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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 17, 2007
First food, then democracy for Vietnam
By Tam Pham

I, like many Vietnamese-Americans, closely followed Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet's historic visit to the United States this past June. Like many of my people, images of oppression, suppression of human and religious rights, and a host of other unpleasant images typically associated with a dictatorial regime incessantly crept up inside my mind as the Vietnamese president's two-week visit slowly unfolded.

Triet is the first head of state to visit the US from communist

Vietnam. To most Vietnamese-Americans, he is the embodiment of a brutal political regime that has robbed Vietnam of a promising and bright future since that horrific day when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. When Triet's visit finally took him to California (my state), many of my nearly 2 million compatriots took to the streets to protest.

The theatrical chanting of "Da dao cong sang" (down with communism) and huge banners with such phrases as "Nhan quyen va tu do cho Vietnam" (democracy and freedom for Vietnam) filled the streets of major Vietnamese-American communities in California cities such as Westminster and San Jose and in Houston, Texas. I have no doubt that most who protested had the best interests and priorities of the Vietnamese people in mind. However, as I continued to watch all of this unfold onscreen, I am not sure whether my compatriots really remembered what our people back in Vietnam have long sought anymore.

Having come to this country at the age of eight, I can still vividly remember the tragic stories of many individuals whose never-ending flow of tears soaked my birth country and took countless dreams and hopes away from my people. Each morning as I walked to school in Vietnam, I saw kids - some were younger and some were older than me - roam the streets begging for food from passers-by.

On a good day, if these kids were lucky, they would get leftover meals enough to get them through the day. But typically, what food they got was just barely enough to get them through a meal. These kids, most of whom were emaciated to the point where their rib cages were visible, had been abandoned by their parents since birth and, except maybe the overhang of a building that perhaps could keep them relatively dry when the unpredictable monsoon rain fell, had no place they could call home.

There was also that family a few blocks down the mud-filled street whose house was made of bamboo and dried palm branches that, I remember, would violently squeal and shake when a storm passed by. Those unfortunates who inhabited that ramshackle house (if one could call it a house) and the kids I met as I walked to school every day not only represented the typical lives of scores of millions of Vietnamese prior to my departure, but also human tragedy at its worst.

Fifteen years later, despite Vietnam's rapid and miraculous (yet infantile) economic turnaround, not much has changed. Today, on a five-minute tour of cities like Saigon and their surrounding suburbs it is the norm to encounter examples of these kind of human tragedies on the most sorrowful scale. According to the most recent figure published by the United Nations in its 2005 report on international poverty, it is estimated that about 24.1% of Vietnam's 85 million people (21 million) live below the international poverty line, which is defined as people who live with less than US$1.08 a day.

This figure, which many experts say is a conservative one, does not include people who live at or near the poverty line. When factoring in people who live below, at, or near the international poverty line, it can be reasonably estimated that the total number of Vietnamese who could barely survive at the sustenance level in any given day could potentially be many millions more than the 21-million figure officially reported by the UN.

When I watched the protests unfold onscreen in the US, I slowly forced myself to step into the shoes of people back in my homeland and imagine what it would be like to be forced to abandon your own child because of economic constraints, or to face not knowing where your family's next meal will come from.

If I were forced to abandon my own child - my very own flesh and blood - on the street, would I - and the countless others with the same or different situations but similar tragic outcomes - have any energy or will left (however slight this might be) to think about and desire what my overseas counterparts were thinking and desiring as they continued their chants of "Nhan quyen va tu do cho Vietnam"?

Or if, as a parent, I didn't know where my family's next meal would come from, would I have any mental capacity left to desire the shift that my overseas counterparts were desiring as they continued pressing for rapid political change? When afflicted by these dilemmas I must respectfully ask my compatriots whether they honestly believe that overnight political change would somehow magically help put food on the tables of millions of Vietnamese who urgently and desperately need it.

I must also respectfully ask my compatriots, when afflicted by these dilemmas, whether they really believe that achieving "democracy" and "freedom" as quickly as possible in Vietnam would somehow magically help solve basic survival problems like the ones encountered by countless of millions of our people day in and day out.

Although I am among the very fortunate who never lived through anything similar to the heartbreaking, yet typical, survival dilemmas inflicted on millions of Vietnamese every day, it takes little effort to understand the very basic survival premise that underlies these most basic yet tragic human dilemmas. That is: an individual's most basic necessities to live sufficiently must be met first for that individual to begin thinking about other secondary matters such as political change. One must first walk before he can run. As selfish as it may sound, it is true that one must be able to survive first before one can help another survive.

Like most Vietnamese-Americans who have the privilege of living in this free and open society and have in some way taken it for granted, in no way do I advocate or trivialize the importance of having a free and democratic society.

Far from it. I believe that, although with all of its accompanying flaws, America's constitutional democracy is among the handful of forms of government that are sufficiently suited to meet the diverse and varied needs of any mass society. However, when given a choice between concentrating on getting the most basic needs to survive and concentrating on achieving political change without knowing where your next meal will come from, I can confidently say that most individuals would choose the former rather than the latter.

This line of logic applies to present-day Vietnam. As Vietnamese-Americans, most of us have somehow lost touch with the reality in Vietnam. It appears that most of my compatriots who took part in the various protests across the US during Triet's visit may have forgotten what the scores of millions of our people back home have dreamed of since time immemorial.

Yes, it is important that one day Vietnam becomes a flowering democracy where the most basic human rights are protected. However, what is currently and urgently more important is turning every Vietnamese's long-sought dream of having a bowl of rice on the table for every meal into a reality.

Tam Pham  has a bachelor of arts degree in modern Chinese history from the University of California-Berkeley.

(Copyright 2007 Tam Pham.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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