Ton That Thien: Asian Libertarian
for his “enduring commitment to free inquiry and debate”
Heroes of Asian Journalism.
Chapter 7: Ton That Thien: Asian Libertarian
From the Ramon Magsaysay Award Book of Record, Vols. 1-10
With new material compiled and written by: Crispin C. Maslog
Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation
Traditionally schooled in Ngo huc, or Confucian learning, as well as in the Western Scientific method, this Vietnamese intellectual became a brilliant blend of East and West and Asian Libertarian of the first order.
The man, Ton That Thien, started out as a medical student so he could care for people, turned to economics because he felt he could help more of his fellow men by alleviating their poverty, then shifted to political science because he ached to be able to act on his ideas and finally ended up as a journalist because he wanted to move people.
Described in a recent interview as a “slight, handsome, pipe-smoking intellectual with graying hair,” Thien has been recognized as the “ablest of Vietnamese journalists writing in English” in the 1970s and a champion of press freedom in his country and in Asia.
Thien’s fields of study and career have taken innumerable twists and turns in his life time – from Medicine to economics, to political science and sociology, from government information officer to journalist and professor, then back to government service and back to journalism again, before he went into exile in Canada. But in two things he has been consistent – love for his country and commitment to press freedom.
As an ardent advocate of free inquiry and debate, rare for an Asian journalist, Thien was honored with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for journalism, literature and creative communication arts in 1968.
Early Life and Background
Thien was born in Hue, Hua Thien Province, in central Vietnam into a distinguished family whose record of state service dates back to the tenth century when Vietnam achieved unity for the first time with the help of one of his ancestors who served as principal adviser to the founder of the Dinh Dynasty. At Thien’s birth on September 22, 1924, an emperor still reigned from Hue, the ancient imperial capital. Although reduced by the French colonial government to a titular role, he nevertheless symbolized the Annamese kingdom that had lasted for 15 centuries.
Thien was steeped from childhood in the history of his people and in his heritage. His father, Ton That Quang, rose to the position of Thuong Tho – Imperial Minister— before he retired after 30 years in government service. Quang, typical of his Mandarin upbringing, was a follower of Confucius; his wife was a Buddhist. Thien absorbed from his parents the wisdom of both philosophies.
Thien attended the stale elementary school in Hue and then the secondary Institut de la Providence run by Catholic missionaries where, alert and inquisitive of mind, he acquired an understanding of the basic values underlying Western culture and civilization.
After French rule in Indochina passed to the Vichy Government and a pact was made with the Japanese in 1941, World War II for a time created little disturbance. In this lull, Thien went on to the state-run Lycee Khai Dinh, graduating in 1944 with a Baccalaureate in Philosophy. He had enrolled in the University of Hanoi, intent on pursuing a medical career, when the Japanese occupied Vietnam during the last year of the war and ended these plans.
Looking back on the events that brought a profound change to his life, Thien recalled:
“The University of Hanoi, where 1 was studying, was closed down. I had to ride home to Hue 400 miles away on my bike, there being no other means of transportation. This ride changed my career.
“All along the road people were searching for food, eating grass and barks, or were dropping dead under my own eyes. That year, hundreds of thousands (some say two million) people, my compatriots, died of starvation. That was the event which gave me the biggest shock of my life. I decided that 1 would do something about it since a doctor could only care for a few hundred people, whereas an economist could help millions, I made up my mind to give up medical studies and switch to economics.”
Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the Vietnam resistance movement, that had gained strength after making contact with allied forces in unoccupied China, shifted its focus from fighting the Vichy government and the Japanese occupation to open warfare against the French who sought to re-establish colonial rule.
Committed to the cause of independence but ideologically opposed to the political doctrine of the Viet Minh and eager to broaden his knowledge of the world, Thien left Vietnam in 1947 as soon as travel restrictions were lifted. He went out under the pretext of attending the World Scout Jamboree in France, but instead he proceeded to England to enter the London School of Economics. Upon obtaining the degree of Bachelor of Science in economics in 1952 he matriculated at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.
“Economics” Thien has since said, “gave me no complete mental peace. Although at my college we were made to study more than economics, I felt restless. This restlessness took me to political science and in the end to sociology.” However, in less than two years his education was again interrupted by events in Vietnam.
