stunned by socialism

You find signs like this - what I can only imagine are socialist propaganda - are all over Vietnam.

It amazes me that 30 years after the Vietnam War ended, this string bean Socialist Republic has picked itself up by its bootstraps and made a mockery of those who once dared to get involved in its business.

Any traveler can’t help but stand in awe at this incredible nation.  Over the past three decades Vietnam has re-established most of its diplomatic relations that all but crumpled and died during and after the war, shuffled up the Human Development Index to sit comfortably at a Medium level, and sparked an economic boom that the rest of us can just gawk at.

We traveled to Vietnam in April ’09 and I was shocked by the transformation since my first trip to the country in 2004.  This time around though (December 09), I was absolutely spellbound – especially coming from Phnom Penh.  It’s less than 300km between Cambodia’s capital and Saigon, but the changes are like night and day.

I think that Vietnam has risen at a more even level than its neighbour.  Mind you, Cambodia’s really only been at peace for about 10-15 years compared to Vietnam’s 30.  Regardless, Vietnam is way more than 10 years past Cambodia.  I don’t know whether its communism or just a different approach to development, but Vietnam takes the cake and is making me think a lot about development practice, NGOs, and war.

Here is what I saw with my own two eyes:

  • not one single lexus (Phnom Penh’s streets are choked with luxury cars)
  • double lane highways and overnight buses
  • a roaring economy and strong export networks to the global market.
  • bustling and busy people
  • no garbage
  • not a single NGO or Aid Organization

I have a hard time seeing what so frightened the world (and America in particular) 40 years ago to dive into the senselessness of the war in Vietnam.  In terms of development – it sure looks like communism has been good to the country.  Or at least, they came to the same conclusion as most of the world, just on their own (in 1986 Vietnam opened its doors to the free market) and became a thriving and growing economy in Asia all by itself.

Saigon is all hustle and bustle.

Of course that doesn’t take into consideration freedom.  Of religion.  Of thinking.  Of association.  Vietnam’s human rights record isn’t too hot.  Religious persecution is common.  And freedom of the press is controlled…Facebook was even blocked on certain computers at the hotels and internet cafes I tried out.  I also don’t think that the purchasing

power of a nation predicates happiness.  I’m certainly not an advocate for materialism and out of control consumerism.

But it has made me think about why us in the West get involved in other people’s business in the first place.  The general consensus is that Vietnam was a failed war.  The USA went home with its tail between its legs, millions of dollars in the hole, and with the looming responsibility of caring for broken and severely disturbed soldiers who experienced the horrors of combat against the fierce and battle-hardened Viet Cong.

Are we going to look back 30 years from now on Iraq and Afghanistan and think the same things I’m thinking now?  I also know that I wish Cambodia would take a few more cues from Vietnam – like spreading the wealth, stronger government controls on foreign investment and development (curbing corruption and all sorts of other evils), and starting to take more responsibility in providing critical social services to its own people (since right now NGOs provide nearly all of the country’s social services).

The question I am now pondering is how to balance Jesus’ command to care for the least of these, while leaving room for each people group’s inherent creativity and without crippling people by creating dependency on foreign aid.

2 thoughts on “stunned by socialism”

  1. I can understand your feelings. I’ve thought the same thing too. Your article is highly inaccurate. Firstly there are hundreds of NGOs in Vietnam. From 1993 through 2004, Vietnam received pledges of US$29 billion of Official Development Assistance. Please refer to this article. Cambodia on the other hand had very little aid from 1975 until the early 1990’s.
    Also you ask, “I have a hard time seeing what so frightened the world (and America in particular) 40 years ago to dive into the senselessness of the war in Vietnam.” Is the Communist expirement in Cambodia enough of a warning to you as to why America was so frightened. Maybe you should read the history of communist China, North Korea, the Soviet Union, German, and all other communist countries in the world. A death toll of 20 million in the Soviet Union the supporters of North Vietnam. The international death toll at the hands ofcommunist purges and famines is something around 50 to 80 million. Read your history books sweetheart.
    You may also want to add the fact that the majority of educated Khmer were executed by the communists. With few universities fully functioning until the 1990’s and few qualified professors to fill the positions it’s hard to recover. Also the Vietnamese have always had a higher work ethic than the Khmers. The French had a phrase that theVietnameseplant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Laotians listen to it grow.
    You are correct that communism has helped clean up social disorder and made a more even balance of prosperity in the country. Pre-war Cambodian society was very similar to Cambodia in 2010. Most peace protesters, communist sympathizers were sympathetic to the Communists when they took over Cambodia. Below is an excerpt of the Khmer Rouge mission in Cambodia. I think you would have gotten along with them as well:
    Food is limited. There are a great many of us. But instead of a few eating their fill while others go to sleep hungry, we share what we have equally. Everyone gets the same amount. That is just. We do the same with our water. That is just. We share equally. No one gets more than anyone else but everyone has something. Everything belongs to us all, like the sky, like the sea. We must prevent anyone helping himself at the cost of others. Everything belongs to us all, like the air and the fruit of the trees. That is just. For far too long we have failed to respect one another. The strong have looked after themselves at the cost of the weak. The children of the rich have inherited their parents’ money and power. The poor have inherited their parents’ debts and ignorance. Everything belongs to us all, but some have taken more than their share. The more they have taken, the more powerful they have become. If we want justice, the rich must stop taking more than their share. If we want no one to go to sleep hungry we must divide the limited food available, not according to strength but equally. The strong must take a step backwards. The weak must take a step forwards. Everything belongs to us all. That is just. We must raise our eyes from ourselves and share between us. We who have must see those who have not. We who have must become better informed. No one stands alone. We must see those who have not. We must be ruled by respect and justice instead of egoism and private appetites. Only when we share equally will no one go to sleep hungry. We must free ourselves from our egoism and built a just society. Food is limited but no one shall go to sleep hungry. All belongs to us all. By Ieng Sary

  2. John. Your comments are duly noted in this mind of mine. I admit I was using a bit of hyperbole in this post – of course I realize there are NGOs working in Vietnam. I work for a Cambodian-based NGO that has an office in Hanoi. What I was trying to communicate is the difference in culture in the two countries. I see Vietnam as more independent than Cambodia. I could be wrong – these perceptions were what I saw across a few short visits in 2009.

    And as far as the war in Vietnam is concerned…I agree that there lists upon lists of reasons to be frightened about communism – remember, I live across the street from Tuol Sleng and am daily reminded of the atrocious murders that took place there. But let’s also learn from our mistakes. The USA lost the war in Vietnam. But within 3 decades it had “won” in other ways – Vietnam opened its markets to the West. I don’t think we can assume that war is the only way to win. And as we reflect on Vietnam and what it is now, we should also be reflecting on Afghanistan and Iraq and the conflicts we (I am from Canada) are involved in and make some wise decisions.

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