Touchy Roger Cohen Writes Me a Letter

Roger "Thin-Skin" Cohen wrote me yesterday in response to my post about his apologia for Vietnam's ruling regime:


In light of your deep concern about human rights, not least in Vietnam, a country you clearly know well, I thought you might find these two messages of interest.

It's undoubtedly true that I don't know as much about Vietnam as I do about, say, Iran, but I also believe that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International aren't completely fabricating their reports about gross violations of human rights by the Communist regime in Hanoi.

By the way, has anyone ever seen a New York Times columnist behave so defensively?

In any case, here are the two messages Cohen forwarded. His sharing them proves that... Roger Cohen takes inordinate pleasure from e-mails that don't excoriate him. I'm looking forward, by the way, to his next column: Misunderstood Myannmar.

Dear Mr. Cohen, I am just writing to say how much I appreciate your articles on Vietnam. I work with a Paris-based Vietnamese organization monitoring human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam (our President, Vo Van Ai is international spokesman of the outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam led by Thich Quang Do). When I first came to work with Vo Van Ai, the first thing he said was, if you are really oncernhed about helping for human rights in Vietnam, then learn Vietnamese and read books about Vietnamese culture. Then you can truly help. It did, and it was one of the best lessons I've ever learned, because since then, I have begun to appreciate the Vietnamese people in a completely different way. This is why I appreciate your articles, for you are not imposing "white skinned" values and concepts on the Vietnamese people, but you analyse their strengths and their weaknesses, their pride as well as their complexes and fears. So thank you, sincerely, We are in close contact with the Vietnamese dissident movement and especially the Buddhists, and we produce frequent news releases. I would like to send them to you if you could give me your E-mail. In your recent article, I was very interested to hear your comment that a Russian delegation had visited Vietnam to teach hanoi how to comntain NGOs. I have worked on a report on "Defending Civil Society" where the backlash in Russia against NGOs was very clear. Vietnam has no independent civil society as yet, but if it learns from Russia, it never will. I would be happy to have your E-mail if you agre, so that we can exchange and send your our information on Vietnam. I also double as an Edditorial Consultant of the Washington-based Radio Free Asia, which broadcasts to Vietnam. I think I am their only blond, "white skinned" correspondent. It's fun. With very best regards, Penelope Faulkner Vice-President, Vietnam Committee on Human Rights

Dear Mr. Cohen, I've been a fan of your column for some time now, and I read your last two on Vietnam with great interest. I'm a Viet Kieu who has been working in the NGO sector in HCMC for the past three years, and in that time I've come to similar conclusions as you on the country's future. I currently work for a private foundation that is supported by Vietnam's largest investment fund, and it's been an interesting perch from which to observe all of the changes. Your last column on the evolution of the political system in Vietnam is spot-on. It's one of those two steps forward, ten steps back situations, but the overall direction is positive because Vietnam has such a single-minded focus on moving from its identity as a war-ravaged country into a true global player in all arenas. The time will come, sooner rather than later I think, when the country will have to decide which direction it will follow, and that push will come from the inside. You can feel it already. Vietnam is in its extreme nouveau riche stage, to put it crudely, but at some point people will stop caring about fancy cars and designer labels and seek something more existential. As for NGOs, I think it's a more complicated situation than your column implies. Yes, NGOs are less welcome here than, say, Cambodia, but they are still welcome if they know how to play the game. The government knows that it needs outside help in order to reach all of its development goals; however, this chafes because they have to admit that they can't do it on their own. It's a constant struggle between swallowing their pride and accepting help, or losing face. I find that it's always a delicate dance between NGOs and the government, but generally if you cross your i's and dot your t's and are completely transparent, it'll be fine. There are just too many poor people in Vietnam, and again, progress is king. My own experience working in the NGO sector has been very positive. Most people's reaction when they find out my professional and ethnic background is one of wonder  (why would I leave America and all of its riches), gratitude (I've left all of America's riches to help poor people), and pride/condescension (of course I would leave America's riches to come back to Vietnam because it's the best)--it all depends on if I'm speaking to an ordinary person on the street, one of my beneficiaries, or an official. In the end, everyone approves. It's very important to me that Vietnam develops well. I am fearful that HCMC, a reflection of the rest of the country, will turn into another messy and generic Asian city like Bangkok with its open sewers, thousands of power lines among the designer shopping malls, and extremely poor people living on the fringes. Part of it is because it's my job to worry and find solutions, but the other part is my Vietnamese pride that knows no nationality. It's the pride that my parents drummed into my head every time they reminded me to never forget my heritage, that made the government open up the country and markets to drag millions of Vietnamese out of poverty, that makes them accept the help of NGOs. This pride has been with the Vietnamese for 2000 years, beyond ideology or religion and through countless foreign invasions, and it's the single driving force that is propelling this country forward. I have a lot of hope for Vietnam, and I'm happy to see that you've had a positive outlook on its future as well. Warmest regards, Mimi Vu