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Clinton in Vietnam: A Dissident's View
With Doan Viet Hoat
Thursday, Nov. 16, 2000; 1 p.m. EST

Doan Viet Hoat, a leading Vietnamese dissident who spent 20 years in prison for criticizing the government. On Thursday, November 16 at 1 p.m. EST, he is online to talk about the importance and the impact of President Clinton's visit to Vietnam.

As a student in South Vietnam in the 1960s, Hoat protested the South Vietnamese government's suppression of Buddhists and was forced to leave the country. He came to the United States and earned a doctorate in education at Florida State University in 1971. He returned to Vietnam and went to work in Van Hanh University. But when North Vietnam took over South Vietnam in 1975, the new authorities embarked on mass arrests of intellectuals. In 1976, Hoat was arrested and spent the next twelve years in jail.

Upon his release in 1998, Hoat began publishing an underground magazine, entitled Freedom Forum. Only months later, he was detained without trial for two years, then in March 1993, sentenced to twenty years in prison for "attempting to overthrow the people's government."

However, Hoat's charismatic temperament won over fellow prisoners and guards alike, who sought his counsel and carried out his letters. Finally, Hoat was sent to the most remote prison in the country, and all prisoners were removed from the cells adjacent to his own. He spent five and a half years in solitary confinement. In September 1998, after intense international pressure, he was released, then exiled.

He now lives in northern Virginia and is a fellow at Catholic University. Hoat was featured in a washingtonpost.com Camera Works "On Assignment" photo gallery.

Submit your questions now or during the Live Online hour.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingonpost.com: To start our discussion I'd like to ask you about the philosophical and spiritual beliefs that have motivated your long career of human rights activism. Can you tell us about the sources of your thinking?

Doan Viet Hoat: I strongly believe in Mankind's dignity and capacity since my youth. I believe that Man is the master of his own ideas and actions, and also is the ultimate aim of these ideas and actions. I also believe that Man, evey body, has the right and the capacity ,(at least potential capacity), to achieve this aim. And no one, no matter how high, how poweful, can take this right and deprive this capacity (or opportunities to develope this capacity) from every other man. These are the motivations for my committment to human rights and freedom for every body. As for Vietnam, I believe that Vietnamese have the right and capacity to pursue a happy, just life as every other human being on earth and no political party, no government has the right to take this away from them.

washingonpost.com: Are there any specific thinkers or religious figures who have inspired you?

Doan Viet Hoat: There are quite a few. Among them are: Buddha, Lao Tsu, Gandhi, Jesus Christ.

Tewksbury,MA: Do you think, by engaging Vietnam, President Clinton might be able to change the course Vietnam has been taking?

Doan Viet Hoat: Positive engagement has helped open Vietnam to the world, and set the first steps toward market economic system. However, until the Presdent's visit, a market economy has not been actually established, and Vietnam is still a closed society, a little bit opened to outside world, but equal opportunity is still closed to the people. Vietnamese communist leaders have not changed the political course they have been taking. We need a genuine renovation, not the reluctant and halfway type of renovation right now --the renovation now aims at sustaining and strengthening the status quo, the authoritarian regime, and not the people's power, opportunity and free choice.

Philadelphia, PA: Can you share with us your strategy of marshalling the support of the international community in demanding democracy for Vietnam?

Doan Viet Hoat: I suggest that we should focus our international campaign on showing to international community and opinion three things: (1) the Vietnamese communist leaders are immoral (violations of human dignity and human rights); (2) they are criminal (hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese are victims of their actions and policies); and (3) they are illigitimate (not elected by the people democratically and with free choice of the people).
To achieve this, we should try to bring our messages to 5 target groups: (1) government (Congress and the administraion, American and other countries); (2) Media; (3) NGOs (our strong collaborators); (4) the academics (campus with students, faculty and scholars); and (5) the public (including churches, labor groups, and business).

Philadelphia, PA: Where do you see the role of religion, specificially Buddhism, in returning democracy to Vietnam?

Doan Viet Hoat: Religion in general and Bhuddism in particular, plays an important role in developing an open, and free civil society in Vietnam due to the tradition of strong spiritual and religious belief in Vietnamese culture. Therefore, religion is the strongest force against any type of dictatorship in general, and communism in particular (due to the latter's anti-religion ideology).


