Past Reflections, Future Considerations

After the success of the exhibition Waging Peace – U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed America’s War in Vietnam, which opened in March at the War Remnants Museum storied diplomat, Madam Ton Nu Thi Ninh, the current president of the Ho Chi Minh City Peace & Development Foundation (HPDF), sat down with Oi to discuss facets of her career, her work at HPDF, as well as her thoughts on the future

Originally from Hue, by the early 1970s Madam Ninh was a young academic studying in Paris. It was here where she became politically engaged. “I was taking part in the anti-war movement among the Vietnamese in Paris, and so I was recruited to go back to Saigon to do work for the NLF (the National Liberation Front).”

Upon her return to Vietnam she took a position at Saigon Teachers College as Deputy Dean of the faculty of English, while continuing her work for the NLF. “The NLF had recruited a number of us from Paris. The cause was to help get the US out and regain the southern part of our country. This is something that I have to insist on, something that irks me the most, the notion that one part of the country was invading the other part. Imagine people saying that the Yankees were invading the Confederate USA during the Civil War. It’s the same country, just with different political ideas, but it’s still one country. That’s the way we felt.”

As we know from history, the NLF movement prevailed and the US withdrew from Vietnam. While the war was over, however, deep wounds remained in the decades that followed. When an opportunity came in 2004 to attempt to bridge the divide on a diplomatic tour of the US, Madam Ninh expressed disappointment that she wasn’t able to do more, yet felt that the diaspora had been unwilling to listen.

“I have always been open to talk, to engage. In fact when I was in the National Assembly I did a tour of the US. By the time I was in Chicago the diehards that had heard about my tour started organizing a bit of protest, and I understood it was a relic of the past. The end of my trip was in San Diego. In San Diego the most diehards had two busloads of protesters come from Orange County to protest,” she recalls.

She described how, after demanding the right to attend, they rushed into the room where she was scheduled to speak, occupying more than twothirds of the seats. “They let me do the introduction and then the moment the Q&A started there were hands flashing out, with mostly accusatory, denouncing (language), nothing about the dialogue, just calling me a liar and that sort of thing. Internally I thought, ‘My, if someone like me, coming in that spirit of openness, they cannot even talk, just talk, then what I realized is that, that was the glass wall I had hit.’ It was as far as I could go in trying to illicit dialogue. They didn’t come for dialogue. It was an opportunity to showcase, so they had brought their TV crew so they could boast back home in Orange County.”

Rather than speak with her, they stood in the front of the room and delivered statements for the cameras. “Well, I was a bit disappointed. With the spirit in which I had come I was a bit disappointed that we couldn’t really talk and that I had reached the limit of what I could do.”

Asked if she could empathize with the members of the Overseas Vietnamese community who refused to return to Vietnam, Madam Ninh replies, “You need to go and visit the country and the people. You go there to visit the people,  the country, family if you have them, but it doesn’t mean you support the government.”

Due to these contretemps about the past, when looking to the next generation of Vietnamese, Madam Ninh sees the need for more political understanding and involvement. “Among the young in Vietnam what troubles me is that some of them are so blindly pro-American. Some of it you could see during President Obama’s visit. He’s a very attractive kind of president. They were connecting to him. It’s alright to be curious about the US, it’s alright to, in fact, admire the major achievements of the US, especially in technology, science, and in talent development, but they know so little about the US, about US history and society, yet they’re a bit starry-eyed, and at the same time they don’t integrate the past into whatever perceptions and judgments they make about the rest of the world, including the US. They shrug their shoulders when some people try to explain to them what the war was about. It was a terrible price to pay, but the fundamental thing that we need to explain to our young people is that of course we would have preferred that there be no war.”

Madam Ninh adds, “I’m often in contact with young people, so I try to help them make sense. Of course you should not let the past weigh on you to the point that you can’t move ahead, that you don’t know how to appreciate other people or other cultures. On the other hand you cannot just shrug it off, it’s got nothing to do with us, that’s our parents or grandparents; we are free and now just move on. So I try to help them understand that any individual cannot have a future if he doesn’t own a past. The question is, how does he own it and relate to it? Even if the past was dark there is a positive way of making it work for a brighter future. The right way is not to say it didn’t happen, or I don’t care. History doesn’t begin with your own life.”

While discussing how an engaged and informed youth can impact the country, Madam Ninh referenced the recent social movement by students in the US following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in February. “I’m pleasantly surprised because people were saying, never will there be talk about repealing the Second Amendment, that’s something completely unrealistic, but there’s now even a former Supreme Court justice who said it’s time to repeal the Second Amendment.”

She’s referring to a New York Times op-ed piece from March 26th where former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: “In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned Chief Justice Burger’s and others’ longsettled understanding of the Second Amendment’s limited reach by ruling, in District of Columbia v. Heller, that there was an individual right to bear arms. I was among the four dissenters. That decision—which I remain convinced was wrong and certainly was debatable—has provided the N.R.A. with a propaganda weapon of immense power. Overturning that decision via a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option.”

Ninh then pointed to the success of policy changes in Australia, but acknowledged that it would be difficult to accomplish in the US because, “When you speak about US exceptionalism, one part of the exceptionalism is this thing about gun ownership.”

This dialog in regard to guns and gun violence led to discussion of one of the programs Madam Ninh is currently developing at HPDF, called the Peace Culture Program, aimed at breeding tolerance and peaceful values in everyday life. “Because you see, there has been a rise in violence in civil society among the young, and so it means that some lifestyles have come down in terms of quality and morality.”

“Our program is to say peace is not just the silencing of guns or the stopping of bloodshed, because violence is not just the shedding of blood. There are all forms of violence and it takes place nearly everywhere, under all sorts of forms, and if we want a humane and civilized, cultured life, we’ve got to tackle it. That’s why in this program I want to organize workshops, but I also want to do a mass awareness program, because this city [HCMC] is known as an economic hub and I would like people to remember that it’s not all about money. We need to strive toward something that is more, that goes deeper, that brings perhaps, more lasting happiness than just material wellbeing.”

Her hope is to create an annual festival in HCMC on September 21st, the International Day of Peace. And her message to the youth for creating a peaceful future is that: “Each of them needs to develop their own philosophy of life. And in that philosophy of life there should be certain values that should be central, that should be guiding them as they grow up and get on with their lives. For example, compassion and respect for others, tolerance, respect for diversity, and also openness to the rest of the world. But you have to be sound in yourself as you go out into the world. If you’re a vulnerable person, if you don’t really have clear values, then you won’t know what to make of the broader world, and this broad world, today, you can see is such a mess.”

So, are the Vietnamese youths doing that? “I think the Vietnamese, compared to a few other nations in East Asia, I think we are a very moderate nation. We avoid the extremes of the pendulum. Now, our young people, some are hyper-nationalist. For example, now they hate everything Chinese. I explain to them, I say, during the war we never boycotted French culture, French bread, French wine. During the war resisting the American army, we never boycotted Coca-Cola or jeans or whatever, so we are not going to start now. We don’t like what the Chinese government does in the East Sea, that doesn’t mean that any Chinese product we should boycott, or the people. It may be difficult to speak to certain Chinese today, but we still need to talk to them. There’s no other way. So that’s one extreme that we need to avoid among the young.”

Madam Ninh continues taking lessons from conflicts of the past to teach the youth more about social responsibility through the programs she’s spearheaded at HPDF, such as The Orange Initiative to assist those disabled by dioxin, or the aforementioned Peace Culture Program to spread non-violence practices.

To learn more about her work in national development and youth empowerment, as well as the programs and activities of HPDF, visit

Image by Vy Lam

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