Societies with histories of trauma and violence and protracted periods of conflict face unique and massive challenges owing to the lasting damage and emotional wounds that comes with war and its aftermaths. In these countries what me might call “the politics of reconciliation” never really ends. What is even more worrisome are contexts in which the politics of reconciliation are suppressed or otherwise not allowed to begin.
This is a common pattern, however. In many countries true efforts at reconciliation are put off for decades. The wounds are sometimes forgotten, but they never really heal. In these countries, of which Vietnam is one example, reconciliation is painful topic that is rarely addressed head on. This owes, in part, to contemporary leaders’ need to maintain their prevailing “winning” account of history and in part the features of political systems that reward “strong” unapologetic winning narratives and punish or discourage magnanimity.
To their credit, many of Vietnam’s recent leaders at various levels of governance have made genuine efforts at reconciliation, whether through gradually relaxing discrimination against families based on their political histories or through efforts to welcome “patriotic” Vietnamese back home in the interest of contributing to Vietnam’s national development and prosperity. Such gestures are encouraging and should be further encouraged.
In my own admittedly limited experiences, the most promising and interesting efforts at reconciliation are those I have observed at the bottom up, at the “grassroots” — whether through small but significant gestures of local officials and citizens in Vietnamese localities or through various civil society gatherings within and especially outside of Vietnam focused on reconciliation themes.
In 1999 I experienced this sort of “small scale” reconciliation in the rural districts of Quang Nam. In 2014, in Paris, I experienced it in another form, in a meeting on reconciliation of Vietnamese citizens of Vietnam and France. In both instances, people with histories of pain and division came together to share their perspectives on their different and common concerns. There was not winning or losing side, only a Vietnamese side in search for a better future.
Perhaps owing to the persistence of tensions, reconciliation in Vietnam to this day is rarely discussed in a bold or imaginative way. I remember my sense of disappointment five years ago, when acting Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung — a political figure with no shortage of problems but also with rare eloquence — delivered a speech that hinted but mostly failed at dramatically pushing forward the reconciliation agenda. In the current context, my sense is that most Vietnamese still yearn for the day when true reconciliation can occur, but are not expecting it any time soon.
Whether “true reconciliation” can be defined is doubtful. But ultimately it would appear to entail a spirit of inclusiveness and a pluralist framework that the current political moment appears still deeply resistant to granting. As a foreigner it is not my role to “tell Vietnam” what to do with its political system.
But as an observer of Vietnam and of instances of efforts at overcoming traumas in other context it seems reconciliation requires a combination of elements still somewhat underdeveloped in Vietnam, including the development of new perspectives on the past, persistent efforts at the grassroots, and magnanimous political leaders with the both political capital and political courage needed to break with the past and to move the political establishment in a new direction.
Today, Vietnam is facing development challenges that are both exciting and formidable. And it is facing grave threats to its national security and sovereignty. Vietnam’s ecological crisis is a further challenge that must be addressed urgently and decisively.
In this context, there is no doubt that Vietnam stands to benefit from re-energized efforts at reconciliation. Whether generations that currently hold power and influence in Vietnam and members of Vietnam’s patriotic diaspora can muster the vision and courage and imagination that is required to move forward on reconciliation is another matter. For the time being it would seem that small scale acts of reconciliation by enterprising Vietnamese citizens at home and abroad will remain the focus of efforts at reconciliation until such time as genuine institutional reforms can open the space and instil the confidence that a broader and deeper process of reconciliation in Vietnam would appear to require.
Vietnam’s development today suggests the country will continue to grow economically. Vietnam’s performance in battling Covid-19 suggest the country, its state, and society, is capable of addressing large scale threats. No doubt efforts at reconciliation represent a different but not less challenging undertaking. My own belief is that, looking beyond the covid pandemic, the quality, pace, and scope of Vietnam’s development can be enhanced by bringing the full capabilities of all Vietnamese people to bear on the country’s development. If reconciliation can facilitate movement in this direction it should be embraced with new energy. It is likely no great exaggeration to state that Vietnam’s independence, security, civility, and prosperity are all at stake.