Vietnam caught between repression and reform

http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/IK30Ae01.html

By Shawn W Crispin – swcrispin@atimes.com

Vietnam’s ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy groups has entered a volatile phase with the recent imprisonment of a group of foreign nationals, an unexpected move that has strained bilateral relations with former battlefield adversary and present pivotal trade and investment partner the United States.

On November 17, Vietnamese police arrested and detained a group of six pro-democracy activists affiliated with the unsanctioned pro-democracy Viet Tan party. The ethnic Vietnamese activists, among them a US national mathematics researcher, a French national journalist and a Thai citizen, were arrested while handing our fliers that explained and promoted non-violent struggle for democratic change.

The government has through the state-controlled media acknowledged jailing some, though not all, of the activists. In a clumsy attempt to deflect US criticism, communist propagandists manipulated images on the website of state mouthpiece newspaper Sai Gon Giai Phong of detained US national Nguyen Quoc Quan, which were initially published with him wearing prison garb but hours later were replaced with images of him in a white t-shirt. Subsequent articles listed Quan’s nationality as “unknown”.

The authorities have simultaneously attempted to paint the pro-democracy Viet Tan party, which has members both inside and outside of Vietnam, as a terrorist organization bent on stirring violence and unrest – charges the party has firmly denied in a public statement. The only evidence offered to substantiate the terrorism claims has been the arrest of two ethnic Vietnamese Americans – six days after the group of Viet Tan activists were first detained – who were charged with trying to enter Vietnam with a firearm. Viet Tan has denied any association with the two suspects.

None of the Communist Party-led government’s official obfuscation about the arrests or trumped up charges against the Viet Tan party has washed with the US embassy in Hanoi, according to a source familiar with the situation. US Deputy Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Scott Marciel recently cancelled a planned visit to Vietnam in protest against the detentions. It’s still unclear whether Washington would consider imposing some sort of economic sanctions if the US national activists are held indefinitely.

The George W Bush administration earlier this year shifted its previous conciliatory policy towards a more critical assessment. Bush met at the White House with Viet Tan’s senior leadership and thereafter scolded Vietnamese president Nguyen Minh Triet over the country’s abysmal rights record during his high profile visit to Washington – which was billed as a diplomatic victory in the state-controlled media.

Half-hearted reformer
Now the sudden internationalization of the Communist Party’s sustained crackdown on Vietnam’s small but determined pro-democracy movement has put nominal national leader prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung on the horns of a potentially damaging dilemma.

Many had hoped upon Dung’s appointment to the premiership in April 2006 that his government would take a more enlightened approach towards democratic rights and civil liberties. Breaking with the post-revolutionary Ho Chi Minh era – where governments have been run more by faceless committees than led by charismatic leaders – Dung has portrayed himself as a reformer and put his personal stamp of authority on his new-generation administration.

He has leveraged that authority to push for more economic and financial reforms, including streamlining rules and regulations related to foreign trade and investment in line with the country’s new liberalization commitments as a full-fledged member of the World Trade Organization. Dung has also angled to boost the country’s global image by presenting himself as the animated leader of a new Vietnam, breaking with the stiff tradition of his Communist Party predecessors.

In that direction, he is also spearheading some soul-searching inside the 77-year-old Communist Party, as its cadres aim to attract more foreign capital and redefine their role in the ongoing transition from communism to capitalism. That reportedly even includes an internal debate over whether the party should consider a name change. Unconfirmed media reports have party cadres mulling either the “Labor Party” or “People’s Party” as possible new monikers.

Redefining the party is clearly a politically delicate and complicated exercise, particularly as so much of the monolithic regime’s current legitimacy relies upon its revolutionary past. Vietnam’s capitalist revolution, in contradiction to the party’s traditional egalitarian philosophy, has caused widespread social and economic dislocation and rapid enrichment of party cadres and their affiliated business interests.

Even with rapid economic growth, it’s proving an increasingly difficult social and economic balance for the regime to maintain. For instance, last year the government was rocked by widespread and sometimes violent strikes by factory workers who demanded a rise in the national minimum wage. In an unusual concession to popular demands, the government eventually relented to the workers’ demands, though to the chagrin of the foreign factory owners who located in Vietnam for the cheap wages.

To be sure, under Dung’s watch there have been certain signs of political loosening – albeit still on the party’s own terms and conditions. Earlier this year, Dung fielded questions from the general public over an on-line chat forum. This month he introduced for the first time a similar question and answer session at the traditionally opaque National Assembly of Vietnam, the country’s Communist Party-appointed parliament.

Education Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan was grilled by citizen questions over his policies, which had recently resulted in dropping graduation rates in many provinces, while Finance Minister Vu Vanh Ninh was peppered by even harsher questions about a national e-government project that Dung shuttered because of misuse of funds, according to a recent Asia Foundation report.

At the same time, Dung’s government, and perhaps more importantly the Communist Party’s politburo, continues to treat Vietnam’s budding pro-democracy movement as a security threat rather than a potential reform opportunity. Underscoring the regime’s squeamishness, the head of public security was elevated to the politburo’s second most powerful position at this year’s Communist Party Congress, who now ranks above both the prime minister and president and only behind the party’s general secretary.

That reaffirmed the Communist Party’s strong commitment to the police state it first institutionalized over 30 years ago to ferret out suspected supporters of the former US-backed South Vietnam regime and has since deployed to suppress any hint of political opposition to its rule. What’s unclear is whether those tough tactics will work the same against a new generation of politically minded Vietnamese that are not as easily spun by the bogey of Western-influenced ideas and ideals.

Viet Tan leader Duy Hoang, himself a US citizen, says that the government’s recent repressive measures targeting pro-democracy groups like his have only encouraged more people to join his party’s non-violent struggle for democratic change, which he likens to the civil disobedience campaign led by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning democratic opposition in Myanmar. If the Vietnamese authorities continue to hold US citizens as part of their crackdown on democracy, Washington could soon be persuaded to view the situation similarly.

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