A Quiet Truce to Help Vietnam
by K. Oanh Ha
Posted on Saturday, 2005-12-03
The event was invitation-only and reporters were banned. Organizers such as Diep and Quyen Vuong, Santa Clara sisters who run several non-profits in Vietnam, wanted to keep it low-key.
Inside, though, the occasion was historic. It was an unprecedented meeting, on U.S. soil, at which a delegation of officials from Hanoi was openly greeted by Vietnamese-Americans whose philanthropic groups help compatriots in their struggling homeland.
The encounter, which took place at a conference two weekends ago in Petaluma, was an act of truce once unimaginable, and one that remains controversial today.
It’s the most recent example of a quiet movement stirring in the Vietnamese-American community to help develop their homeland by reaching out to the communist government in Vietnam – a rule many fled and swore eternal hatred toward a generation ago.
The Bay Area, home to the nation’s second-largest population of Vietnamese emigres, has been a focal point for the growing spirit of cooperation.
We just want to build a dialogue with the government of Vietnam and the government of the U.S. so our work can be more effective, said Quyen Vuong, one of the co-founders of Pacific Links Foundation, which organized the gathering of more than 130 Vietnamese-American non-profits that operate in Vietnam. The end goal is we want a brighter future for the children and people of Vietnam.
Motives questioned – Others see something more sinister.
SaigonUSA, a Vietnamese-language newspaper in San Jose, published an article this week, accusing the Vietnamese government of orchestrating the conference to exploit the groups for its own end. The article cast suspicion on Pacific Links and other non-profits that attended.
That was exactly the kind of attack the Vuongs and others had tried to avert by controlling the guest list and minimizing the involvement of Vietnamese officials. In fact, the event was underwritten by the Ford, Asia and Gerbode foundations, and the Vietnamese delegation was invited to attend just two of 12 sessions.
Though many non-profits have had private meetings with Vietnamese officials, this was the first openly acknowledged encounter in the United States.
Community activist Le Xuan Khoa, who has been lambasted over the past decade for advocating better relations with Hanoi, was elated about the history being made.
Now people are accepting that dialogue is the best way to improve the situation in Vietnam,â€ said Khoa, who recently moved to Southern California.
To be sure, the anti-communist faction in the community is still strong, capable of drawing crowds for political demonstrations and successfully lobbying cities across the state, including San Jose, to endorse the flag of vanquished South Vietnam as the preferred emblem for the country.
Since President Clinton resumed diplomatic relations with Hanoi a decade ago, the relationship between the two countries has grown, fortified by trade. But relations between Vietnam and the 1.2 million-strong Vietnamese-American community has been far more complicated.
Even the term reconciliation, often used to describe the evolution of the relationship between the two governments, is hardly uttered in the context of Hanoi and American Vietnamese community. The concept is interpreted differently by each side and is fraught with emotion over old grievances.
Much of the cooperation between emigres and Vietnamese officials still occurs behind closed doors. But increasingly, some are going public.
Many efforts are linked to commerce and technology, where Vietnam is hungry for the investment dollars and expertise of Viet Kieu, or overseas Vietnamese.
In June, the Vietnamese Silicon Valley Network, a technology group, hosted a rare round table between Vietnamese officials and Vietnamese-American entrepreneurs. Last year, a delegation that included local Vietnamese-Americans represented San Francisco on an official visit to sister city Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). And last summer, Oakland formalized a sister-city relationship with Danang, a port city in central Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government estimates that 560 international non-profits provided $140 million in aid and services to the country in 2004. But Vietnamese-American groups think the amount is much higher because many groups operate under government radar.
The people and government of Vietnam recognize the contributions and roles of Vietnamese-American non-profits to help the people of Vietnam, said Tran Tuan Anh, Vietnamese consul general in San Francisco, who attended the Petaluma conference banquet last month.
Diep and Quyen Vuong and other community leaders consider that recognition a leap forward. Just two years ago, the government organized a conference for non-profits working in Vietnam but invited just a handful of Vietnamese-American groups, which make up the bulk of the effort.
In Petaluma, 24 non-profits formed an alliance group, Vietnamese-American Non-Governmental Organization Network, which will work with officials to gain more transparency and accountability in non-profit projects.
