Sunday, March 30, 2008

Meet a woman of history

BY TOM PLATE (Pacific Perspectives)

POWERFUL women seem to be appearing frequently in Asian news these days. Recent headlines trumpeted the continued defiance of the great Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and of course mourned the assassination of the Pakistani heir-apparent Benazir Bhutto.

The truth, though, is there’s nothing that new about powerful women and Asia.

They are omnipresent throughout the region, embedded even in otherwise sexist or patriarchal cultures. Over the decades, national liberation movements have spawned prominent female insurgent leaders. Even the long-established political dynasties throw up their fair share of powerful matriarchs.

And so while the US electorate goes about deciding whether the next American president will be a woman, in a country where no woman has even been vice-president, I was able to sit down with a famous — indeed, in this region, legendary — Vietnamese woman who helped spearhead her country’s reunification struggle against both the ill-fated French and American interventions.

Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, now in her eighties, has been aging quite gracefully, thank you. Even today, she packs such punch and panache in her eyes and such bouncy incandescence and voice as she recollects her involvement in the historic Paris Peace Talks of 1972 and the ultimate US troop withdrawal from her country, that you can’t imagine how we Americans might ever have thought we could possibly prevail here.

Vice-president of Vietnam for ten years from 1992, Madame Binh looks every bit the part of the Asian women of steel and destiny. She is happy to comment, though diplomatically, about things American, especially as they relate to our troubled past with her own Vietnam.

“That Iraq war will go on too long,” she says, at once tugging at her brown socks, then sipping Vietnamese tea from a large glass. Like with Vietnam, “the US considered itself a big power and behaved like a big power. And because it was such a great power, it could not accept that the Vietnamese people would actually fight against them.”

It was only “after great losses,” as she put it, that America withdrew from Vietnam; with Iraq she fears our big-power hubris will delay the inevitability of withdrawal: “With Iraq, it’s different from Vietnam but the general purpose is the same: The US wants to impose its rule and its rules on other countries.”

This view of US hegemony through socialist eyes that have seen much over the decades might strike Americans as far more ideological than historical. The American intervention, after all, was justified to prevent the spread of communism from North Vietnam to the south and then (presumably) through all of Southeast Asia.

But, as Madame Binh notes, the Cold War is over, and America and Vietnam have gotten on with the job of trying to relate in a businesslike manner. And she is not at all reluctant to admit that Vietnam has made its own share of mistakes in its struggle to escape third-world underdevelopment:

“Socialism does need to be democratic,” she admitted, “and we really have not implemented it well enough. But if we want to implement true democracy in Vietnam, we need to have much better education for our people. You can’t have intelligent public participation without sufficient public education.”

That, she points out, will take lots of money — or, in the fancy phrase of our times, economic development. To that end, Vietnam needs to make friends with every country, make no more enemies than necessary, and be warm and gracious to all visitors and tourists, especially those with money to burn.

In truth, the Vietnamese can be the friendliest of hosts. The buoyant energy of the streets is palpable; at times the place feels like a surging South Korea a decade or so ago. To be sure, the country must not only overcome the enormous cost of its past war-time struggles but the continuing cost of an oft-overbearing communist bureaucracy which is characteristically suspicious of any move it cannot control. Madame Binh has seen it all, of course, and expects that in the course of time Vietnam’s political culture will measure up to its economic-development needs. It will have to or Vietnam will fail.

Such issues rise above gender, for all the prominence of women in Asia or elsewhere. And though her sisterhood makes her wish Hillary Clinton all the best, it is both the values and the decisions of America’s next president that catch her eye and roil her memory: “I am very happy for her,” she says, rising to say good bye, “but America’s actual policies are what is most important.” In effect, despite all the time that has gone by, very little has changed in that regard.
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