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Desperation in Vietnam

December 21, 1986

Vietnam's ruling Communist Party has put its old men out to pasture, replacing them with men who, while only slightly less old, may prove to be of more flexible outlook. The retired political chiefs, some of whom were present at the creation of the Vietnamese Communist Party 56 years ago, have been sent on their way with suitable expressions of thanks but also, no doubt, with heartfelt relief. They had presided first over a revolution that eradicated France's colonial rule and later over a war that ultimately and at enormous cost unified a divided land. And then their imaginations failed, and the promise of their revolution gave way to a cruel and sordid reality.

Revolutions, not least the communist variety, have a way of turning out that way. Sometimes--witness China, beginning about 20 years after the triumph of its revolution--the people in power wake up to the fact that things have gone terribly wrong, and set about trying to make them right. Vietnam is a country possessed of considerable resources. Under communist rule, though, everything seems to have broken down, including the basic system for raising and distributing food. With 60 million people, Vietnam is the world's 12th most populous nation--and, thanks to its masters, one of the poorest. By 1983, after eight years of communism, per-capita income had fallen to $245. In neighboring Thailand it is three times as great.

The war disrupted the economy; the communist victory virtually destroyed it. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese--including as many as a half-million ethnic Chinese, the backbone of a productive middle class--fled southern Vietnam, just as two decades earlier a million or more Vietnamese had fled the communist takeover of the north. Tens of thousands of other southerners, among them some of the most skilled and best educated, were killed or imprisoned. Adding to the disruption was the commencement of a program eventually intended to forcibly resettle 10 million people in the countryside. Meanwhile, Vietnam remained at war, sending its army into Cambodia in a costly and futile effort to extend its hegemony over all of Indochina.

Hungry and war-weary, Vietnam now waits to see if its new leaders can bring relief. The majority of those leaders, interestingly enough, are southerners. They are led by Nguyen Van Linh, at age 73 hardly a young Turk but possessing a modest reputation for economic pragmatism gained as the postwar party chief of Ho Chi Minh City, which used to be Saigon. Four years ago hard-liners forced Linh off the ruling politburo. Last year, as shortages of basic supplies increased and inflation intensified, he was brought back.

But if economic reform is in fact Linh's priority, ideology sets the boundaries of what he might do. Little is known of the debates and divisions within Vietnam's ruling circle, except that they exist. If China provides any model, the ideologues aren't likely to let the reformers have an easy time of it. Perhaps, in the end, there won't be any reforms worthy of the name, however great the need; that, too, has happened in communist societies. But even the most dogmatic of Vietnam's leaders should be able to see the failures that have occurred, and even the most rigid among them must sense that desperation demands something new be tried. The shake-up at the top may be the first step.

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