Test for Vietnam government: free-speech bloggers

By BEN STOCKING

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Last fall, when police clashed with Catholic protesters over confiscated church land, the Vietnamese public didn’t need to rely on the sanitized accounts in the government-controlled media. They could read all about it on the blogs.

The photos and translated Western news reports about last September’s outlawed prayer vigils were posted in a Vietnamese blogosphere where anything goes — from drugs, sex, marriage and AIDS to blunt criticism of the communist government.

Until now the government has generally taken a hands-off attitude. But officials at the Ministry of Information and Communications appear to be losing patience. They say they are preparing new rules that would restrict blogs to personal matters — meaning no politics.

Blogs and unlicensed news Web sites have taken on added weight since a crackdown on journalists cast a chill over Vietnam’s mainstream media.

In June, two journalists who had aggressively covered a major government corruption case were arrested and one of them was sentenced to two years in prison. Four others had their press cards revoked after running front-page stories decrying the journalists’ arrests.

The bloggers were quick to react.

“We fought two wars to free ourselves from the shackles of imperialism and colonialism, all in the hope of having basic human rights,” wrote Vo Thi Hao, a novelist and painter, on her self-titled blog. “Even the French colonial government allowed private media, opposition parties and free expression.”

Such sentiments would never appear in Vietnam’s state-controlled media, which are dominated by admiring stories of the country’s leaders or dull accounts of the bureaucracy at work.

In the reporting of the vigils organized by the Catholic Church to demand the return of lands seized decades ago, the state media portrayed the protesters as lawless, while the bloggers portrayed them as principled and brave.

“I get information from the blogs that I could never find in the state media,” said Nguyen Thu Thuy, a blogger who delves into her religious beliefs and family life. “Everybody has the right to free expression,” she said in an interview.

Roughly 20 million of Vietnam’s 86 million citizens use the Internet, according to the latest government figures. While high-profile bloggers are concentrated in the big cities, cyber-cafes can be found in all but the most remote corners of the country.

Any public criticism of the government would have been unthinkable a few years ago, but today’s bloggers are sometimes scathing.

A popular Ho Chi Minh City blogger known as Osin recently chided Vietnam’s top-ranking officials for chartering airplanes to fly to international meetings.

“A head of state should not use a chartered plane to show off,” he wrote, pointing out that when the prime minister of Thailand visited Vietnam, he came on a commercial flight. “A politician’s reputation does not depend on whether he can fly around in a big plane. It depends on whether he values the taxpayers’ money.”

Information and Communications Ministry officials did not reply to an interview request from The Associated Press.

Vietnam has yet to go as far as neighboring China does in suppressing undesirable Internet content. It blocks some Web sites run by overseas Vietnamese that the government views as a political threat. But it has not hindered access to Yahoo 360, a blogging platform that is extremely popular with young Vietnamese.

“It’s interesting that they’ve chosen not to block it,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who has written about China’s Internet policies. “One assumes it’s because they don’t want to deal with the blowback it would cause.”

Still, the government occasionally tries to make an example of those who go too far.

A blogger known as Dieu Cay was charged with tax evasion after encouraging people to protest at the Olympic torch ceremonies in Ho Chi Minh City shortly before the Beijing games last summer. He criticized China’s policies in Tibet and the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea that is claimed by both China and Vietnam.

Vietnam’s government is particularly sensitive to anything it regards as fomenting public protests, and also is wary of upsetting its giant northern neighbor.

Vietnamese bloggers often write confessional postings that have nothing to do with politics.

One named “Sun’s Secret” recently wrote about her upcoming marriage and her fears that she was rushing into it too quickly. “Sometimes I feel like I just want to run away from this relationship,” she confided.

Sun’s Secret also confessed to feeling remorseful because she introduced two friends who slept together and later found out that they were HIV positive.

“Is it my fault?” she asked. “I introduced them.”

Some bloggers say the government has failed to keep up with the spread of blogging, and think it’s too late to roll it back.

“The government doesn’t have the technology or the manpower to control all the bloggers,” read a posting on TTX Vang Anh, a popular self-styled citizens’ “news agency.”

The Associated Press: Test for Vietnam government: free-speech bloggers

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Vietnam seeks Google, Yahoo! help to control bloggers: reports

Students search and play games online inside an Internet shop in Hanoi

Students search and play games online inside an Internet shop in Hanoi

HANOI (AFP) — Communist Vietnam wants Internet giants Google and Yahoo! to help “regulate” the country’s flourishing blogging scene, state media said Tuesday, and stop “incorrect information” being published online.

