The whole world is watching

A few months ago I had the opportunity to speak with some young people in Ha Noi who care about the future of their country. They shared with me their dream of contributing to the development of their country. They are young people interested in exploring ideas and possibilities.

They are bright, enthusiastic, and warm. They are non-violent. And they want a brighter future for their country.

Yes, they are worried about the condition their country finds itself in. And yes, many of them take seriously ideas that the Communist Party of Viet Nam has yet to accept or flat out rejects.

But how, I ask, can a state whose motto is Freedom – Independence – Happiness, engage in the kind of violent behavior we have seen in recent days, which have seen a number of these youngsters rounded up and subject to mental and physical abuse?

At a time when Viet Nam aims to cultivate closer ties and foster greater understanding of Viet Nam and to promote more effective international partnerships, what is to be gained from this sort of behavior?

Are harsh, repressive tactics really the best way to earn the trust of the community of nations, China excepted?

And what is desired of these young patriots? Would the state simply like them to stop thinking about politics and power? Lastly, how should the students respond? Should that fight back to lawsuits, knowing that Viet Nam’s legal system and judiciary will likely not grant them a fair chance, but knowing also they might bring well deserved shame on to Viet Nam’s leaders?

Or should they simply accept that their country is one ruled by a single party that will not accept criticism.

That they should go forward in the remaining decades of their life like brainwashed children incapable of critical thinking and with zero contributions to the development of their country?

A consistent feature of brutal police states is are that, in addition to being violent and dangerous, they tend to be stupid and clumsy. Conservative elements within the regime’s recent arrests and beatings of young people in Ha Noi may well create political opportunities that will hasten their own demise.

Eighty seven years have past since the death of Phan Chu Trinh with Viet Nam still under French colonial rule. What would he think about the behavior of Viet Nam’s state today? What would he think about the “Independence – Freedom – Happiness” of Viet Nam in 2013?

In just two weeks Viet Nam will celebrate its independence. But what does independence really mean of Vietnamese cannot enjoy basic freedoms?

I have been research Viet Nam for 20 years. I have many friends in all parts of the party and state. But I have reached a point where I cannot stand by silently and watch that state continue to promote a society in which compliance with oppressive ideas is placed above basic human dignities. I believe others who care about Viet Nam should also speak out.

I welcome any comments to this post. My intentions are only the best.


Vietnam’s bloggers challenging one party rule

For the original post visit the BBC by clicking HERE

After years of conflict and hardship, Vietnam has emerged as Asia’s newest industrialising economy – but social and economic change present challenges to one-party rule, among them the vibrant blogging scene. Vietnam specialist Jonathan London charts the state’s pursuit of bloggers in Vietnam’s newly fluid political scene.

Two decades ago Vietnam had fewer than one telephone per 10,000 people, one of the lowest rates in the world. Today this country of 90 million counts 135 phones for every 100 citizens.

Internet uptake has also taken off. More than one in three has access to the web compared to just one in 33 a decade ago. History has indeed sped up in Vietnam, presenting both opportunities and risks.

The impact of the internet on Vietnam’s political culture has been significant and sudden. Until recently access to unfiltered information, news, and views in Vietnam was strictly limited to those with state power.

This situation has changed dramatically. Perhaps most significantly, political blogging is now well established in Vietnam, despite recent state efforts to root it out.

Forms of political blogging in Vietnam vary.

Some bloggers aspire to be independent journalists. Others focus on scandal and gossip, especially if it involves the country’s political elite.

Still others promote the causes of political reform and the plight of prisoners of conscience languishing in Vietnam’s jails. These are joined by the innumerable thousands of microbloggers on social media sites such as Facebook.

When they are silenced, whether through arrest or other means, they are swiftly replaced by new blogs and a flurry of internet activism critical of the state’s repressive tactics.

Thirst for change

Speaking out politically in Vietnam entails certain risks.

Within the past year several bloggers have been given lengthy prison terms under draconian laws meant to silence dissent and sow fear among the population.

Conditions in Vietnamese prisons can be harsh. On the inside, physical and mental abuse – and untimely deaths – are commonplace. Discrimination against family members on the outside is the norm.

Welcome to early 21st century Vietnam, a country ripe with potential but one creaking under the weight of a dysfunctional political system.

