Democratic pebble in Vietnam’s shoe

KUALA LUMPUR – Before an audience of enrapt young ethnic-Vietnamese pro-democracy advocates, the political dissident spelled out his movement’s non-violent strategy for undermining Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party’s pillars of political power.

Behind the speaker hung conspicuously the red-and-gold striped flag of the former South Vietnam, a still potent symbol for the country’s post-1975 diaspora. So potent, in fact, Vietnamese diplomats requested on January 5 that Malaysian officials remove the flag from the civil society-promoting conference, which assembled 200 ethnic-Vietnamese youth from around the world, including from Vietnam.

The Vietnamese officials also claimed that some of the conference’s speakers promoted terrorism inside Vietnam during their presentations and told their Malaysian counterparts that if the dissident flag was allowed to fly, it could complicate bilateral ties only days before an official Vietnamese delegation was due to arrive in Malaysia. The flag, nonetheless, remained aloft throughout the event.

The symbolic skirmish marked the latest confrontation on an international stage between Vietnam’s Communist Party and the exile-run, pro-democracy Viet Tan. On November 17, Vietnamese authorities arrested and jailed a group of Viet Tan members, including US, French, Thai and Vietnamese citizens, who distributed fliers calling for non-violent democratic change. Four of the six foreign nationals have since been released, with one American and one Thai citizen still in detention.

Vietnam’s state-controlled media have since taken to accusing Viet Tan of terrorism – charges the US ambassador to Vietnam has publicly contested. The Communist Party’s strong response, after years of publicly ignoring the underground movement and its frequent calls from overseas for democracy, points to an official squeamishness about Viet Tan’s rising profile and increasingly daring in-country civil disobedience campaign.

Last year the Vietnamese government cracked down hard on pro-democracy activists, including against the loosely organized protest group Bloc 8406. For its part, Viet Tan claims to be Vietnam’s second-largest political organization, trailing only the Communist Party, which since seizing power and reunifying the country in 1975 has maintained a monolithic hold on power.

Viet Tan declines to reveal its membership figures, saying its ultimate strength lies in the power of its ideas, not its numbers, but also that its growing network includes both exile-based and in-country members. After operating underground for nearly 25 years, Viet Tan members say they are now in the process of bringing the party above ground, with plans to implement its 10-program action plan, including grassroots activities to improve social welfare, restore civil rights and promote pluralism openly inside Vietnam.

Burying the past
Viet Tan’s origins somewhat controversially stem from the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NUFLV), a group established by exiled Vietnamese in 1980 which aimed to topple the Communist Party-led government through a popular uprising, which to date has notably failed to materialize. Two years later, Viet Tan grew out of this movement along the Thai, Cambodian and Lao borders, advocating peaceful political change through underground activities.

The Vietnamese government has frequently accused the NUFLV of funneling arms and fomenting armed struggle inside Vietnam – charges one current Viet Tan member characterizes as a “misunderstanding” and “misperception”. In 2004, Viet Tan surfaced for the first time as a public organization in Berlin, Germany, symbolically where Soviet-led communism fell, and formally announced the dissolution of the NUFLV.

Those familiar with Viet Tan’s history say that the 2004 announcement and the party’s recommitment to non-violent struggle was at least partially influenced by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the US and Washington’s subsequent recategorization of several armed resistance groups as terrorist organizations.

A competing interpretation points to the generational change inside the party, where the first generation of political refugees who initiated Viet Tan are slowly being replaced by a new generation of Western-educated professionals who are more willing to seek a political accommodation with the Communist Party with the implementation of democratic reforms.
To be sure, that’s still a political long shot, particularly in light of the government’s recent counter-propaganda campaign against the party. Consider, for instance, Duy Hoang, 37, the second-youngest member on Viet Tan’s executive committee, as a gauge of the Vietnamese government’s antagonism towards the party. Hoang fled Vietnam when he was three years old and was raised and educated in California, where he received degrees in economics and political science.

For nearly a decade he served as an investment banker at the World Bank-affiliated International Finance Corporation (IFC). However his appointment last year to head Deutsche Bank’s investment banking activities in Vietnam was shot down by government authorities, apparently over a critical op-ed he penned in an international newspaper in 2005, coinciding with the 30-year anniversary of the Vietnam War’s end, according to Hoang. The authorities may have also been unnerved by Hoang’s in-country family connections, which includes a high-ranking cadre in the Communist Party’s central committee

Hoang recently quit his job at the IFC and now works full-time calculating Viet Tan’s next moves. He believes the Communist Party, in light of last year’s accession to the World Trade Organization and this year’s assumption of a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, is more sensitive than ever to outside pressure and garnering international support for Viet Tan’s democratic cause is a key party strategy.

What a communist fears
Hoang also contends that the Communist Party fears in particular outside-inside linkages between pro-democracy groups, which he hopes may one day be unified in popular front demanding political change, akin to the so-called “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. He points to the recent student-led nationalistic demonstrations in Hanoi against China’s maneuvers in the contested Spratly Islands and farmer-led protests in Ho Chi Minh City against alleged state-backed land grabs as evidence of a growing civil society movement that is increasingly willing to confront the authorities with their complaints and grievances.

Indeed, one of the Viet Tan presentations at the recent youth conference featured a video demonstrating how political dissidents in Serbia had organized to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic’s abusive regime in 2000. That particular movement was controversially known to receive financial support from the US Congress-funded International Republican Institute; according to party members, Viet Tan does not receive any US or other Western government funding but rather raises funds through business investments, share holdings and, to a lesser degree, donations.

At the same time, Viet Tan has developed strong connections on Capitol Hill. US officials have in recent years dangled economic carrots to persuade Vietnam’s Communist Party government to undertake democratic reforms, including allowing for greater religious freedoms. Last May, Viet Tan chairman Do Hoang Diem was called on by the US National Security Council to a meeting in the Oval Office with President George W Bush to discuss Vietnam’s rights situation.

Bush later publicly criticized the country’s rights record when Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet visited Washington. Despite such moral support, Viet Tan is clearly fighting an uphill battle, complicated by the fact the movement is managed mainly from overseas by people the Vietnamese authorities consider foreign nationals.

Despite its authoritarian and repressive ways, the Communist Party’s self-appointed mandate will nonetheless remain strong as long as the economy continues its breakneck expansion, including last year’s 8.5% GDP growth rate. In many rural areas, particularly in northern Vietnam, the Communist Party is still popular, particularly among the older generation who lived through the war and still views the three million strong political party as a national liberator.

Moreover, the government continues to implement World Bank and United Nations Development Program advised economic reforms and recently took onboard a certain civil society call for more participation in government planning approvals. Compared to Cambodia and China, where corrupt government officials have with impunity seized lands occupied by poor peasants, Vietnamese authorities have shown more sensitivity towards its aggrieved farmers, addressing land-grabbing complaints on a case-by-case basis. That would seem to indicate that certain upward pressures are impacting on the Communist Party’s decision-making, a realization Viet Tan has made and is now trying to capitalize on through calls for more clean governance, social justice and political freedoms. Barring any sudden collapse in economic growth, political change in Vietnam is still most likely to emerge from Communist Party cadres themselves, including the younger generation who favor political reforms that move the party away from its traditional faceless functionary approach.

In recent years, the party has allowed certain candidates to the National Assembly to run under an independent rather than Communist Party banner – though only one such candidate was selected last year, down from a previous three representatives. That’s clearly not the big bang sort of democratic reform Viet Tan envisages, and as the party ramps up its campaign of civil disobedience and the government retorts with accusations of terrorism, expect more crackdowns, confrontations and international outcry in the months ahead.

Shawn W Crispin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: