A study in fighting injustices

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23 years ago, Thanh Nien initiated the fight against an unfair, "˜politically correct' higher education policy based on family background


Nguyen Manh Huy (R) meets Nguyen Manh Huy, the latter being given his name by parents who admired the former. The senior Huy is the first student born to parents on the wrong side of the Vietnam War who was allowed to pursue tertiary education after Thanh Nien took up the cudgels on his behalf.

Years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, a diligent and intelligent Vietnamese student was repeatedly rejected from enrolling in the university just because his father used to serve the US-backed South Vietnam army.

Thanks to local media, headed by Thanh Nien, that became vocal about the injustice, he was finally accepted in 1987, six years after he first qualified.

As a result, procedures used for assessing students' family background before approving her or his right to higher studies were also abolished.

Before then, students born to parents who used to work for the US-backed South Vietnam regime were allowed to take university entrance exams, but were often rejected despite scoring high enough to qualify.

A provincial commission was in charge of scouring through their family background before approving their admission to university.

The student in this story is Nguyen Manh Huy, now 47. Huy is currently working as the deputy director of the Thanh Nien Printing House in Ho Chi Minh City. He is married with three children.

In 1981, the enthusiastic high school graduate of the central province of Nghia Binh (now Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh) dreamed of a bright future when he scored 26.5 on his entrance exam, well above the entry requirement of 17, at the Da Nang University of Technology.

"My greatest hope was to become a useful citizen, find a good job and support my poor family," he said, recalling the common hardships of most Vietnamese families after the war.

However, Nghia Binh provincial authorities refused to approve for him for higher studies due to his family background. His father, Nguyen Ba Nien, had served the other side during the Vietnam War and was killed in a battle against revolutionary forces in the southern province of Binh Phuoc in 1965.

A year later, Huy registered for the exams again, and again, scored very good marks qualifying him to enroll in the Agriculture University No. 4. Yet, he was rejected on the same grounds as earlier.

"I had a strong desire to study, not to become some powerful figure, but to promote youthful enthusiasm and contribute to the country's development. But my good intentions were rejected twice just because of my family background," he said.

The desperate student then accepted his "˜destiny' and worked as a carpenter at a workshop in Quy Nhon, his hometown in Nghia Binh Province.

But his desire to study was rekindled in 1987 when he passed an entrance exam to the HCMC University of Technology. "My hopes grew again before being rejected again," he said.

Huy then submitted a letter of complaint to Thanh Nien that began a battle against the unfair policy of accepting students on a basis other than academic considerations. "Actually, I didn't have much hope that there would be any change. I also submitted my complaint to the Party Central Committee and the Ministry of University and Vocational Education."

Nguyen Cong Thang, then a managing editor at Thanh Nien, said he was moved by Huy's letter. "His desire to study and his perseverance really moved me. I decided to fight for him," he said.

"The selfish attitude against [a student's] résumé and the prejudiced way of thinking frustrated me. Any talented person has the right to serve his country," he said.

Thanh Nien published the full letter on September 21, 1987, and it quickly caught public notice and evoked outrage. The Tien Phong and Tuoi Tre newspapers then joined the fight, strictly criticizing the system.

However, Nghia Binh authorities insisted on standing by their policy in a letter to Thanh Nien, citing the then deputy minister of university and vocational education Mai Huu Khue as saying: "The [university] enrolment bears a class-based nature. In any social system, training a science and technology team must ensure they are loyal to the regime to serve effectively."

"Tension rose when some senior officials criticized Thanh Nien for exaggerating Huy's case while ignoring greater issues to stimulate the anger of the public," Thang said.

Nguyen Cong Khe, then Thanh Nien's Editor-in-Chief, weighed in on the issue with an editorial titled "No minor issue" to oppose this criticism.

"It is not a minor issue affecting the life of one human being... I have never thought that it is a minor issue when any citizen, who is said to have the right to live, study and work by the Constitution and laws, is prevented from studying by a provincial commission," he wrote.

Many critics of the policy also quoted Vo Van Kiet, then the HCMC Party Unit chief, to fight for Huy. "No one can choose where they are born.... Society must treat all youth fairly. They have the same rights and responsibilities."

At the Central Youth Union Congress in November 1987, deputies strictly criticized the policy. Khe was one of the deputies who raised the issue.

"It is necessary to be fair in education. [We] must recognize that their studies would help the country's future and themselves," said the then deputy chief of the HCMC branch of the Central Youth Union, Nguyen Thien Nhan, who is currently the deputy prime minister.

Wiser counsel prevailed. At the congress, the then Minister of University and Vocational Education, Tran Hong Quan, declared that Huy was eligible to study at the university.

The "˜politically correct' policy was replaced with a morally correct one.

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