Page 8, 15th March 1996

15th March 1996
Page 8
Page 8, 15th March 1996 — Vietnam casts off its war-torn past
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Vietnam casts off its war-torn past

IN THE HUGE AND strangely kitsch museum in Hanoi dedicated to the memory of Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of Vietnamese communism, there is currently a vast photographic exhibition boasting of the success stories of post-reunification Vietnam.

New factories, hydro-electricity schemes and airports most the result of SecretaryGeneral Do Muoi's economic reforms which since the late 1980s have opened the country to western and south east Asian economic investment and tourists are all featured along with pristine schools and hospitals.

And there is a brief this is, after all, still a one-party state section on religion featuring the majority Buddhists, a few Confucians and a black and white photograph of Vietnam's Catholic bishops meeting senior party figures in 1993.

Though some of the bishops appear to be smiling through gritted teeth and others look as if they have just seen a ghost, the official message is clear. Vietnam is a prosperous, modern nation and Catholicism is an integrated part of a tolerant and dynamic multi-faith society.

Catholic bishops, the exhibition seems to be implying, are as valued in Vietnam as the South Korean businessmen cutting the opening ribbons on the new Daewoo factory or the Qantas engineers photographed servicing the national airline's new fleet of European and American planes.

It is not all hype. The dark days after 1975, when to be Catholic was to be deemed a counter-revolutionary in Vietnam have faded. Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung in Hanoi has worked with pragmatism and patience to develop a modus vivendi with the government. But it has clearly come at a price.

The Church is left alone as long as it maintains a low profile and restricts itself to worship and pastoral work. Anything remotely akin to evangelisation or political activity is out of the question.

For instance, the government runs a family planning programme, designed to limit population growth. Some of the techniques used can only be described as coercive. The Church objects, but its protests have to be muted for fear of unleashing a new wave of repression.

The role of the Vatican too remains a thorny issue. The government in Hanoi resents outside interference. For all its liberal economic talk, it still has ambitions to total control.

Even the sought-after foreign investors are made to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops before they are allowed to set up shop. So when Rome tried to name a new bishop for Ho Chi Minh City still called Saigon by its inhabitants without first taking account of government wishes, official disapproval was swift and public.

The Vietnamese, taking a leaf out of the book of the neighbouring Chinese, are adamant that they must have the final say in such matters. The dispute shows just how fragile is the current tolerance.

When you visit Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung's cathedral, St Joseph's, an ugly and incongruous neo-Gothic pile in the heart of the Frenchinfluenced Old Quarter of Hanoi, the practical effects of the current uneasy compromise are immediately apparent.

You enter not by the main portico which remains bolted, but via a side gate and then through a back door. Inside there is initially an air of calm and prayer but as you wander up and down the aisles you realise something is missing any sign of a Catholic community. There are no priests scuttling around, noone kneeling in silent prayer and, strangest of all, not a single notice of meetings, groups, or communal activities.

The impression of a Church unsure of its place and caught in limbo was confirmed by some of the Catholics I met. In general terms, those on the north seem to be more optimistic.

In Phat Diem, for example, shrine to the French Jesuit, Alexandre de Rhodes, who in the seventeenth century devised the written, Latin-based form of the Vietnamese language, the community shows signs of life with congregations often spilling out of ironwood doors of the cathedral onto the square beyond.

In the old south, however, the status of Catholics remains linked in with the residual hostility felt by the mainly northern government officials towards recent enemies. It is still "them" and "us" and Catholics are in the opposition camp.

The south is noticeably more Catholic than the north. In 1954, when the French abandoned their Indo

Chinese colonial experiment, an estimated 900,000 Catholics ,led from Ho Chi Minh and the communists in the north to the newly established, western-backed republic in the south.

Its first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Catholic. The regime, which grew increasingly dictatorial, promoted positive discrimination in favour of Catholics.

With 1975 and the fall of the southern regime, all those who served it or supported it faced hardship and discrimination. To be a Catholic was enough justification to be stigmatised. No matter that many of those so tainted had been prominent in antigovernment and anti-war circles.

Then at least discrimination was open and obvious. Today it is more subtle. Long not his real name grew up Catholic. His father and brother were in the South Vietnamese Army.

A serious and care-worn young man, being Catholic has contributed to his sense of being an outsider. In a country where 70 per cent of employees work for the state, he never felt able to apply for a government job. Along with other Catholics at his school, he was convinced that he was given unjustifiably low grades and discriminated against when it came to college places.

Long's brother spent nine years in what Hanoi euphemistically called "reeducation camps". For three years he was held incommunicado. His family thought he was dead. He was routinely tortured. Since he has been free, he has been unable to find work. Everywhere he goes there seemed to be a blacklist.

There are, however, more positive signs. Another of Long's family is a nun. Pre1975 her order ran one of Saigon's largest hospitals. When the communists took over, they siezed the building and escorted the nuns off the premises. Several went for re-education. Lately, however, they have been approached by officials who said the hospital was in chaos. Could they come back and administer things? More to the point, could they re-establish links with erstwhile Catholic donors overseas who had disappeared after the take-over? There was a chronic need for medicines. The nuns said yes.

This picture is far from complete, built on impressions and conversations with Catholics. Many are reluc

tant to talk about their beliefs. Despite the fact that around 10 per cent of the population is Catholic, it remains something of a taboo. But underpinning all the problems is a Vietnamese view that Catholics are not loyal citizens, the old fifth column idea openly promoted in the post-1975 persecution with its talk of counter-revolutionaries and only too familiar to those who lived in eastern Europe under the communists.

The mistakes of history have contributed to this impression. The Catholic Church has had a knack in Vietnam for lending its good

name to what went on to become the losing side.

First it worked hand-inhand with the French colonists who used the excuse of mistreatment of missionaries to bludgeon the Vietnamese Emperor in Hue into accepting their colonial overlordship. Then when the French left, the Church was an often uncritical supporter of the Diem regime in the south, turning a blind eye to its excesses.

More to the point the connection of Catholicism with the French and then with an American-backed government made it as much a western and hence alien phenomenon as Coca-Cola and Agent Orange.That impression remains the biggest obstacle faced by the Church as even casual remarks reveal.

A great round bell at a Buddhist pagoda that we visited outside Hue lacked a clapper inside.When I asked the guide he explained that in Vietnam they hit bells on the outside to make them ring "not like your Catholic bells", he added. For Catholic, read western and vice versa. And for western read the forces of occupation that the Vietnamese have spent most of this century trying to expel.




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