With the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, arguably there are only five socialist states remaining: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. The Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) and it role in Vietnamese society has always been subject to the special dynamics inherent in the relationship between communist parties and their armed forces. On the one hand, the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) exercises strict political control over the military, as it does over all other agencies of the state. Military officers are part of, but also subordinate to, the official party hierarchy that dominates the various levels of state and society. On the other hand, the communist state grants the armed forces a privileged place in society: historically the VPA has been viewed as the indispensable tool of the worker-peasant class to fight
imperialist enemies both within and outside the state. Consequently, the armed forces are integrated permanently into the infrastructure of the state, and their political influence has been relatively stable over time. Nevertheless, fluctuations in the political influence of the VPA have occurred, and they have often been indicators not only for change within the armed forces, also for shifts in Vietnamese politics as a whole.
One of these fluctuations was visible in the 1990s. For Vietnam, the decade of the 1990s was framed by two crises: the collapse of the socialist system in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98. Both of these events exacerbated cleavages among the Vietnamese leadership, which was divided about the scope and pace of economic reforms and the degree to which Vietnam should pursue integration with the global market. Fearful that the collapse of the socialist system could make it vulnerable to external security threats, and concerned that it would not be able to stem the challenge of major economic reform without the help of the military, the Vietnam Communist Party decided to increase the role of the armed forces in political affairs. As a result, the VPA became a major participant in Vietnam’s ‘third wave’ of state-building (Vasavakul 1997b). Subsequently, retired senior military officers were selected state president and party secretary general, and military representation on the VCP’s Central Committee increased at both the seventh (1991) and eighth (1996) national party congresses.
This period of military ascendancy was short-lived. In 2001, the ninth party congress declined to reappoint the incumbent secretary general (a retired military officer) to a full five-year term and elected a civilian instead. Military representation on the Politburo was reduced by half, leaving it with only one VPA member. It appeared that after Vietnam had overcome the dual threat of the breakdown of the communist bloc and the Asian financial crisis, the VCP was confident enough of its position to return the strength of the military in the party’s key bodies to pre-crisis levels. A major study of this period concluded that these developments represented ‘not only a process of defining power sharing but also continued party control of the army’ (Vasavakul 2001: 338). Vasavakul (2001: 255-356) also made two predictions regarding the future role of the military in Vietnam. First, the VPA would continue to be run by ‘political generals’ who were ‘not likely to become spokespersons for professional officers’ even though the military was given increased autonomy over professional matters. Second, the VPA would continue ‘to play an important role in shaping the new political, economic, and social order’ because the military had become both ‘red and entrepreneur’, i.e they had linked their communist identity with both national economic development in general and military-owned businesses in particular.
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