Democracy in Vietnam Takes Step Back

By Matt Steinglass
17 November 2008

Vietnamese watched the U.S. elections on November 4 with fascination and enthusiasm. But their attitudes toward introducing more democracy in Vietnam are mixed. Last month, the government proposed a pilot program to allow direct elections for some local leaders. But on Saturday the National Assembly rejected the plan. Matt Steinglass has more from Hanoi.

A party hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi to watch the results of the American presidential elections attracted dozens of curious Vietnamese.

Do Hoang Anh, who works for an American-funded aid project, said it was the first time she had seen how elections in the United States work.

“For outsiders, not really outsiders but foreigners like me, it is very interesting to watch how the political system in the United States works to have the best candidate for the system,” she said.

Vietnam has its own elections every five years, but the Communist Party is the only legal political party.

Voters elect a National Assembly and local People’s Councils from a list of party-approved candidates.

But the People’s Councils are weak and ineffective. The real power lies with bodies called People’s Committees.

This month, for the first time, the government proposed testing a new idea in dozens of districts.

The proposal was to get rid of the People’s Councils and hold direct elections for the most powerful official in each district, the chairman of the People’s Committee.

Tim McGrath is a governance expert with the United Nations Development Program in Hanoi. He says the plans’ details were unclear.

“At the moment, the People’s Committee is approved by the People’s Council,” he said. “And you remove the People’s Councils at district level and it is really not clear what happens then.”

The proposal did not specify who would be allowed to run for People’s Committee chairman.

Vietnamese lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu says the reforms will fail unless they open the elections more widely.
Vu says the proposal is a strong move toward democracy, but that anyone who wants to should be allowed to run.

Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer, with the Australian Defense Academy, says the reforms are part of what the government calls “grassroots democracy” measures. Those measures began more than a decade ago, after a wave of protests in Thai Binh province.

“The ruling party and the regime saw that the behavior of local officials, redirecting development funds, raising all sorts of illegal taxes to feather their own nests, caused popular discontent,” said Thayer. “How do you prevent such hot spots from recurring and creating instability?”

The answer is to allow more popular input into government. Thayer says Vietnam may also be imitating reforms in China.

“China is ahead of Vietnam at local levels in directly electing, and Vietnam, although they will always claim they are independent and follow their own course, very closely studies the policies of neighboring countries, including China,” he said.

But the vice president of Vietnam’s Diplomatic Academy, Ngo Quy Ngo, says other countries’ experiences teach the Vietnamese to take democratization slowly.

“Foreign investment [is] coming to Vietnam a lot. Because why? Because society is very stable. That is why we look outside, we look to other regions. And we see that when society is not stable, nobody wants to come to do business,” said Ngo. “For example in Africa, and in some countries in Middle East, even in some Southeast Asian countries.”

Ngo says Vietnam is introducing democracy step by step. For some Vietnamese, the reforms do not go far enough.

The director of Vietnam’s Institute for Sociology, Trinh Duy Luan, says more fundamental change is needed.

Luan says moving from a representative democracy to a direct one requires a fundamental change of principles, and he does not see what the principle behind the proposed reform is.

The Communist Party and by the powerful Ministry of Home Affairs approved the reform plan, but on Saturday, the National Assembly rejected it.

National Assembly deputy Dung Truong Quoc says the rejection is almost unprecedented.

Quoc says the deputies voted to go ahead with eliminating the elected People’s Councils in the pilot districts. But the proposal to elect People’s Committee chairmen was postponed. He goes on to say some deputies worried that if the chairman is directly elected, there would be no way to ensure Communist Party control.

That, of course, is the point of democratic governance: to increase popular input, rulers must give up some control. And that appears to be a troubling idea to many in Vietnam’s Communist Party.

Vietnam halts election project


Vietnam's Communist Party keeps a tight grip on all political activity, both through cells in schools and workplaces. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HANOI – COMMUNIST Vietnam’s legislature on Saturday put the brakes on a trial plan to allow direct local elections next year, in a last-minute change before closing its autumn session.