The defeat of the French forces al Dien Bien Phu in April 1954 signaled the end of French rule in Indochina. In May, a conference was held in Geneva to work out ceasefire arrangements. Thien was invited to join the South Vietnamese delegation which was permitted to attend but not to participate in the conference talks. To accommodate the principal contenders, Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel between what became the Republic of Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem in the South, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh in the north.
Thien took part in later Vietnam-French negotiations concerning the turnover of property by the French in South Vietnam, the disposition of French businesses and the transfer of control in the education and justice ministries, and other government departments.
Some years later, Thien wrote:
“The dilemma of two Vietnams is the cruel fate which has befallen the Vietnamese people of the mistakes of the statesmen of the great powers, as well as the follies of their own leaders.
“Alone of all the Southeast Asian nations, Vietnam was divided at the end of World War II. The decision was taken at a conference between President Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill at Quebec in May 1943. Originally a military one, but later – and one could say inexorably – hardened into a political one. The sixteenth parallel which in September 1945 separated militarily the British from the Chinese Nationalist forces became the sixteenth parallel which in July 1954 separated politically the Communist from the non-Communist world. Unfortunately, it also divided ‘the Vietnamese. Half of whom lived in the communist part and half in the non-Communist part.
“But the mistakes of the great powers could not wholly explain the partition of Vietnam and the Civil war which has plagued its people. One must also lake into account the follies of the Vietnamese leaders themselves. And the greatest folly committed by the leaders of the Viet Minh in 1945 when they decided to rush matters and turn Vietnam into a Communist state espousing the cause to international Communism instead of fighting only for national independence and socialism, as other Asian states had done.”
When the Geneva Conference ended in July 1 954, Thien returned home to work for the Republic of Vietnam as press secretary and official interpreter for President Ngo Dinh Diem. With him was his bride, Nguyen-Thi Le-Van (meaning Lovely Cloud), whom he had married in Paris. In his spare time, Thien also supervised the translation into Vietnamese of Western treatises on democracy and government, including those of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Learned Hand.
When contracts were awarded to Michigan State University for advisory work in training teachers, government administrators and police, Thien was invited to the University lo act as an instructor in the staff of the Government Research Bureau for the semester beginning in October 1955. The change was welcome for he had been unable to get along with President Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh, and especially Nhu’s wife and her family whom he found “overhearing.”
Thien had looked forward to time to think and find his direction but in Michigan, he again found no mental peace. He fell guilty to be away when his country “needed every one of its trained sons.” Swallowing his pride, he returned to Saigon in May 1956 with renewed determination to do what he could, particularly to try by working from within to moderate the autocratic tendencies that threatened the republic.
Early Government Service
Once more, he became Press officer to Diem. In contrast to the Secretary of State for Information who was a policy maker for the government, the Press Officer to the President was only responsible for briefing the president on press matters, arranging interviews, and issuing press releases on presidential activities. When the government’s policy toward the press became more authoritarian under the influence of the Nhus, Thien felt he was wasting his lime. He sought and obtained leave in October 1959 to return lo Geneva to complete his doctoral dissertation.
Interrupting his studies for a third time, Thien was a member of the South Vietnam delegation to the Geneva Conference in Laos in 1961 to 1962. Subsequently resuming his graduate work under Jacques Freymond at the Institute of International Studies, he earned the degree of Doctor of Political Science in June 1960. His thesis, India and South East Asia, 1947-1960, was published in the same year by the Librairie Droz in Geneva. Thien later decided to return to Saigon to offer his services to the Government.
When asked by an incredulous friend why he had left the safe haven of Europe, Thien replied that he believed a man of Confucian ideals must serve his country and not abandon a chief in trouble. He had been with the Diem government when it was winning and found it indecent to stand aside as onlooker when it was faltering. He assumed the post of Director General of the Viet Nam Press and worked long hours to help reestablish the rapport with local journalists that had been lost. When the Diem government was overthrown five months later in November 1963 Thien was asked to stay on by the succeeding administration. In April 1966 he accepted the number two post in the People’s Complaints and Action Committee (PCAC) created by General Nguyen Khanh. Soon persuaded that Khanh had created the PCAC only to please his American advisers Thien resigned in August to take up journalism.
Start of Journalism Career
Buddhists and students who had demonstrated against Diem were now rebelling against the generals. Catholics had become more uncompromising in their anti-Communism. The war had become a conflict between the military-dominated “Second Republic of Vietnam,” as Thien described it and the “Liberation Front” of the Viet Cong backed by the Ho Chi-Minh forces in the north.
