True believer

Carlyle A. Thayer

Bui Tin, Paris 2014. Photo: Thomas A. Bass ©

Bui Tin grew to manhood in one of the most tumultuous periods of Vietnamese history. At the age of eighteen, he was swept up in the 1945 August Revolution when nationalist forces led by Ho Chi Minh seized power in Vietnam. Bui Tin stood among the crowd in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square on 2 September 1945 and witnessed Ho’s historic proclamation of independence.

In what he now describes as a romantic and impetuous decision, but nonetheless a major step in his life, Bui Tin left home for the first time and enlisted in the Vietnam People’s Army. He was immediately assigned to the first military class to be trained in Hanoi. His instructors included such legendary revolutionary figures such as Truong Chinh, Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap. Throughout his entire career, including the epic eight-year resistance war against the French (1946-54), Bui Tin never lost his loyalty to general Giap and respect for him.

At the end of the war, Vietnam was partitioned and Bui Tin continued his military career in the north. He notes that in the early 1950s the influence of Chinese Communism began to be felt in Vietnam after Mao Tse-tung’s forces triumphed in the Chinese civil war, and it was Chinese advisers and their advice which Bui Tin blames in part for the conduct of the land reform campaign in North Vietnam. The campaign went badly off course and resulted in the deaths of over 10,000 people. The experiences of land reform, political victimisation and arbitrary rule during this period must have planted the seeds of Bui Tin’s later disaffection.

In the 1960s Vietnam was still divided and many Vietnamese, including Bui Tin, felt that national unification was a vital task. When the Vietnamese Communist Party made the historic decision to resume armed conflict in the south, Bui Tin once again returned to the front. In 1961 he made the first of two gruelling trips down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to report on conditions below the seventeenth parallel. He made his second trip in early 1964 and on returning to the north in October was assigned to the army newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan, where he began a second career as a journalist.

He was on hand on 30 April 1975 shortly after Communist tanks crashed through the gates of the Independence Palace in Saigon. As a full colonel and the most senior Communist official present, he played an historic role in the transfer of power and the surrender of the Republic of Vietnam. In the words of one westerner, Bui Tin was always “in the most important place at the right time”.

After reunification Bui Tin continued his career in journalism as a member of the editorial board of Quan Doi Nhan Dan, with special responsibility for reporting on foreign affairs, defence and security matters. He personally reported on the border war which erupted between Vietnam and Pol Pot’s Cambodia in 1977. Late the following year, he accompanied the armoured spearhead of Vietnamese forces which invaded Cambodia, and was one of the first ranking Vietnamese military officials to enter Phnom Penh. Once again, he was at the most important place at the right time.

In 1990, at the age of sixty-three and with a distinguished career spanning nearly forty-five years, Bui Tin could have looked forward to honourable retirement. He had also become a doting grandparent — he was immensely proud of his two granddaughters. Yet, acting on his own volition, he made the momentous decision — perhaps the last major step of his life — to leave Vietnam and live abroad. He did so in order to make public a growing list of personal misgivings about Vietnam and its political system which had been haunting him at least since 1975. As a result Bui Tin was fired from his job and expelled from the Communist Party. His career record was vilified, his family placed under police surveillance, and his son-in-law denied the opportunity to take up a scholarship at Harvard University.

Bui Tin’s memoirs, written as an exile abroad, have retained a sense of balance about developments in Vietnam and about the historical period through which he lived. This has not pleased the extremists among the anti-Communist Vietnamese community living in France and the United States, who would prefer to see a more wholehearted condemnation of the Vietnamese Communist Party and its historical legacy. Bui Tin, however, would prefer to build bridges between the present regime in Hanoi and Vietnamese living abroad. He advocates political pluralism and gradual change but skirts around the question of how Vietnam can develop a multi-party system. He argues that his ideas are not the sole solution but simply a stimulus for discussion.

This book is not an autobiography. This is important in itself, since it indicates that Bui Tin is not motivated primarily to highlight his personal achievements. As its title states, the book is a memoir. But it is a memoir the likes of which has not been written previously by a Vietnamese Communist official. Bui Tin is an insider with intimate knowledge of Vietnam’s political system and its secretive leaders, and as a senior journalist he had access to the most powerful of the latter. He observed them at meetings in Hanoi and on various battlefields, accompanied them on overseas trips and he participated in preparing their official biographies. He reveals facts and details which cannot be found elsewhere and which are still regarded as state secrets in Vietnam.

