Thứ Sáu, 23 tháng 5, 2014

A CONVERSATION BETWEEN NGUYỄN MẠNH TRINH AND THE AUTHOR NGÔ THẾ VINH ON THE BOOK CỬU LONG CẠN DÒNG BIỂN ĐÔNG DẬY SÓNG

Tác giả Ngô Thế Vinh
Nguyễn Mạnh Trinh (NMT)_ Văn Nghệ publishing house recently released one of your books. Can you fill us in on the details?

Ngô Thế Vinh (NTV) Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng/ The Nine Dragons Drained Dry-The East Sea in Turmoil is the heading of a chapter in the book. It is also chosen to serve as the book’s title. As indicated by the two parts in the title, the book deals with two main issues. It has 648 pages of text and photographs and can be considered a faction – that is to say a work blending facts with fiction.


NMT_ The foreword calls Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng a faction. This appellation is rather new, can you please explain.

NTV_ A fiction, by definition, is a product of the imagination. Nevertheless, in some way, it still reflects the realities of life. In a non-fiction, the fiction part may occupy a secondary role but it is still an indispensable one in order to allow the author to make it a part of his work otherwise the end product will turn into a research paper. The term “faction” may sound strange but it is not completely new. It is a concise word in English denoting a combination of fact and fiction. Faction, in a way, can be understood as a fiction work based on facts or a documented novel.  It is a form of literature or film making that treats real people or events as if they were fictional or in other words it uses real people, real events as essential elements in an otherwise fictional rendition. To put it more simply, it is a literary work or film that is a mix of fact and fiction.

This form of writing has been used by writers over the past decades. James A. Michener is a case in point. This American author/novelist made use of this technique in many of his monumental works such as Hawaii, Texas, Alaska, Mexico, Caribbean, ... In his books, he demonstrated painstaking years of research and investigative works in the fields of history, geography, humanities and so on. Only the characters are fictional. He used them to lead the readers into the story he wished to tell!  If you happen to go to Alaska, you should visit a small and ordinary house, like any others, that has become a tourist attraction. Michener stayed at that place to write his voluminous work on the history of Alaska from its inception to the present day – He wrote the book in the faction form.

NMT_ In the books you have published like “Vòng Đai Xanh/The Green Belt”, “Mặt Trận Ở Sài Gòn/The Battle of Saigon” you have incorporated many facts from everyday’s life. Is there any difference now with “Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng”?   

NTV_ On account of my concern for the “ecology and development” of the Mekong Subregion and the Mekong Delta, I nourished the intention to write a book about this topic. Then I was faced with a predicament like when I was writing Vòng Đai Xanh/The Green Beltthat deals with the issue of the Montagnards in the Highlands of Vietnam. Instead of writing a research paper that would prove dull to the readers, I decided to go for a faction. It took me a considerable amount of time and effort to finish the book. The difference is, unlike with previous works, with Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng the materials I used were for the most part factual. Fiction only played a very modest role in its writing.

 NMT_ In this case, the book contains a lot of factual materials and details because you wish to tell not only the story of the river but delve into the numerous aspects that relate to the subject matter as well. How do you proceed to avoid turning the book into a boring and lackluster work to your readers?

NTV_ If after long hours of arduous work at your job you look for a captivating novel loaded with drama to read then Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng will not work for you. From the first day I set out to write, I had no intention of writing such kind of novel.

NMT_ Environmental pollution is now being widely discussed by the people in the whole world including the Vietnamese. When you chose to write about this subject matter, did you have any fear that you’d only be repeating what has been already been said before.

