Chills on a 40-degree day

A week ago the present author commented on recent indisputable changes in Viet Nam’s political culture, concluding without presumptions about the future that Viet Nam’s politics had entered a new stage. And today I maintain my position that Viet Nam is in a new position and that Vietnamese are finding their political voice.

Alas, there are signs now that the proverbial shoe may have dropped as within a fortnight of the close of the Central Committee’s 7th Plenum we have seen a string of developments that suggest an effort to ‘clamp down’ may now be underway in earnest.

The most recent news, which comes just over the weekend, is that there will be no news that is unregulated news until the BBC, CNN and other foreign media outlets come into compliance with new licensing requirements stipulated under Decree 20. The state-run cable service providers have pulled the plug on these news outlets.

This comes just days after two young people were issued lengthy prison terms for displaying the flag used by various ‘old regimes’ (under a banner of confronting Beijing’s conduct in the Southeast Asian Sea (‘South China Sea’) and a day after Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, in which youngsters across Viet Nam paraded with boiler plate slogans professing their well-instructed love and admiration for Ho’s great contributions.

Still, however, Viet Nam’s ruling party’s conduct appears contradictory to the principles stated in Ho’s Declaration of Independence in which, borrowing from The Rights of Man he stated that “all (people) must always remain free and have equal rights.”

There is speculation in some quarters that switching off the news channels is an effort from concerned regulatory agencies to increase the accessibility of these channels and turn a quick buck for some well-positioned translators by stipulating subtitles in a certain proportion of international broadcasters’ programming. Another possibility, alluded to above, is that this is indeed the beginning of efforts to respond to calls for stricter limits, as voiced during the recent party plenum. A third and more intriguing possibility, which is again speculative, is that pulling the plug on foreign news has mostly to due with belated efforts by the state or specific state officials to mitigate the party leadership’s embarrassment in front of its own citizens and the world in the wake of the harsh prison sentences it meted out to two young people. One can imagine a high-ranking official spitting out his tea upon viewing international coverage of the sentences, followed by a short and raucous late-hours phone call. ‘Pull the plug!”

The sentences are no-doubt supported by old guard elements and conservatives in command of suppression and also, it must be admitted, by a significant share of the population who associate the old flag with wartime violence and civil strife. But the sentences are harsh and do no favors for the state’s image at home or abroad.

These are interesting times for Viet Nam. The political culture has evolved and their is significant disagreement within the Party about how to manage the present situation. Fractious politics within the party is, of course, nothing new. And intra-party pluralism, if it develops further, may indeed facilitate democratic development, whatever its precise form. Certainly, the vast majority of people in Viet Nam are hoping for such an outcome.

It was 40 degrees Celsius in Ha Noi today. But a cold wind was blowing. Whether this was the ominous sign of an approaching front or chilling gasps from the past we shall see.


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