The government will announce new rules this month, stressing that weblogs should serve as personal online diaries, not as organs to disseminate opinions about politics, religion and society, senior officials were quoted as saying.

The regulations aim “to create a legal base for bloggers and related agencies to tackle violations in the area of blogging,” said Information and Communication Deputy Minister Do Quy Doan, according to the Thanh Nien daily.

The ministry “will contact Google and Yahoo! for cooperation in creating the best and the healthiest environment for bloggers,” he added.

The proposals follow the jailing in September of the high-profile blogger Dieu Cay — real name Nguyen Hoang Hai — for two and a half years on tax fraud charges. His appeal hearing is set for Thursday, court officials said.

Media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders charged that he was punished for criticising China’s claims over disputed South China Sea islands and called on the court “to acquit this cyber-dissident.”

The territorial issue is seen as highly sensitive by the Vietnam and Chinese governments.

Vietnam’s blogosphere has exploded in recent years, with school children to newspaper editors freely sharing their thoughts in a way that has not been possible in the state-controlled media.

Most users have chatted about lifestyle and personal issues, but some online writers have strayed into sensitive political areas and incurred the wrath of the authorities, with several bloggers, including Cay, ending up in prison.

The director of the state-run Bach Khoa Internet Security Centre, Nguyen Tu Quang, last month said under draft rules being debated, violators could face 12,000-dollar fines and up to 12 years jail.

“This is quite a strict punishment but perfectly suitable for those who intentionally release incorrect information about religion, the political system, state and government of Vietnam,” Quang was quoted as saying.

The OpenNet Initiative, a collaboration by experts from Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and other universities, warned in a report last year that political Internet filtering in Vietnam is “pervasive.”

“Vietnam’s filtering regime is multi-layered, relying not only on computing technology but also on threats of legal liability, state-based and private monitoring of users’ online activities, and informal pressures such as supervision by employees or other users in cyber-cafes,” the report said.

http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5h9co16MRnGCvGcSlDt7s4E5b9djg

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.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122470030081059145.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

Speaking Up for Vietnam

A Buddhist monk missing since authorities evicted him from his pagoda. A Montagnard Christian beaten to death in police custody. A lawyer involuntarily committed to a mental hospital after she championed the rights of farmers kicked off their land. Journalists jailed for exposing corruption. A young man sentenced to prison after chatting online about democracy and human rights. More than 400 people wasting away in harsh prison conditions for their political views or religious beliefs.

This week, the prime minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, brings Vietnam’s road show to Wall Street and meets President Bush and leaders likely including the U.S. presidential contenders, John McCain and Barack Obama.

When America’s political and financial leaders sit down with Prime Minister Dung, they should not forget these courageous individuals and should address directly the systemic pattern of rights violations in Vietnam that they represent: the Vietnamese government’s lack of tolerance for dissent and denial of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and religious belief.

In Vietnam today, the government still controls all media, as evidenced by the arrest in March 2008 of two investigative reporters who exposed a major corruption scandal in 2005. The reporters, Nguyen Viet Chien of Thanh Nien (Young People) newspaper and Nguyen Van Hai of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper face charges of “abusing their positions and powers while performing official duties.”

Police harass and arrest bloggers and cyber-dissidents for Internet postings critical of the government. In January 2008, a court sentenced cyber-dissident Truong Quoc Huy to six years of imprisonment for distributing leaflets criticizing the Communist Party and participating in pro-democracy forums on the Internet. He was charged with “abusing democratic freedoms of association, expression, assembly to infringe on the interests of the state.”

National security laws are used to imprison members of opposition political parties, independent trade unions, and unsanctioned press outlets or religious organizations. Laws such as Ordinance 44 authorize the detention without trial of dissidents at “social protection centers” and psychiatric facilities if they are deemed to have violated national security laws.

In March 2008, police arrested Bui Kim Thanh, an activist who defended victims of land confiscation and involuntarily committed her to a mental hospital.

Mr. Bush should know that Vietnam’s leaders harass and arrest church leaders campaigning for rights or choosing not to affiliate with state-controlled religious oversight committees. For the last 30 years the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam’s Supreme Patriarch, Thich Huyen Quang, has either been in prison or under house arrest for publicly protesting government policies.

