A“Biography Not”of General TrầnĐộ:
His Dissident Writings, Elite Politics,
and Death in Retrospect
PhạmBáHải and Lê Trí Tuệleft Hà Nội for Thái Bình Province in early
September of . Their objective: to mark the fifth death anniversary
of Lieutenant General TrầnĐộwho, during the final years of his life,
became the leading critic of the Vietnamese Communist Party—the orga-
nization he faithfully served for fifty-eight years. But security officials
stopped them as they turned down the dirt road leading to his grave site.
Both men belonged to Bloc , a Catholic-led coalition of intellectuals,
which had issued a manifesto five months earlier. The manifesto reiterated
many of the same criticisms that TrầnĐộdid prior to his death in ,
calling for democratic reforms, including the creation of a multi-party state
to secure the civil and political rights that the Constitution guaranteed
The security officials did not explain why nonresidents were still not
permitted to travel to ThưĐiền, the village where TrầnĐộwas buried.
Instead, they accused both men of driving a stolen motorcycle, of trafficking
heroin, and of violating Decree , a vaguely worded seventy-page document
authorizing exorbitant fines and prison terms for people who distribute
information that defames the nation and/or denies revolutionary
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The first two accusations had no factual basis. They had borrowed the
motorcycle from Trần Anh Kim, a former army lieutenant colonel and Bloc
member. Neither of them was in possession of narcotics. However,
PhạmBáHải did have a flash drive in his pocket. It contained some of his
essays, the content of which, the security officials claimed, contravened
Decree . The officials held both men overnight and forcibly returned them
to the capital the following morning.
This was not an isolated incident.
Security officials had previously stopped other well-known pro-democracy
activists (NguyễnPhương Anh, Dr. Nguyễn Thanh Giang, and Colonel
PhạmQuếDương) from visiting Lieutenant General TrầnĐộ’s grave to pay
their respects. The unstated but presumed reason: to prevent his grave from
becoming a pilgrimage site for such activists.
This essay explains why Lieutenant General TrầnĐộwas and remains
a divisive figure in elite politics. A close reading of his critical writings and
a detailed discussion of his death shed light on the making of a “dissident,”
the likes of which will not be seen again. Towards the end of his life, the
general sought to leverage his prestige, the result of nearly six decades of
highly decorated service to the “nation,”to exhort the communist party to
reform itself from within. TrầnĐộwas ostracized and harassed for doing so.
This led him to publicly rebuke the communist party for refusing to recom-
mit itself to the moral principles it was founded upon and to relinquish its
monopoly on political affairs. The general, however, failed to craft a coherent
message that could mobilize people who shared his views for two reasons.
First, he passionately argued that democratization would solve the country’s
most serious problems, especially political corruption and the repressive
measures used to perpetuate it; yet, he never designed a coherent and real-
istic program to achieve this goal. Instead, he presented talking points that
were, while powerful condemnations of the status quo, rhetorical in nature
rather than practical in design. Second, although the general championed
the rights of the rural poor, he remained an elitist who resolutely believed
respected war veterans and progressive intellectuals rather than “the people”
should lead the country forward.
But even if TrầnĐộhad found a way to reconcile these contradictions,
there was no way for him to enlarge the public sphere so that the intelli-
gentsia could develop concrete proposals to promote good governance,
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ35
much less organize a popular reform movement. (The general tried but
failed to establish an independent magazine devoted to current affairs, and
political conditions made it impossible for him to form a “club,”as he had
hoped, where members of the intelligentsia could gather to discuss and
debate them.) Conservative factions in the communist party succeeded in
marginalizing progressive ones during General Secretary Lê KhảPhiêu’s
tenure (–), and individuals who expressed dissident views were
among those who suffered the consequences.
Moreover, the very things
that enabled TrầnĐộto say publicly what others could not—his revolutionary
credentials—gradually ceased to protect him. The communist party
expelled TrầnĐộin after he publicly called on its leaders to abandon
socialism if that was what was necessary to ensure the just and equitable
development of the country. The general, although never arrested, lived
under -hour surveillance in his son’shomeinHồChí Minh City from
that point on. Security officials regularly harassed him, his family members,
and his supporters who occasionally came to visit despite the problems this
caused them. Strikingly, the harassment did not end with TrầnĐộ’s death
due to complications arising from diabetes in . For some, it continues
I chronicle these events and explain their broader significance over four
sections. I begin by introducing the concept of a “biography not,”which
serves as the analytical framework for the essay. Next, I present an overview
of the general’s storied career, which contextualizes a close reading of his
dissident writings and a careful recounting of his controversial funeral.
These two sections, when taken together, illustrate why a “biography not”
of TrầnĐộis useful for examining elite party politics. I conclude with
comments regarding the politics of commemoration, including the partial
rehabilitation of TrầnĐộthat is occurring now; this process recognizes
some of his contributions to “the nation,”but not the ones examined here.
A Biography Not
A full-length biography detailing Lieutenant General TrầnĐộ’s eventful life
has yet to be written. It deserves to be. This essay, however, while examining
important events in TrầnĐộ’s life, especially his final years and his death, is
not a mini biography. Rather, the essay is what historian Alice Kessler-Harris
calls a “biography not.”Kessler-Harris, influenced by E. P. Thompson’s call
to explore “the ways [the] mind meets the world,”argues that the experi-
ences of the individuals whose lives we wish to tell can provide insights into
the impact of ideas he or she encountered on their subsequent thoughts and
History, from this perspective, moves from the background—the
context for narrating a person’s life—to the foreground as a subject in its
own right. “Inverting the questions that biographers typically ask,”she
explains, “helps us to see not only into particular events but into the larger
cultural and social and even political processes of a moment in time.”
an approach is not without its limitations. It risks neglecting quotidian yet
important aspects of a public person’s private life. It can also accord greater
historical significance to an individual’s life than he or she may actually
warrant. Nonetheless, a “biography not”is useful here.
First, a “biography not”shifts the focus from private details of TrầnĐộ’s
life to the public ones, specifically the more than two dozen letters he sent to
high-ranking officials between and . The letters—morally charged
and trenchantly argued (if sometimes disjointed and frequently repetitive)—
detail the socioeconomic problems that prompted him to use his prestige to
advocate for greater civil and political liberties. Official responses to his
letters, in turn, document TrầnĐộ’s transformation from a political insider
into an outsider, and then a pariah. Attention to this iterative process pro-
vides a more nuanced depiction of the making of TrầnĐộthe dissident.
Second, a “biography not”demonstrates the value of the events surround-
ing General TrầnĐộ’s death. Funerals are highly ritualized and symboli-
cally charged moments, but they are especially so in socialist settings where
what is publicly memorialized frequently has little to do with what is pri-
Not surprisingly, the difference between the two was
a source of considerable conflict and anguish before, during, and after his
funeral. The details, drawn from eyewitness accounts, illustrate how elite
politics shaped what aspects of TrầnĐộ’s life could be commemorated. This
situation is slowly beginning to change. Some of TrầnĐộ’s contributions,
which I discuss at the essay’s end, are now receiving renewed attention.
Others, such as the ones discussed here, have yet to be officially acknowl-
edged. A “biography not”of his writing and his death explains why this is
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ37
A Biographical Overview
The general contours of TrầnĐộ’s life are relatively well-known.
Ngọc Phách (TrầnĐộ), born in , spent his early years in Tây Giang
Commune, Thái Bình Province, where his father worked as a civil servant.
The family later moved to Hà Nội after his father obtained a post as a court
secretary. TạNgọc Phách began his studies at a French-languge school there
at the age of seven or eight, and went on to complete a baccalaureate degree
with a concentration in literature, philosophy, and math. TạNgọc Phách’s
political education started after graduation. He helped publish New Person
[NgườiMới], a newspaper Trần Mai Ninh (NguyễnThường Khanh) edited.
He met a number of intellectuals in the course of doing so and they intro-
duced him to Marxism and other radical perspectives, which prompted him
to begin attending study sessions. (TrầnĐộlater confessed that he found
these discussions fascinating but difficult to understand. By his own admis-
sion, he remained like a “frog in a well”[ếch ngồiđáy giếng], that is, narrow-
minded and arrogant because his world-view was limited to what he could
see above from its bottom.) His involvement in these activities soon caught
the attention of the French authorities, who arrested but then released him
due to insufficient evidence in .
The following year, TạNgọcPhách,now, joined the Indochinese Com-
munist Party (ICP), and he began to use the alias TrầnĐộfrom this point
forward. The authorities rearrested him in Thái Bình Province in late
due to his suspected involvement with the ICP. The court sentenced him to
fifteen years in HỏaLòPrisoninHàNội, but he was transferred to SơnLa
Province Prison shortly afterwards. He spent two years there in the company
of Trường Chinh, NguyễnLương Bằng, Lê ĐứcThọ, Lê Thanh Nghị,Hoàng
QuốcViệt, and other ICP activists who went on to play decisive roles in
political affairs over the next four decades. In , the authorities decided
to transfer him to the prison on Poulo Condor Island. He escaped while en
route and promptly returned to Hà Nội, where an ICP cell in the Đông Anh
District promoted -year-old TrầnĐộto political commissar [chính ủy].
TrầnĐộentered the army in and quickly distinguished himself.
Rising rapidly through the ranks, he earned further promotions in and
. He also joined the Vietnam Literature and Arts Association, now the
Writers’Association [Hội Nhà Văn], which the government established in
, and became involved in the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm affair (–).
Despite the risks such a move posed, TrầnĐộtried to broker a compromise
between intellectuals, who demanded greater political freedom in addition to
artistic freedoms, and ideologues, who sought to reverse the gains they had
already made. He failed, and many of the key figures implicated in the affair
were imprisoned, underwent reeducation, and/or were never able to publish
Surprisingly, his involvement did not hurt his career. TrầnĐộwas
promoted to the rank of major general in and again in , when he
was appointed to the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist
Party. In ,TrầnĐộtravelled south, where he joined Nguyễn Chí Thanh,
Lê Trọng Tấn, Nguyễn Hòa, and Hoàng Cầm, who were overseeing military
efforts to overthrow the US-backed government of the Republic of Vietnam.
TrầnĐộplayed a key role in this struggle. He served as the assistant political
commissar and deputy secretary of Military Affairs for the Southern Region
for the next decade, during which he planned the Tết Offensive and
participated in the assault on Huế.
Promoted to lieutenant general in ,TrầnĐộbegan a new post that
same year: deputy director of the General Political Department. Immediately
afterwards, the party Central Committee sent him on an official mission to
the German Democratic Republic (GDR), passing through Beijing and
Moscow while en route. TrầnĐộwas alarmed by what he saw on his mission
and, upon his return, submitted a fourteen-page “confidential letter”to the
communist party’s three most senior leaders: Lê Duẩn, Trường Chinh, and
Lê ĐứcThọ. Many socialist principals had yet to be put into practice, he
explained, due to serious economic problems and the lingering effects of
Stalinism, which further undermined the efforts “to build socialism”in the
GDR. Given the sheer magnitude of these and other problems, TrầnĐộclosed
the letter with a pragmatic but controversial conclusion. The Vietnamese
Communist Party, he suggested, should consider seeking foreign investment
from other countries, without regard to whether they are “socialist”or “cap-
italist,”provided they contributed to Vietnam’s economic development. He
received no response.
Once again, his views did not adversely affect him. Quite the contrary, he
received the HồChí Minh Medal in as well as further promotions—this
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ39
time to vice minister of the Ministry of Culture and deputy chief of Propa-
ganda and Training for Literary and Artistic Affairs that same year. By ,
he had become influential enough to draft Resolution No. . The resolution,
approved in late , relaxed ideological restrictions on cultural produc-
tion, a process known as the “loosening of chains”[cởi trói].
