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.