The Vietnamese refugees of communism around the world are lately being seriously offended by a research project conducted by a US University purporting to (re)construct on their behalf their identity and place in the diaspora. According to information made available since July 2000 by various individuals and organizations of the Vietnamese communities in the US and Canada, the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass), through its William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences (WJC), is conducting a research project called „(Re)Constructing Identity and Place in the Vietnamese Diaspora.“ The project is being funded over the period 2000-2003 with a Rockefeller fellowship amounting to USD 250,000.
Conspicuously absent from the research team are however the Vietnamese refugees themselves. Beside a US-American Director, the team consists primarily of a Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese, i.e. a Vietnamese living abroad, not to be confounded with refugees), and two researchers coming from communist Vietnam. Furthermore, though ostensibly under the auspices of independent non-political institutions like Umass and the Rockefeller Foundation, the goals of the research program dovetail flagrantly with the policy being actively pursued for more than a decade now by the communist regime in Vietnam.
This policy, a new variant of the policy known as kieu van, which has been made public through Government Decision No. 210/1999 issued in October 1999, aims primarily at wooing the Overseas Vietnamese, trying to align erstwhile communist victims into the rank of docile and amenable Viet kieu, if not effectively then at least in the eyes of the uninformed public, Vietnamese or otherwise. It serves to bring pecuniary and other material benefits to the regime on the one hand and to sap the anti-communist stance of the Overseas Vietnamese community on the other.
Identity and Place
It‘s hard to imagine that the above policy is not known to WJC. Or that WJC deems it not relevant. But indisputably, the identity and place of the Overseas Vietnamese play a central role in the policy. What is then the merit of an academic research program when the sinister interests of the Vietcong from the very start stand in the foreground?
One wonders why the „identity and place“ of the Overseas Vietnamese community need to be (re)constructed at all? Who feels the need to do such thing? And for whom? Is there something wrong with the present identity and place of the Overseas Vietnamese community which bothers WJC?
It must be obvious that nobody but the Vietnamese community itself has the right and the need to define or redefine its identity and place, wherever and for whomever that may be, whenever the circumstances warrant. Imagine that somebody who doesn’t belong to, say Umass or the Rockefeller Foundation, wants to „(re)construct the identity and place“ of these two institutions. Nobody in his right mind would do that. It’s thus hard to find justifiable grounds on which WJC can claim to give itself the right to meddle with the Vietnamese community‘s own affairs.
Even to the most unsuspecting people, the project is clearly serving a political purpose. In the first place, it lends legitimacy to the present dictatorial communist regime in Vietnam. But above all, it gives the Vietcong a favorable podium in the US, enabling them to propagate disinformation and to sow confusions, pitting the uninformed public against the outspoken anti-communist Vietnamese living there at the disadvantage of the latter, who would in all likelihood be downplayed as a radical, dwindling minority with diminishing influence.
The identity of the Vietnamese refugees must be evident to everyone. Owing to the historical and political circumstances, the Vietnamese overseas are predominantly political refugees. They are to a very large extent victims of the communist regime in Vietnam. Most of them have had traumatic experiences with the communists. They had to leave the country, in many cases risking their own lives or long prison terms if the undertaking failed. Or they were allowed to leave the country after having served severe and long prison terms. They are, by the very nature of thing, against the communist regime. Or more to the point, the communist regime is against them.
But circumstances alone do not make an identity. The choice to live in freedom is only one of the many facets of this identity. No less important is the determination to preserve the humanistic cultural and moral values which have been systematically destroyed by the communists.
The refugees constitute the core of the Overseas Vietnamese community and have decisively determined the identity of the diaspora ever since the great exodus advent following the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975. Indeed, after more than a quarter of a century, this strong identity is evident wherever the Vietnamese refugees call their home, as unmistakably attested by, inter alia, the preservation of the yellow flag with three horizontal red stripes, the big protest rally in February 1999 in Orange County in which more than 20,000 people gathered when a shopkeeper posted a communist flag and the picture of Ho Chi Minh in his store, the rallies held every year on every continent on the 30th of April, the day South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975 .... It goes without saying that this identity is a sore reality for the communist regime in Vietnam. All it wants is to supplant this identity.
And what is the relevance of place? In addition to the place in the respective countries in which they live, the Overseas Vietnamese still have a due place vis-à-vis their kin back in Vietnam. That is the message the communists want to convey. To the Overseas Vietnamese themselves, this second place is of little practical relevance. But for the communists, it’s the crux of the matter.
The communists make no secret that they always regard the Vietnamese refugees as renegades. Now they are willing to grant them a place in the Vietnamese entity. As a gesture of reconciliation and forgiveness.
This is of course sheer cynicism. Inasmuch as they did not leave their country voluntarily, the Vietnamese refugees have never renounced their place among the Vietnamese people. The place, as always, still rightfully belongs to them and nobody can take it away. Like any other peoples, the Vietnamese are also attached to their country of origin. That they now want to regain their place in the Vietnamese entity is only a fiction concocted by the communists for their own propaganda purpose.
