Taking the Long View
9 May 2008
The Bristol-Mekong Project aims is to provide a focal point for cutting-edge research into the states associated with the Mekong River, which includes parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and south-west China.
The Bristol-Mekong Project, which comes under the auspices of the Governance Research Centre in the Department of Politics, stands at the interface between academia, business and policy-makers. Its focus is on the states associated with the Mekong River, which includes parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and south-west China, and its aim is to provide a focal point for cutting-edge research into this region. Its director, Professor Martin Gainsborough, talks about his vision for the project.
I am very clear that the in-depth and detailed academic research I do is in order to help understand the world better, so that we might respond appropriately when faced with real situations. Take what happened in Burma recently. When this latest uprising occurred, I felt unhappy with aspects of the way in which the country was being covered in the media. So, as I explained in The Guardian at the time, if we really want to help the Burmese people, we need to do better than to characterise the country in the usual way, as one run by an undifferentiated military opposed by a citizenry united in its hatred of the regime. As quickly became apparent in Iraq, where it was mistakenly thought that citizens would pour out on to the streets to welcome their ‘liberators’, relations between authoritarian regimes and their citizens are far more complex. For every brave person willing to demonstrate, there will be many more who are ambivalent about change, and others who will see their interests served by the military continuing in power. A subtle analysis of the changes which have occurred in Burmese society since the 1988 uprising – which are many – is crucial if outsiders are to offer appropriate and well-targeted interventions.
As a consequence, I now have an invitation to attend a meeting on Burma at Chatham House, Europe’s leading foreign policy think-tank. Chatham House brings together people from government, politics, business, NGOs, academia and the media, and this is precisely what I feel the Bristol-Mekong Project should be doing – making the link between academic research and policy. But my own particular research interest lies with Vietnam where I lived and worked for a number of years, and where I still have close research links. Part of the Bristol-Mekong Project’s remit is to offer a consultancy service which includes high-quality research and analysis tailored to the needs of international business and the donor community. Thus the Department for International Development, which is a leading aid donor in Vietnam, asked me to write a report on the governance reform options for Vietnam from now to 2020, drawing on the experience of other Asian countries.
For every brave person willing to demonstrate, there will be many more who are ambivalent about change
The report was written in the aftermath of having done a year’s research in Vietnam working in the international aid community, based in the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank. So while much of my research time was spent reading comparative literature on other Asian countries, I also did a lot of work looking at newspapers. Although the Vietnamese press is state-controlled, there is a lot of richness and diversity buried deep within the articles, from which you can learn a great deal. Sometimes I would conduct formal interviews, but more often than not I would just have informal conversations over coffee or a beer. I was constantly meeting people, talking to people, whether they were journalists or others in the Asian community, and that’s the way I do my research – it’s very qualitative.
Back in 1986, Vietnam embarked on a process of economic reforms, known locally as doi moi, which is usually translated as ‘renovation’. Our study took a strategic look at Vietnam’s governance options from now until 2020, in response not only to the economic and social changes which are occurring domestically in the light of doi moi, but also as a result of changes in the global environment dating back to the liberalisation of trade and capital flows from the 1970s.
It's better we encourage a flawed process that will lead to something more substantive, than suggest things so unrealistic, they will be rejected
In order to build on the reforms Vietnam has already undertaken, I believe that the idea of a ‘mixed approach’ to governance, whereby traditional and modern democratic practice are combined in order to build a firm and broad basis for state legitimacy – the state’s right to govern – has much to recommend it. As long as the Communist Party delivers rising living standards, its legitimacy will continue, but dangers arise when economic downturns occur. The ‘mixed approach’ to governance has the advantage that it would move Vietnam away from legitimacy being overly dependent on economic performance, while simultaneously reaching out to a new generation that is travelling more, is studying abroad, and is reading the international media. This is a generation much more influenced by liberal ideas about democracy, and one which is likely to be more concerned about ‘having their say’ than the older generation.
When it was complete, I presented the report to an international audience at the Academy of Social Sciences in Vietnam earlier this year, which included people who are advising Vietnamese ministers and politicians. The report was not solely about issues of governance, it was also a reflection on where I felt the debates were. It was about understanding the political context in which the Vietnamese government is approaching these issues, and being aware of the great sensitivities that surround any notion of political reform and the development of a civil society. Inevitably such reform is going to be a flawed process, but my view is that it’s better that we encourage a flawed process that will lead on to something more substantive, than suggest things which are so unrealistic they will be rejected. Our input is but a small contribution to the extremely complex process that ultimately leads to policy, but if it is one that encourages the Vietnamese to go the next step in terms of civil society development, and doesn’t scare them off, it gives meaning to all our research.
Professor Martin Gainsborough / Department of Politics