The burst of
creativity that followed was short-lived, however. NguyễnVăn Linh, the
general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party and key supporter
of this process, abruptly reversed his position in late in response to two
major events: the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen
Square, which required the Chinese military to use lethal force to end, and
the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to the collapse of single-party rule, first
in Eastern Bloc countries and then the Soviet Union. Fearful that something
similar could occur in Vietnam, senior officials launched a crackdown led by
NguyễnĐức Bình (a Politburo member, chairman of the Central Theoretical
Council, and director of the National HồChí Minh Academy of Politics),
which further narrowed what little space existed for freedom of expression.
This space closed entirely in March when the Central Committee
voted at its Ninth Plenum to suppress all further calls for political reforms.
The decision immediately affected Trần Xuân Bách, the ninth most senior
member of the Politburo. The committee members expelled him for having
repeatedly advocated for the “systemization of democracy, law, and human
Because TrầnĐộ’s views on such matters were well-known, he
came under significant pressure during this period and lost his Central
Committee seat in . He stepped down from all his active posts the
following year, including vice chairman of the National Assembly, chair-
man of the National Assembly’s Committee on Culture and Education,
and a seat on the State Council. The general nonetheless continued to
closely follow current affairs and became increasingly concerned with what
was happening. TrầnĐộacquired diabetes in late , however, and he
spent all of recovering from foot surgery.
He regained his strength
the following year and began sending letters—more than two dozen of
them between and —to political elites to convey his concerns.
TrầnĐộwas, of course, not the only person writing such letters.
A number of other prominent (former) party members, war veterans, and
intellectuals sent their own during these years—Central Committee member
Lieutenant General Lê Quang Đạo, party member and award-winning
author NguyễnKhắcViện, Colonel and Vice Chief Editor of The People’s
Daily [Nhân Dân] Bùi Tín, and former Vice Minister of Education and the
Director of the Marxist Institute of Philosophy Hoàng Minh Chính, among
Photocopiers became more common during the first half of
the s and enabled less well-known figures to secretly self-publish
materials with political content, such as The Link [NốiKết], Saigonese
[Người Sài Gòn], and Freedom Forum [DiễnĐàn TựDo].
works are illegal. Nonetheless, copies were circulated by hand, post, and fax,
though it is impossible to know how widely.
By the late s internet
access had become easier, which significantly expanded TrầnĐộ’s reader-
ship, as it did for other critics. Some of them worked within the system (Club
of Former Resistance Fighters), whereas others worked outside it (Unified
Buddhist Church of Vietnam).
TrầnĐộutilized both strategies; the
former at the start of his letter-writing campaign (–), the latter
at the end (–).
Some of the general’s letters were confidential. TrầnĐộ’s decision to
make personal appeals followed established protocol. It also reflected his
belief, which proved to be misplaced, that he still carried enough prestige to
help persuade the party’s leadership to implement political reforms. But
most of the general’s letters were “open”ones [thưngỏ], a genre of political
and/or moral protest where the author disseminates copies to a broader
audience in the hopes that they too will advocate for constructive change.
Interestingly, “leaked”copies of his confidential letters made their way
online (though sometimes not until several years after the fact) in addition
to his “open”ones. It is not clear who was responsible for leaking the initial
confidential letters. However, circumstantial evidence suggests that high-
ranking officials purposefully leaked some of them to “reactionary”groups
overseas as part of their efforts to discredit him at home.
The campaigns against “erroneous”and “oppositionist”ideas frequently
targeted the general by name and they augmented the physical measures
security officials used to isolate him. Both tactics led international human
rights organizations to describe TrầnĐộas a “political dissident”[ngườibất
đồng chính kiến]. However, he did not refer to himself as such, nor did his
critics, or, for that matter, his supporters. Instead, all of them employed
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ41
a variety of other terms, ranging from “reactionary”to “patriot,”but they all
concerned the same question: Did the general abuse democratic freedoms
for self-interested reasons, or did he sacrifice himself to promote them?
My discussion of his dissident writings follows. In it, I present the basis for
these conflicting interpretations through a close reading of his writings,
specifically its key themes, the rhetorical strategies used, and how both
changed over time as a result of official responses to the letters he sent.
Crisis and opportunity characterized the early s. The Soviet Union, then
Vietnam’s largest donor, ceased to provide aid in , which forced the
latter to enact some of the market reforms it officially approved during the
s but had never seriously implemented. Despite modest improvements,
the country’s economy remained sluggish until late , when Vietnam
finally reestablished a cooperative relationship with the international finan-
cial community. This paved way for a massive increase in overseas develop-
ment assistance and foreign direct investment. The funds also contributed to
a concomitant increase in corruption.
By January , this problem had
grown so severe that an Inter-Congress Party Conference was held to clarify
the principles for governing the conduct of its cadres and to strengthen
“state rule by law.”The campaign resulted in few tangible results, as public
protests regarding illegal land seizures, extortion, and other abuses com-
mitted by low-level officials demonstrated. More than one hundred such
incidents occurred during the first half of alone.
Both trends trou-
bled the general, who sent the first letter of what would soon become
a concerted letter-writing campaign regarding the source of these problems
and what the communist party should do to resolve them.
THE PARTY’S ILLNESSES
General TrầnĐộsent a confidential letter entitled “Building and Perfecting
the State”to ĐỗMười, the general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist
Party, and the other Politburo members in January of . Two key pro-
blems, he explained, must be resolved if this goal is to be achieved. The first
problem concerns two notions that are conjoined but need to be separated:
“the Party leads”and “the Party holds power.”Linking them, the general
continues, is incorrect because it suggests that the communist party is not
only distinct from but also “above”the state, and hence not subject to the
Constitution or laws based upon it. Moreover, he argues, conjoining
them reinforces the widespread view that the state is “of the Party, by the
Party, and for the Party”rather than “of the people, by the people, and for
the people.”The second problem, he continues, follows from the first.
Because the communist party positions itself as the highest authority, it is
currently impossible for state organs, such as the National Assembly, to
oversee its activities. The country must therefore make a choice between
two incompatible governance structures: the “dictatorship of the proletar-
iat,”which would mean that the existing constitution is for all purposes
irrelevant, or “democratic rule of law,”which would require significant
political reforms to make a reality. For TrầnĐộthe choice is an obvious
The general sent his next major letter during the spring of the following
year in response to the internal documents circulating in advance of the th
Party Congress (June –July ,). He titled the nine-page public letter,
“Contributing Opinions for National Congress No. : From the Party of the
Peoples’Liberation to the Party of National Development.”
In it, the
general expands on the problems he outlined in his earlier confidential letter.
He begins with a contentious claim: the revolutionary struggle to liberate the
entire country (–) cannot be understood without taking into
account the key role the communist party played in it; nonetheless, “national
liberation”would not have been possible were it not for the patriotic con-
tributions of the people, almost none of whom were party members. Over
time, however, the communist party has redefined patriotism from “the love
of one’s country”to “the love for socialism.”The redefinition is a serious
mistakeandthesourceofitscurrent“illness”[bệnh], according to the
The metaphor of “illness”is an important one and regularly reappears in
his subsequent letters. It implies the possibility that the sick “patient”(the
communist party) could regain health by taking corrective action. To do so,
the general states, the communist party must cure itself of three illnesses.
The first involves “speaking only of achievements,”which makes it difficult
to determine why other policies failed and how much responsibility officials
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ43
should bear where this occurred. This “illness”contributes to “flattery”and
“sweet talk”rather than honest discussion, as well as the “suppression”of
views and “repressive”action against people who speak directly and truth-
fully. The second is “monolatry”[độctôn], which he defines as the com-
munist party’s“narrow-minded”view that no one should be permitted to
take any action without its prior consent and subsequent supervision. The
methods used ensured that this remains the case—encourage people to join
the party not because they wish to serve others, but to acquire “positions of
power, fame, and profit.”“They now selfishly travel their own road,”he
complains, and “bite their lips to eat money”[ngậmmiệng ăntiền], that is,
keep silent about corruption either to avoid retaliation or to continue to
supplement their own salaries in extralegal ways. The third is “secrecy,”
which has its historical origins in the armed struggle, but is no longer
necessary. Yet, TrầnĐộstates with considerable annoyance, government
officials routinely decline to disclose information regarding their activities,
claiming that they are “internal matters”and further details could enable
people to misuse the information to harm “the Communist Party’s prestige.”
These three “illnesses,”he continues, are the primary cause of red tape, lack
of transparency, and insufficient accountability, which moves the commu-
nist party “farther and farther away from the people.”The saying, “The
Party’s plan takes the peoples’will into account,”he sadly concludes, has
come to mean the opposite: the people are instead required to “follow the
The general then closes the document with a series of sugges-
tions, all of which make the same point. Meaningful political reforms must
precede economic ones if the communist party is to heal itself. Shortly
afterwards, the Ministry of Public Security labeled the general a “dangerous
element”who needed to be watched.
CURING THE PARTY
During the spring of , several thousand farmers, many of whom were
war veterans, seized some local officials in Thái Bình Province. They held
them hostage to get the attention of the central government because
provincial-level officials had ignored their previous petitions for help.
Although there were similar protests that same year in the southern province
of Đồng Nai, the party leadership regarded the events in Thái Bình to be
more worrisome. Thái Bình is located in one of the “cradles”of the socialist
revolution, a region where the Vietnamese Communist Party has enjoyed
strong support historically. (Ironically, the province has also produced some
of the country’s best known dissidents: Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thích
Quảng Độ, critically acclaimed writer Dương Thu Hương, and leading figure
in the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm affair NguyễnHữuĐang, among others.)
Additionally, the illegal land seizures, graft, and extortion that ignited the
protests evoked personal memories of the prerevolutionary forms of exploi-
tation that the communist party claims to have eradicated decades earlier.
For these reasons, many observers interpreted the violent unrest in Thái
Bình as a symptom of the corruption that had metastasized after the Ren-
ovation [ĐổiMới] reforms began.
The party/state responded to the unrest in two ways. First, security
agencies imposed a media blackout from May to September of to
conceal the scale of the unrest and, in all likelihood, to prevent it from
disrupting the carefully choreographed summer elections, which resulted in
a significant leadership transition. (General Secretary ĐỗMười, President
Lê Đức Anh, and Prime Minister Võ VănKiệt stepped down, though they
continued as advisors to the Central Committee, and Politburo members
NguyễnVăn Linh, PhạmVănĐồng, and Võ Chí Công retired.) Despite the
ban, reliable reports indicate that over one thousand two hundred special
police, headed by Politburo member PhạmThếDuyệt, travelled to the
province to investigate the situation. Shortly thereafter, the special police
arrested approximately fifty local officials as well as sixty civilians involved
in the protests—more than half of whom were labeled “extremists”and
sentenced to prison for “disrupting public order.”Subsequent investiga-
tions resulted in disciplinary actions against more than one thousand five
hundred other officials, because they were found guilty of corruption and/
or failed to report it. Thirty of them received prison sentences as well.
The government issued the “Grassroots Democracy Decree”in mid-May
of while these events were still unfolding. The decree exhorted officials
to institute measures that would help rural populations to participate in local
administrative affairs, albeit within strictly defined limits. “The people know,
the people discuss, the people do, the people inspect,”as the slogan that
accompanied the decree put it. Not surprisingly, the decree did little to
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ45
change how officials conducted their activities. Indeed, that same month,
eleven men and women, each of whom had been party members for forty or
more years, submitted a joint letter entitled “A Heartfelt Letter to Build the
Party”[Huyết tâm thưxây dựng Đảng] to the Ministry of Public Security
and sent copies of it to the general secretary of the communist party, the
prime minister, the president of Vietnam, the president of the National
Assembly, as well as a number of newspapers and magazines. The letter is
of considerable interest. It details a number of serious corruption cases in
which the high-ranking officials went unpunished, and even accuses Phạm
ThếDuyệt of corruption and nepotism. Further inaction, they argued, would
erode what remains of the communist party’srevolutionary“prestige,”
a quality that provided the moral basis of its political legitimacy. Repeated
efforts to discuss these concerns with the relevant officials over the previous
seven months had also been unsuccessful, they complained.
noted, official warnings instructing them to stop, which included a commu-
niqué from the general secretary, were disrespectful and dismissive of their
lengthy service to the communist party.
