Why you should care

Because a man who once spent three years in a gruesome prison now oversees one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies.

In a country occupying the troubled borderland between two global superpowers, between communism and the free market, President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam and his 90 million people remain caught in the crossfire of forces larger than themselves, even as they help perpetuate those forces. But you don’t have to tour the labyrinth of cramped tunnels that members of the Viet Cong like Sang endured during the Vietnam War to get a sense for the resilience — and ongoing strategic importance — of an underestimated country and its president.

Americans who hadn’t grown weary of Vietnam by the time the war ended and the country was reunified in 1975 likely lost interest in the region by the time Forrest Gump won the Academy Award for best picture in 1994 and Hollywood itself turned its attention elsewhere. But for Truong Tan Sang’s generation, which lost almost 4 million compatriots in the war, that conflict surely never ends, even as part of the experience is commodified for tourists. Especially true for Sang himself, born in 1949 in the southern province of Long An, raised in the U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam before joining the Communist insurgency there — and imprisoned at age 22 by the South Vietnamese government.

Sang would spend three years in the gruesome Bien Hoa jail.

One thing you don’t learn from most war films, or American history classes, is that the U.S. government helped thwart the democratic will of the Vietnamese people in 1956 when it nixed an internationally sanctioned reunification election because it didn’t care for the likely winner: Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. Sang, and millions of fellow Viet Cong, did care for Ho Chi Minh, and Sang would spend three years in the gruesome Bien Hoa jail for it. Sang “did hard time in an enemy prison during the war,” says Dartmouth historian Edward Miller, which is unusual among senior party leaders today and that likely “provides him a certain credibility in his dealings … within the party and the state.”

But Sang’s credibility extends well beyond that. Elected in 2011 to the presidency with more than 97 percent of the vote (it’s a single-party state after all), Sang, like all Vietnamese leaders, worked his way up through the party ranks, from mayor and party chief of Ho Chi Minh City — the country’s economic hub — to the powerful, if blandly named, Standing Representative of the Central Party Secretariat. A trained lawyer with decades of experience in economic matters, Sang, as leaked U.S. embassy cables reveal, is largely supportive of free market policies and widely acknowledged as the party’s point man on economic matters. The cables describe a meeting of international business leaders, for example, in which Sang “was able to comment authoritatively, in detail and without notes, on topics ranging from civilian nuclear cooperation to energy pricing to regulations on tenders and procurement.”

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete (R) and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang review an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Hanoi

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete (right) and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang review an honor guard.

In a country often rife with political corruption, Sang and his family, according to Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, are “widely considered to be fairly clean and not corrupt,” despite his being implicated in the Nam Cam scandal of the late 1990s in which a Ho Chi Minh City crime lord with vast ties to corrupt politicians was tried and executed. Not that the Vietnamese people would have much say if the personable and pragmatic Sang were not relatively well-liked. Vietnam’s mandatory elections are viewed as a mere formality by most voters, and the nation’s 500-member National Assembly, while growing more assertive of late, is largely seen as a rubber stamp for the Communist Party’s 16-member Politburo that runs the country. The rising levels of corruption and popular frustration has led to widespread protests, police crackdowns and suppression of dissent, from jailing bloggers to censoring Facebook. “Democracy just doesn’t exist in Vietnam,” says Tuong Vu, a professor of politics at the University of Oregon. “What has developed in recent years is even worse: a police state whose security forces employ about one out of six working Vietnamese.”

Sang and other leaders also face pressure at home to expand relations with the U.S. and China, the country’s two main trading partners, in order to distribute more widely the rewards from one of Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economies (and middle classes). In the last few decades, Vietnam has shifted from a centrally planned agrarian economy to a market-driven exporter of cell phones, footwear and garments as well as a burgeoning high-tech player and member of the WTO and U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact. But such growth has also generated pronounced inequality, particularly between rural and urban Vietnamese.

Many in Vietnam hope that deeper economic engagement with the U.S. will gradually edge its government further down the road to democracy. Their country, after all, is an increasingly important partner for the U.S. against Chinese expansion, but, even in the wake of Sang’s 2013 visit with President Obama, “there is no sign,” says Miller, “that the U.S. intends to try to use economic or strategic leverage to bring about political change in Vietnam.” But it is unlikely that America — historically a rather ineffective agent of democracy in Vietnam — will matter as much as how leaders like Sang respond to internal resistance as the forces of globalization take hold on the once-isolated land. “Greater integration of the Vietnamese economy into the global system,” says Vu, “would make it more vulnerable to external shocks and more open to reforms,” but even that is unlikely to unseat Sang or its ruling party anytime soon.

More likely to unseat Sang, now 66, is forced retirement. Absent a change to the party’s informal yet mandatory retirement age (unofficially 65), Sang and nine of the Politburo’s 15 other members are expected to step down at the 12th Party Congress next January. At which point the task of holding together Vietnam’s divergent strands will prove even more challenging for the next round of leaders. And should the resilient nation decide— or be obliged — to stop standing on ceremony, then watch out.

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