A revolutionary who fled the revolution
At the height of the monsoon season in the South China Sea last August, a leaky boat washed up on the Indonesian shore. Soaked, starved, and frightened, 64 Vietnamese refugees made their way onto land.
The episode would be all but forgotten in the annals of suffering endured by the Vietnamese boat people, except for one thing: Among the 64 survivors was Truong Nhu Tang, the highest-ranking Vietnamese revolutionary to defect to the West.
Through the next six months at the Anambas Island refugee camp, Truong's identity as a founder of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) and former minister of justice in the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) would remain a secret shared only with his wife. It would stay a secret even after Truong was allowed to settle in France, where a committee of Vietnamese residents arranged an apartment for him in Poitiers and a job as a worker at the Michelin tire plant.
In June, however, Truong shed his disguise as an ordinary refugee and announced his identity to a Paris news conference.
"As one who has given my entire adult life to the cause of the Vietnamese nation," he proclaimed, "I must tell you that the liberation in Vietnam has been betrayed."
Truong suffered through storms on the high seas, a run-in with Vietnamese security patrols, and even an attack by pirates in order to make his escape. Through all these difficulties, he dreamed of the day he would be able to speak his mind publicly in Paris, and call on all Vietnamese inside and outside the country to join together in a fight against the new regime.
A few weeks ago, in his most extensive interview to date, Truong Nhu Tang told this reporter that organized resistance is beginning to take shape inside Vietnam. It is not just the scattered resistance of old, right-wing, pro-United States forces that has been going on since 1975. More significantly, Truong said, many of those formerly identified with the "third force" and even dissident members of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) are organizing themselves into pockets of resistance.
Acknowledging that Le Duan (secretary-general of the VCP) and the rest of the Hanoi leadership remain firmly in control of the country, Truong outlined some of the factors that are undermining the stability of their government. He cited severe food shortages, political repression, which he said was "even worse than in the days of the Thieu regime in Saigon," heavy battlefield casualties in Cambodia, failure of the Soviet Union to deliver fully on its promises of economic aid, and rifts inside the top VCP leadership, especially over Vietnam's pro-Soviet foreign policy and its hostile position toward China.
"The people of Vietnam do not want to fight China," Truong asserts. "No matter how many times Le Duan tells the people that China is to blame for the country's economic problems, people see very clearly that the blame must rest in Hanoi."
In the dim light of his barely furnished Poitiers apartment, he appeared unconcerned with the personal price he has had to pay for the ability to speak out in public. Unlike the majority of Vietnamese refugees who flee hunger and ethnic persecution for a better life in the West, he has exchanged the luxury of a villa with servants, private car, and extra rations of meat and sugar in Vietnam for the poor and uncertain existence of an immigrant worker in France.
"I could not remain silent," he says of why he fled. "I could not watch passively and see everything my people have fought 20 years for destroyed."
It was 20 years ago that Truong Nhu Tang turned his back on his well-to-do Saigon upbringing and his University of Paris education to join the Vietnamese revolution. He was one of 60 South Vietnamese who took part in the 1960 founding of the NLF.
Jailed shortly thereafter for his revolutionary activities, he escaped probable death at the hands of the Saigon authorities when he was exchanged for three American POWs in 1968. He then disappeared into the jungle bases of the Viet Cong.
When the PRG was formed the next year, Truong was named as its minister of justice. Even though American search-and-destroy teams often came within 100 meters of Truong's jungle redoubt, for the duration of the war he concentrated on drawing up plans for how the Ministry of Justice would function in the new South Vietnam after the PRG victory.
The victory came, but Truong never got the chance to put his plans into action. Reviewing the troops from the rostrum during the victory celebration in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in May 1975, he received his first big shock: The flags of the NLF and PRG were nowhere to be seen. When he questioned Gen. Van Tien Dung (today Vietnam's defense minister) about why only the North Vietnamese flag was flying, the general told him contemptuously, "The Army has already been unified."
The next period was a frustrating one for Truong. He attempted to assemble a staff of legal experts for the Ministry of Justice, but those who were not to the liking of VCP cadres were quietly removed to "re-education" camps. People in the streets would demand to know what he, as justice minister, was doing about their friends and relatives whose property was being seized or who were being forced to move to the new economic zones.
"I was watching a fascist dictatorship under construction," Truong says ruefully, "and although I argued, there was nothing I could do about it. The orders came form Hanoi, and the Army and secret police were there to back them up."
In 1976, Vietnam was reunified in what he describes as a "violent and vengeful manner." Ho Chi Minh had often stated that the reunification process, when it came, should be slow and step by step. But in 1976, the issue of unity was forced on the South, with no chance to oppose it.
"Le Duan was trying to consolidate this power very quickly," Truong believes. "He could not afford to let the South develop as a bastion of opposition to his policies."
Of 24 members in the PRG government at the time the Paris peace accords were signed in 1973, only three were given positions in the unified government after 1976. Truong says that aside from a few others who were Army officials, the rest of the old PRG lives in total obscurity and great private disgust at what has happened.
In an attempt to keep him in the fold, the Hanoi leadership offered Truong a minor post in the Food Ministery after reunification. He refused, wishing neither to continue in complicity with a government he opposed, nor to be under its constant scrutiny in Hanoi. When he finally did accept a job in 1978 as director of a rubber company, his reason for doing so was only to acquire a cover under which to organize his escape plans.
During the six months he spent in the refugee camp, he had a lot of time to think about what went wrong with the Vietnamese revolution. He now accuses the current leadership of having abandoned the orientation toward national unity and international nonalignment established by Ho Chi Minh. Marxist rhetoric, he says, is simply the new language of oppression in Vietnam.
"There is no dictatorship of the proletariat in Vietnam," he says. "There is only what we call in Vietnamese 'gia ding tri' -- dictatorship of the clans. In this case it is the families of Le Duan and Le Duc Tho [chief of the VCP's organizational department] who control everything."
To bolster this claim, Truong ticks off a list of sons, brothers, and brothers-in-law of Le Duan and Le Duc Tho who hold key posts ranging from head of the secret police to secretary of the Air Force.
Neither his impeccable French nor his soft-spoken manner can conceal the bitterness in his voice when Truong speaks. But despite his experiences, his ideals remain intact. He will not give up his dream of a just and democratic society in Vietnam.
Although he had first planned to take political activity slowly while he adjusted himself to life in France, he now finds himself constantly traveling to Paris to take part in efforts to solidify a Vietnamese resistance movement and to form a bridge with Laotian and Cambodian resistance forces. He has been in contact with an old high school classmate -- Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former Cambodian head of state -- and the two men have exchanged pledges of solidarity.
The irony is not lost on Truong when he talks about forming a new common front of the Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian peoples against what he calls the "common enemy": the Hanoi leaders and their Soviet backers. He is aware that what he is proposing represents coming full circle from the 1970 Indochinese People's Summit, where the NLF, North Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian leaders met in China to make a common alliance against the US and the Saigon regime.
On the foreign soil of France, Truong Nhu Tang is starting over again, doing what he did 20 years ago in Saigon -- laying the groundwork for a Vietnamese revolution.