Who do you think has more benefitted more from the trade agreement between both countries: Vietnam or the United States? Why do you think that most Vietnamese-American people (Viet Kieu) did not like this relationship between U.S and Viet Nam?

Doan Viet Hoat: First I do not think that at the present time, most Vietnamese overseas are against bilaterial trede agreement. Five years ago most of them were against closer relationship between the US and Vietnam. Now many of them might still do not like Vietnam-US closer relationship, but many now also realize that this may be the best way to break the closed system, to open Vietnam to the world. I myself I share reasonable concerns of many Vietnam oerseas when we see the US, under President's Clinton's administration, has achieved too little political changes , and even market economy has been etablished in a very slow process, and with much reluctance and resistance by the Politburo. Therefore, I support free trade and positive engagement with the condition that changes in cultural and political areas should go hand in hand with economic changes; The people's rights should not be only economic, and even economic rights cannot be achieved without cultural and political freedoms.

washingonpost.com: What, in retrospect, do you think about the United States' involvement in the war in Vietnam? Americans have gone through a very polarized debate with some saying that war was, in President Reagan's words, "a noble cause." Others have argued that it was the product of "the arrogance of power." What is your view?

Doan Viet Hoat: I think we should judge every thing in its appropriate time and perspectives. The conflict in Vietnam could not be avoided in the historical context of the bipolar Yalta world order. The Soviet Union on one side, and the US, on the other, competed to control the world, and to contain each other. Vietnam, unfortunately, became the battle field for this. As two people, the Vietnamese and Americans did not want this war to happen. But the Vietnamese communist leaders had chosen the communist way, and the US had chosen the non-communist way. The US could not avoid being involved in Vietnam. What we regret, I think, might be the way to deal with the Vietnam problem. The US made a lot of mistakes in dealing with the Vietnamese conflict. Did you need 500,000 men there? I do not think you did. At the same time, did the Vietnamese need to sacrify so much, both time and lives, to achieve independence? I do not think so. The leaders of both sides have made big mistakes. Now is the time for all to learn from the past and to look to the future. For me the best lesson is this: what's right for the leaders might be wrong for the people. The present communist leaders in Vietnam have not learned this lesson from the past. And that's why they are not ready to move to the future.

washingonpost.com: We ran a story the other day saying that President Clinton is admired in Vietnam for avoiding military service in Vietnam. Do you think this feeling is widespread?

Doan Viet Hoat: I would say two things about this. First, it is easier both for President Clinton and for the Vietnamese leaders to meet and to entertain one another because they are not antagonistic out of the past. Second, for the people, more than 60 percent are 30 years and younger. They are not obsessed by the past, but frustrated by the present and oriented to the future. Therefore, they do not have expectations about Mr. Clinton because of his past but about his contribution to a better future of their lives.

washingonpost.com: Read the article: Vietnamese Eager to Welcome Clinton

Washington, DC: Is there still a great divide between the north and the south in Vietnam? Is there a lot of bitterness left over? Are the economic changes benefitting both equally?

Doan Viet Hoat: There is division between the North and the South, but in two different meanings. First, there is division anong the communist party itself. The nothern communists are more conservative, more "communist" (Stalinist) than the southerners. Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) is more open than Hanoi. Second, the south moves to the market economy faster and easier than the North, because before 1975, the South had gone though the first stage of market system (similar to South Korea, Thailand...) Economic changes therefore benefit both differently. The North learn how to work from the market system which they forgot for a long time (since 1954), and so, much inspired with freshness. The South revitalize their past experiences and move forward faster and easier.

Alexandria, VA: Is it only through the lifting of economic sanctions that the US can really asist Vietnam in acheiving a democracy? The US is aware of the human rights violations but without actively engaging the Vietnamese gov't how can real change occur?

Doan Viet Hoat: I do not think the lifting economic sanctions is the only way to democratize Vietnam, but I believe it is a feasible and effective way. The US government is of course aware of human rights violations, and have apllied some pressure to improve the situation. But I think that they have not been strong enough, both with Vietnam and China. I also think that there will be little change or slow changes in human rights issues if the US do not link human rights improvement with free trade and economic aid. Without improbvement in human rights, free trade can hardly take shape, and if it does take shape, will benefit the privileged group of corrupt and incapable officials, and not the people who live in poverty.

washingonpost.com: That's all the time we have for today. Many thanks to our guest Doan Viet Hoat and all who sent in questions. For the latest in world news, bookmark www.washingtonpost.com/world

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