After working briefly as a political columnist on the Saigon Daily News, Vietnam’s first English-language daily, he helped start a new English-language paper, the Viet Nam Guardian. Six members of the News staff who also felt a more outspoken organ was called for joined him in this venture.
As managing editor and columnist of the Guardian, Thien look pride in the fact that his newspaper was daringly independent and was the only one published in English without the government or foreigners “pulling strings.” In his columns, he was frequently a stinging critic of the government of Vietnam and of the United States. His comments however, were constructive; where he differed with policies, he proposed thoughtfully considered alternatives.
From his peers, including Vietnamese and foreign journalists who did not agree with his views or were put off by his acerbity and occasional “prickliness,” he earned respect for his professional competence and his convictions. Neither did his criticism of the government and its allies detract from his reputation as a loyal patriot, though there were some, particularly in government, who felt high principles should be set aside to serve expediency. He pleaded for a free press, arguing that peaceful democratic change was to be preferred to violent Communist revolution.
In December 1966, the Guardian was suppressed at the instigation of Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky ostensibly “for the manner in which it covered the assassination of the Constituent Assembly Deputy Tran Van Van. The specific charge was publication of a news service photograph with the wrong caption. Three other papers which used the same photo were closed for a similar error, but only the Guardian was not allowed to resume publication. It was to slay closed for 19 months and suffer heavy financial losses. In this period, Thien learned he was on the police blacklist – which meant arrest at anytime – and escaped an attempted assassination by an “unknown” person whom he suspected of working for the police. The man was later killed in an “accident” on the Bien Hoa highway in obscure circumstances.
Before the Guardian was closed, Thien had concurrently been a correspondent for several foreign publications and feature services, and he continued to write for them. Among these were the Economist of London, the Far Eastern Economic Review of Hong Kong which called him “the ablest of Vietnamese journalists writing in English,” the Forum World Service of London, Asia Magazine and Le Feuille d’Avis de Lausanne. He also contributed to such learned journals as International Affairs and to a symposium, Vietnam: Seen from East and West, whose papers were later edited by Sibna Rayan and published by Thomas Nelson of Melbourne in 1966.
One of his first columns for the Ear Eastern Economic Review was an attempt to explain, from a Vietnamese standpoint, why so few Vietnamese outside government circles welcome massive United States government support – military or economic. Besides suspecting that the United States is opposed to, or at least is lukewarm towards, the implementation of a socialist revolution,” which Thien deems necessary, “the real problem is essentially a question of dignity, and not in the demand for modernization, economic development and progress, which are often stressed by Westerners who want to sidestep the basic political and nationalist nature of the Asian revolution. The Vietnamese want to be able to look the foreigner (especially the white man) as well as his fellow countrymen, in the eye and not feel shame or discomfort because he is not equal to them in political and social status.”
Much of his writing for foreign journals continued in this vein. He was concerned in enlisting the support of the West, particularly the US, for the reform, internal and external, that he believed would give effect to his countrymen’s fierce desire for dignity and independence and thus lessen the appeal of the Communist “liberation” movement.
Thien urged the West to understand that the non-Communist Vietnamese who joins the Viet Cong because he yearns for dignity thinks almost exclusively of the position of his country in regard to foreigners.
“The more foreign control over the Saigon government is heavy, visible, and real, the stronger the pressure on the Vietnamese in search of dignity to cross the line and go over to the other side . . . Unless one offers enough to the nationalists to keep them away from Communism – and enough here means liberation from the feeling of loss of dignity – Communism is going to triumph in Vietnam,” he said.
As to aid, Thien wrote: “Aid is like a medicine. The injection of a correct dose in the right place will cure, but an overdose injected in the wrong place will kill. Excessive and prolonged aid will have the effect of making the cities independent of the countryside, and dependent on the donor country. It will sap the country’s physical as well as moral strength and render it powerless in the face of an internal threat to its social structure – such as Communist subversion.”
Thien also look up the post of Lecturer in Political Science at Van Hanh University, run by a highly respected Buddhist monk. In 1967, he became Vice Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences which he had helped establish. Projecting his deep concern for the future of his country, he organized a study group to probe Vietnam’s past for guides to its present and its future. Though out of government, unallied with any political group, and with no newspaper through which to form public opinion, Thien’s views still were sought both by Vietnamese and foreigners.