The lack of response prompted ten
other party members to send another letter in July urging an investigation
into the financial dealings involving PhạmThếDuyệt and six other top
officials, all of whom had acquired expensive properties in Hà Nội. The
investigation exonerated PhạmThếDuyệt; however, the scandal did result
in Prime Minister Phan VănKhải signing Government Decree No. in
August, which ordered all officials, but not senior party members, to disclose
their personal assets if they exceeded fifty million Vietnamese đồng (then
These events provided the context for a twenty-page open letter that Trần
Độwrote in late -early ,“The Country’s Situation and the Role of
the Communist Party.”He sent the document in the spring of to key
decision-makers in the communist party, the National Assembly, and the
government, as well as some “relevant [but unnamed] friends.”The letter,
like his previous ones, follows a similar trajectory: a discussion of worrisome
trends, an analysis of their causes, policy prescriptions for addressing them,
and further suggestions for consideration. In this instance, the general begins
with the state-managed mass media, which he roundly criticizes for its
relentlessly positive accounts of the country’s“modernization.”In his view,
the “crisis”in Thái Bình, his home province, is indicative of a broader
problem: the party/state’s refusal to “honestly look at”and “truthfully speak
about”such incidents much less take serious steps to address their causes.
In this case, it was the “new tyrants,”corrupt officials, who he later dubs the
To cure this problem, the general calls on the party/state to become more
democratic, to strengthen the rule of law, and to promote social in addition
to economic development to ensure stability in the countryside. Otherwise,
he continues, such incidents will grow in number and severity because the
relationship of the communist party to “the people”is quite different from
what it was in the past. Party members now “rule over”rather than “with the
people,”and this has further eroded “unity”and therefore popular support
for its policies. (NguyễnHữuThọ,chairoftheparty’s Commission for
Ideology and Culture, stated much the same later that year.
) So, while
there are still many members who are “clean”and “unshakeable,”there are
not enough of them “to build the Communist Party”due to the misconduct
evinced by a majority of their colleagues.
This trend, the general explains,
is due to the sharp decline in the quality of its members who lack the
necessary “morality”[đức] and the “ability”[tài] to perform their jobs
properly. Thus, the famous slogan, “The Party and the People Are One,”
is no longer true. Instead, he declares the relationship has changed to the
point that “The Party and the People are Two.”
TrầnĐộemploys this rhetorical strategy throughout the letter to great
cumulative effect. The general deconstructs slogans one after the other, to
reveal that they are so vague as to mean virtually nothing or produce results
contrary to their stated goals. This strategy also enables him to turn the
language of the communist party back upon itself and, by doing so, publicly
dispute the party’s ability to claim it is the exclusive agent of unity and
progress within Vietnamese society. Nonetheless, the general repeatedly
stresses that he still believes the communist party can reform and thus renew
itself from within. TrầnĐộemphasizes this very point in the final section of
the document where he outlines the steps the party should immediately take
to become “closer to the people”and, in the process, regain its “prestige”in
their eyes. The most effective way to do this, he explains, is to revise the law
code to guarantee not only freedom of thought, speech, and expression, but
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ47
to protect people from “being beheaded before they report to the king”[tiền
trảmhậutấu], that is, enable them to submit information regarding official
misconduct without fear of retaliation. The general pointedly ends his lengthy
list of recommendations with a deliberate play on another slogan—the
national motto: “Independence, Freedom, and Happiness.”Each, HồChí
Minh explained, is contingent upon the others: “Independence without free-
dom is meaningless as is happiness without independence.”The general says
he agrees, but with an important addendum: “If you desire freedom [and]
happiness, you must have democracy.”
It is unclear whether party Central Committee members discussed Trần
Độ’s letter at its October plenum, though Prime Minister Phan VănKhải
evidently shared some of the same economic concerns. Shortly before the
plenum, he stated it was a matter of national security to stabilize the socio-
economic situation in the countryside, which the Asian financial crisis
(–) had caused to further deteriorate. And during a speech the
prime minister gave at the National Assembly immediately after the plenum,
he said excessive red tape and corruption, which consumed percent of the
foreign investment in Vietnam, urgently needed to be addressed.
quent events made it clear that neither the prime minister nor the other
Central Committee members shared TrầnĐộ’s political concerns, how-
ever. This is unlikely to have come as a surprise to the general, which is
perhaps why his next letter was an open rather than a confidential one,
and doing so served as a declaration of intent. He was now committed to
publicly speaking his mind regardless of the personal cost.
THE TURNING POINT
Most discussions of the general’s writing, especially those in the foreign
press, tend to emphasize his calls for democratization. His repeated refer-
ences to Vietnamese peasants—“who [once] formed the backbone of the
Communist Party and who are today turning their back on it to defend
themselves”—are also widely known. Given current limits on free expres-
sion, these “sound-bites”are noteworthy; they also serve to reconfirm our
preexisting ideas of what dissidents should demand. Such quotes, which
human rights organizations and politically active Vietnamese groups over-
seas prominently feature in their publications, direct attention away from
other concerns that pervade the general’s writing—most notably, his abiding
faith in a moral “vanguard”to transform Vietnamese society.
In his opinion, it is the “old and experienced”[lão thành] who possess the
abilities “to inspect and to block corruption and other shortcomings”while
also raising the “intellectual standards”[dân trí] of those denied formal
education due to war and poverty. These surviving figures, sometimes
known as “Generation ”and “Generation ”for their involvement
in revolutionary struggle, are widely seen to be above acting in their own
pecuniary self-interest due to their age and the sacrifices they made to
liberate the country. So too, he continues, are “progressive intellectuals,”
especially ones who continue to endure harassment, arbitrary detention,
and prison sentences for peacefully expressingviewsthatconflictwith
officially sanctioned ones.
The general mentions these figures in more
than one-third of his letters. He asserts that they can make significant
contributions to creating a “civilized society,”if only the government
would allow them. Yet, it continues to silence them, a point he made
repeatedly during .
Lê KhảPhiêu, the party general secretary, made a private visit to Trần
Độ’s home in early March of that year. No details have emerged regarding
the substance of their conversation, but it appears the conversation was not
an amicable one. Security officials placed the general under close surveil-
lance shortly afterwards and they began harassing his family members as
well as discouraging journalists from contacting him. Meanwhile, anony-
mous attacks in the press routinely denounced the general as a man whose
opinions should not be taken seriously since he “coveted fame and glory,”
was “discontented,”and “lacked gratitude”for what the communist party
had given him.
The first tactic was designed to isolate him, while the
second defamed him. Neither tactic worked.
In mid-March, shortly after the attacks began, TrầnĐộsent a “Letter of
Protest”to the prime minister, the president of the National Assembly,
Ministry of Public Security, and the director of the HồChí Minh City
Police. The general, after recounting his nearly six decades of service to
the Vietnamese Communist Party, demands that action be taken against
the police who interrogated him about a letter he sent to poet Bùi Minh
Quốc—the former vice president of the Literature and Art Association and
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ49
a war veteran. The letter expressed support for Bùi Minh Quốc, who the
ministry had just placed under administrative detention without trial for
writing an anthology, Spontaneous Poetry from Within the Interrogation
Room [thơvụthiệntrongphòngthẩmvấn], then circulating it to friends
inside and outside Vietnam. The police accused the general of sending his
letter to Vietnamese groups overseas to damage the country’sreputation.
The general responded that he did not know how his letter ended up on the
internet for two reasons. The letter was private and Bùi Minh Quốcwas
confined to his home and unable to receive visitors, which meant, the
general implied, the police had intercepted and then “leaked”the letter.
He received no response, and two weeks later, TrầnĐộsent another one.
This time to the Politburo Standing Committee asking its members to end
the “general campaign of criticism”state-managed newspapers were waging
against him. By his count, The People’s Daily,The Peoples’Army [Quân Đội
Nhân Dân], and Sài Gòn Liberation [Sài Gòn Giải Phóng] had published
twenty-one articles in March attacking his ideas. Some of the articles, he
noted, were respectful in tone, written in the spirit of intellectual debate, and
signed. But most were not, and their unnamed authors forcefully denounced
his views, including one who claimed the general’s ideas were similar to ones
held by “enemies who wish to harm the Communist Party [and] to harm the
people.”The general dismissed such criticisms as being not only baseless but
examples of officials “vying for position”behind the scenes to curry favor
with their superiors. TrầnĐộdid, however, express considerable anger that
his family was also being harassed (security officials interrogated his youn-
gest son and caused problems for his eldest, an army colonel, who was due to
receive an award); so, too, were people who visited his home. The general
then demanded an answer to a question. Several Western news agencies had
reported that Lê KhảPhiêu had decided to expel him from the communist
party. Was this news false, he wanted to know, or was it an instance of
“where there is smoke there must be a tongue of flame?”
Once again, there is no indication that he received a reply. So, he wrote
yet another letter in late April to Nông ĐứcMạnh, then the president of the
National Assembly, defending the right of Bùi Minh Quốc to send poems to
his close friends.
The Ministry of Public Security, after having read the
poems he wrote, extended his administrative detention on the grounds that
their content threatened “national security.”The general, who also read
copies of the poems, strenuously disagreed. Moreover, he continued, the
decision to place Bùi Minh Quốc under administrative detention in the first
place was unlawful because Decree No. (), regularly used to suppress
free speech, violates Article of the Constitution. Promoting rather
than suppressing freedom of expression is in the country’s best interests, he
explains. Permitting independent media—especially forums where the coun-
try’s intelligentsia can exchange their views—will not cause “confusion or
disorder.”Independent media will instead usher in a period of intellectual
and artistic creativity much like Resolution No. , which, the general proudly
notes, he drafted and the communist party approved at its th Conference in
It is unclear when and how his private letter to Nông ĐứcMạnh, like the
earlier one he sent to Lê KhảPhiêu, found a wider audience. But it quickly
became clear that growing numbers of people were now aware of TrầnĐộ
the “dissident.”This was apparent in early May when during the first live
press conference ever held in Vietnam a journalist asked Lê KhảPhiêu
whether the general was under house arrest. The general secretary denied
this to be the case. The matter probably would have ended there but for the
headline on the front page of Vanguard [Tiền Phong] printed in bold the
following day: “There is No Story About General TrầnĐộ(Says Lê Khả
Subsequent events contradict his claim. The general states that
he spoke with three Politburo members to request a national consultative
meeting shortly after the article appeared in Vanguard. They rejected his
request on the grounds that the National Assembly already provided an
adequate forum for discussing the issues the general raised in his letters;
they then warned him against writing any further ones.
He did not heed
TrầnĐộdrafted a long open letter following the meeting, but someone,
he claims, stole his only copy. The general completed a second version in late
June, which he sent to the editors of The People,The Peoples’Army,Sài Gòn
Liberation,The Communist Review [Tạp Chí Cộng Sản], and several other
The letter begins with a statement of concern.
Despite his requests, the “campaign of criticism”directed at him did not
stop. Instead, it grew more vitriolic and the anonymous authors of the
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ51
articles began to call for a “wave of ideological struggle”“to defend the
Communist Party’s line”by eradicating the “erroneous”and “reactionary”
views circulating in Vietnam. The rest of the letter constitutes his response,
which he divides into four sections. All of them concern the same problem:
how to determine who is causing harm to the communist party and who is
defending it. This task, he says, is very difficult to carry out because many of
the people charged with it suffer from three mutually reinforcing “illnesses.”