A country thirsting for modernity but one in which the state harshly punishes calls for fundamental change.

Vietnam’s bloggers are but one important part of an unprecedented, if still loosely organised, campaign aimed at encouraging, even compelling Vietnam’s one-party state to adopt fundamental political reforms.

Disparaged as “enemies” and “hostile forces” by regime conservatives and routinely the subject of threats, they are determined to see their country develop more pluralistic, transparent, and democratic institutions.

No longer hiding

In the past, Vietnam’s bloggers have hidden behind fake online identities to avoid detection and keep a step ahead of the authorities.

But increasingly, scores of Vietnamese are openly taking to the internet to be heard. They do so cautiously but with confidence and determination.

Indeed, in a very short period of time, open dissent has become an established feature of social life in Vietnam. The country’s political culture has changed in fundamental respects.

Nor are open calls for reform limited to tech-savvy youth.

Earlier this year, 72 current and retired state analysts and officials openly called for an end to Vietnam’s one-party rule. Petition 72 was a daring move and eventually gained more than 14,000 signatures, many from within the party-state apparatus.

While summarily rejected by the state, the petition circulated freely on the web and the open online debate that followed marked an indisputable watershed in the country’s political development.

None of this could have occurred without important changes within the regime.

Indeed, politics within the Communist Party, usually a dour, even depressing affair, has become interesting, exhibiting a degree of uncertainty not seen since the 1940s.

The restrained factionalism of the past has given way to a more open struggle that reflects a crisis of leadership.

Flagging economy

This crisis is itself the product of a growing sense and realisation that interest group politics and incompetence within the party are undermining the country’s prospects. To make sense of this crisis one need only look at the economy.

For decades Vietnam was East Asia’s poorest country. Wars and embargoes imposed by the US and China kept the country largely isolated from world trade.

Yet market reforms undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s unleashed explosive economic growth while Vietnam’s relatively cheap labour, its proximity to China and other East Asian markets, and its improving ties with European and American countries made the country a magnet for foreign investment.

In this period Vietnam saw dramatic if uneven improvements in living standards.

Within the last five years, however, Vietnam has descended into a lower-growth trajectory thanks mainly to economic mismanagement, itself driven by a brand of interest-group politics whose main product is profligacy and waste.

While Vietnam’s economy is growing and will continue to grow at a modest rate, its performance has been underwhelming. Reforms initiated in the 1990s have lost their momentum.

The state has failed sufficiently to address fundamental problems, such as infrastructure bottlenecks, and the need for a more skilled workforce and transparent governance of the economy.

In the meantime, state power is too often used by elites for elites and their associates. The country is restless.

Blogging clampdown

Sharing links to news stories or even mentioning general information on websites are threatened by new rules

Until now, the regime’s habitual response to calls for reform has been repression. This has sullied Vietnam’s reputation and undermined efforts to strengthen ties with such countries as the United States. The repression shows no sign of abating. But nor do increasingly open efforts to compel reform.

But are things reaching a head?

In recent months, the authorities have made use of Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code, which stipulates years of detention for “abusing democratic freedoms” and subverting “state interests.”

Last month, sensing a political opportunity in the meeting between Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang and his US counterpart, Barack Obama, 103 bloggers launched a petition to repeal Article 258.

Within days of that meeting, Vietnam’s state countered with its own Decree 72, due to take effect on 1 September.

The decree appears to severely limit political blogging by barring internet users from making references to “general information,” quoting “information from state press agencies or websites,” or providing “information that is against Vietnam, undermines national security, social order and national unity”. Still, the precise aims and enforceability of the decree remain unclear.

A fluid climate

Just a few weeks ago a brave Vietnamese activist recounted how she had to sneak out her own house at 04:30 in the morning to avoid police detection, just so that she might attend a rally in support of greater political rights. While on August 13th a small gathering of young people in Hanoi who are active in net politics was violently raided, their phones and laptops seized.

Yet in the same week, a prominent member of the Communist Party urged his former comrades to quit the Party and join together under the banner of a new, yet-to-be-formed social-democratic party. And later that week, in a dramatic and unforeseen decision, state authorities effectively threw out lengthy prison sentences against two young activists, whose sentencing had drawn domestic and international criticism. One, a 21 year-old woman named Phuong Uyen, was even allowed to walk free from court, but not before admonishing the court itself.

