A dark day, paths forward?

For those in the English speaking universe, as you might know I’ve started a blog in Vietnamese called Xin lỗi Ông, which means ‘excuse me sir.’ And I take it as a compliment that the Vietnamese service of the BBC has posted my most recent entry on their site, which concerns the matter of the national flag. I will translate that piece at some point soon… Unfortunately, it is mediocre and times even bad piece that contains some ill-chosen words, reflects some insensitivity, and at times even shows poor logic… On the whole though, I think there are some important ideas but that it is a problematic piece..

Yesterday was a long day indeed. And I chose a strange and in respects ill-suited day to address the issue of the national flag in Viet Nam…Depending on one’s view of these things it was the worst or best day in several years to address the flag issue. More on this in a moment. But why address this lightening rod issue at all?

Since I set up my blog a great many people on social media platforms have sought to reach out to me, and many (actually a small share) display Viet Nam’s former flag, which was/is gold with red stripes… this is the flag that dates back to the Nguyen Dynasty’s last years and which was later claimed by the Republic of Viet Nam. The gold flag with red stripes still flies proudly in many Vietnamese communities around the world, particularly among those who left Viet Nam under difficult circumstances and remain deeply opposed to the continued rule of the Communist Party of Viet Nam, which was established in the 1920s, has ruled the north of Viet Nam since the 40s and 50s and the entire country since 1975.The flag chosen by the CPV, which is red with a gold star, is a creation of that Party and is associated with that Party’s rule.

Many people in Viet Nam, within and outside the Party, are of an opinion that I happen to share earnestly, that Viet Nam needs real reform in its social institutions, particularly, though not exclusively, in its political institutions. It may be that by saying this I will no longer be welcome in Viet Nam, which would be a pity, as I have and continue to devote myself to addressing some of the key issues that country faces, particularly with respect to its welfare institutions, including education, health, and social protection. I also wish to state through my experiences I know innumerable bright, committed people with longstanding ties to the party or who remain in the party. They are human beings with aspirations and worries like us all, who find themselves working within flawed institutions. As we might expect, many of them are also deeply attached to flags.

Flags, like it or not, are powerful political symbols. My modest if in some respects clumsy contention was that flags can also be an encumbrance.

My post advises Vietnamese to move on from waving opposing flags, to not remain prisoners of history, and get on with the business of pushing forward with real reforms…I suppose an implicit assumption is that all Vietnamese have role to play in this process and that pressure, in favor of reforms, could be brought to bear on party leadership both within and outside the party ranks. This is not an original position. Just within the last few months a powerful reform coalition has coalesced around a call for fundamental reforms. I somehow am (perhaps naively) of the opinion that all Vietnamese (if perhaps not all those living permanently outside the country) have a potentially constructive role to play, even if opportunities for bringing constructive pressure to bear are at present small.

HOWEVER…on the same day I chose to suggest that Viet Nam needs to move beyond flag waving, Viet Nam’s courts sentenced two young people to lengthy prison sentences for, you guessed it, displaying the yellow striped flag.

Clearly, yesterday was a big step back for Viet Nam. Yet comes in the context of remarkable changes in the the country’s political culture (if not formal institutions)… I began the Vietnamese piece by recalling that just a few days ago I stated (in another piece published in the South China Morning Post that it was “newly conceivable” that real political change in Viet Nam could occur within five years. I concluded yesterday’s piece by stating that, the harsh prison terms handed down notwithstanding, historical experiences sometimes shows that sad moments can turn into sources of inspiration. The mourning of Phan Tru Chinh’s death in 1926 stands out as a particularly noteworthy example.

Actually, despite yesterday’s undeniably regrettable turn, and without making foolish predictions, I do believe politically Viet Nam is seeing an important and historic shift owing to pressures from within and outside the party state apparatus. In the Vietnamese post I probably, perhaps even definitely, made some insensitive, even stupid statements… advising somewhat foolishly that the current flag is ‘pretty’ enough (I did not mean beautiful) and simple… exactly what kind of reaction did I expect.

So to all of the people (particularly those fond of the gold flag with the red stripes) who are furious with me for saying let the flag issue rest for now, I certainly hear you! And I do regret the offense I have caused. I am also, let me make clear, not a puppet, I have my own voice, thank you. And if I erred in my arguments I accept that. Thank you for your kind and not-so-kind comments. I have learned important things from some if not all of those posts. At the very least, I have learned that my knowledge of “Bên Kia” (the “other side”) is limited indeed. Which is not surprising as I have spend a great deal of time working with various state agencies in Viet Nam and virtually no time conducting research in overseas Vietnamese communities.

Perhaps someday Viet Nam will have a flag everyone can embrace. Alas they day has not yet come. Most Vietnamese – even many within the party, can agree that after 1975 Viet Nam’s ruling party did not do the best job in the world in facilitating national reconciliation. For evidence of this just look at the two youth locked up yesterday or the raging discussion on my Vietnamese blog. There remain deep wounds that have in many respects not sufficiently healed.This is regrettable but it is objectively the case.

Viet Nam holds enormous promise. The sooner the country can address its institutional inadequacies the faster that can occur. I do believe that might happen faster if Vietnamese would focus on the institutions first and worry about the flag later.

My hope is that in the years ahead the behavior of the state apparatus will see clear changes. South Korea is an admirable model. Yet Viet Nam has yet to find its Kim Dae Jung, to go for perhaps a more inspiring example than I cited in the blog entry in question.  Of course individual such as this are important. But change of the sort I have in mind can occur if wide swathes of Vietnamese society become politically engaged. And yes, set the flags aside. Naive? Perhaps. I’ve been accused very recently of far worse things.



One thought on “A dark day, paths forward?

  1. Dear Johnathan,
    I wish to write to you regarding the above article but I do not have your email address. Please drop me a note on …….so that I can write to you, it’s rather long email,
    Thanks and regards,
    BTW. We are welcoming you to have a Vietnamese language blog.

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