DONG NAI, Vietnam — Pham Duy Quang made a life-changing decision 15 years ago after growing cashew nuts and coffee since the mid-1970s on two hectares of farmland in the rolling countryside 80km north of Ho Chi Minh City. It was then that the former South Vietnamese soldier tore out his coffee and cashew plants, and replanted the fields with pepper. He believed peppercorns would prove to be a more lucrative crop and would make the four-year wait for his first harvest worthwhile. “It was not an easy start. When we started growing pepper, the Vietnamese government did not have any support program for these agricultural products. Sometimes, our pepper crops were lost due to fake fertilizer and pesticides, disease and bad weather. We had to find our own way and learn from experience after years of growing them,” said Pham, who is 63. Despite the years of trial, error and disappointment, it turned out that Pham made the right decision.
YANGON — Hanging by Ma Thandar’s living-room window is a photograph of her late husband Par Gyi, his image warmed by the mid-morning sun. His grisly death in October 2014 was a stark reminder that despite five years of quasi-civilian rule in Myanmar, the military remains, in many ways, above the law. Ma Thandar — who ran for and won a parliamentary seat in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 national elections — has vowed to press on with her campaign to find out what really happened to her husband. She is among a handful of women, frustrated by lack of official progress in their home countries, who are making their voices heard on issues across the Asian political spectrum. Par Gyi, a journalist, was killed in detention by soldiers while covering one of Myanmar’s long-running civil wars. It took the army three weeks to reveal the whereabouts of his body. Senior officers claimed he was working for an ethnic rebel militia and that he was shot while trying to escape. However, Par Gyi’s body — dug up from the shallow grave in which he was hastily buried — showed signs of beating and torture. “I want to get justice but the progress is slow,” she said.
HANOI/YANGON — Asian garment manufacturers are signaling concern about disproportionate benefits for Vietnam over regional rivals in the textile sector as a result of major trade deals including the new, U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership and a free trade agreement with the European Union. Vietnam is already the world’s fourth biggest garment exporter, but will gain new preferential access to markets among the 11 other countries that have signed up to the TPP as well as the 28 EU member countries under the EU-Vietnam FTA. These are lucrative markets for Asia’s garment exporters and apparel makers of leading Western brands. “Vietnam’s trade deals will be a concern — not just for us, but the whole region,” said Khine Khine Nwe, secretary general of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
HO CHI MINH CITY – Local and foreign businesses here are closely watching how the newly anointed Communist Party of Vietnam leadership handles recently agreed trade deals with the United States and the European Union. In December 2015, Vietnam became the second member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations after Singapore to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. The announcement came a month after Vietnam was named as one of 12 countries accepted in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which member countries will formally sign in New Zealand on Feb. 4. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, seen as a non-ideological pro-business type of communist, made a strong challenge for the party leadership during the Jan. 20-28 CPV congress in Hanoi, losing out to incumbent leader Nguyen Phu Trong. But Dung’s tenure saw Vietnam make a start on a needed transition, from an economy centered on low-cost manufacturing to high-tech and services industries, particularly in and around the country’s biggest city and commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City. Tran Nhan, a client solutions manager at Glandore Systems Vietnam Co., a technology company that provides online human resources services in Ho Chi Minh City’s outskirts, said there were lots of jobs in Vietnam for skilled graduates in information technology. “Young Vietnamese generally feel optimistic about our country and about our chances of finding a good job,” she said.
HANOI — Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the long-ruling Communist Party of Vietnam kept his post during a week-long party congress in Hanoi that ended Jan. 28 as he easily fended off a challenge by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has championed economic reforms. The CPV holds a congress every five years to make leadership changes and set policy guidelines. Although the congress was held behind closed doors, the preceding weeks saw an unprecedented tussle among party apparatchiks as contending factions “played out via the Internet through blogs, leaks, rumors and innuendos,” according to Hung Nguyen, a former Vietnam government advisor who now lectures at George Mason University in the U.S. Despite Vietnam’s closed political system and censored media, internet access is growing, with social media widely used and a proliferation of activist blogs and online comments — often penned anonymously — showing that many Vietnamese are keenly interested in politics and want to have a say in how the country is run.
HO CHI MINH CITY/SINGAPORE — The 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations collectively do more business with China than with any other country, with bilateral trade between the two sides growing by an annual 8.3% in 2014 to $480 billion, according to Chinese government figures. But since mid-2015, slowing Chinese growth and a weaker yuan have fueled fears in Southeast Asia that the region has become too dependent on China’s vast markets. China has allowed the yuan to fall by 5% against the dollar, signaling that it may opt for a devaluation to make its exports more competitive. Manu Bhaskaran, chief executive of Centennial Asia Advisors, an economic advisory company, believes that a further weakening of the yuan could trigger competitive devaluations across Asia. “What is the knock-on effect on other currencies? Probably down,” Bhaskaran told the Nikkei Asian Review.
VINH-O COMMUNE, QUANG TRI PROVINCE, VIETNAM – The Ben Hai river running through this small mountain village in central Vietnam marks the 17th parallel — what was the dividing line between North and South Vietnam prior to the exit of US troops and the communist victory in 1975. It is a historic but neglected part of Vietnam – a world apart from the bustling capital Hanoi, with cell phone coverage disappearing on the snaking road up to the village, as the early morning drizzle falls over the steep, foliage-laden slopes on either side. Most of the people living along the rural river area are Van Kieu, one of 54 officially-recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam, a country where rising income levels for urban Vietnamese have not been matched by improved living standards in some isolated rural areas where minorities live. Despite Vietnam’s “tiger” economy years, “upland farmers [including and in particular the minority ethnic groups of the Central Highlands] have been left behind,” says Roger Montgomery of the London School of Economics.
DANANG – Nguyen Nguc Phuong is 33 years of age and a confident, articulate public speaker – comfortable on a podium in front of an audience. He is resourceful and self-motivated, as seen in his decision to leave school at 16 and relocate to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, to learn to be a mechanic and an electrician. Nguyen later returned to his hometown of Danang, one of Vietnam’s more touristy cities, and opened his own repair shop. However, after seeing the impact of Agent Orange – a defoliant sprayed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to destroy the crops and jungle upon which the Viet Cong relied for food and cover – he decided he wanted to volunteer his time to help the children born mentally or physically handicapped due to the herbicide’s tragic and grotesque effects. “I wanted to become a teacher to do something for them,” he says, pointing out to over 40 children and teenagers at the Danang Peace Village – a center run by the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin to care for children and teenagers affected by Agent Orange.
VINH KHE COMMUNE, QUANG TRI PROVINCE — It was a controlled explosion, and shouldn’t have been a surprise, but the boom a couple of hundred yards away in this lush, rainswept district of central Vietnam nonetheless prompted the small group of nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers, locals, diplomats, and journalists there to witness the event to flinch and recoil. Then the relieved-looking group exhaled almost in unison, a nervous-sounding release as if mimicking the puffs of smoke rising from the explosion into the gray sky. Taking the blast in his stride, though not literally, however, was 14-year-old Duong Nhat Binh, a shy-looking, soft-spoken teenager wearing a “FBI”-emblazoned baseball cap. Two years ago he had a much closer encounter with a fragment of the estimated 800,000 tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) thought to remain hidden in the grass and jungles around Vietnam, endangering lives and hindering local economies. “I was on the way back from school, and I saw this metal thing in the grass. I picked it up and put it in my pocket and went home,” he recalls. “I did not know what it was.”