But Following Ho Chi Minh is much more than this. It is a memoir which makes ethical, moral and political judgments about contemporary Vietnam, its political system and its leaders, and none of these is more startling and more calculated to produce an outburst by party conservatives in Hanoi than that Ho Chi Minh was “a human being not a saint”. Two hagiographies of Ho Chi Minh’s life are now revealed to have been written by Ho himself using a pseudonym. Bui Tin points to evidence that Ho was not a celibate, as his official biographies state, but may have been twice married.

Because Bui Tin’s memoir is written by a son of the revolution who reflects values that are deeply held in Vietnamese political culture, it will provoke heated discussion among Vietnamese intellectuals at home and abroad. Vietnamese culture dictates that the ‘family’ keep such matters to itself; and Vietnamese Communist political culture dictates that such sensitive matters be kept from foreigners. Bui Tin violated both of these norms. In doing so he has opened the closed world of one of the few remaining Communist systems to scrutiny and judgment by outsiders — including the Vietnamese people.

Traditional Vietnamese society accorded a special role and great prestige to scholars and intellectuals. As early as the fifteenth century, the country borrowed and adapted Confucianism and the mandarin system of governance from China. But it was not till 1802, with the founding of the Nguyen dynasty, that there was a thoroughgoing attempt to adapt the Chinese Confucian model to Vietnam. A key component of this system was the selection of government officials through impartial examinations based on knowledge of Confucian texts and commentaries. This was the mandarin, governed by applying ethical precepts, and conscious of a duty to be loyal to the king and to serve the nation.

These twin loyalties were put to the test as a result of the imposition of colonial rule and the collaboration of the Vietnamese monarchy with the French. For example, in the late nineteenth century the Vietnamese court was split on the question of collaboration. In 1885, one group kidnapped the newly enthroned child king, Ham Nghi, and attempted to rally support for the anti-French cause under his banner. The French reacted by installing the king’s brother on the throne. This action caused some mandarins to transfer their loyalties to the new leader on strictly legalistic grounds. In the end, not only was the ‘Loyalty to the King’ movement crushed, but the Vietnamese monarchy itself, as the source of moral authority, was mortally wounded. Those mandarins who collaborated with the French “were tools of foreign rulers, and they knew it”.

Early in the twentieth century a variety of factors resulted in the first stirrings of modern Vietnamese nationalism among the mandarin elite. They were broadly divided into reformist and activist camps, as exemplified by the two major historical figures, Phan Chu Trinh (1872-1926) and Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940). In the mid-1920s, this first generation of Vietnamese nationalists passed from the scene, having been unsuccessful in their quest, and they were replaced by a more radical and revolutionary second generation.

No figure stands out more prominently in modern Vietnamese history than Ho Chi Minh. Born in 1890 (or 1892) the son of a mandarin official, he was an ‘inter-generational’ figure and derived his authority in part from this fact. He received both classical and Western education and, like the first generation of modern nationalists elsewhere in Asia, he travelled extensively abroad. Ho founded the Revolutionary Youth Association, the precursor of the Vietnam Communist Party, and among his early recruits were the offspring of mandarin officials, such as Pham Van Dong. These individuals combined the traditional value system inculcated by Confucianism — loyalty and service to the national community based on moral and ethical values — with the new revolutionary and scientific values of Marxism-Leninism.

Bui Tin’s father. Photo: Thomas A. Bass (from the original)

Bui Tin was born into a family of mandarins. His paternal great-grandfather held the highest examination rank, and after serving as a provincial governor rose to the rank of deputy minister of war; his grandfather was also appointed provincial governor. Bui Tin’s father earned degrees in classical literature and French before stating a public career as a provincial judge. He, too, served as a province governor before rising to the rank of minister of justice. In this capacity he was charged with drawing up new criminal and civil codes for central Vietnam. In October 1945, he joined Ho Chi Minh’s government as inspector-general and was elected to the national assembly in 1946. His son thus inherited much intellectual baggage from his family, and from his father in particular.

Bui Tin was schooled at home by his father in Confucian morality and ethics, and his mother imparted humanistic values. At the age of thirteen he studied French literature at Khai Dinh high school in Hue, the imperial capital, and remembers reading Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Daudet, which remained deeply ingrained in him. Bui Tin grew to political manhood embodying the ideals of these two traditions. In an echo of a famous essay by Ho Chi Minh, “The Path Which Led Me to Leninism”, he also proclaimed that it was nationalism — not Marxism — which led him to join the Viet Minh.