The National Assembly instead voted to extend by two years until 2011 the terms of commune and district leaders who were indirectly elected in a process vetted by the Communist Party, a legislator and media reports said.

The original pilot plan, which had been discussed by legislators and outlined in a detailed assembly paper, would have mirrored the village-level elections introduced by neighbouring China 20 years ago.

The original proposal would have seen an April 25 vote next year in which citizens in 385 communes nationwide would have directly elected their people’s committee chairperson, a post akin to town mayor.

However, in a last-minute change early on Saturday, lawmakers approved other local government reforms, but scrapped the pilot plan for direct elections at the grassroots level of the Vietnamese political system.

Mr Uong Chu Luu, the assembly’s deputy chairman, said the introduction of direct elections and ‘the development of direct democracy at the base should be introduced prudently, with appropriate steps’.

With debate finished on the topic, the assembly closed its session.

Vietnam’s Communist Party keeps a tight grip on all political activity, both through cells in schools and workplaces and through the Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for mass organisations such as farmers’ and youth unions.

Decision making in Vietnam has long been top-down, with missives spread through loudspeakers and mass mobilisation campaigns that inform people about party edicts on everything from new farm techniques to family planning.

The new pilot project had been proposed a decade after the ruling party issued its so-called Grassroots Democracy decree, which outlined ways to expand citizens’ participation, oversight and transparency in local government.

That decree – summed up by the party slogan ‘people know, people discuss, people do, people supervise’ – was meant to help defuse local grievances following outbreaks of rural unrest in northern Thai Binh province in 1997.

In recent years, amid Vietnam’s rapid industrialisation, the number of land disputes has risen in rural areas, with farmers commonly accusing local officials of corruption and taking their land without adequate compensation. — AFP

Vietnam halts election project

Hanoi U-Turn: Vietnamese journalists are convicted for exposing alleged corruption

The Vietnamese economy’s Achilles’ heel is the country’s reputation for corruption. A recent court case shows why.

Last week Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien (“Young People”) newspaper and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (“Youth”) were convicted for “abusing freedom and democracy.” Mr. Chien will serve two years in jail, while Mr. Hai will be subject to “re-education.” Two of their police sources were also convicted for “revealing state secrets”; one will go to jail for a year, the other got a warning.

Their real crime was exposing alleged corruption at the Transportation Ministry in 2006. Officials were said to have diverted millions of dollars from the bureau’s $2 billion budget — some $7 million to bet on European soccer matches alone. The Transportation Minister resigned. At the time, Hanoi’s willingness to allow reporting on the scandal seemed to augur a crackdown on corruption and a loosening of restrictions on the media.

Vietnam ranks 121 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s latest survey of perceived corruption. The journalists’ convictions will discourage other reporters from investigating and exposing official corruption too vigorously. That’s not good for business.

Vietnamese authorities release three Viet Tan members detained on humanitarian visit

April 5th, communist authorities expelled from Vietnam three members of Viet Tan: Nguyen Thi Xuan Trang, Swiss citizen, Mai Huu Bao, American citizen, and Nguyen Tan Anh, Australian citizen.

The three individuals were released 48 hours after being detained on April 3rd at the Ministry of Public Security detention center on Nguyen Van Cu street, district 1, Saigon. They had come there to visit Nguyen Quoc Quan, Somsak Khunmi, Nguyen The Vu and Nguyen Viet Trung who have been held for over four months after distributing pro-democracy literature.

The request to make a humanitarian visit was not granted by prison officials. Instead, the three Viet Tan members were illegally held at the detention facility, had their mobile phones confiscated, and were prevented from having any communication with the outside. After they had gone missing for 24 hours, their friends alerted the Swiss, American and Australian consulates which made inquiries with Vietnamese authorities. Unable to fabricate or produce any criminal charges stemming from this humanitarian visit, the Hanoi government had to release the three individuals.

Viet Tan will continue to promote democratic change through peaceful, non-violent activities from inside Vietnam; and to lobby the international community to support the Vietnamese struggle for democracy and pressure the Hanoi regime to honor its commitments on human rights and rule of law.

Vietnamese police detain Viet Tan members for visiting imprisoned colleagues

Security police in Vietnam detained three members of Viet Tan as they went to visit colleagues who have been held for over four months at a Ministry of Public Security detention center in Saigon.

The three recently detained Viet Tan members are:

  • Ms. Nguyen Thi Xuan Trang, 35-year-old medical doctor and Swiss citizen. Dr. Nguyen is also a member of the Comité Suisse Vietnam (COSUNAM).
  • Mr. Mai Huu Bao, 38-year-old electrical engineer and American citizen. Mr. Mai is a past Executive Board Member of the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California and past President of the Phan Boi Chau Youth for Democracy.
  • Mr. Nguyen Tan Anh, 28-year-old manager of a health-care non-profit and Australian citizen. Mr. Nguyen is a past president of the Vietnamese Students Association of New South Wales.

The three traveled to Saigon at the end of March with the goal of visiting Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan, Mr. Somsak Khunmi, Mr. Nguyen The Vu, and Mr. Nguyen Viet Trung — held since November 17, 2007 at the Ministry of Public Security detention center located at 237 Nguyen Van Cu street, district 1, Saigon — and later with other democracy activists.

On the morning of April 3, Mai Huu Bao, Nguyen Tan Anh and Nguyen Thi Xuan Trang brought medicine and food to the detention center. After entering the facility at 10:00 a.m., they have not had any further communication and have gone missing. It has been over 24 hours since anyone has heard from them.

Rep. Royce Nominates the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do for 2008 Noble Peace Prize

WASHINGTON, DC– Today, along with two of his colleagues, Representative Ed Royce (R-CA) requested that the Noble Peace Prize Committee consider the Most Venerable Thich Quang Do for the 2008 Noble Peace Prize.  In his letter, Rep Royce stated:

“The Most Venerable Thich Quang Do, a Buddhist monk, well-known writer and Deputy Head of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), has dedicated his life to a struggle for justice, peace and human rights in Vietnam. In his struggle for the rights of others, he has sacrificed his own safety and freedom, spending almost 30 years in detention for his peaceful advocacy of democracy and human rights. Today, he is under house arrest at the Thanh Minh Zen Monastery, denied the right to travel and communicate freely.

Even under house arrest, Thich Quang Do continues his peaceful campaigns for the rights of all Vietnamese. In July 2007, he broke out of house arrest to support a demonstration staged by ‘Victims of Injustice,’ a movement of farmers and peasants protesting official corruption and state confiscation of lands.

Thich Quang Do’s vision of democracy extends beyond Vietnam’s borders. In September 2007, he expressed solidarity with the democratic protests of Buddhist monks and civilians in Burma, calling for urgent United Nations action to cease the violence. The Vietnamese authorities reacted by launching a widespread vilification campaign against Thich Quang Do in the State-controlled media, threatening his imminent arrest.

Thich Quang Do was awarded the prestigious Rafto Prize in 2006 by the Norwegian Rafto Foundation for his “personal courage and perseverance through three decades of peaceful opposition against the Communist regime,” acting as a “unifying force” and a “symbol of the growing democracy movement” in Vietnam. Vietnam, unfortunately, refused to allow Thich Quang Do to travel to Norway to receive the award.

We believe that Thich Quang Do is a most worthy candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. This award would not only honor a courageous proponent of peace, but also acknowledge the silent struggle of all those who risk their lives daily for the case of human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam and elsewhere. Thus, we respectfully submit to your Selection Committee the name of Thich Quang Do as candidate for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize.”

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