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Who won the war? Greed, schism and the party faithful in Vietnam.

THE Hanoi regime could soon be in serious trouble. The danger is of a nation split along the old north-south divide, with hedonistic Saigon as the capital of the south, or one split into a thousand petty feudal baronies.

Vietnam is one of the poorest nations on earth. That was true even before its principal benefactor, the Soviet Union, disintegrated. Because of Hanoi's tight fiscal grip of the whole country, that poverty is fairly evenly distributed. It is genuinely difficult to be rich in Vietnam at the expense of your neighbour. But the potential to be rich is not evenly spread. It is concentrated in the south. The south gives to the north a good proportion of its rice (used both as the staple diet and to pay off Vietnam's colossal foreign debt), the hope of income from oil and gas deposits currently being prospected for in the Mekong Delta by western multinationals and the state oil company, and a rapidly growing revenue from tourism. The north gives to the south a bit of coal, big bills and a lot of oppressive legislation. In Vietnam, he who pays the piper gets told what tune to play.

Since 1975 there has been a growing self confidence in the south, and a corresponding resentment of the constraints imposed on its potential for economic (and, later, cultural) self-fulfilment. When the Americans left and a unified state was proclaimed, the South Vietnamese were too busy and too relieved to compare with envious eyes the rice production figures of north and south. But as there was peace, of a sort, for a while, and the Vietnamese began to ask more than simply not to be napalmed, whispers began in Saigon. People wondered, increasingly aloud, whether the horrific price which South Vietnam had paid between 1964-75 had bad a sufficient return It had not been Hanoi which had been defoliated. North Vietnamese babies were not born limbless because of the Agent Orange in their mothers' diets. And the reporters and tourists who tip-toed nervously back to Vietnam told the Saigonese that Saigon was better than Hanoi, and that they would tell their friends to come south, not north. The tourists said that they preferred the coloured silks of the smiling Saigon hostesses to the dowdy dark overalls of the stone faced party functionaries in Hanoi. The Saigonese know well that their potential for generating wealth is greater than that of Hanoi. Moscow's collapse means that the north will be demanding that the south subsidises it more than ever, and the increasing feeling in Saigon is: |Why should we? We can manage by ourselves. We want our northern borders to be at Danang'.

Hanoi could do one of two things. It could declare that there will be a free market, with taxes to match. There have been moves towards economic liberalisation, but for doctrinal reasons which will not evaporate for a generation, they stopped far short of what the south will be demanding. Cultural liberalisation was rejected. Saigon is likely to want that too. Hanoi, anyway, would be likely to conclude, rightly, that the free market would only bring quick and significant benefits to the south, where the material and human infrastructure for economic success is already in place, and that it would ultimately widen the north-south divide, perhaps delaying but making inevitable an eventual breach.

Secondly, Hanoi could do nothing for the moment, but rely on its ability to crush the southern separatist counter-revolutionaries when they raise their heads out of the bunker. At the moment it has reason to have confidence in its ability to do this. There are unmistakable tendencies in Saigon. There are no private armies. It is unlikely that a coherent force representing a single capitalist South Vietnamese government in waiting could ever be raised to resist Hanoi. For one thing, such a force would be uncomfortably similar to the army which the Americans did such nasty things to crush. The south Vietnamese feel solidarity with the north in one important respect: solidarity in past suffering. Despite the disparity between their agonies, north and south grieved together. And so the atrocities of My Lai are the best weapons in the hands of the north Vietnamese. |This,' they say, talking to the south and pointing to the face of the woman charred by a US phosphorus bomb which stares at visitors to the Ho Chi Minh City museum of American War Crimes, |is the price which you paid to resist that which you are now inviting into your houses'. That solidarity, however, is unlikely to withstand the power of the free market dream.

Present greed and future riches speak louder than past pain. Particularly when past pain seems to have brought only present poverty. The south Vietnamese will, psychologically, be well able to rise against the north. But not together. An uneasy coalition of private factional armies is much more likely. South Vietnam has seen this before in French days. The divisions between the loosely affiliated armies could be functional (drug or farming cartels), ethnic, religious or political. Things would be very confused. The alliance would hold until Hanoi is ousted. Then there would be a lot of internecine bloodshed, and the likely result is the establishment of a number of little, semi-autonomous empires under an incongruous national flag.

The 1990s are good years for small, chauvinistic nation states. The United States has, officially, rejoiced to see a number of new flags unfurled in the old Soviet Union. The USA spent $352 billion on its Vietnamese adventure. If it had dropped it as $10 bills over South Vietnam it might have seen by 1975, rather than 2000, a similar number of similarly vibrant young states in Indo-China. And it would all have been a lot less messy.

[Charles Foster, who is writing a book on Northern India, has just returned from a trip to Vietnam.]
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Author:Foster, Charles
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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