They “speak to themselves”(that is, use “bombastic language, official slo-
gans, and vague abstractions”to prevent meaningful dialogue); “label”
others as foes (preemptively attack them to avoid coming under attack
themselves); and practice “conformism”(mimic what others say and do to
avoid being criticized for having deviated from “the Party’s line”). These
“illnesses,”he explains, reinforce a wartime “psychological mindset”where
officials claim to speak for the people and denounce anyone who expresses
dissent as “an enemy of the Fatherland.”
After once again summarizing his
revolutionary credentials, the general presents an example:
We say that “the people chose socialism.”Is this true? In , when we
liberated the country, was there anyone who asked a single southerner the
question, “Do you like socialism or not?”…And what about Uncle Hồ, did he
choose socialism? On some occasions, Uncle Hồspoke about socialism, but he
only said a little about this. Uncle Hồspoke a great deal about the people
having clothes to wear and food to eat…In reality, Uncle Hồ, and like him,
the people, chose “Independence, Freedom, [and] Happiness”…We need
a developed country where there is enough food, clothing, freedom, and
happiness (i.e. democracy) even if it’s not socialist in orientation. [We] must
choose! I choose a Vietnam where the people are warm and full, free, and
happy regardless of whether it is socialist or not!
TrầnĐộ, however, makes it very clear that disagreeing with the communist
party’s decisions is not equivalent to opposing the communist party. Indeed,
he notes, the communist party and the state are busy adjusting their own
policies and now work differently than they did in the past. “Doesn’t this
mean,”he wryly asks, “[that] the Communist Party and the State oppose
The general fills page after page with similar examples, which he uses to
argue why the communist party must “renovate”itself. This process, he
points out, is very different from the ongoing administrative reforms. The
former, he explains, will make politics more democratic, while the latter will
make the government less bureaucratic. But “renovation,”he stresses, will
remain impossible unless the communist party is willing to discuss not only
its successes but its failures. (He names the land reforms of the sas
a prime example.) “Is it possible that a party like our party doesn’t want to
discuss them? [Or] is it that we have acquiesced to having the imperial court
write our history [like] our folk sayings: A failed harvest due to natural
calamities, a bountiful one because of the Communist Party’s genius!”
According to TrầnĐộ, the answer is, of course, both. But the “illnesses”are
the primary reason; they reinforce “a dictatorial system that is injurious to
our society”and have contributed to a “crisis of human dignity,”as evidenced
by the “deception, hypocrisy, false flattery, opportunism, selfishness, and
indifference”we find all around us. To restore dignity, the general maintains,
we must reject arguments that assert the “intellectual standards”of the people
are so low that “democratizing politics will lead to chaos and free speech to
lies.”“To fear democracy, is to fear the people [and] a regime that fears the
people cannot be a strong regime,”he declares at the end of the letter.
The communist party’s Central Committee disagreed with TrầnĐộ’s pre-
scribed cure. Its members voted to condemn the general for his letter-writing
campaign in July of , shortly after having received the latest one. The
committee did not issue any public statements on its vote, however. Instead,
the Ministry of Public Security took steps to further discredit and isolate
him. TrầnĐộ, undeterred, sent two more letters—one in late September,
the other in late December. He titled both letters “Looking Backwards.”
He sent the first to country’s four highest-ranking officials on his seventy-
sixth birthday, which, he noted, marked his fifty-eighth year as a communist
He intended the letter to be a private one, but it did not
remain so for long. Copies, including French and English versions, soon
began to circulate on the internet. Again, it is not clear who leaked the letter,
but doing so had two important consequences. It raised the general’s stature
internationally, and it provided ideological hardliners with additional evi-
dence that firmer action needed to be taken against him.
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ53
TrầnĐộinsists from the start that the twenty-seven page letter is not
a“treatise”[luậnvăn], a genre commonly associated with political dissent,
but rather a chapter from his “personal notes”[bút ký]—a claim his more
measured tone supports. The first half of the document features a sustained
theoretical discussion of class consciousness. Strikingly, there is not a single
reference to Marx, Lenin, or Mao in it. Instead, he asserts that the commu-
nist party placed “excessive”emphasis on the concept, particularly the “dic-
tatorship of the proletariat,”which ordinary people never really understood.
Rather, they were moved to take action “to save the nation”because they
loved it. The value of the dictatorship of the proletariat, like a “receding
dream,”is now irrelevant because conditions today are profoundly different
from those a half-century ago, whereas the patriotism remains.
The general expands on this theme in the second half of the document,
in which he provides a series of recommendations the communist party
must implement to again be “in accord with the people, one with the
people.”To accomplish this task, TrầnĐộexplains, the country’sleaders
must recognize the problem that “politicization”poses. By putting “politics
in command of everything”[chính trịlà thống soái], the communist party
leaves no room for people to express alternate views or to contribute to the
country’s development outside officially approved channels without run-
ning the risk of punitive action.
Until this problem is addressed, he states,
it will remain impossible to create mechanisms to oversee government
officials, without which corruption will further flourish. Once again the
general’ssolutionis“Democracy, democracy, and democracy!!!”“Đổi
Mới,”he ends the letter, means “democratizing the Communist Party,
which will lead to the democratization of society.”The communist party,
in other words, can still lead, provided it renounces its monopoly on polit-
While it shares the same title, the second letter has little in common with
It poignantly begins with TrầnĐộreflecting upon his public life,
which he divides into four periods. The first three include his role in the
revolutionary struggle to liberate the country (–), the military
struggle to reunify it (–), and postwar reconstruction (–
). The final period, he explains, is the struggle to understand why our
aspirations have not become realities. The general answers his question by
comparing the state he helped destroy with the one he helped build. Accord-
ing to the general, they have several features in common: a “cumbersome
and redundant”bureaucracy, which he notes is several times larger than the
French one; a system of political rule based on “ideological domination”
rather than the consent of the governed; a large security apparatus to
“defend the regime”; and significant socioeconomic disparities between the
rich who have enough to live “sumptuously”and the poor who are “desti-
tute”and lack the resources to meet their basic needs.
elaborating on each of these commonalities, rephrases his answer to his
earlier question in verse. The present resembles the past, he concludes,
because we have come full circle:
At the beginning I dreamt of the end of evil (at the beginning)
Thus I threw myself towards heaven and earth (engagement)
Evil is erased by kindness (success)
But time changes, evil returns (the return of evil).
The very methods used to eradicate “cruelty”[ác], which appeared virtuous
and successful at the time, have again become a source of “suffering”[ác
luân hồi] in the present, he argues in the final line. “Ác”is a semantically
charged term that frequently appears in official discourse to describe class
enemies who, during the colonial period, exploited ordinary Vietnamese for
economic gain and personal pleasure. “Luân hồi”similarly invokes the past,
but carries with it religious overtones, namely, the Buddhist term for the
karmic cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In other words, the communist
party’s dream of eradicating suffering has proven to be merely that, an
illusion according to the general, as “virtue”has been transformed into
To reestablish virtue, TrầnĐộurges the country’s leaders to adopt three
principles, with which he concludes the letter. First, we should not be a “slave
to any –ism or theory.”“The Communist Party has the right to have its own
doctrine,”he explains, “but it cannot compel everyone to follow it.”Second,
the communist party should not speak for the people, but actually collect
their views, especially those of “cultured individuals, intellectuals, and ven-
erable persons.”Third, the exercise of political power “must truly be of the
people, by the people, and for the people.”“A reassured people [an dân] are
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ55
a calm people [dân yên],”that is, they believe the party/state is working on
their behalf rather than to satisfy its own interests. “We need to remember
that making wealth must go hand-in-hand with reassuring the people.”
Otherwise, he adds ominously, “we will have neither a happy nor a peaceful
In later December of ,LêKhảPhiêu issued a circular to high-level
officials that explained how the communist party planned to suppress polit-
ical dissent over the coming year. Another document followed. It detailed
the specific steps low-level officials were to take against dissidents whose
views were “erroneous”and/or “oppositionist.”
The general was the first
person against whom officials took action. A party cell at the Culture and
Education Department of the National Assembly office met on January ,
and its members decided to expel the general for sending copies of his
open letters to international news agencies. The general communicated his
response, a brief one-page letter, to them four days later. TrầnĐộbegins, as
he characteristically does, by recounting his life-long commitment to the
communist party. The general then declares that the communist party of
today is no longer his party; it has nothing in common with that of the
s, s, and s, when, in his opinion, it was still possible “to dream
of building a beautiful society.”“The Communist Party does not wish to
listen to reason,”he writes. Instead, “it makes decisions and everyone must
obey them, so I was not at all surprised when I was expelled.”The state
apparatus, he continues, suffers from “illnesses”and society from “social
evils.”Consequently, the country, although independent, is not yet free and
our standard of living, while somewhat better, has not brought happiness.
“I still hope the Communist Party can renovate itself,”he writes; however,
my expulsion was designed to cause people “to bite their tongues,”that is,
censor themselves to avoid coming under attack. But, “history is very impar-
tial, whether in the near future or a distant one, it shall by my judge.”In the
meantime, he vows “to continue thinking about and struggling on behalf of
the Fatherland and the people.”
His expulsion did not end matters, but complicated them further by
exposing some of the sharp internal divisions that the party/state assiduously
tried to conceal from the general public. Petitions from several high-ranking
party members—Hoàng Hữu Nhân (former party secretary of the city of Hải
Phòng), retired Lieutenant General PhạmHồng Sơn, and NguyễnVănĐạo
(former member of the Economic Commission of the party’s Central Com-
mittee)—quickly followed. Colonel PhạmQuếDương, a respected military
historian and former editor-in-chief of the People’sArmy’sHistory of
Military Affairs Journal [TạpChíLịch SửQuân Sự], resigned from the
The official response was to again close ranks to eradicate internal dis-
unity and to suppress external critics. In February, the party’s Central Com-
mittee passed a resolution announcing it would punish government officials
who expressed political views that diverged from the current “line,”though
somewhat confusingly, “minority views,”the text noted, were still permis-
In May, Politburo member PhạmThếDuyệt clarified matters by
issuing a list of more than a dozen activities that would henceforth be
forbidden. Transgressors, the list warned, would be subject to severe sanc-
It was not an idle threat. The communist party removed one hun-
dred fifty cadres and disciplined one thousand fifty more for undisclosed
transgressions in June before its Seventh Plenum. Lê KhảPhiêu, who
delivered the closing speech at the meeting, promised it would continue
to do so—a point he stressed a month later shortly before US Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright was to arrive for an official visit:
Vietnamese people had only one desire, the path to national independence
and socialism [and] only under the leadership of the Communist Party of
Vietnam could that goal be reached. Our people won’t allow any political
power sharing with any other forces. Any [effort] to promote “absolute
democracy,”to put human rights above sovereignty or to support multi-party
or political pluralism…are lies and cheating.
The general, despite his expulsion and the further hardening of the political
climate, did not end his letter-writing campaign. Instead, he redoubled it.
TrầnĐộsent at least ten more letters between , when the Vietnamese
Communist Party expelled him, and , when he died. The longest and
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ57
most substantial of them revisit the same themes as his earlier ones (cor-
ruption, democratization, free speech, and censorship), but update them in
response to domestic events. For example, his April essay, “A Strategy
to Resist Corruption through Democratization,”is a withering critique of the
new provisions that the th National Assembly added to the penal code the
previous year regarding this problem. According to the general, the new
provisions will not deter corruption because they fail to address its main
causes: an autocratic party that issues arbitrary orders; an unwieldy bureau-
cracy hampered by red tape and a weak administrative capacity; and state
bodies, including the National Assembly, that “fall over,”that is, rubber
stamp decisions. The general’s solution is a familiar one. Create meaningful
oversight mechanisms, institute procedures for genuine democratic
decision-making, and permit freedom of speech—though he once again
offers no specifics as to how this should be done.
