Human rights and democracy advocates are calling on Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to use the occasion of the Eleventh Party Congress, which starts today, to renounce controls on peaceful dissent and free imprisoned dissidents.
As the party struggles to square Marxist-Leninism with market reality, domestic reformers want the regime to liberalize its political system in order to maintain its recent economic dynamism and give citizens the civil liberties to match the freedoms of the market.
But the ruling party appears determined to maintain its grip on power at the expense of human rights.
“Vietnam has no demand (for) — and is determined not to have — pluralism or a multiparty system,” said Dinh The Huynh, a member of the party’s Central Committee.
Vietnam is the world’s second biggest prison for netizens, according to Reporters without Borders.
“The new leaders should break with the past and embrace a new vision that respects people’s right to peaceful and free expression, assembly, and association,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But rather than encouraging open debate, the leadership is obsessed with silencing critical voices.”
The regime is trying to reconcile one-party rule — where political change occurs at glacial speed – with the demands of a dynamic economy which grew by nearly 7 percent last year, albeit at the cost of high inflation and a weak currency.
Further growth is being retarded by endemic corruption and a bloated state sector which give the ruling party cause for concern.
“Bureaucracy, corruption, wastefulness, social vices, moral and lifestyle degradation have not been prevented,” outgoing party General Secretary Nong Duc Manh conceded today in his opening remarks.
But he firmly rejected the transparency and accountability advocated by party reformists and democracy activists.
“Hostile forces continue to implement plots … using democracy and human rights as a pretext for attempting to change the political regime in our country,” he said.
“They have to justify their political system in terms of delivering economic results,” said Martin Gainsborough, a Vietnam expert at the UK’s Bristol University. “If you fail to deliver economically, you can start to look quite threadbare.”
But closed politics have adverse economic consequences and the government’s legitimacy has taken a hit from a string of corruption scandals involving leading officials which have brought the ruling party into disrepute.
The Politburo’s second-highest member who is likely to become the next president today told Congress delegates that senior party members “lack example in morality and lifestyle, having allowed their wives, children or their staff to abuse power for personal profits.”
The bankruptcy of the Vinashin shipbuilding group, one of the country’s largest state-run firms, has come to epitomize government ineptitude and economic mismanagement.
“Vinashin is just one example,” says Le Dang Doanh, the former head of a government think tank, who argues that a lack of transparency and accountability is behind the current economic malaise.
Another reformist insider, Nguyen Anh Tuan, founder and editor of the popular online VietnamNet newspaper, is “unhappy with the direction of development” because of the regime’s corruption and conservatism. Even though VietnamNet is state-owned, he uses the site to press for “more transparency and real competition” in the selection of the country’s leaders.
This week’s nine-day congress will see a generational shift in the leadership and pit reformers like Tuan against conservative die-hards for whom China is a model, according to Carl Thayer, an analyst at the Australian Defense Force Academy. The conservatives fear political liberalization and they probably arranged the current crackdown against dissidents as a warning to reformers, he suggests.
Party conservatives are alarmed at the prospect of economic liberalization generating greater demands for political reform, particularly if democratic reformers are able to exploit patriotic sentiment as they did in 2008, when dissidents mobilized against a government deal which gave a Chinese firm the rights to exploit a multi-billion-dollar bauxite mine in central Vietnam.
“Pro-democracy activists attracted unprecedented support among urban elites and within the party – including independence hero General Vo Nguyen Giap” as a result of the campaign, notes one observer.
Such episodes suggest that civil society groups are more active and vibrant than a decade ago, analysts believe.
“I see more positive political change in Vietnam during the last 20 years than I see in the Philippines”, said Ben Kerkvliet, emeritus professor at the Australian National University.