Such developments are not normal in Vietnam; they reflect state apparatus under enormous pressure and the arrival of a much more unpredictable and interesting political scene.

Indeed these developments remind me of the anti-colonial politics that played out in Vietnam almost a century ago, when Vietnamese patriots of diverse backgrounds banded together in what would become a decades-long struggle for self-determination, greater freedoms, and a fairer economy.

Today, Vietnamese of diverse brands are standing up for many of the same ideals. But in doing so they confront an elite whose legitimacy has been severely eroded against a backdrop of political infighting, economic mismanagement and interest group politics.

Vietnam’s politics are now fluid. Whether fundamental changes will occur is uncertain. Clearly, however, there are many bright, competent, and committed people working within and outside the party-state in the interest of a more open and transparent social order.

Across all segments of Vietnamese society there is a great hunger for change. The hunger emanates not from hostile forces but from Vietnamese of all stripes who love their country and want a better future as early as is possible.


Now what?

The political situation in Viet Nam is extremely fluid. And no one can guess how it will evolve in the short term, including even leaders of the state apparatus. Whether Viet Nam has entered a critical juncture is unclear. At the very least, however, developments of the last weeks give us reason to sit up in our chairs and take notice.

In order to consider the possibilities moving forward, we should consider important developments that have unfolded within the past month and the last two weeks in particular, as these express many of the tensions and contradictions in Viet Nam’s politics; tensions and contradictions which, however difficult to evaluate, must be resolved someone in the short or long term if Viet Nam is to escape from its present political and economic malaise.

Let us first reconsider Viet Nam’s position at present. Then consider recent developments. I’ll return to questions about the future toward the end of this piece and in subsequent posts.

The general context remains. Viet Nam is a country with great potential but one which has descended into a leadership crisis and general malaise that can only be fully addressed through thoroughgoing reforms and changes in the country’s social, political, and economic institutions. (Examining the twists and turns of politics in Viet Nam from week to week in indeed exhausting. Though I suppose politics is exhausting everywhere.)

Less than a month ago, following President Trương Tấn Sang’s White House meeting with Barack Obama I posted somewhat optimistically about the significance of this meeting. (And I might add that though I did not attend any of the events surrounding Sang’s visit, friends who were present reported being impressed by Sang’s apparent earnestness). At base, my support for a “comprehensive relationship” is based on the possibility that deeper and more extensive relations between the two states might produce practical benefits for the Vietnamese people.

My optimistic mood did not last long, as within two weeks of those historic meetings, Viet Nam’s state displayed the kinds of repressive behavior with which we are all too familiar. Indeed, when I first learned of Decree 72, signed by Prime Minister Nguyễn Tân Dũng himself, my feelings headed toward nausea. (Admittedly, however, the significance of Decree 72 – which will take effect on 1 September, is still unclear. Is the decree an instrument of repression of a step to meet the conditions to join the TPP or both?)

However, within the last week, conditions in Viet Nam have become unusually fluid.

Anyone who knows history understands deep changes (or ‘reforms’ – reforms are not always the result of top-down processes) in any political economy never occur only or mainly from the top down but are instead the product of forces and pressures from below and within the ruling class and those emanating from the international area.

Yet within the last weeks (and the last week in particular) there have been critical developments. Let us consider the most important of these below:

  • In the past two weeks, a group of bloggers opposed to Article 258 of the civil code has operated boldly and bravely, calling on Viet Nam’ state to abolish the article. Though they have not achieved their goal, the bloggers operated in a completely open manner, a development which is itself unprecedented in the country’s recent political history;
  • A new political party, the Social Democratic Party has practically been established (that is, it has been agreed by dissidents that such a party should now be established) featuring the leadership of influential, senior persons formerly associated with the CPV. Although it is hardly certain the prospective party will have influence, the fact that figures of national repute are now working actively toward the establishment of Viet Nam’s first domestically grounded political party is important. (We can explore the relevance of social democratic ideas in Viet Nam future posts.)
  • Several members of a loose association of youth that have in the past expressed outrage and Beijing’s transgressions in the Southeast Asian Sea were arrested in a violent raid on their English class. Since then, several have been subjected to physical abuse. Those arrested and those like minded comprise youth who want a better future for their country. (If the famous anti-colonialist Phan Chu Trinh were alive, what would he make of the arrest of youngsters struggling for basic freedoms?) The group is entirely peaceful and should be respected and nurtured, not subject to the violent, threatening behavior of the security apparatus.
  • Last weekend, the two students Phương Uyên and Nguyên Kha were unexpectedly if incompletely “freed” lengthy prison sentences; a development that owed to non-transparent decision making within the state (likely within the Politburo itself). (There is speculation that Viet Nam was responding to pressures brought to bear by the US, as Viet Nam is seeking to cultivate better ties with the US to promote its economic and security interests.) In the court hearing where the surprise results were read Ms. Uyên confidently proclaimed the righteousness of her conduct and the illegality of the state’s. After her release, hundreds of supporters of the students celebrated openly in the streets Long An town, which is itself among the more politically conservative jurisdictions in the country.