“The Road to Democratization in Vietnam,”written in response to the
decisions made at the th Party Congress in April of , continues in
much the same vein, but with one important difference. He quotes Nông
ĐứcMạnh, now general secretary, who criticized the party following the
event for not doing what it says it will. TrầnĐộagrees, but adds for the first
time that he no longer believes that the communist party is capable of
Nonetheless, the general could not stop himself from
sending another letter in November, “The Communist Party and Democ-
racy in Vietnam,”his last on this particular topic. While the twelve-page
letter offers little that is new, TrầnĐộprescribes four concrete steps the
communist party should take if it were to attempt to cure itself of the
“illnesses”that currently afflict it. First, the leadership should abandon the
current political system, which he describes as being “backwards,”and
replace it with a multi-party one. Second, they should ensure basic civil
and political liberties, specifically—free elections, freedom of the press, and
freedom of association. Third, it is also necessary “to eradicate rancor”and
“to put the past behind us”so as “to unite all Vietnamese that love the
Fatherland,”regardless of which side they fought on or where they live
today. Finally, they must recognize that the country’strue“enemy”is
corruption and anti-democratic thought, not people who draw attention
to both problems.
The general continued to also advocate against censorship during this
same period in the hopes of creating a forum for discussing possible solu-
tions to the current state of affairs. TrầnĐộsent a letter to the Ministry of
Culture in April of , three months after his expulsion from the com-
munist party, requesting permission to establish an independent magazine—
a right, he pointed out, the Constitution guarantees its citizens.
(He planned to name it either The People’s Voice [Tiếng Dân]orPublic
Discussion [Thanh Nghị].) TrầnĐộreceived a response from the ministry
shortly afterwards. According to ĐỗQuý Đoàn, head of the Publications
Department at the ministry, existing media outlets already serve as a “plat-
form”for communicating the views of the people so there was no need for
additional ones. Moreover, he added, the Press Law only permits the
communist party, organs of state, and mass associations to publish, not
individuals; hence, his decision to reject the general’s application.
TrầnĐộwrote further letters as a running response to the ministry’s
decision. Nearly all of them criticize the excessive influence of A, a section
within the Ministry of Public Security that determines what is published.
According to the general, the Ministry of Culture and Information should
carry out this task. Artistic and literary merit, he declares, must be the
deciding factor rather than the arbitrary decisions of censors who can block
the printing or distribution of works that touch on subjects that do not
adhere to the communist party’s“line, policies, and resolutions.”
exchanges, which occurred during the final year of TrầnĐộ’s life, exemplify
this problem; they also foreshadow how he was treated after his death.
In early July of ,TrầnĐộ, writing from his hospital bed, sent a con-
fidential letter to General Secretary Nông ĐứcMạnh, National Assembly
Chairman NguyễnVăn An, and Prime Minister Phan VănKhải. Three
weeks earlier, the HồChí Minh City police had seized his eighty-three page
Dragon Snake Diary [NhậtKýRồng Rắn]—written between mid-November
(the Year of the Dragon) and early May (the Year of the Snake)—
shortly after he left a photocopy shop with fifteen hard copies in hand. In the
letter, the general complained that the police had treated him in a very rough
and “uncouth”manner while questioning him at the station regarding the
diary’s contents. The diary entries, especially part , covered familiar ground.
But parts and included commentary on the political maneuvering that
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ59
took place leading up to the th National Party Congress held inApril, and his
critical assessment of the decisions announced at the conclusion of it. TrầnĐộ
then went on to make a direct personal appeal to all three men, whom he had
known for decades, requesting the diary be returned to him on the grounds
that his only wish was “to build and to defend the country,”not harm it.
Unsurprisingly, the general received no response, which prompted him to
send two more letters.
He sent the first in late July to the Writers’Association, an organization
he had been a member of since , asking his colleagues to file a formal
protest on his behalf.
TrầnNhậtĐộ, the former political commissar for the
army special forces, and TrầnĐạiSơn, a noted war veteran and a party
member for fifty-seven years, submitted petitions, as did several others.
TrầnĐộsent the second, a confidential letter, to the same three party leaders
the very next day reminding them of his many contributions to the “nation”
while also stressing that the diary was private. The general stated that he
planned to share it only with his close friends, and he promised not circulate
it to a larger audience.
None of them responded in writing, but the
Ministry of Culture and Information later did. Deputy Minister Phan Khắc
Hải informed the general in August that the content of the diary was
“backbiting”[xấu]. Moreover, he continued, TrầnĐộdid not have official
permission to copy or to publish the diary, and for these reasons, it would
not be returned.
In November of , again writing from his hospital bed, the general
sent his final open letter to The People’s Daily,The People’s Army, and The
People’sPolice[Công An Nhân Dân], which had published anonymous
accusations against him three years earlier. The “campaign of criticism”still
rankled. TrầnĐộtakes the editors to task for denying him the opportunity
to publicly respond to the charges that he “coveted fame and glory,”was
“discontented,”and “lacked gratitude”for what the communist party had
given him. Such tactics, the general explains, are indicative of the three
ideological “illnesses”he elaborated on in his letter to their editors.
These “illnesses,”TrầnĐộasserts, go untreated because people criticized for
their views, like him, remained “gagged”[bịtmiệng], and hence unable to
publicly respond. Then, in a dramatic change in tone, he closes the letter
with a proposal to the country’s leaders to cure them: allow newspapers and
magazines as well as radio and television broadcasts to present not only
diverse viewpoints, but to serve as forums where people can engage in respect-
ful debate regarding their differences.
There is no record that he received
In Vietnam, as is the case elsewhere, funerals are only partially concerned
with commemorating the lives of the dead. Funerals also help to reproduce
social order and meaning for the living through rituals that aid the mourning
process. But in Vietnam, mortuary practices often assume an added political
significance, even under the most ordinary of circumstances. The party/state
historically regarded the excessive consumption of scarce goods and the
expression of religious faith—both of which are intimately associated with
funerals—as threats to its control. Consequently, party/state officials still go
to considerable lengths to dictate what mortuary practices are acceptable,
especially where they involve high-ranking officials such as TrầnĐộ.
The account below of his funeral provides insights into the struggle
that ensued upon his death regarding which of the general’s contributions
to the “nation”should be posthumously remembered and which should
not. My retelling is based upon eyewitness accounts that well-known
dissidents shared afterwards. Their accounts took the form of open letters,
which they sent to the country’stopofficialsandpostedonlineforothers
to read, as well as telephone interviews with BBC Vietnam and Radio Free
Asia. Several eyewitnesses also spoke with US embassy officials, who
relayed the details to the Office of the Secretary of State in Washington,
DC, via confidential cable, excerpts of which Wikileaks released in .
Several foreign journalists attended the funeral as well. The reports filed
by Cristina Toh-Pantin (Reuters), Ben Stocking (San Jose Mercury News
Vietnam Bureau), and John Gittings (The Guardian) after the funeral
provide further corroboration concerning what occurred before, during,
and after the funeral. “To corroborate”means “to give support to”aclaim;
itdoesnotmeanthattheclaimiscompletely accurate or that conflicting
accounts do not exist. Rather, my purpose here is to highlight what these
eyewitness accounts claim to reveal about how elite politics affected the
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ61
The general died on August ,. Public security officials searched his
home without a legal warrant and seized all of his papers immediately
afterwards. They also took two of his sons into temporary custody for
questioning before releasing them several hours later.
In the days that
followed, journalists tried to reach officials at the Press Department and the
Ministry of Defense for comment, but their efforts were met with silence.
In fact, The People’sDailyand The People’s Army did not issue any announce-
ments regarding the general’s death until August , nearly five days after he
passed away. Television and radio stations were similarly quiet until then.
When the announcements were finally made, newscasters repeatedly
addressed the deceased as “Mr. [Ông] TrầnĐộ”rather than “Lieutenant
General [Trung Tướng] TrầnĐộ,”and those appearing on state-run televi-
sion did not don dark suits with a black tie or the long split tunic tradition-
ally worn by Vietnamese women, áo dài, in muted colors, as is customary
when high-ranking officials die. The announcers went on to state that his
funeral would be held the very next day. Both statements raised concerns
among the general’s family, friends, and supporters that he would not be
appropriately honored at the funeral.
Their fears proved to be true.
Despite the extremely short notice, more than five hundred people, many
of whom had traveled a significant distance, made it to the Ministry of
Defense Funeral House on Trần Thánh Tông Street in time for the cere-
mony, which began at a.m.
Upon arrival, the mourners had to make their
way through the plainclothes security personnel milling about the parking
lot who were openly photographing them and writing down their names.
When asked why, they refused to answer. But the intent behind their actions
was clear, at least in the minds of the dissidents (Hoàng Minh Chính, Lê
Hồng Hà, Colonel PhạmQuếDương, and Dr. Nguyễn Thanh Giang, among
others) whom security personnel had visited prior to the funeral: anyone
who attempts to politicize it will be severely punished.
The visitation ceremony began at a.m. The general’s coffin was posi-
tioned at the head of the receiving room, with a large wooden alter to one
side. The altar, covered with red, pink, and yellow flowers, held a large,
black-and-white framed photograph of TrầnĐộ. Over the course of the
morning, mourners slowly made their way to the altar to pay their final
respects. Some mourners stopped upon their return, before taking a seat in
the expansive hall, to offer a personal message of condolence to NguyễnThị
Phúc Hằng, the general’s wife, their five children, and other family members
in attendance. Once seated, people began to notice the funeral wreaths
placed along the perimeter of the room. Despite the extremely short notice,
the funeral hall had been able to complete the wreaths that hundreds of
mourners had ordered the day before and to print the ribbon banners used
to adorn them. The messages, written in yellow ink and silk-screened onto
a red nylon background (the colors of the national flag), were formal in tone
yet personalized. But to the mourners’anger and dismay security personnel
did not permit most of them to keep the banners they had ordered. Instead,
the security personnel required mourners to replace their banners with
generically worded ones the funeral hall provided before permitting them
to enter. The funeral hall banners, which referred to TrầnĐộas “Mr.”rather
than “General,”elided his years of military service to the nation.
Colonel General Lê NgọcHiền and Nguyễn Hoà demanded to know why
this was done, Lieutenant General Lê Ngọc Hân, the assistant general director
of the army’s Office of Political Affairs and a member of the funeral orga-
nizing committee, reportedly shrugged his shoulders and answered, “We
only know to execute orders from above.”
The barely muffled conversations around these slights stopped when Vũ
Mão, the new chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Relations Com-
mittee, began his funeral oration at noon. The murmurings restarted as soon
as everyone realized VũMão, a relatively low-ranking official, was the “chief
mourner”[chủtang], an honor that should have been bestowed to a person
of much higher-rank. VũMão started by acknowledging the general’s many
“Mr. Độ,”he said, contributed much to the revolution,
the Communist Party, and to the people of Vietnam.”VũMão then pro-
ceeded to recount TrầnĐộ’s extensive dossier, which required nearly five
full minutes to complete. He noted TrầnĐộ’s early participation in revolu-
tionary activities during the s. VũMão then commended TrầnĐộ’s
military exploits, oddly giving greater weight to his involvement in the first
War of Resistance (–) than the second (–), when he rose
to become the deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces
(PLAF) under General Nguyễn Chí Thanh. He then mentioned all the posts
TrầnĐộheld over the course of his long career and the many awards he had
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ63
received, the HồChí Minh Medal of Merit among them.
began the second half of his eulogy, which he signaled with a sudden shift in
tone. “It is truly regrettable,”he intoned, “[that] Mr. TrầnĐộcommitted
a number of errors [and] exhibited shortcomings during the final period of
his life.”He made several further vague comments, but none of them spec-
ified the precise nature of either the errors or shortcomings. The audience
was, of course, well aware of the party/state’s position on TrầnĐộ, and they
sat in stunned silence as VũMão finished the eulogy and then thanked
everyone in attendance in declining order—first by official rank and then
by generation, as is customary.