NTV_Over the past half century, people have been talking more and more about the fight against environmental pollution. We’ve witnessed the brandishing around of “slogans” more often than see actual actions, measures been taken to reverse the  degradation of the ecology on our planet. Sadly enough, most of them are man-made rather than caused by Mother Nature. In this globalization era, there cannot be a pollution problem limited to Vietnam or China. The toxic gas billowing out from the smoke stags of outdated coal-operated factories in Yunnan not only destroys the lungs of the Chinese people but also those of the inhabitants in the entire Southeast Asian region. Probably you still recall the forest fires in Indonesia. The people in Singapore and Malaysia also suffered greatly from the ensuing ashes and smoke…Thus, pollution of the atmosphere or of the water source poses a threat for the entire region, the entire earth and cannot be contained within the boundaries of any single nation. Therefore, the very meaningful motto “Everybody Lives Downstream” was adopted for the World Water Day of 03- 22- 1999. This motto applies perfectly to the case of the Mekong River, an international waterway that meanders through 7 countries with Vietnam at its mouth. Not a single country is able to preserve the section of the river that runs through its territory in the absence of a “Mekong Spirit” that requires a willingness from all parties to accept the responsibility to work together for the common good in a overall plan for a harmonious and sustainable development of the water and resources of the Mekong.

NMT_ Some people argue: “Isn’t it a contradiction to claim that the Mekong is being drained dry while it is flooding entire regions before our eyes?”

NTV_ It might appear absurd at the time the book was released. I was told of a religious who, while doing flood relief works, exclaimed upon hearing the title of the book being mentioned: “How can anybody say the Mekong is being drained dry while we are watching houses being carried away by the current, people drowned right before our eyes?” Your question and the shocked reactions coming from other quarters cause me to wonder. Floods and droughts, those two extreme phenomena that take place cyclically every year with “increasing degree of severity”, are looked upon by most people as natural disasters. However, in reality, they are caused by humans. We do it by destroying the complex and at the same time very fragile ecosystem of the Mekong. Some of the threats come from upstream the river like (1) construction of hydropower dams on the mainstream of the Mekong to retain its water or alter its course (most notably the series of dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan), (2) suicidal destruction of the rain forests whose main function is to retain the water and regulate the flow of the current during the Dry and Rainy Seasons, (3) destruction of the big rocks lying at the riverbed to open a transportation channel connecting Yunnan all the way to Lower Laos, (4) electrification, industrialization, urbanization, and dumping of industrial waste into the current as a result of the dams’ construction. On top of that, we must point to the hydrological missteps committed downstream, right in the Mekong Subregion that will result in immediate catastrophes: bigger floods during the Rainy Season (It’s happening now), more severe droughts during the Dry Season, the water in the river becoming more polluted and the sea water intruding deeper inland. Whether people consider themselves pessimist or optimist, in either case they still burry their heads deep in the sand in face of impending dangers.

NMT_ In the book, there are many extremely interesting references to the travels and on-the-site surveys you made. How much time have you devoted to those trips to be able to write about them in such a way?

NTV_ Since the day I worked for the school publication during my college years, I still keep the habit of opening “a file” for the place I was about to visit. Consequently, I know beforehand what I need to look for on the trip. Understandably, all trips can spring fascinating surprises you have no way to foretell. Like recently, on a visit to Hậu Giang Châu Đốc at the Đa Phước village I met the “Người Chà Châu Giang” – they are not the Malay from Malaysia the local people mistook them for. Actually, they are the Chăm survivors of the defunct Champa kingdom. They are also the descendants of the Côn Man troops who ably assisted the mandarin Thoại Ngọc Hầu in supervising the Khmer labor force, day and night, to dig the 100km long Vĩnh Tế Canal all the way to the city of Hà Tiên. In appreciation, the Huế court allowed them to establish 7 villages in Châu Đốc province that still exist to this day. I did not go to the area as a tourist but on a “field-trip” - A trip in search of the old faces and old places of a long gone time. The talk I had with the barge conductor from Châu Đốc to the Cồn Tơ Lụa/ Silk Island undoubtedly had helped him to have a different view of the “Người Chà” living in that Đa Phước village.   