The seven officials from Hanoi spoke at two informational sessions, packed by attendees who asked questions about Vietnamese non-profit regulations and shared their frustrations.
The face-to-face dialogue really helps, said Thu Anh Do, executive director of San Jose-based VNHELP, which provides health and education programs in Vietnam. In the past, there was a lot of distance between the non-profits and Vietnamese officials.
The non-profit alliance agreed to pick one Vietnamese city next year toward which all members would contribute programs. The effort is the first of its kind.
The Vuongs hope the alliance group can be a bridge between emigres and the government of their homeland. While their critics charge the non-profits are being manipulated by Hanoi, the Vuongs and others say the non-profits, in fact, are helping to bring democratic values to Vietnam.
Said Diep Vuong, chair of the alliance’s planning committee: What we’re doing demanding transparency and accountability from the Vietnamese government is a very American thing.
Contact K. Oanh Ha at email@example.com or (408) 278-3457.
Additional ‘Letters to the Editor’
Posted on Wed, Dec. 07, 2005
Note: The following letters are unedited and reflect only the views of the author.
Thank you for your article, A quiet truce to help Vietnam published on Dec. 3, 2005.
The author correctly captures the excitement and importance of a historical moment at the Second Vietnamese American Non-Governmental Organization (VA NGO) Conference when 24 diverse Vietnamese American humanitarian and development organizations committed to be Founding Members of the VA-NGO Network. This will give the newly united group the ability to speak as one voice in communicating with funders, the US and Vietnamese governments. However, we would like to point out two things mentioned in the article that might have given an incorrect interpretation of this important event: 1) the use of the word banned when referred to the press and 2) a faulty article quoted by a local San Jose Vietnamese language newspaper regarding who organized the conference.
On the first point, reporters were not banned from the conference. The event was a working conference of member organizations. Thousands of such non-public working meetings are conducted by corporations, academic institutions and nonprofit organizations throughout America every week – rarely is the press invited to such working conferences, because much is said and voted on in open meetings that may or may not receive final approval by the membership. Moreover, press releases were issued before and after the conference. Just because one is not invited to a function does not mean one is banned from that function. The editor’s unfortunate use of the word banned casts unnecessary suspicion on an event that brought new hope to Vietnamese Americans doing humanitarian and development work in Vietnam. The editor may feel that banned is the same as not invited, but for many of us this word has a strongly negative connotation that simply isn’t accurate or applicable in the case of the VA-NGO Network conference.
We also would like to clarify that this event was indeed organized by eight Vietnamese American member organizations of the Planning Committee. VA NGOs are grassroots communiy-based organizations supported by Vietnamese American communities throughout the US. The VA NGO Network and its member organizations were not conceived, directed, administered, supported by, or in conjunction with either the US or Vietnamese governments. A local Vietnamese language news source mentioned in the article asserted that the Vietnamese government orchestrated the conference. This would be false and irresponsible journalism on their part, complicated by the fact that they quoted a news source in Vietnam which truncated our full press release and made the false assumption that such a large event must have been organized by the government of Vietnam.
The scope of the humanitarian and development work done by Vietnamese-Americans and supported by Vietnamese American community over the last 30 years is indeed extensive. Projects include school and library construction, medical clinics and mobile healthcare services, newborn care, early childhood training, child-and-women trafficking prevention program, microcredit economic development project, scholarships for disadvantaged youth and orphans, IT training, cultural preservation, and tsunami and Hurricane Katrina relief projects. Programs conducted by Vietnamese American groups and organizations have benefited millions of Vietnamese people. The formation of an alliance is a positive and critical step forward for these organizations themselves, for the Vietnamese American communities in general and ultimately for the children and the people of Vietnam.
It is important to clarify these misunderstandings because Vietnamese Americans doing charity work in Vietnam are constantly at risk if we are not careful in balancing between the suspicions of the Vietnamese government and the suspicions of Vietnamese American community activists. We appreciate the article reporting on our conference but would like to accurately portray our difficult work without casting unwarranted suspicion on our generous donors and dedicated volunteers.
VA NGO Network Planning Committee, Oakland