The US government and rights groups are expressing concern over Vietnam’s crackdown on freedom of expression, as the regime faces growing dissent and labor militancy.
A Catholic priest was yesterday beaten unconscious by unknown assailants following the demotion of a house he planned to convert into an orphanage, in defiance of the authorities.
As Burma liberalizes, Vietnam continues to crack down on dissent. Since January 13, when the Burmese junta released hundreds of political prisoners in a major amnesty, the Vietnamese security forces have arrested at least 15 political dissidents and sentenced a further 11 to prison. With Aung San Suu Kyi fresh from an election victory and ready to take her seat in parliament, Vietnam’s most prominent opposition figures languish in jail, under house arrest, or in reeducation camps (yes, those are still in use). And as Burma issues visas to foreign correspondents and loosens the muzzle on its domestic press, Vietnam continues to tightly control foreign and local journalists and block Facebook and other “sensitive” websites, prompting Reporters Without Borders to rank it last among Southeast Asian countries in its 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index.
Rights groups and media monitors are calling on the authorities to release bloggers (left) Nguyen Van Hai (pen-name Dieu Cay) Phan Thanh Hai (Anh Ba Saigon) and Ms. Ta Phong Tan (Justice and Truth) and the charges against them. The activists are charged with “spreading propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” an offense punishable by ten to twenty years’ imprisonment under Article 88.2 of the Vietnamese Criminal Code.
“Dieu Cay has been detained incommunicado for the past 17 months in gross violation of domestic and international law, and he should never have been arrested in the first place, “said Vo Van Ai, president of the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights. “A trial under these conditions would be nothing other than a parody of justice”
The US State Department expressed concern over the prosecutions, describing them as part of a “disturbing pattern” of growing restrictions on Internet-speech in Vietnam.
According to BBC reports, Phan Thanh Hai’s blog covered various sensitive issues in Vietnam, including a dispute with China over maritime boundaries, controversial bauxite projects, a scandal around a debt-laden state-owned shipbuilder and case studies of famous dissidents. He was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City in October 2010. Police confiscated his two computers and numerous documents and articles printed from the internet.
Nguyen Van Hai was set to be freed from 30 months’ imprisonment for tax evasion in October 2010, but was made to stay in jail because of the new charges. Before his arrest in 2008, he took part in anti-Chinese protests over Vietnam’s maritime territorial dispute with Beijing and a demonstration in Ho Chi Minh City against the Beijing Olympic torch relay.
The blog of former policewoman Ta Phong Tan denounced corruption and injustice in Vietnam’s legal system.
“Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai, and Ta Phong Tan have already been held for lengthy periods in open-ended detentions, and now they face vague charges based on articles the state deems unfavorable,” said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Authorities should drop these charges and release them immediately.”
State media is tightly controlled in Vietnam, and the government has increasingly targeted online journalists who cover sensitive issues, according to CPJ research.
“Blogging is an escape route for those whose ideas and actions are imprisoned. It allows one to express resistance against injustice and violence,” said one of the convicted bloggers, Phan Thanh Hai, in a blog posting in 2007.
“With more than seven hundred state-controlled media outlets and thousands of pro-government web portals, the Vietnam government has a giant propaganda machine working to beautify the face of the state,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “So what do the authorities have to fear from a handful of bloggers?”
Vietnam has benefited from an international image as a modernizing Asian Tiger, but liberalization has been limited to the market, while the regime continues to crack down on political dissent, most notably on Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy group styled after Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77.
“Still, in spite of the risks, Vietnamese activists continue to speak out about political pluralism, corruption, and free speech,” notes Roasa, who suggests that regional developments and internal economic affairs might combine to create an opening for an upsurge in opposition activity:
The Burmese thaw might prove to be their greatest gift. The changes there should challenge myopic thinking about Vietnam among the international community and bring human rights to the fore.
“The leadership is following developments in Burma closely, and it is worried,” said Nguyen Manh Hung, an expert on Vietnamese foreign policy at George Mason University. “In the past, Vietnam used its role in ASEAN to push Burma to change. But now, Burma is moving faster than Vietnam.”
“If Burma improves on human rights and gets rewarded, Vietnam would need to meet the same standards,” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy. The Vietnamese leadership also fears losing its role as ASEAN’s key mediator between the United States and China. “Vietnam is worried that Burma is becoming the darling of ASEAN,” Thayer said.
The regime is also struggling to contain an upsurge in labor militancy, and the authorities were recently forced to raise wages and amend the law governing strikes.
“More dramatically,” Forbes reports, “ever rising costs have fomented a growing number of wildcat strikes over pay. Workers are emboldened because the country is short on skilled labor. Taiwan electronics giant Foxconn could fill only 3,000 of 5,000 assembly-line jobs at a plant in northern Vietnam as of late 2010.”
The strikes present a political problem to the ruling Communist Party since the disputes explicitly challenge the authority of the party-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, which, in line with communist orthodoxy, functions as a transmission belt for the ruling party. The VGCL claims to represent 95 per cent of public sector workers, but analysts suggest that only 10% of the workforce are members.
“The government is faced with a big problem in how to address these strikes,” says Youngmo Yoon, an industrial relations specialist at the International Labour Organisation in Hanoi. “If the disputes and strikes do not take place in an orderly and regular manner, there’s the potential for these strikes to spread and take on political aspects, which is what the government fears a lot.”
He says that the VGCL is not being pushed hard enough by the government to take on the challenge of representing workers, in contrast to the equivalent official body in neighbouring China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.
“The key difference between Vietnam and China is that the All-China Federation of Trade Unions is being pushed by the Communist party to take on the work of representing workers and controlling the situation,” says Mr Yoon.
“Burma has also shown that predicting how and when regimes will change is a fool’s game,” Roasa notes. “But if modern history is any guide, the Vietnamese people have shown that they are fully capable of standing up to oppression.”
The current government was reminded of this during unprecedented events in January. Outside the northern coastal city of Haiphong, a fish farmer led an armed insurrection against local authorities who attempted to confiscate his land after his lease expired (private ownership of property is not permitted in Vietnam). He became a national hero, and in a dramatic turn of events the central government and state-controlled press, which initially criticized the farmer, came to his defense. Next year, similar leases are set to expire throughout the country, potentially affecting thousands of poor villagers.
Disputes over land use rights are “perhaps the largest source of corruption nowadays in Vietnam”, says Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, a policy adviser on the United Nations Development Programme in Hanoi.
“The Haiphong case is emblematic of a wider problem and people are clearly frustrated,” he says. “The authorities need to pay more attention to this issue because there’s a fear of a domino effect.”
The officially- set artificially low compensation prices for land are driving increases in social inequality with potentially significant political repercussions.
“This is a ticking time bomb,” said Thayer.