NMT_ Do you expect that after reading your book, the reader will become informed and willing to participate in the effort to “Save the Mekong”? Do you have a plan to give a wide distribution to your book?

NTV_Before I finalize my works in the present book form, several of its chapters had appeared in magazines like Đi Tới, Văn Học, Thế Kỷ 21...I have received feedbacks from readers and friends. On a recent visit in July to Washington, I was introduced to a person who has read several of my articles in the Thế Kỷ 21 Magazine. He was under the impression that I was an expert working with the World Bank not in the medical field. In general, only a limited number of people read my works. However, those are informed individuals who share an interest in the things I write about. I very much wish to have an extensive readership for my new book especially among the young people. Widespread consciousness and concern about the threats the river is facing will eventually bring about actions in support of the effort to “Save the Mekong”. A while ago, you mentioned a plan to give wide distribution to the book. In my view, the book has received reviews in the newspapers, on the radios, the Internet websites and the conversation we are having now – all these things help bring it to the readers. Book-signing events will also help greatly.

NMT_ Why is it that the Communist leadership in Vietnam does not pay attention to the salinization problem of the Mekong Delta? In your book Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng, you seem to expect the people living overseas to come up with a solution to this predicament. Have you lost faith in the people living in Vietnam?

NTV_ I do not believe the leaders in Vietnam are uninformed about the catastrophic phenomena that are taking place in the Mekong Delta including the increased salinization that is intruding deeper inland by the day. The problem here is the way they perceive the problem and how far reaching is their outlook during this era of Renovation. In the rush toward development, they are taking unsustainable measures that put the ecosystem at risk. And sadly enough, future generations will have to pay the price for their misguided actions. In their view, when faced with the immediate task to provide for the daily needs of the population, preservation of the ecology can be related to the back burner. We have a popular saying ““chưa thấy quan tài chưa đổ lệ / only a burnt child dreads the fire” that aptly reflects the frame of mind of Vietnam’s present leaders. We should not make a differentiation between the Vietnamese overseas or back home as far as the preservation of the ecology is concerned. In order to achieve a sustainable and harmonious development, depending on his or her social activities, an informed individual should be cautious in choosing different ways and means to work toward a common goal that is “the preservation of the environment”. This concept of preservation should not be looked upon as an empty slogan, a wornout cliché. It has a self-renewing meaning which is always proactive in the globalization age.  An example is the Mỹ Thuận Bridge.  Right after its inauguration in May 2,000, the bridge turned into a popular tourist attraction but just a few days later it became littered with trash. Those were the visible trash one could see on the deck of the bridge. How much more industrial and household waste is being dumped into the river from Yunnan and all along the current upstream? The trash at the Mỹ Thuận Bridge is only a very tiny phenomenon seen from a birdview. It is imperative that we take a general, overall satellite view of an environment that is rapidly being degraded not only in Vietnam but throughout the entire Mekong Subregion.

NMT_ The characters in your book bear some likeness to actual persons in real life. Did you do it intentionally?

NTV_ If the environmentalists in Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng somehow resemble their counterparts in real life then shouldn’t it be cause for us to rejoice?  Those protagonists are not totally fictional. They are based on the experts, scientists in the Friends of The Mekong Group, members of the Mekong Forum, independent experts from all countries of the world of all ages. Not a few of them are well past their seventies who had held important positions in the numerous organizations of the United Nations. Now though living in retirement, early on in their careers they have tenaciously and continuously shown their concern for the environment, the eco-system of the Mekong from a geopolitical standpoint covering the 7 nations lying along that river’s current all the way to the East Sea. They are the “gray matter”, the staff, the “think tank” of the effort to conserve the environment and to implement a sustainable development of Vietnam today and in the future.

NMT_ Let’s take a side step and talk about the protagonist Mười Nhe, secretary of the district committee (Ch. XV, pp. 194 - 197). Did you on purpose create this antagonistic character so that it stands in contrast to the characters living overseas?

