Some of you might be aware of the publication of Bên thắng cuộc (The Winning Side), a two-volume book by Huy Duc, a well-known former journalist in Vietnam. In this three-part series, diaCRITICS provides three different views on the significance of The Winning Side, by the author himself, by Nguyễn Vạn Phú, managing editor of the Saigon Times, and Long Le, Director of International Initiatives for Global Studies at the University of Houston. Here is the first substantial review of the book in English, written by Nguyễn Vạn Phú, a managing editor of Saigon Times Group.
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By Nguyễn Vạn Phú
For those who expect to find dirty secrets revealed by Huy Duc in his controversial book “The Winning Side” (Ben Thang Cuoc, Vol. I Liberation, Vol. II Power Play, Osinbook 2012), they are in for some big disappointment. Although the book canvases a long period full of turbulence in post-war Vietnam from 1975 until the present day, touching upon the lives of communist leaders with personal interviews and extracts from published and unpublished memoirs, it does not contain juicy anecdotes that the press can quote as in the case of other biographies. Except, maybe, for the American readers.
Some Americans would be astonished to know that the boat people phenomenon with thousands of people dying on their way to seek freedom on flimsy boats in the 1980s and 1990s was in fact a tragedy orchestrated by the Vietnam authorities. “The Winning Side” tells the story of people paying the local authorities, who acted on instructions from the highest authorities, to collect their gold and let them go. They even built boats for well paying clients. But for many Vietnamese, it is just another well-known secret.
Or American readers would be highly amused to learn that Prime Minister Phan Van Khai when receiving President Clinton in Hanoi never smiled and offered only a loose handshake. When asked by his aide, Khai said he couldn’t smile because the Politburo had previously come to a consensus and told him not to.
Such anecdotes aside, the book is a revelation of sorts.
Telling the stories of how Vietnamese leaders dealt with social and economic issues after the war, Huy Duc manages to paint the true face of Vietnamese politics: communists who defended their tenets and not the people’s well-being, destroying the fabric of normal society when they confiscated property from Southern businesspeople, forced hundreds of thousands of city people to “new economic zones” in rural areas, and took land from farmers to group them into unproductive cooperatives. Only when the country was on the brink of collapse did the same officials gradually allow people to work and live normally in what they called a “renovation policy” (doi moi) and claimed it as their own revolutionary victory. Even then, whenever someone or something threatened their rule, they lashed out unmercifully: Tran Xuan Bach, a Politburo member who advocated pluralism in the early 1990s, was deposed and Vo Nguyen Giap, the war hero, was neutralized, his involvement in an alleged coup d’etat before the seventh party congress investigated.
The author successfully maintains a poker face when describing major events in Vietnam throughout the three decades after the war, but even casual readers cannot miss the message he put behind those seemingly objective words. Vietnam missed many chances to follow a normal development path, including reconciliation with former foes. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnam’s army officers were put in “re-education camps,” discrimination and hardship forced millions of people to flee the country by boat, and sheer stubbornness prevented Vietnam from normalizing relations with the U.S. sooner than it did. Socialist tenets coupled with vested interests sustained the establishment and expansion of the state-owned enterprises – the white elephants of Vietnam’s economy.
In the second volume, Huy Duc describes how the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe forced Vietnam to open its economy while also shifting allegiance to China – its former foe in a brief border war in 1979. Domestically, the power play among the three highest ranking leaders, Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, President Le Duc Anh and communist party General Secretary Do Muoi, who later became the three senior advisors to the communist party’s central committee, spread throughout a decade of “doi moi”. Huy Duc called it “tripartite separation of power”, which slowed down the pace of renovation, but at the same time limited the abuse of power. This sort of “separation of power” was later abolished and communist Vietnam started in earnest to get rich by any means, including corruption.
“The Winning Side” caused quite a stir, both in Vietnam and among the Vietnamese communities overseas. It received both praise and harsh criticism: the Vietnam war caused huge rifts in the nation’s identity, forcing people to take sides even in the simplest cases. It is ironic that while the mainstream media claimed the strongest words of rebuttal for the book, which they saw as a direct attack on the communist state and its official history, overseas Vietnamese who fled the country and who were described as victims in the book also lashed because it was told from the “winning side.”
As the book deals with contemporary history, key players in the book such as boat people, bankrupted business people, and imprisoned army officers are still alive. Their own experiences are of course always more vivid, more real and more bitter than what is described in the book.
“The Winning Side” is not without weaknesses. Given its scope, it is prone to inaccuracies and as a self-published book it lacks professional editing and some sections are too lengthy. The author jumps back and forth in time and space, which can be confusing for the reader.
As a journalist, Huy Duc relies too much on details that are objective but lacks analysis, which can render them meaningless. While the first volume deals with human tragedies, the second lacks a human face.
Huy Duc’s book opens a can of worms for the Vietnamese authorities because although what is discussed are ‘open secrets’, the book for the first time put them together in mainstream literature. It demystifies contemporary Vietnamese leaders; it works against the propaganda apparatus of the country to peel the glossy paint off their portraits. As such, the book makes it harder for Vietnamese leaders to sell socialist ideals to their own countrymen.
Huy Duc is a seasoned journalist who worked for several major Vietnamese newspapers but is better known for his Osin blog where he offered an original and more critical look at government policies and current events. With “The Winning Side”,which remains on the best-seller lists of both Smashword and Amazon, he has pioneered the idea of online publishing in Vietnam to avoid censorship. He is now a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.
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