Recent developments in Viet Nam beg the question of whether the country’s political elite are simply too self-serving or incompetent to act in a coherent, forward-looking manner. It is no secret that the most fundamental challenges Viet Nam faces today stem from weaknesses in its governance institutions. And yet gridlocked leadership continues to forestall reforms, leaving economic fragmentation and bottlenecks in place.
And once again Viet Nam faces the specter of lost opportunities in the international arena. President Truong Tan Sang’s July meeting with Barack Obama was construed as a success as the meetings broached the possibility of a “comprehensive partnership” with the US, including swift entry into the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership and the prospect of increasing inward investment and expanding outlets for Viet Nam exports.
Obama’s insistence that a comprehensive partnership would be contingent on significant improvements in Hanoi’s human rights elicited such hopeful sentiments as “We know, give us time.” Yet, if anything, the human rights situation in Viet Nam has severely deteriorated since the Sang-Obama meeting, casting doubt on the possibility of improved US-Viet Nam ties.
This summer a network of young Vietnamese bloggers – many only in their late teens and early twenties – mustered the courage to openly protest draconian laws the state has used to silence dissent. The protestors have taken particular aim at Article 258 of Viet Nam’s Civil Code, which stipulates prison sentences for those who “abuse their democratic freedoms.”
The presence of such articles, the protesters contend, casts doubt on Viet Nam’s suitability for the UN Human Rights council, to which Viet Nam’s state seeks to be nominated. Yet it has been precisely the Vietnamese state’s brutal repression of these protesters that has demonstrated the inappropriateness of a seat for Viet Nam on the UN Rights Council at this juncture in time.
The repression also raises questions about Hanoi’s hopes for deepening US ties. For during the very moments of Sang’s visit to Washington, state security forces in Hanoi commenced a reign of terror that continues until this very hour. The campaign has featured threats, arrests, and beatings as well as illegal searches and seizure, round-the-clock surveillance, pressuring of family members, defamation resulting in loss of employment and academic standing, and the indeterminate exile of young reform advocates.
Why has such anger been directed at patriotic young people making the obvious point that Viet Nam stands to benefit from reform? Some have speculated that different elite factions are working to undermine each other, which is decidedly if sadly plausible.