(Indeed, one wonders, in the wake of Uyên’s release, what is going through the minds of conservative and non-thinking elements within the regime that supported the baseless sentencing of these youths just months ago. Would it be too presumptuous to assume a significant proportion of this group are reassessing their political views in Viet Nam’s newly fluid political context? )

How should we evaluate the situation now?

Let me float four sets of ideas.

First, we must recognize the critical importance of the changing political climate in Viet Nam to those both outside and within the state apparatus who have and continue to advocated for greater political and human rights in Viet Nam.

We should, among others, see clearly that issues concerning Viet Nam’s tensions with China and Vietnamese objections to Beijing’s conduct, though major problems, are not at the core of recent political development in Viet Nam. From the petitioners of Group 72 and Group 258 to the two youth Uyên and Kha, from the 90s generation youth currently being repressed and assaulted in Ha Noi to the innumerable people within the Party who want reforms, political tensions and struggles in Viet Nam today center on the country’s social and political institutions.

In the past, reform minded Vietnamese spoke up about the China issue because it was deemed relatively safe. By contrast, today reform minded Vietnamese are speaking in an unprecedentedly direct manner.

Second, we can assume the meetings between Sang and Obama together with other domestic and international forces have placed considerable, focused pressure on those at the pinnacle of power rethink and indeed steer the proverbial ship of state to a different tack of uncertain direction or duration). We may well have to wait decades before knowing the precise role of the July 2013 Sang-Obama meetings.

Finally, we have to attend to the element most difficult to evaluate: the black box that is the internal politics of CPV at its highest levels. Here I admit my understanding of Viet Nam is even more limited than usual! Though I suppose I am no more “in the dark” than 99.99 percent of Viet Nam’s population.

Is it the case that important changes are occurring in the direction of Viet Nam’s politics and CPV politics in particular? Is the influence of “security” elements in the Party’s leadership diminishing (even though illegal police actions at the grassroots continue unabated)?  Have the appointments of Ms. Ngân and Mr. Nhân to the politburo, along with some other developments, brought changes in ongoing debates within that body? We most likely will not know the answers to these questions until Viet Nam develops a more transparent and open political regime.

Perhaps most importantly, it is time to dispense with the cynicism that typically and understandably has pervaded discussions of Vietnamese politics. Of deciding about the future before the future unfolds.  Of deciding what is possible in the present context.

The road to “reform” (by which I mean change) in Viet Nam has been a decidedly long and slow one. One might even say Viet Nam has had to wait 100 years. Yes Viet Nam has gained in independence, but independence has no meaning if Vietnamese do not enjoy basic freedoms. The latter sentiment was most famously expressed by Ho Chi Minh. And yet Viet Nam’s future is not about that person but about the aspirations of the Vietnamese people and the decisions and conduct of Vietnamese moving forward.

It would be best of the CPV ceased its efforts to crush dissent and have the vision and fortitude to take truly emancipatory decisions; to begin a process of reconciliation, a process of “reform” (by which I mean change, whether from the top down or bottom up). In the best of worlds this would be a process that would invite the participation of all Vietnamese.

No one wants Viet Nam to have a disorderly or chaotic process of social change. But changes are needed to escape the situation in which the country finds itself. Fundamental change need not be chaotic. It must be a peaceful evolution. A peaceful evolution not plotted by hostile forces, but one determined and steered by all those Vietnamese who long for their country to enter a new era.

JL, Hồng Kông

P.s. – I have just returned from summer break.