Bui Tin left home with his character deeply influenced by his parents’ values. These remained with him for life and formed the basis on which he came to judge both his peers and high-ranking Party and military officials. Bui Tin places a high premium on education as the basis for enlightened moral behaviour. He is an admirer of general Vo Nguyen Giap, not only for his military genius, but for his deep knowledge of traditional Vietnamese laws and values.

Bui Tin joined the Vietnam People’s Army and the Vietnam Communist Party for patriotic reasons. During the ensuing thirty years of warfare which he experienced, he never lost faith in the ultimate goal of the struggle: to expel the foreign invader and reunify the country. In his view, the Party, the army and the people were one.

But after the euphoria of victory and reunification in 1975, according to Bui Tin, a turning-point was reached. Vietnam’s leaders became drunk with victory and defiled the act of liberation, turning it instead into annexation. The wartime policy of national reconciliation was replaced by subjugation. Former enemies who should have been treated as prisoners-of-war were now turned into political criminals and placed in re-education camps. Property and equipment were looted and shipped north. Bui Tin writes that a “primitive and childish conception of class struggle” was imposed on the South which stigmatised not only the vanquished but their families as well, and condemned them to a life of institutional discrimination. By way of example, he recounts the 1978 campaign to end bourgeois trade which resulted in the mass exodus of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese entrepreneurs by boat. The campaign was orchestrated by the Ministry of the Interior and Cong An, who put themselves above the law. Hapless victims were charged in gold for the “privilege” of leaving Vietnam. After making payment and travelling to the point of embarkation, they were subject to further indignity when they were stripped of their remaining valuables and possessions before being allowed to depart.

According to Bui Tin, the main rift in the Communists’ ranks was between the intellectuals and the “professional revolutionaries”. The latter, led by party secretary Le Duan in alliance with his fellow politburo member Le Duc Tho, formed an unscrupulous group of “red capitalists”.

One of the most shocking examples of how the system became degraded occurred in Cambodia. Bui Tin initially supported the decision to intervene, having personally witnessed the atrocities committed by Pol Pot’s forces against Vietnamese villagers along the border. But, according to him, Vietnam’s leaders became stricken with the “disease of subjective arrogance”. They treated their Cambodian allies much like colonial subjects. Even worse, Vietnam’s privileged elite kept their sons out of combat and harm’s way. It was the children of Vietnam’s urban dispossessed and poor peasantry who bore the brunt of battle, malaria and the maiming caused by mines: 52,00 died and 200,000 were wounded. This revelation ”astounded” Bui Tin and caused him to be “harassed by doubts”. His feelings were not assuaged when on returning to Hanoi he found how bleak was the plight of wounded war veterans. His sense of social justice was further affronted.

As Vietnam’s domestic socio-economic crisis mounted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, calls for reform were made from within the Vietnam Communist Party. In July 1986 party secretary Le Duan died in office and was replaced by Truong Chinh, who, in the lead-up to the sixth national party congress in December, endorsed the calls for reform. Bui Tin was moved to write a personal petition and pass it on to him. He never received an official response. The sixth congress, however, adopted a reform program known as Doi Moi and elected Nguyen Van Linh the next party chief. Linh initially moved in a determined manner to end central planning and to develop a market economy. He also sponsored limited political reforms. Intellectuals, writers, artists and editors were encouraged to criticise social ills such as corruption. Efforts were made to end the rubber-stamp role of the National Assembly by giving it enhanced law-making powers.

The brief flowering of political reform was cut short by the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. A crackdown took place in Vietnam, and newspaper and journal editors who had been outspoken were punished or dismissed from their posts. A leading advocate of increased political reform, Tran Xuan Bach, was expelled from the Politburo, and a secret party directive banned all public discussion of pluralism and multi-party democracy. Bui Tin was subjected to censorship and to such close scrutiny that by mid-1990 he felt he had become a “major target” because of his increasingly outspoken views. In these circumstances he resolved to leave Vietnam and make public the causes of its poverty, misery, despair and isolation.

Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales and Director of Thayer Consultancy.

This is an edited excerpt of the Introduction to Bui Tin’s From Cadre to Exile: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Journalist (Silkworm Books, 1995). Published with permission of C. Hurst & Co, publishers of the original title, Following Ho Chi Minh: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel

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