Some of the most important starting points in the study of Southeast Asia are those moments when significant recalibrations of economic or social policy occur. In Vietnam, back in 1986, the ruling Communist Party embarked on a wide ranging effort to transform the national economy. This effort, usually called “Doi Moi”, has largely defined 25 years of change.

Naturally enough, countless scholars and analysts have reflected on the implications. One of the most recent and comprehensive accounts is by Melanie Beresford, a leading scholar of Vietnam’s political economy. In one article, “Doi Moi in Review: The Challenges of Building Market Socialism in Vietnam”, published by the Journal of Contemporary Asia in 2008, Beresford offers an important analysis of Vietnam’s recent history. She begins (on pp. 221-222) by noting that:

At its 6th National Congress in December 1986, Vietnam’s Communist Party made a decisive step to abandon the central planning model of socialism and to adopt a‘‘market-oriented socialist economy under state guidance’’ — also known as Doi Moi (Renovation). Since that declaration the country’s economy, state and society have undergone dramatic transformations. On the most common criteria of economic development, the process has been very successful. After the crises of the early reform period (which nevertheless were nowhere near as devastating as in Eastern Europe), the decade of the 1990s was one of high GDP growth rates, rapid reduction in poverty, more political openness and an upsurge of cultural diversity. Vietnam survived the regional crisis in 1997-98 in a relatively healthy state. While there have certainly been negative aspects to this transformation — increasing crime, reduced availability of public health, rising inequality, for example — most people in 2006 were better off than they had ever been and the expectation is that things will improve further. The sheer rapidity of change, however, presents some serious challenges concerning the way forward…Few non-Vietnamese observers appear to think that socialism is any longer relevant to the Vietnamese case.

It was, of course, only a short time later that Laos began its steady move away from socialist economic policies, and Burma’s variant of socialism was soon to be history too. Since then the dominance of (relatively) liberal economic theory has been reinforced across the region. The end of the Cold War precipitated a further diminuition of socialism in mainland Southeast Asia and, as Beresford suggests, many analysts question the relevance of the ideology for today.

But what do New Mandala readers think? Is socialism still at all relevant to politics in mainland Southeast Asia?

Next in the series: Cambodia in 1991…