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by Andrew Lam

Bush Brings Nothing to the Table in Pacific Rim Trade Summit

(PNS) -- Most of the 2,000 plus international journalists in Hanoi to cover the summit for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation will probably miss the real story of Vietnam: a country going through an internal crisis.

While Vietnam is being lauded as an emerging economic tiger of Asia, behind that image are an array of chronic social and environmental problems seemingly impossible to resolve.

Since the war ended in 1975, the country's population has more than doubled, from around 35 million to 84 million. Nearly two out of three Vietnamese are too young to have any direct memory of the Vietnam War. What they do have is a new longing for the West and its stuff.

Materialism is the new ideology. These days everyone needs a cell phone, a motorcycle, and if they can afford it, a flat screen TV and a laptop. Many will do practically anything to own new toys.

When Vietnam emerged from the Cold War the forces of globalization quickly swept it up. The result is a country whose Confucian practices -- modesty, frugality, respect -- have been thrown out the window, especially in urban areas.

Part of the cultural revolution taking place is a sexual one. Once known for its modesty and traditional practices, the abortion rate is around 1.5 million a year, many unwanted teenage pregnancies. In a country of 84 million people, statistics estimate that in only 4 years a million people will be infected with HIV. Prostitution is rampant, with some NGO estimates saying there are that there are more than 300,000 prostitutes in the country. Many other women are being trafficked to be prostitutes overseas.

Vietnam accounts for around 10 percent of trafficked women and children worldwide. According to UNICEF and Vietnam's Ministry of Justice as well as other groups, as many as 400,000 Vietnamese women and children have been trafficked overseas. It is a conservative estimate and doesn't account for mail order brides where women are sent to places like Taiwan and Korea to work in brothels. And they can't expect much protection from their government.

According to the "Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000: Trafficking in Persons Report." released last year by the U.S. State Department, Vietnam was classified as a "tier two" country, meaning that the government, makes some effort to but "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking."

For some, most worrying is the ongoing environmental degradation. In Vietnam, the word moi truong- environment -- is still not a familiar word, let alone the term Ôsustainable development.' While foreign journalists love to cover the old Agent Orange story, the real environment disaster for the country is how population pressure is causing the depletion of forests, pushing the ecosystem of Vietnam to the brink of extinction.

One out of three Vietnamese depend solely on forest and forest products for their living, and the number is rising steadily, according to the United Nations Development Program. Whereas the Vietnam War destroyed close to 5 million acres of forestland, ten times that amount (some 50 million) more, has been destroyed since. Vietnam experiences terrible floods each year that have killed thousands, because there are far fewer trees in the central mountains and hills to absorb the monsoon rain.

As Vietnam's forests shrink, some of the world's rare species (including three of the world's ten mammals only recently discovered) now face extinction; the green peacock, the Java rhino, the barking deer, the Asian elephant and the rare Sao La ox. There is a lack of public awareness for the need for environmental protection, so conservation practices are rare and government policies, ineffective.

Vietnam boasts at 7.5 percent GNP growth, second fastest to China. Economic development needs natural resources, but no one seems to have any good answers as to what to do when the forests are gone. And economic progress does not create what the country needs, a civil society in which citizens can fully participate, steering the course of their collective future. This is only possible with real political reform; a multiparty system with true freedom of expression, something the Communist Party staunchly denies its population.

To prepare for the economic meeting Hanoi has been cleaning up for weeks. Protesting peasants and the homeless were packed off to a camp far outside Hanoi. Soldiers now patrol all quarters, especially the homes of well-known political dissidents under house arrests. Hoang Minh Chinh, Le Hong Ha, Nguyen Thanh Giang, Pham Que Duong, Hoang Tien, Nguyen Khac Toan, Nguyen Van Dai, Le Thi Cong Nhan, Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, Nguyen Phuong Anh, Bach Ngoc Duong, Le Chi Quang are men and women of conscience and sorely needed to participate in discussing Vietnam's future.

Andrew Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005)

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Albion Monitor   November 16, 2006   (

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