When VũMão finished, Colonel Trần Toàn Thắng, the general’s eldest
son, stood up and read his prepared eulogy. When Trần Toàn Thắng fin-
ished, he thanked everyone in attendance, but before sitting down he force-
fully declared that, “I, on behalf of my family, do not accept the condolence
speech of the representative of the National Assembly!”
The response from
the crowd was immediate. Loud applause and cheers erupted and grew
increasingly louder and longer, without interruption, making it difficult to
distinguish who was speaking and what they were saying. Scattered shouts of
outrage and disgust, insults, as well as pointed accusations filled the room.
With each declaration, more people felt emboldened to join in. At one point,
someone whose voice rose above the cacophony rhetorically asked, “Who is
completely right, [who] is completely wrong? The people are the judges.”
Several TrầnĐộsupporters then yelled, “Betrayers of the ideological line of
HồChí Minh!”and “the Politburo must punish [them] severely!”Another
supporter quickly shouted right back that it was pointless to seek their help
because the Politburo had actually ordered the funeral to be conducted in
this fashion. An equally loud but unidentified voice responded, “Liar! The
Politburo is ‘wise and discerning’[sáng suốt], [and] wouldn’t conduct the
affair stupidly like this. Talking like that is not correct. Long live General
Following this exchange, security personnel began to surround those
people in the crowd who had become visibly enraged as a precaution against
violence. “Where is VũMão?”people demanded to know. “He [nó—an impo-
lite pronoun] ran away already! Slipped off to his car!”came back the answer
from somewhere. “That was truly good luck for VũMão,”stated another.
This sentiment was widely shared. According to dissident writer Hoàng
Tiến, VũMão’s insinuations filled the “air with the suffocating smoke of
incense.”By this he meant that the smoke, instead of symbolizing the respect
the living have for the dead, had been transformed into something nox-
Retired Colonel NguyễnBội Giang declared that VũMão had “dam-
aged the reputation of the Communist Party’s leaders and the National
Assembly.”TrầnNhậtĐộ, a former head of a special forces combat unit
and a party member for years, said that “society would find it difficult to
accept”how the funeral was carried out and that news of it would “cause
a difficult situation.”TrầnĐạiSơn, a disabled war veteran and a party
member for years, demanded that the National Assembly “discipline”
VũMão, and then “dismiss”himfromtheNationalAssemblyandthe
community party on the grounds that his “outrageous”behavior was
“destructive”to the communist party and the government.
the funeral ended without any physical violence. However, several more
Family and friends departed for VănĐiển Cemetery where the Hoàn Vũ
Crematorium is located. When the trucks carrying the wreaths later arrived,
they were shocked to discover that security personnel had torn the banners
off nearly all of the wreaths so that people on the road would not be able to
read them. Of the two hundred and twenty wreaths presented, only seven of
the banners—those from General TrầnĐộ’s immediate family members and
NguyễnVăn An, the President of the National Assembly—remained fully
Early the next morning, a small procession of vehicles left Hà Nội for the
general’s home village in Thái Bình Province, where they planned to hold
another ceremony. Like the first funeral, it did not pass without incident.
The journey, a distance of approximately one hundred kilometers, should
have taken two hours, but actually required seven to complete. People trav-
eling with the motorcade reported that highway police stopped them on four
occasions to examine their paperwork and to inspect the vehicles for phys-
ical evidence of an accident that had in fact never occurred. The mourners
also reported they encountered a “blockade”at a three-way intersection in
the small town of VănĐiển. Government officials traveling with the motor-
cade back to Thái Bình Province were permitted to continue on their way,
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ65
but everyone else was required to stay for a considerable period of time. The
purpose of doing so, they claimed, was to embarrass them in front of the
general’s extended kin, the residents of his natal village, and the people of
Thái Bình more generally. Eventually, the police permitted them to cross the
bridge into the province where they were met by a large crowd of people and
uniformed police who had been sent to maintain order. Despite the heavy
police presence, this ceremony passed without controversy. Family members
placed TrầnĐộ’s ashes in a simple village grave next to those of his grand-
mother and mother, as he had requested.
First-person accounts, testimonials, and commemorative verse in honor of
the general as well as commentaries on the events surrounding his funeral
promptly appeared on overseas websites. Radio Free Asia, a private non-
profitcorporationthatbroadcastsnews in Vietnamese, quickly followed
suit. Its program directors assembled a twenty-two part special online
audio podcast featuring interviews with well-known Vietnamese dissidents
regarding the general’s past contributions.
In contrast, Đoàn ViếtHoạt,
a twice-imprisoned award-winning human rights activist who now resides
in the United States looked forward: “I believe the death of TrầnĐộ,”he
said, “creates an opportunity for democrats inside the country to unite with
those abroad to adjust the tactics of the past to correspond with the ones
political movements use in the present-day.”
The state-controlled media did not carry further news regarding TrầnĐộ,
however. Instead, security personnel quietly arrested several well-known
figures, whose past service to the country made them possible successors
to the general as Vietnam’s leading dissident. PhạmQuếDương, a retired
full colonel, and Dr. TrầnVăn Khuê, a professor of literature, were sepa-
rately sentenced to administrative detention without trial in December of
. The mass media also denounced both Colonel PhạmQuếDương and
Dr. TrầnVăn Khuê for founding “The Vietnamese Association to Support
the Party and the State to Fight Corruption.”According to the reports, the
association, which counted twenty-one prominent former party members
among its members, was a front for anticommunist groups overseas that
sought to undermine the regime.
Then, in January of , security officials
detained TrầnDũng Tiến, an elderly historian and former bodyguard for Hồ
Chí Minh, for writing open letters demanding the release of PhạmQuế
Dương and TrầnVăn Khuê. At the time of his arrest, TrầnDũng Tiến was
in possession of documents that commemorated not only TrầnĐộ’s
hundredth-day death anniversary, but accused the communist party leader-
ship of “attacking intellectuals and army officers who are national heroes”as
well. In response the Hà Nội municipal court sentenced him to ten months
in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms.”
While the wider crackdown on political dissent that followed the gener-
al’s death was not unexpected, it produced more questions than answers,
particularly with regard to his funeral. Rumors are pervasive in Vietnam
and, like allegations of “corruption,”serve a variety of purposes. Most
importantly, they function as hypotheses about how things “actually work”
in a context where accurate information from reliable sources regarding
political affairs is often quite limited.
The credibility of a rumor thus
depends upon a number of factors—most crucially, the relationship of the
source to what purportedly occurred (the closer, the better) and sufficiently
convincing details that confirm what the listener believes to already know
about the party/state’s inner workings. Not surprisingly, rumors began to
circulate immediately after the general’s funeral, and all of them claimed to
explain why it unfolded as it did. I summarize two here to illustrate why
these rumors should not be dismissed as being impossible to verify and,
therefore, useless as evidence. Rumors constitute a genre of political dis-
course and close attention to their content offers insights into the assump-
tions that make them plausible to others.
The first describes high-level unease over how the general’s life should be
remembered. Nguyễn Khoa Điềm, who worked at the Politburo, allegedly
wrote the original draft of the funeral oration. But the criticisms included in
the draft reportedly caused considerable disagreement among three political
elites: ĐỗMười, Lê Đức Anh, and Lê KhảPhiêu. Lê KhảPhiêu, the former
party general secretary, hesitated over including any mention of the general’s
“mistakes”in the oration. However, ĐỗMười, former party general secre-
tary, and General Lê Đức Anh, the former president of Vietnam, agreed that
these “errors”had to be raised. (Both men retired in December , but
a power-sharing agreement made them advisors to the Central Committee,
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ67
which enabled them to influence decision-making and to constrain Lê Khả
Phiêu’s ability to accomplish his goals.
) The draft was then submitted to
current party General Secretary Nông ĐứcMạnh, an ideological centrist
widely viewed to be a consensus maker. He too had some concerns over the
wording. But in the end, ĐỗMười, an ideological conservative, was the
deciding voice. “If there is no mention [of the errors] then it will be a loss
for the Party,”he reportedly stated.
The second rumor follows from the first and concerns VũMão, who gave
the funeral oration and barely escaped afterwards without coming to phys-
ical harm. VũMão became the new chairman of the National Assembly’s
Foreign Relations Committee in July . According to this rumor, Vũ
Mão won the election by one vote, and Bùi Ngọc Thanh assumed his former
post as chairman of the National Assembly’s Office. Immediately following
TrầnĐộ’s death a question arose as to who should serve as the funeral’s chief
mourner. VũMão declined by stating that it was Bùi Ngọc Thanh’s duty, as
the current chairman of the National Assembly Office, to read the oration.
However, Bùi Ngọc Thanh was “clever”and countered that he had only just
assumed the position, a statement that insinuated VũMão, because of his
previous post, should serve as chief mourner instead. VũMão responded
that he too had only just been promoted. But the high-ranking officials
overseeing the funeral preparations declared that it was not important who
actually served as the chief mourner. After further discussion, VũMão
finally consented to read the speech; however, he allegedly did so “to acquire
merit”[lập công] by paying his respects to his political superiors and not, the
rumor implies, to TrầnĐộ.
Both rumors, like the general’s own letters, claim to reveal inside infor-
mation about matters that are relatively opaque to outsiders: elite politics.
These rumors, and others like them, also unsettle the binary oppositions that
have distorted our understanding of elite politics by overemphasizing the
boundaries imagined to separate conceptual domains (the private sphere
from the public one) and historical periods (the purported “purity”of the
revolutionary past from the “corruption”of the post-revolutionary present).
When these oppositions—what is known to have happened and what is said
to have happened—are placed within the same analytical frame, it becomes
possible to discern where factual rumors and rumored facts converge and
where they diverge. The significance of these patterns is twofold. First, it
promises to reveal how truth claims are created, advanced, and contested
with regard to elite politics. Second, these struggles to define the “truth”
permit us to more critically explore how relations of power shape historical
production by privileging some versions of the past while silencing others—
in this instance, the proper place of TrầnĐộin the political imagination.
A“biography not”of TrầnĐộprovides one way to document these strug-
gles. He was a transitional figure whose life-long involvement in political,
military, and cultural affairs linked the revolutionary past with the post-
revolutionary present. The digital revolution that the general was part of
(his letters, published on the internet, increased his international profile and
reduced the likelihood of imprisonment) has made it significantly easier for
others to disseminate their critiques of the Vietnamese government, the
misconduct of its officials, and the adverse impacts of its policies. None of
these critics, however, possess his pedigree and the most outspoken of them,
particularly ones who advocate for the same reforms TrầnĐộdid, receive
lengthy prison sentences. After China, Vietnam has imprisoned the second
highest number of bloggers in the world.
Nonetheless, people who knew
the general well continue to seek ways to keep his memory alive and to have
his many contributions to the “nation”acknowledged. I touch upon them
briefly here to draw attention to a process we know little about: the political
rehabilitation of individuals whose views cost them their careers, their free-
dom, and/or their lives.