A Question of Ethics and Morals
No one would have been irritated had the program been initiated and undertaken by private individuals and on their own account. Even by those who openly support the communist regime in Vietnam and/or have negative attitude towards the Overseas Vietnamese. Or even by the communists themselves. At least they cannot be accused of lack of honesty. But this is not the case. The initiators at WJC are supporting the Vietcong, but do it behind the supposedly objective mantle of a US University and a philanthropic organization.
It is unusual that a university or philanthropic institution in the US ever supports a dictatorial regime in such an overt and unmistakable manner. None other regime, whether that of German Nazis, Stalinist East Europeans, Mao or Pol Pot, Marcos or Suharto, has ever enjoyed such a kind treatment. It was rightly seen as against decency, unethical and unmoral. The present communist regime in Vietnam is now an exception to the rule. One has difficulties finding the moral and ethical justifications behind this approach. Indeed, academic freedom is hardly a compelling explanation. For freedom cannot be abstracted from transparency and accountability (in the present context: to the millions of past and present victims of the Vietnamese communist dictatorship), which appear to be sorely missing in this case.
But WJC even goes a step further. They are compromising academic objectivity by hiring researchers coming from communist Vietnam. This is untenable on several counts: researchers in communist countries are tools of the regime, if they are allowed (or can find the wherewithal) to do research at all; they will be alienated from and have at most contacts of sorts with the refugees; needless to say, they have to bend the truth in service of the communist regime. It doesn’t require much imagination to foresee that their job is to deceive the public, presumably trying to portray the Overseas Vietnamese as subdued and submissive who are now inclined to become reconciled with their country of origin, to look away from the past ... 1 In other words, they are no longer against the communist regime and in the process of shedding their old identity (and place) for new ones.
Research and studies of overseas communities of any country which has an overseas community is a legitimate and usual undertaking. Thus, for instance, the Chinese – both the Overseas Chinese on the one hand and Taiwan and mainland China on the other – certainly have the need to do theirs. Or the Turks, with their large community in Germany. But usually, it’s regarded as internal affairs. They can do the job themselves or pay somebody to do the job for them. By contrast, it can be problematic for an independent academic institution to become entangled in the matter. For beyond a limit, in particular when vested political interests are involved, it can no longer be claimed as a purely academic undertaking. Then the political overtones and/or ramifications will easily overshadow the independence and objectivity, which are supposedly the core foundations of an academic institution in a free country.
Through the dubious purposes of the research project and the presence of two communist researchers, Umass is doing nothing less than substantively supporting a dictatorial regime. Thus seen, the undertaking is compromising the credibility of Umass and the Rockefeller Foundation as free and independent institutions.
No straight language possible when the mind is not straight, so goes a Vietnamese saying. The Director of WJC takes great pains to commend the merits of the two communist researchers being hired for the program. Unfortunately, it only shows his deplorable lack of acuity. He further reveals his affected naiveté when he explains the criteria for the selection of scholars for the program: „Each candidate is judged on his or her own merit as a serious and independent scholar.“ 2
That cultural workers in every communist country bend their pens in service of the regime is nothing new. It’s their nature and tradition to distort the truth, most of the time not involuntarily. The Soviet Union had theirs, the communist Chinese have theirs. And of course, the Vietnamese communists have theirs too. Abundantly. Those workers are capable of „turning lies into truth,“ to use the term of the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs.3 Or as Phan Huy Duong, a Vietnamese translator, put it: „People (in Vietnam) are fixed with wooden tongues for half a century now.“ 4
The wooden tongues are still in use in Vietnam. They will soon be brought to US universities. But for how long? Perhaps the following illustration can give us a clue.
From 1927 till 1978, the Soviet regime in Russia had published in three periods the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, called the work of the century. Thousands of people have contributed to this work. But it was actually a colossal work by warped pens: everything written ought to be in strict conformity with the regime‘s line. Small deviations can be very costly for the authors. Some had to pay with their own lives for the mistakes. Among the famous victims, though not having to pay with his life, was the world famous scientist Ivan Pavlov.
Since the advent of Perestroika and Glasnost in the late 1980s and subsequently the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Encyclopedia becomes almost worthless and is since sold in second-hand bookshops. It remains nonetheless a document sui generis, a compact history of knowledge of the Soviet Union, whatever that means.
After more than 70 years under communist rule, the Russians must now do without an encyclopedic work in their own language. They have to be content with the „Great Russian Dictionary“ which was brought hastily to the market by a private publisher. Or with the Britannica (in illegal CDs copies). Or with the „Brockhaus-Efron“ edition of the „Encyclopedic Dictionary“, published in St. Petersburg and Leipzig (Germany) between 1890-1907, a century ago. 5
WJC should not delude itself with too many illusions.
Frankfurt am Main / Germany, October 2000