NTV_You have a tendency to point to a contrast between a Vietnam homeland and a Vietnam overseas. We have plenty of antagonistic Vietnamese living overseas. Mười Nhe is not a personage created “as an antagonistic character in order to put him in contrast with another character living overseas” like you’re inclined to believe.  But he is a “typical” character you often meet in Vietnam. He is not a “Red Capitalist” who has become degenerated and corrupted. Mười Nhe is a rare surviving “pure” communist who had gone through hard times and made sacrifices during the war. He lost one eye while fighting as a guerilla and now is the secretary of the Tam Nông district committee. He truly loves his birthplace Đồng Tháp.  For him the term ecology is synonym to “easy living” for the peasants under his charge. That goal justifies all the means that are being “indiscriminately” used in Tam Nông: cutting down of the cajuput trees with electric saws, fishing not only with nets but also with explosives and electric charges, hunting birds not only with traps but also with shotguns and telescopic sights. ..

Mười Nhe’s mindset of “instant gratification” resulted in the landscape of Tam Nông being transformed by the day: cajuput tree forests being cut down by stretches at a time; dead fish, regardless of their size, floating on the water; birds of all kinds, even endangered ones, being hunted for meat. In brief, “the five-year development plan” initiated by Mười Nhe brought about not only “easy living” but overnight prosperity to his people. Consequently, Mười Nhe can boast about the record-breaking statistics attained under his stewardship: a doubling of the population in his district, the cajuput tree forests being reduced by one third, in the bird sanctuary the red cranes that used to number in the thousands now stand at a mere 500. Understandably, in the eyes of his people, “comrade” Mười Nhe is the hero who has overnight transformed the flooded Tam Nông buffer zone into a thriving district… Never mind the hefty toll that is not apparent to Mười Nhe now. Like the irretrievable destruction of a marshland  and a bird sanctuary that constitute an abundant biosphere, a breeding ground for fish and birds, molluscs and countless other organisms. In addition, it is also the center that regulates the water flow of the whole region during the Dry and Rainy Seasons. As you know, in Mười Nhe you can find the personification of the top-down “Renovation” policy whose only objective is “instant measures, instant results, instant wealth” even in the field of scientific research. No thought is given to what will happen to the natural resources of the country in the future.                 

NMT_ The underlying causes behind the threats of ecological pollution, drug problems in the Mekong Subregion, salinization in the Mekong Delta, and conflict over the oil-rich islands in the East Sea can all be attributed to the shortsightedness of the region’s leaders who only mind short-term interests while ignoring the massive catastrophes befalling their people in the coming days. Isn’t it so?

NTV_ The natural resources of the Mekong and the East Sea do not belong to any particular nation. Everybody understands that. Regrettably, the big country of China doesn’t conduct herself responsibly like a superpower should but wants to grab everything for herself. As for the small countries, they don’t behave any better. Instead of arriving at a common understanding, they try to work out the best deal for themselves at the expense of their neighbors. It’s an “everybody for himself” melee. In other words a Zero Sum Competition. In lieu of a “Spirit of the Mekong”, a “Spirit of Southeast Asia” what we witness today is a crisis of trust leading to an arm race paid for by an already meager per capita income in these countries. Their modest national developments achieved at the expense of environmental pollution and depletion of natural resources run the risk of being wiped out by a potential conflagration in the region – an Asian Armageddon.  

NMT_ Some people propose that the root cause for this state of affairs is the existence of dictatorial regimes that show no respect for human rights and the ideal solution lies in replacing them with true democratic governments. Considering the present situation, don’t you think that it’s really difficult to achieve?
        