The rehabilitation of such individuals is a complicated affair in socialist
states. The process requires not only the passage of time (typically decades)
and the support of influential figures, but a shift in political climate, without
which rehabilitation is unlikely to occur. In some cases, a large-scale event—
such as a major leadership transition or regime change—contributes to such
a shift. But such events are rare. Consequently, it is difficult to determine if,
when, and how to move the process forward without repercussions. Incre-
mental change is thus the norm. In Vietnam, reissuing works authored by
the person in question and/or publishing commemorative volumes about
their contributions to “the nation”offers one way to test the political waters.
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ69
TrầnĐộ’s rehabilitation is a case in point, though the speed with which it is
occurring is unusual.
Officials from the Ministry of Public Security searched the general’s home
without a warrant and seized all of his papers immediately after his death in
August . Nonetheless, a copy of his aforementioned diary, republished
online in , survived. So, too, did a copy of the general’s-page mem-
oir, TrầnĐộ’s Memoires [HồiKýTrầnĐộ], which he compiled over the
course of four decades (–), and because of the fascinating infor-
mation it contains, it should be the starting point for writing his biography.
Volume One covers some aspects of his youth, participation in the antico-
lonial struggle as well as the First and Second Indochina Wars, while Volume
Two concerns the ĐổiMới era, plus a postscript he added three years later.
The memoir, TrầnĐộexplains in the preface, features his recollections of
some of the major events that shaped his life and thought—hence the title he
gave it: “Stories of Days Past”[Chuyện Ngày Xưa]. By his own admission, the
memoir is selective in nature and incomplete in terms of content, and
therefore, the general writes, it should be read in conjunction with books
others have written about these events. Nevertheless, he pledges to do his
best to follow the advice of Trường Chinh, with whom he was very close:
“One must be objective rather than extol oneself.”
The extent to which he does so requires extended discussion and thus is
beyond the scope of this essay. What is most relevant here is the memoir’s
publication history. Vietnam Book Store [Việt Nam ThưQuán], an online
vendor, reportedly published the first online version in December . The
company states that it is does not know the source of the typed copy of the
memoir, how it was originally obtained, and whether the person had per-
mission from the family to publish it.
(Well-known poet NguyễnTrọng
Tạo names writer Võ Bá Cường, who knew the general quite well and is the
public face behind his political rehabilitation, as the source.
) Despite the
company’s reticence on the matter, no one has disputed the memoir’s
authenticity, which a substantial number of people have read—it has had
nearly six hundred thousand views since it was posted.
general added the fifteen-page postscript after the communist party expelled
him in . The content is highly critical of the status quo and it foresha-
dows the nearly dozen further letters and essays he wrote prior to his death
in , as I discussed. Censors routinely blocked access to these documents
on “reactionary”websites overseas (albeit with mixed success), but they did
not do so for the memoir. The significance of this difference is difficult to
gauge; however, there is further evidence of a shift in official attitudes towards
Following the general’s death, Võ Bá Cường, acting on his own, began
collecting accounts from TrầnĐộ’s family members, friends, and colleagues.
Government officials eventually learned of the project, but did not stop it.
Indeed, Võ Bá Cường, with the support of influential but unknown backers
in the military, convinced the People’s Army Publishing House, where he
also works, to issue the edited volume, Stories (about) General Độ: Recollec-
tions [ChuyệnTướng Độ: TruyệnKý], in .
The collection, like the
general’s memoir, contains a wealth of information from people who claim
they were present during key events in his life. And, for the same reason, it
should be read critically. Unsurprisingly, none of the contributors discuss
TrầnĐộ’s transformation into a dissident, though one of them does make an
oblique reference to it in the book’s final pages. With good reason, he
compares TrầnĐộto NguyễnCôngTrứ(–)—a well-regarded
Confucian scholar and famous poet who rose to become the minister of
defense, but was later demoted to a border guard due to his repeated crit-
icism of official corruption.
For Colonel PhạmQuếDương, a former party member and well-known
dissident, much more needed to be said. He published a letter in Fatherland
[TổQuốc], an online magazine banned in Vietnam, in , shortly after the
general’s death anniversary. He rebuked Võ Bá Cường (who plans to publish
further edited collections) for failing to include information about the gen-
eral’s“valiant sacrifices for the Fatherland,”especially his efforts to promote
the democratization of Vietnamese politics and society. He then implored
high-ranking officials to clear TrầnĐộof the false charges made against
him, to apologize to his “death spirit”[vong linh] for what occurred at the
funeral, to rename a road after him in Hà Nội, and to erect a statue in his
honor in Thái Bình Province.
It is very unlikely that any of these acts will
occur in the foreseeable future. Instead, incremental rehabilitation will con-
tinue to be the norm. As evidence, Youth [Trẻ] Publishing House in HồChí
Minh City claims it received permission to sell hard copies of TrầnĐộ’s
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ71
memoir in .
And, most recently in , the Vietnam Writers’Asso-
ciation published a three-volume collection of the general’s literary contri-
Despite these encouraging developments, other aspects of TrầnĐộ’s
life—namely, his transformation into the country’s leading dissident—will
remain off-limits for the foreseeable future. In the decade since the general’s
death, the party/state has continued to harass and arrest people who have
become well-known for their outspoken views on sensitive topics, such as
political rights, religious freedom, high-ranking corruption, and Sino-
Vietnamese relations. Despite the risks, many of them continue to peace-
fully struggle to realize the hopes TrầnĐộoutlined in his diary, which
police seized shortly before his hospitalization in mid-.“Democratiza-
tion,”he wrote in it, is not limited “to some tasks or some decisions regard-
ing rules and regulations; democratization is a matter of direction [đường
lối], a matter of strategy.”Furthermore, he added, it requires four elements
to fully realize: civil society, rule of law, a market economy (without any
“orientation”), and a genuine democratic foundation in every facet of our
lives. When this happens, TrầnĐộexplains, we will be able to realize what
some of our intellectuals have already painted: “apictureofabeautiful
KEN MACLEAN holds a doctorate in anthropology and is Assistant Professor
of International Development and Social Change at Clark University. His
recent publications on Vietnam have appeared in Comparative Studies in
Society and History,History and Anthropology, and positions: asia critique.
His first book examines the social life of documents and their impact on state
formation and everyday life in socialist Vietnam (University of Wisconsin
Press, forthcoming). The author is very grateful to the anonymous reviewers,
whose knowledge of TrầnĐộand elite politics greatly improved the essay.
This article explores the controversial life, writings, and death of Lieutenant
General TrầnĐộ, a decorated war hero who became Vietnam’s leading
political dissident during the final decade of his life. The general made use of
his biography to author “open letters”that circulated via elite social
networks and later the internet. In them, he called on the Vietnamese
Communist Party to democratize itself in order to foster just and equitable
development for all. The details illustrate the critical importance of an
individual’s biography in shaping not only dissent, but official efforts to
censor it as well.
KEYWORDS: TrầnĐộ, Biography, Censorship, Political Dissent,
Corruption, Historical Memory, Human Rights
.Tuyên Ngôn TựDo Dân ChủCho Việt Nam [Manifesto on Freedom and
Democracy for Vietnam ], http://www.hrw.org/legacy/pub//
manifesto_.pdf (accessed June ,).
. Article of the Government Decree No. //ND-CP of June ,,on
Sanctioning Administrative Violations in Cultural and Information Activities
No: //ND-CP, p. .
.“Anh Lê Trí Tuệtường thuậtvụCông an cưỡng chếbắtgiữvừa qua”[Lê Trí
TuệRelates Details of (his) Recent Arrest], September ,, Radio Free Asia,
Arressted_TMi-.html (accessed May ,).
.“Công an cảntrởcác nhà dân chủviếng thămmộtướng TrầnĐộ”[Police
Hinder Democrats from Paying Respects to General TrầnĐộ], August ,
, Radio Free Asia, http://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/ PolicStop
DemocratsPayTributeGenTranDo_VHung-.html (accessed May ,
. For overviews, see Zachary Abuza, Renovating Politics in Contemporary
Vietnam (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, ); Carlyle Thayer, “Political
Dissent and Political Reform in Vietnam, –,”in The Power of Ideas:
Intellectual Input and Political Change in East and Southeast Asia, eds. Claudia
Derichs and Thomas Heberer (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies
Press, ), –.
. Quoted in Alice Kessler-Harris, “Why Biography,”American Historical Review
, no. (June ): .
. Ibid., .
. For an overview, see Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies:
Reburial and Postsocialist Change (New York: Columbia University Press, ).
. Unless noted, the details are found in TrầnĐộ’s memoir,HồiKýTrầnĐộ, first
posted online in December , http://vnthuquan.net/truyen/truyen.aspx?
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ73
tid=qtqvmnnnvnntqaqmnvn (accessed December ,
). See conclusion for further discussion.
. Abuza, Renovating Politics,; Kim Ninh, A World Transformed: The Politics
of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, – (Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, ), –; Peter Zinoman, “Nhân Văn–Giai Phẩm and
Vietnamese ‘Reform Communism’in the s,”Journal of Cold War Studies
, no. (Winter ): –.
. Abuza, Renovating Politics,–.
. Ibid., –,.
. Ibid., .
. Nguyễn An, “Nhìn lạinh
ững quan điểmcủaTướng TrầnĐộ,bốnnăm sau
ngày ông qua đời”[Looking Back at General TrầnĐộ’s Main Views Four Years
After He Passed Away], August ,, http://v.x-cafevn.org/node/
(accessed July ,).
. Abuza, Renovating Politics,–.
. Stein Tönneson, Democracy in Vietnam (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of
Asian Studies, ), .
. Abuza, Renovating Politics,–,–.
. Ibid., –,–.
. Adam Fforde, Vietnam: Economic Commentary and Analysis, no. (Canberra:
Aduki Pty. Ltd., ), –.
. Adam Fforde, Vietnam: Economic Commentary and Analysis, no. (Canberra:
Aduki Pty. Ltd., ).
.TrầnĐộ,“Thưgửi ông ĐỗMười, Tổng bí ThưĐCSVN”[Letter Sent to Mr. Đỗ
Mười, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam], January ,,
OngDoMuoiTongBiThuDCSVN (accessed June ,).
.TrầnĐộ,“Góp ý vềĐạihội:từĐảng củasựnghiệpgiải phóng dân tộcđến
Đảng củasựnghiệp phát triểnđấtnước”[Contributing Opinions for National
Congress No. : From the Party of the People’s Liberation to the Party of
National Development], June ,, hung-viet.org/blog////gop-y-
về-dại-hội-(accessed June ,).
. Ibid., –.
. Abuza, Renovating Politics,–.
. Human Rights Watch, Vietnam: Rural Unrest ,no. (December ):
. Shaun K. Malarney, “Observations on the Thai Binh Uprising in Northern
Vietnam,”Asian Cultural Studies (March ): –.
.“Huyết tâm thưxây dựng Đảng”[A Heartfelt Letter to Build the Party], May,
(on file with author).
. Thông báo kếtluậncủaBộChính trịsố/TB/TƯngày tháng năm do
đồng chí Tổng bí thưLê KhảPhiêu [Comrade General Secretary Lê KhảPhiêu’s
Concluding Communiqué, Politburo, No. /TB/TW October ,].
. Global Integrity Report, “Vietnam Corruption Timeline,”, http://report.
globalintegrity.org/Vietnam/ /timeline (accessed June ,).
.TrầnĐộ,“Tình hình đấtnước và vai trò Đảng Cộng Sản”[The Country’s
Situation and the Role of the Communist Party], , http://thongluan.co/vn/
modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid= (accessed June ,), –,.
. Mark Sidel, “Vietnam in : Reform Confronts Regional Crisis,”Asian
Survey , no. (January/February ): .
.TrầnĐộ,“Tình hình đấtnước, .
. Ibid., –,.
. Ibid., –.
. Sidel, “Vietnam in ,”–.
