poor were also infected by this idea of equality. At that point, the newly empowered middle class faced a stark choice.

Either they made a political deal that brought the poor into the system economically, or they lived forever in fear of the day when the angry poor broke into their homes. In Europe, it took most of the 19th century and a good deal of the 20th to come up with a deal that worked, but in the end various versions of the welfare state did the trick.

Most of the former colonial countries inherited the democratic system. They didn’t all make the system work, but at least they knew the rules, including how to get the poor to accept the system. Whereas Thailand, almost uniquely in southern Asia, was never colonised.

In 1992 middle-class Thais, overwhelmingly Bangkok-based, drove the army from power in a non-violent revolution that brought genuine democracy to the country for the first time. It was an exhilarating and long overdue event, but it appears that the Thai middle class really didn’t anticipate what was going to come next.

Give a country a democratic system, and pretty soon the poor will figure out how to use it for their own purposes. Their leader and voice in Thailand was Thaksin Shinawatra, an ex-cop from humble origins who became a telecommunications billionaire. He was a demagogue who cut as many corners in politics as he had in business, but he genuinely did represent the poor, both urban and rural, and they voted for him in their millions.

Thaksin won power in 2001, and began pushing through measures to give the poor access to cheap loans, medical care, and other things that the middle class took for granted. The poor loved him for it, but the urban middle class was appalled: they had lost control of politics, and their money was being spent on ignorant peasants.

Thaksin was overthrown by the army in 2006 and his party banned — but as soon as democracy was restored, the poor voted for his allies and the new party they formed. So the new government also had to be overthrown, a task that was accomplished last year by the yellow-shirted supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

In many ways the PAD is typical of conservative parties seeking to rein in the demands of the poor. It is backed by the army, the senior bureaucracy and the upper middle class, but its street fighters are drawn mostly from the aspiring lower middle class. However, this being Thailand, there is one big difference: the PAD actually wants to take democracy back from the poor.

In the parts of the world that know democracy better, the notion that the demands of the poor can be dealt with simply by disenfranchising them seems crazy — and we have the history to prove it. At the moment, however, it clearly doesn’t sound like a crazy idea to many middle-class Thais.

Really bad outcomes to this impasse are possible, including a return to permanent military rule, although that would now require repression on an almost Burmese scale. But the likelier outcome is that the Thais will find some way out of their current blind alley and back to democratic normality.

The whole history of the past two centuries proves that you have to compromise with the poor. You don’t have to give them all your wealth, but if you want to live in a stable and prosperous country then you do have to share it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 15. (“As the history…appeared”; and “The whole history…share it”)