NTV_ A look at the countries in the Mekong Subregion from China, to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam regardless of the forms of government they have, will basically show that they are not democratic by nature. They are actually “social pyramids” as described by the Burmese sociologist Kyaw Nyein. At the top you have a governing minority and at the bottom the vast majority that is exploited and oppressed. At the close of the book I wrote in page 606: [Naturally there is no single solution to the problems of the ecology. What is required is a fundamental and all-embracing change in the fabrics of society transitioning from a “Totalitarian” to a “Democratic” system. With democracy one can improve the people’s general awareness allowing the inhabitants living on both banks of the Mekong to become conscious of the threats the river faces and raise their voice in its defense because it is actually their lifeline.] For me, human rights are defined as the equal opportunity to drink a safe glass of water, breathe clean air, and enjoy freedom. They can only be found in a true democracy.
NMT_ Pretending to be hard of hearing, China gives a deaf ear to the protestations from her neighbors or the international conferences about the river. What do you think can be done to force her to pay due consideration to the interests of her neighbors?

NTV_Emerging from years of being exploited by the Western Powers in the wake of the Treaty of Nanking that China by the way considers a “national shame”, this country is at the present time rapidly growing into a superpower. The Chinese leaders are quite bright and fully aware of what they are doing and need to do with the water source of the Mekong as well as the strategic oil reserves of the East Sea.

NMT_ Do the conferences on the Mekong held by the concerned countries or the United Nations produce any useful contributions toward a solution to the above-mentioned issues?

NTV_Every year, such conferences have been organized by the Mekong River Committee and its successor the Mekong River Commission. On her part, China continues to hold back any information she has while at the same time vigorously presses ahead with the construction of the series of hydroelectric dams in the Mekong Cascades mindless of any nefarious effects the countries downstreams have to suffer. Since 1955, Beijing has categorically refused to join Mekong River Commission so that it can enjoy a freehand to act as it pleases and doesn’t have to mind the concerns of her neighbors. When the need to make an announcement arises, the Chinese leaders never fail to proclaim “the benefits to be derived from the dams”.  No matter the number of conferences you have, they will come to naught without the participation of China, a critical player since half of the length of the river’s current meanders within its territory…   After years of silence, on October 13, 2000, for the first time, Ms Phan Thúy Thanh, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Hanoi government, made a pronouncement in reply to the article “The Mekong Choke Point” in the 10/12/2000 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review that raised the concerns the countries downstream the Mekong had pertaining to the construction of the dams over the mainstream in Yunnan. She called on China to guarantee that their dams will not cause damages to the ecology downstream and to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem of the entire river in observance of the equal interests of all the countries in the Subregion. The usual response that came from China was: dead silence and continued suppression of information. According to the old hands of Asia, China never had a good track record as far was multilateral cooperation is concerned. The case in point is her cooperation relating to the Mekong. 

NMT_ Do you entertain any thought of having an English edition of the book in order to introduce it to the world’s readers or at least to those in the 7 countries in the Mekong Subregion?

NTV_ An English version of the book? I had thoughts about it and very much wanted to have. However, I think I’d have an abridged edition of about 300 pages only. Instead of the distrust and division among the countries on the Mekong Basin we have now, I believe that an open exchange of information in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding will result in greater cooperation and creative competition. In that way, we will arrive at a “Spirit of the Mekong” that will serve the common good and allow us to exploit together and in harmony the rich resources of the Mekong like hydropower, hydrology, fishery, transportation including tourism. Those are the fundamental steps that will lay the groundwork for the establishment of a Culture of Peace as humankind welcomes the new millennium.

NMT_ Do you harbor any hope for a solution “To save the Mekong”or do you wish to say anything to our readers?

NTV_I would like to share with you and the readers this meaningful motto: “Extinction is forever, Endangered means we still have time” from the Sea World in San Diego. If we are now sounding the alarm about the threats facing the Mekong it means we still have the chance to act. Should the day arrive when the entire Mekong Delta becomes polluted and totally submerged by sea water then it would be the sad time for us to bid farewell to the Civilization of the Orchards and the Rice Bowl that feeds the 100 million inhabitants of our land.

Nguyễn Mạnh Trinh
11/ 2000

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