Back to Government Service
President Nguyen Van Thieu appointed Tran Van Huong as Prime Minister in April 1968, an appointment which was welcomed outside military circles as recognition of the popular will. A former premier, Huong had garnered the largest number of votes in the September 1967 elections. He had won in Saigon, which to many Vietnamese meant he had really won, for only in Saigon was the election generally considered to be fair. Widely regarded as a man of unquestioned integrity, Huong was insistent upon having in his Cabinet only men of like principle; Thien was asked to serve as Huong’s Minister of Information.
Described by a recent interviewer as “a slight, handsome, pipe-smoking intellectual with graying hair,” Thien and his wife and their only daughter. Ton-Nu Thuy-Lan (meaning Sweet Orchid), born in 1959, made no change in their quiet, modest life style when he became a Cabinet member. Work-wise, however, his days changed dramatically. His office at the Information Ministry quickly became a busy one. Morning hours were reserved for the steady stream of journalists who came to him for candid answers about government policy. Afternoons were devoted to administering the department. Thien’s policy was simple but his problem complex: “My problem is how to enlarge press freedom in Vietnam — and freedom in general.”
Thien was only a junior official in Diem’s government but under Huong, he had decision-making powers. His first act upon assuming office was to lift press censorship on May 29, 1968. (Censorship had been partially lifted in July 1967, but soon reimposed.) Reacting to his unexpected contribution to the exercise of a free press in Vietnam, Saigon papers reflected the years of control: one ran an editorial tentatively praising the new minister and another expressing polite disbelief. Several editors who were in Paris at the time later told him they thought he was crazy. Senators and deputies and some in President Thieu’s entourage complained he was allowing too much freedom. Some “hawks” said he lifted censorship to allow the Communists a free hand.
Thien’s second decision was to lift the ban on Newsweek magazine’s former Saigon bureau chief, Everett Martin. Next, he gave permission for Saigon dailies, closed by previous governments, to reopen.
“Now my former associate’s are going to start publishing the Guardian again,” he reported to a yellow journalist with satisfaction.
When one Saigon daily published a politician’s charge that Thien at a “secret meeting” had favored making a deal with the National Liberation Front, the political arm of the Viet Cong, Thien’s response confirmed his conviction that the press should be free. Instead of closing the paper for irresponsible reporting as had been the pattern, he sued the politician for libel. Thien was attacked fiercely, by “hawkish” papers for favoring Communism, and by “dovish” students of being a dictator. He allowed them all to publish their charges, believing that “truth will prevail.” To Keyes Beech, Chicago Daily News correspondent who had long covered Vietnam, Thien said simply of his recent actions: “We have fought for freedom.”
“Many people thought I abolished censorship because I was a victim of it,” he elaborated, “but there is more to it than that. My job is to educate the public as well as government officials. For too long a privileged minority has held a monopoly on enlightenment in this country. I want to change that.”
In the past, Thien continued, censorship was used by the government, “to bury all the dirt. The present government is grateful to the newspapers if they can dig up dirt. A clean and honest government has nothing to fear,”
To government officials who asked him to stop printing certain damaging stories, Thien replied that he did not view the role of his ministry as that of covering up mismanagement, misdemeanor or corruption in the government. Such cover-up would be the best way to serve the Communist cause, he said publicly.
Minister Thien admitted that he was under pressure to restore censorship but resisted it.
As writer and editor, professor and government official. Ton That Thien had consistently employed all opportunities available to him to advance freedom of thought and expression, both of which, in his view, were essential to the necessary peaceful reform of Vietnamese society.
Thien was given the Ramon Magsaysay Award for journalism, literature and creative communication arts in 1968 in recognition of “his enduring commitment to free inquiry and debate.”
According to the citation, Thien “relentlessly has sought to digest the essence of Western Scientific method and wed it to Vietnamese cultural values. Freedom of thought and expression he found were essential to this pursuit. His convictions led him to act with perceptive courage and staunch individualism as writer and editor, professor and government official.”
In his acceptance speech, Thien said: “There could be no real freedom for people unless they were given the opportunity of acquiring knowledge through education and free access lo information.”
Thien spoke of “turning into reality a long cherished dream: that of contributing actively and effectively to the enlargement of freedom in Vietnam and in Asia, and of adding my share to the fight for freedom being waged everywhere in the world. Today, freedom, like prosperity and happiness. is indivisible. The Magsaysay Award Foundation should remind us all of that truth”.