. Ibid., –; Abuza, Renovating Politics,–.
. Quoted in TrầnĐộ,“Phảnđối chiếndịch tổng công kích của báo chí Đảng”
[Resisting the Offensive Campaign by the Party’s Newspapers and Magazines],
March ,, http://hung-viet.org/blog////phản-dối-chiến-dịch-
tổng-cong-kich-của-bao-chi-ðảng/ (accessed June ,).
.TrầnĐộ,“Kháng thư”[Letter of Protest], March , (on file with author).
.TrầnĐộ,“Phảnđối chiến,”Appendix I, –.
.TrầnĐộ,“ThưgửiChủtịch Quốchội Nông ĐứcMạnh”[Letter Sent to Nông
ĐứcMạnh, President of the National Assembly], April ,, http://hung-
(accessed June ,).
. Ibid., –.
.Tiền Phong [Vanguard], May ,,.
.“Hanoi Calls on Heroes and Values for Stability,”Far Eastern Economic Review,
.TrầnĐộ,“Thưngỏgửi các báo Nhân Dân,Quân Đội Nhân Dân,Sài Gòn Giải
Phóng,Tạp Chí Cộng Sảnvà các báo khác”[Open Letter Sent to The People,The
People’s Army, and Sài Gòn Liberation, The Communist Party Review, and
Other Publications], June ,, http://www.shcd.de/dautranh%DC/
trando/thu%ngo%gui%cac%bao.html (accessed June ,).
.Ibid.,–.“Ta nói ‘Nhân dân ta đãchọnCNXH’Có thậtkhông?Năm,khi
ta giảiphóngđấtnước, nửanướcmiềnNammấychụctriệungười, ta có ai hỏi
mộtngười dân miền Nam nào, câu hỏilà:‘Anh có thích CNXH không?’Ta
không hềhỏi, mà cứra nghịquyết, cứra lệnh và chỉthịhợptáchóanôngnghiệp,
cảitạocôngthương nghiệpv.v…phá tan biết bao nhiêu là củacải, làm tổnhại
bao nhiêu đếnđờisống nhân dân, làm bao nhiêu là ngườigiàubịnghèo đi!”
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ75
. Ibid., –.
. Ibid., .
. Ibid., .
. Ibid., .
.TrầnĐộ,“Một cái nhìn trởlạiI”[A Look Backwards ], September ,,
(accessed January ,).
. Ibid., –.
. Ibid., –.
.TrầnĐộ,“Một cái nhìn trởlạiII”[A Look Backwards ], December ,
http://www.scribd.com/doc/ /Mt-cai-nhin-tr-li-(accessed January ,
. Ibid., –.
. Ibid., .
. Ibid., .
. Carl Thayer, “Tran Do Alias/aka: Chinh Vinh, Tran Quoc Vinh, Cuu Long,”
, http://www.webomatik.net /vietnam-usa/gb.html (accessed June ,
.TrầnĐộ,“Mấylời nhân có vụkhai trừchiều ngày //”[Some Responses
to (My) Expulsion the Afternoon of January ,], January , (on file
with author). He expands on these points in another letter to his former party
cell, which NốiKếtdistributed widely. See TrầnĐộ,“KiểmđiểmĐảng viên
”[A Party Member’s Criticism ],, http://www.shcd.de/dautranh
%DC/trando/kiem%diem% dang%vien.html (accessed June ,
. Interview with PhạmQu
ếDương, Radio Free Asia, January, .
.“Vietnam Communist Party to Clamp Down on Dissent,”Reuters, February ,
.“Vietnam Clamps Down on Free Speech,”Associated Press, June ,.
. NguyễnMạnh Hùng, “Vietnam in : The Party’s Choice,”Asian Survey ,
no. (January/February ): –.
.TrầnĐộ,“Một chiếnlược dân chủhóa đểchống tham nhũng”[A Strategy of
Democratization to Fight Corruption], April , https://danluan.org/node/
(accessed June ,), .
.TrầnĐộ,“Con đường dân chủhóa ởViệt Nam”[The Road to Democratization
in Vietnam], , http://danluan.org/node/ (accessed June ,), –.
.TrầnĐộ,“Đảng cộng sản và dân chủởViệt Nam”[The Communist Party and
Democracy in Vietnam], November ,, http://www.shcd.de/dautranh%
DC/trando/DCS%va%dan%chu%VN.html (accessed June ,
.TrầnĐộ,“Đơn xin ra báo của ông TrầnĐộ”[Mr. TrầnĐộ’s Request to Open
a Daily], April , http://www.hqvnch.net/default.asp?id=&lstid=
(accessed June ,), –,.
.TrầnĐộ,“Nhà văn và chính sách tựdo sáng tác”[Writers and Policies
Regarding Free Expression], March , http://home.scarlet.be/mykvn/vdtd.
html (accessed June ,).
.TrầnĐộ,“Thưgửi lãnh đạoĐảng ()”[Letter to Party Leaders ()], July ,
, http://www.shcd.de/ dautranh%DC/trando/thu%tuong%TD.html
(accessed June ,).
.TrầnĐộ,“ThưgửiHội nhà vănViệt Nam”[Letter to the Vietnam Writers’
Association], July , (on file with author).
. Nguyễn Thanh Giang, “Hãy cứulấyTrầnĐộ!”[Let’s Save TrầnĐộ!], August ,
, http://nguyenthanhgiang.com/ChienSy_.html (accessed June ,
.TrầnĐộ,“Thưgửi lãnh đạoĐảng ()”[Letter to Party Leaders ()], July ,
, http://www.shcd.de/ dautranh%DC/trando/thu%tuong%TD%
%%.html (accessed June ,).
. Ngô Thông, “Tại sao lạiđốixửvớitướng quân TrầnĐộnhưvậy?”[Why Is
Army General TrầnĐộTreated This Way?], August ,, http://lehaandi.
wordpress.com////cai-ac-luan-h%E%BB%i/ (accessed June ,
), . The dispute proved to be moot, however. ĐiệnThư[Electronic Letter],
an online publication of the Club for Vietnamese Democracy [Câu LạcBộDân
ChủViệt Nam], circulated a digital copy of the memoir in its November
issue. So, at least one copy was extant. See Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet,
Government Repression and Toleration in Contemporary Vietnam –Working
Paper No. (Hong Kong: Southeast Asia Research Center, City University of
Hong Kong, ), , fn. .
.TrầnĐộ,“Lạithưngỏ”[The Rewritten Open Letter ], November ,
, http://www.shcd.de/ dautranh%DC/trando/lai%thu%ngo%
.html (accessed June ,).
. Section III of Government Decree No. regarding Regulations for Organizing
Funerals for Cadres, Civil Servants, and Public Employees, September ,,
vbt.aspx (accessed June ,).
. Cable No. HANOI, August ,, http://wikileaks.org/cable///
HANOI.html (accessed December ,).
. Hoàng Tiến, “Tiếng vỗtay trong mộtđám tang”[The Sound of Applause
During a Funeral], August , http://home.scarlet.be/mykvn/httangTD.html
(accessed June ,).
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ77
.PhạmQuếDương in “Phỏng vấn các nhà đối kháng ngay tại tang lễcựuTướng
TrầnĐộ”[Interview with Dissidents Who Protested at the Funeral of Old
General TrầnĐộ], August ,, http://v.x-cafevn.org /forum/showpost.
php?p=&postcount= (accessed June ,), –.
. Ngô Thông, “Tại sao lại,”–.
. Hoàng Tiến, “Âm vang đám tang TrầnĐộ”[Echo From TrầnĐộ’s Funeral],
September , (on file with author).
. Quoted in Hoàng Tiến, “Tiếng vỗtay,”–.
. Quoted in Ngô Thông, “Tại sao lại,”.
. V.T., “Những diễnbiếntrước và sau đám tang Trung tướng TrầnĐộ”[Some
Developments Before and After Lieutenant General TrầnĐộ’s Funeral], August
,, http://v.x-cafevn.org/forum/showpost.php?p= &postcount=
(accessed June ,), –.
. Anon., “ĐạidiệnHàNộibịphảnđốitại tang lễTướng TrầnĐộ”[Hà Nội
Representatives Were Resisted at General TrầnĐộ’s Funeral Rites], Radio Free
Asia, August ,,.
. Ibid., –; Ngô Thông, “Tại sao lại,”.
. Ngô Thông, “Tại sao lại,”; Hoàng Tiến, “Âm vang đám tang TrầnĐộ,–;
V.T., “Những diễnbiến,”–.
. Nguyễn Thanh Giang, “HọsợTrầnĐộsống, họsợTrầnĐộcảkhi ngườiđã
chết”[They Were Afraid of TrầnĐộAlive, They Were Afraid of TrầnĐộEven
After Death], , http://www.shcd.de/dautranh%DC/trando/ ho%so%
TD%song.html (accessed June ,), .
. Anon., “ĐạidiệnHàNội”; quoted in Hoàng Tiến, “Tiếng vỗtay”–; V.T.,
. Hoàng Tiến, “Tiếng vỗtay,”.
. All three statementsare quoted in HoàngTiến, “Âm vangđám tang TrầnĐộ,”–.
. Ngô Thông, “Tại sao lại,”.
. Hoàng Tiến, “Tiếng vỗtay,”–.
.“ĐặcbiệtvềcốTrung Tướng TrầnĐộ”[A Special About Old Lieutenant
General TrầnĐộ], September ,, http://www.lich-mc.com/vietnam/
trando/trando_rfa_uni.htm (accessed June ,).
.Đoàn ViếtHoạt, “Phát biểu nhân lễtưởng niệm ông TrầnĐộ,”[Speech
Honoring TrầnĐộ], September ,,(on file with author).
.Báo An Ninh ThếGiới[World Security Daily], December ,.
.“Vụán ông TrầnDũng Tiến”[The Case of TrầnDũng Tiến], November ,
, Radio Free Asia, http://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/commentaries/-
.html/story_main (accessed June ,).
. Louise White, “Telling More: Lies, Secrets, and History,”History and Theory
(December ): –.
. For summaries, see Hoàng Tiến“Âm vang đám tang TrầnĐộ,”–.
. Carlyle Thayer, “Vietnam in : Toward the Ninth Party Congress,”Asian
Survey , no. (): –.
. Hoàng Tiến, “Âm vang đám tang TrầnĐộ,”.
. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History
(Boston: Beacon Press, ), .
. Reporters Without Borders, Enemies of the Internet (Paris: Reporters Without
Borders, ), –.
. Quoted in the unabridged preface, http://www.vietnamvanhien.net/
hoikytrando.pdf (accessed December ,).
tid=qtqvmnnnvnntqaqmnvn (accessed May ,).
. NguyễnTrọng Tạo, “ChuyệnTướng Độvà TuyểntậpTrầnĐộ”[Stories about
General Độand TrầnĐộ’s Selected Works], February ,, http://
trần-dộ/ (accessed December ,).
aqmnvn (accessed December ,).
. For additional details, see Bùi Tín’s interview with Radio Free Asia, December
TranDo_story_MLam-.html (accessed December ,).
. I am grateful to reviewer two for this point.
.PhạmQuếDương, “ĐọcChuyệnTướng Độ”[Reading Stories (about) General
Độ], August ,, http://thongluan.co/vn/modules.php?name=News&file=
article&sid= (accessed June ,).
. The company did not respond to questions about the publication of the
memoir, which was likely done in contravention of publishing law.
.Đọc tuyểntậpTrầnĐộ[Reading TrầnĐộ’s Selected Works] (Hà Nội: Hội Nhà
ồng và rắn[Dragon Snake Diary], , http://vnthuquan.
nn (accessed June ,), Part .
A“BIOGRAPHY NOT”OF GENERAL TRẦNÐỘ79