Authorities have beaten and arrested members of ethnic minorities in remote areas such as Montagnard for refusing to join state-sanctioned church organizations, protesting land confiscation, making contact with relatives or Montagnard groups abroad, or trying to seek political asylum in Cambodia.

In April of this year, police arrested Y Ben Hdok in Dak Lak after other Montagnards in his district tried to flee to Cambodia. Police refused to allow his family or a lawyer to visit him during three days in detention. On May 1, police told Mr. Y Ben’s wife to pick up his battered body. His rib and limbs were broken and his teeth had been knocked out. Police labeled the death a suicide.

During Prime Minister Dung’s visit to America, he should hear that the American people and government care about how Vietnam treats its people. This is an all too rare chance to back Vietnam’s courageous activists, writers, and human rights defenders, who have risked their liberty to make their country more open, tolerant, and free.

Why Vietnam Needs Freedom Now

PROTESTS will surely sur round Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s meeting today with President Bush. But Dung will no doubt still find it a relief to be out of his own country: Back home, the economy is in turmoil, with popular discontent rising.

Yet the crisis presents Dung with a huge opportunity: the chance to open up the system and go down in history as a reformer.

Vietnam has enjoyed strong growth these last few years, and acceptance into the World Trade Organization has put it firmly on the path of integration into the world economy. But Dung’s campaign of doi moi (economic renovation) is in trouble, as the people suffer a host of ills.

Inflation rose 25 percent in May, with food prices up to 42 percent higher than a year ago. Unemployment is high. Soaring global oil prices add to the pain – as does the weaker US dollar, which lowers the value of remittances sent from overseas Vietnamese.

And all this helps expose a bigger problem – an oppressive state bureaucracy that is now the chief obstacle to progress.

The government can’t seem to control inflation; the education system doesn’t teach young people the skills they need for a global economy.

Huge government investments are plowed into inefficient national companies. Abuses of power, such as the expropriation of land without fair compensation, are rampant.

Increasingly, Vietnamese are showing their frustration – with responses ranging from simple non-cooperation to the nationwide wave of factory strikes.

The government has responded in typical fashion – arresting activists, freelance bloggers, lawyers, businessmen, students, farmers and workers.

Vietnam still has huge growth potential. Last year, overseas Vietnamese sent more than $7 billion to family back home – a significant boost for the economy. Overseas donors and lending agencies have promised millions in aid.

And foreign direct investment rose by $15.7 billion in just the first few months of this year.

In short, the problem Dung faces is not a lack of willing investors. It is a government bureaucracy that remains defiantly rigid and unaccountable.

Consider Vietnam’s most notorious recent corruption case, where government officials appropriated millions of dollars – some of it funded by foreign aid – to place bets on European soccer matches.

Several officials were put on trial and convicted of misusing the funds and then trying to cover up their misdeeds with bribery.

But then, last month, two newsmen who helped expose the scandal were arrested – which most Vietnamese see as the bureaucracy’s revenge.

It will be next to impossible for the nation to address corruption and hold authorities accountable if journalists who expose these misdeeds are threatened with jail.

This is Dung’s moment – if he’ll take it. He needs to impress upon the politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party that managing all the strains of a fast-developing society is easier if there is a free market of opinions as well as of goods and services.

Economic strains will confront the government with some tough decisions. But these decisions will be easier to sell to the people if citizens feel they have had some say in reaching them.

Why wait? By using today’s problems to open up, Dung can help bring stability and prosperity to Vietnam. By changing its present stagnant course, Hanoi can ensure that unrest does not break out into chaos – something no one wants, least of all foreign investors with hundreds of millions at stake.

And by opening up, Dung will help the Vietnamese achieve something that millions of their neighbors already have: freedom.

This is also a unique moment for the United States. American influence (mainly via growing US investment) is the only real agent for change in the country right now; Vietnam desperately needs that influence to continue.

The people need increased trade and outside investment so we can improve our education system and lift ourselves out of poverty. But we also need investors to speak out on the need for reform that will increase transparency and accountability – and help build a democratic Vietnam that respects the dignity and rights of its people.

We Vietnamese want change. We know that the government can’t deny us our freedoms forever. And we hope America’s business and political leaders take the chance to remind Vietnam’s prime minister of that truth during their meetings this week.

On Vietnam’s freedom road

Many found refuge and acceptance in Canada

By JASON MILLER, SUN MEDIA
5 May 2008

Hundreds from Toronto’s Vietnamese community converged on Nathan Phillips Square yesterday to celebrate their road to freedom.

The event was held to mark the 33 years Vietnamese have found refuge and acceptance in Canada.

After 1975, when communist forces took over their country and forced them out, a wave of Vietnamese found their way to Canadian cities.

Many in attendance yesterday were dressed in army fatigues, while others carried enormous yellow and red flags.

“The flag is a symbol of our heritage and freedom that we must preserve,” said Brenda Vo, who escaped Vietnam by boat in 1980 and has lived in Canada for more than 20 years.

She described her experience as horrific, declaring that democracy died in Vietnam when the communist regime took over. Those who refused to become communist were thrown in prison and the only way out was to escape by boat — a route that cost thousands their lives, she said.

“We appreciate Canada for giving us a chance to rebuild our lives,” said Vo. She learned English by day and washed dishes at night to make ends meet after arriving in Canada.

Phong Nyuyen — a 36-year-old captain in the South Vietnamese army when the communists took over — said he was captured and imprisoned for 10 years. “This day is a chance to remember those who have lost their lives fighting for freedom,” he said.

It was almost 25 years before he was finally re united with his wife and kids in Toronto in 1999.

“It’s a different lifestyle here,” he said. “But we have learned to adapt to our environment.”

Source: TorontoSun.com

Vietnam’s Third Way poses party teaser

 http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/JA29Ae02.html

As Vietnam’s rapid economic expansion gathers pace, the country’s communist party leaders are having an increasingly difficult time maintaining their so-called “Third Way” model of economic development, where centrally planned strictures and market dynamics uncomfortably co-exist.

The question merging over the transitional economy is whether, more than 20 years after the launch of market-oriented doi moi reforms, a new generation of political leaders has the political will to bury the country’s communist past and fully embrace market economics.

How the party strikes the balance could in the coming years make or break Vietnam’s the reform experiment, claim some academics. Mancur Olson’s Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships makes the theoretical point that in transitional economies there are certain reforms that governments may pursue to better promote economic growth and that certain styles of government are better able to create and enforce those reforms more consistently.

Reforms that respect and secure individual rights, according to Olson, will provide strong incentives for individuals to produce, invest and engage in mutually advantageous trade, of which society will broadly gain more from so-called rights-intensive production, the theory argues. And as one might expect, rights-respecting and strong governments are most able to successfully implement such reforms.

In today’s Vietnam, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his economic lieutenants must weigh whether such reforms are appropriate at this arguably still early point in the country’s economic development and, if yes, will his more market-minded administration allow the country to fully outgrow communism?

For economic development scholars who study Vietnam, the general answer is yes and an eventual yes. Several economists now argue that in today’s Vietnam, many of the reform pieces are in place, including evidence that the slow but steady government grant of more land rights has led to greater productivity and investment compared with areas that have not implemented the same reforms.

On the one hand, the current group of reform-minded Vietnamese leaders is committed to market liberalization because to date it has led to fast economic growth and helped to shore up the communist party’s overall popularity. Yet they continue to do so with an unequivocal determinism that their reforms do not challenge the party’s monopoly over state and society.

Indeed, any activities by groups that are not sanctioned by the state are subject to criminal prosecution, as activists who last year called for more democracy and are now languishing in prison can attest to. “When leaders here say they want a socialist market economy, they really mean it … no one with any influence is arguing that the state should surrender the economy’s commanding heights,” said Jonathan Pincus, a UN economist based in Vietnam.

Yet at the same time, the party remains strongly committed to socialism, or more accurately to Ho Chi Minh thought, still the underlying basis of its overarching authority and political legitimacy. That means Dung’s administration probably won’t anytime soon abandon communism or implement reforms that would pave the way for Vietnam’s full-blown conversion to a rights-based capitalism.

Instead, capitalism and its externalities will continue to be co-opted in order to “revolutionize” the prevailing socialist order, with the country gradually becoming more modernized, technocratic, wealthier, powerful, and, perhaps finally, democratic. Intellectually, the party has started to map out what this new socialist order may look like in practice.

According to party-affiliated scholar Phan Dinh Dieu, the one party state is not in contradiction with market reforms:

if we look upon the whole society as a unified system, then generally speaking the State does not only ‘dominate’ society, but also increasingly fulfills many service functions for society, as if to create a structure and a favorable environment for the activities of society’s members … In this sense, antagonistic relations between State and civil society will be replaced by relations of collaboration; the democratic State will be the State ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’.

Party leaders are well aware of the challenges in pursuing its third way between capitalism and communism. Although this middle path is not fully bulletproof against internal and external challenges, party leaders seem to think that in time it can be. A recent example of the party’s new thinking was also presented in a recent op-ed by former prime minister Vo Van Kiet, who oversaw the implementation of many important economic reforms during his tenure.

In responding to a recent scandal over the widespread distribution of tainted soy sauce, Kiet reiterated the party’s belief in the importance of a functioning press to check and balance their reforms, so long as reporters remain aware of their constitutional function and responsibility to the party:

Our socialist-oriented market economy has not commercialized the press, which worries many people. But the market itself is bringing the press and readers closer. Our nation is led by the Communist Party alone, which requires the press to be an effective source of information … Newspaperpersons who consider themselves above the law are prone to corruption. Thus, the press’ activities and penalties for corrupt journalists [either in state-run or private newspapers] should conform to the law.

By co-opting and integrating elements of market liberalization and democratization, socialist institutions may eventually become, and in many ways already are, more efficient with greater responsiveness in which the party-state practices “a soft, diffused and highly qualified form of domination,” according to academic Chris Dixon of London Metropolitan University.

Reform blind spots
To be sure, Vietnam’s current economic growth has yet to be accompanied by an appreciable increase in economic freedom (ie government intervention in the economy, property rights, and rampant black market activities), political freedom (ie freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the right to organize political parties), or good governance (ie frequency of corruption in public and political sectors).

So far, the poor and disadvantaged have been willing to live with the economic, political and administrative deficiencies of the one-party state so long as the government delivers the basic economic conditions which allow for the creation of higher paying jobs, better public services, and a gradually improved standard of living.

The average Vietnamese household is in absolute terms now better off than before market liberalization measures were first introduced in the mid-1980s. The question going forward is not merely whether the party can deliver prosperity, but whether prosperity is equitable and perceived to be based on merit and not on communist party connectedness or government corruption. Simply put, the average Vietnamese citizen still evaluates the communist party based on its self-proclaimed constitutional credo that the communist party-state will function ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’.

On the one hand, the economic marriage between communism and capitalism can probably be sustained over the medium term. Scheduled privatization of former state-owned enterprises (SOEs) should help to boost economic efficiency and growth. SOE managers and workers should have no immediate reason to oppose privatization, since the process as currently defined will allow them to continue to receive some form of government subsidies and a larger share of their productive surplus.

Party leaders will still hold on to strategic industries, such as telecommunications, banking and financial services, and education and training, for third-way sociopolitical reasons. Sustained state-control of crucial industries also serves as a sort of economic shock absorber. In case of a significant economic slowdown or financial crisis, party leaders can further privatize non-strategic enterprises, such as in the tourism industry, which are already driven by firms led by party loyalists.

On the other hand, the downside of sustained state-vested interests in the economy is that the country, while very capable of becoming a low- to middle-income country, will consistently lag the region’s more developed economies in terms of economic efficiency. The preferential treatment of SOEs by most accounts has led to an inefficient allocation of capital resources and drags on Vietnam’s still vastly untapped growth potential.

For example, the World Bank estimates that the amount of capital needed to create one job in a SOE is more than eight times higher compared with domestic private firms; the potential cost savings in transport and technical services could easily be more than 30% if the various privileges bestowed upon SOEs competing in the sector were eliminated, according to the same World Bank statistics.

To realize Vietnam’s true growth potential in job creation and economic productivity the communist party needs to level the competitive playing field between the state and private sectors. Unfortunately there is no official policy or the financial infrastructure in place to expand small private firms into larger, more globally minded companies.

The importance of this transformation is that, given the still relatively weak purchasing power of the average Vietnamese domestic consumer, higher incomes at this early phase of development will in the main come from export-oriented activities. Until these reforms take place, Vietnam will continue to be marked by inequality, expressed in recent political protests and labor strikes, which slowly but surely are from below eating away at the country’s socialist fabric.

Vietnam’s communist party leaders will find it increasingly difficult to reconcile their current marriage between communism and capitalism. As the population becomes more economically empowered, party cadres assertions that the party-state is equivalent to a democratic state of the people, by the people, and for the people will ring increasingly hollow. And any move back towards the socialist redistribution system to address emerging issues of inequality will just as likely be rejected by the very masses they would be designed to help but who are unwilling to revert to the party’s inefficient centrally planned old ways.

For Vietnam’s communist party leadership, this is the limitation and contradiction of their hoped for third way which if not resolved could in the end be its eventual undoing.