Later Life and Exile
Three months after winning the Award in August 1968, Thien resigned as Information Minister of the Vietnamese government on a matter of principle. Prime Minister Tran Van Huong had decided to continue in office even after President Nguyen Van Thieu had failed twice to honor a pledge made to him on a major issue.
“I consider integrity to be a fundamental condition of leadership, and I just could not could not continue to cooperate with those two persons under those conditions.” Thien explained in a recent interview with the Magsaysay Foundation for this book.
After that, Thien returned to full time teaching and journalism.
When Ho Chi Minh finally took over South Vietnam in 1975, Thien was among those who went into exile in the West. He went to Canada where he got a job as professor in the Department of Modern Languages of the University of Quebec, Three Rivers Campus.
“I had to go into exile to avoid living under Communism and being surely forced to do things which in my conscience I would consider ungentle manlike and dishonest,” he said in the same interview.
As a University of Quebec professor, he had opportunities to travel as visiting professor abroad, particularly at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva and the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He also lectured in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, China and the then USSR.
At the same lime, he continued to practice journalism, writing a great deal for Vietnamese papers and occasionally for foreign newspapers. He published a book. The Foreign Politics of the Communist Party of Vietnam: A Study in Communist Tactics (Crane and Russak, New York, 1989). He also wrote numerous monographs, including one on Ho Chi Minh and the Comintern (Singapore, Information and Resource Center, 1990).
He retired from the University of Quebec in 1992 and since then had devoted most of his time to writing in the Vietnamese papers abroad but which are smuggled into Vietnam and read in Communist circles. In his recent writings, he has been advocating for democracy and good government in Vietnam and reconciliation between Vietnamese Communists and nationalists.
“I consider this work to be very important, and I intend to pursue it for the rest of my days,” he said in a 1994 interview.
When asked if the Magsaysay Award had any impact on his life and career, he replied: “A great deal. It has strengthened my belief in the high desirability of maintaining in private as well as public life, human decency, deep concern for others and for the betterment of society.”
“The courage to stay honest in all circumstances, the striving to improve oneself constantly, the ceaseless quest for something better,” he continued, “are the obvious qualities of President Ramon Magsaysay, and they have guided me all my life.”
It is interesting to note that he used part of his Magsaysay Award prize for scholarships. The rest he used to maintain himself and his family in Canada after his exile and before he could find a job as professor at the University of Quebec.
On Life and Journalists
On a personal note, Ton That Thien reminisced:
“I am a man who has been lucky in life. I have never experienced hunger and poverty. I have received a very good education, thanks to the foresight of my parents, and the care of good teachers and (scout) leaders. I have never suffered personal oppression. I had the opportunity of serving my country under some very good leaders. I have always been able to do what I believed to be right. I want every Vietnamese, and every man on earth, to have the same things that I had.”
“But I am saddened by what I have seen around me. The majority of people are living a miserable life, with no hope for the future, because of the selfishness, greed and incompetence of those in government and the lack of good journalists. And things are getting worse all the time.”
What does he think of the present crop of journalists in Asia?
“I am rather disturbed. They too readily accept the argument of ‘defense of Asian uniqueness’ against imposition of foreign values put forward by Asian governments – or by revolutionaries who want to replace them – to justify the suppression of freedom,” he declared.
“They tend to be too nationalistic – in the negative sense,” he continued. “They do not fight for what is right, in particular for more freedom for their people.”
“And they do not make enough effort to see beyond their own societies to uncover what is human universally and to defend universal human values. Personal freedom, equality and the desire for a better life without fear of repression are not regional, racial or imperialist Western aspirations. They are universal human aspirations that should be fought for hard, ceaselessly and courageously by all peoples everywhere,” he added.
“Asian journalists should be in the vanguard of this fight, instead of hiding behind a screen of anachronistic nationalism and foggy notions of racial or national pride, and giving justification to governments with dictatorial bents,” he pointed out.
“The main advice I would give young Asian journalists today,” he stated in reply to a question, “would be: do not take anything for granted; do not consider anything permanent; beware of the so-called Asian ‘traditions’ and nationalism, because they are used by people to preserve their privileges and authority; look for the universal; never compromise on the issue of freedom.”
Spoken like a true libertarian.