Human rights groups today launched an appeal for the release of seventeen Vietnamese social activists, including bloggers and citizen journalists, who have been imprisoned for up to a year. One prominent dissident, rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan (right), was recently assaulted by plainclothes police.
The Communist authorities are cracking down on dissent, as the arrest of two leading Vietnamese bankers, including a close ally of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, has sparked a crisis that could “threaten the survival of the whole political regime,” analysts suggest.
Nguyen Duc Kien, the head and founder of the Asia Commercial Bank, and Ly Xuan Hai, ACB’s general director, face charges of “violating state regulations on economic management”.
“Speculation abounds in Vietnam that the arrests are linked to political conflict at the top of the ruling Communist Party,” writes Jonathan Pincus, a resident academic advisor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Vietnam Program.
“Never has Vietnamese society faced so many upheavals which weaken the Party’s leadership and threaten the survival of the whole political regime,” a retired National Assembly deputy told AFP.
“Some party leaders have lost patience, and feel it is time to act to eliminate these potential threats and regain public confidence,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The crisis is exposing the tensions within Vietnam’s Market-Leninist system, observers suggest.
President Truong Tan Sang – one of Dung’s leading rivals – recently warned that “Vietnam is now under not insignificant pressure because of broken state-owned enterprises.” He called for economic reform and new anti-corruption measures to combat “the degradation of political ideology and the morals and lifestyle” of corrupt officials.
“There’s a political vacuum at the top in Vietnam and there is vast amounts of popular contempt for the leadership,” says Adam Fforde, a political expert at Australia’s Victoria University. “It’s not easy to see how they will get out of this situation.”
The affair has unleashed fierce factional conflict within the ruling party and “the main battleground is economic reform and probity including the state-owned sector and the banking sector and weeding out entrenched large-scale corruption”, said Vietnam expert Carl Thayer.
“Sang and Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong are now repeating an old but true refrain that corruption is one of the major threats to the legitimacy of Vietnam’s one-party system,” Thayer said.
The unprecedented arrest of one of Vietnam’s leading oligarchs “has sent shockwaves through the Communist-ruled country and further undermined confidence in what was once one of the world’s hottest emerging markets,” reports suggest:
[Vietnam’s] rapid growth has come at the cost of economic instability, with inflation crises, currency devaluations and major corruption scandals at state-owned companies damaging Vietnam’s status as a key emerging market. And now those once lauded as economic pioneers are finding themselves under pressure. Annual GDP growth, which averaged more than 7 per cent in the decade before the inflation crisis of 2008, slowed to just 4.7 per cent in the second quarter of this year as the government choked off credit in an effort to fight inflation and renew confidence in the currency.
With Vietnam’s Market-Leninist model floundering, there are signs of a backlash against the “super rich”, says Thayer, an expert on Vietnamese politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
“Vietnam and Mr. Dung pursued a policy of high growth at all costs, and they were willing to overlook many things in order to achieve that goal,” Thayer tells the Wall Street Journal:
The backlash against Vietnam’s go-go years, when it averaged annual growth rates of more than 7% for nearly a decade, isn’t confined to the country’s inner political sanctum. Anger at currency devaluations and high inflation rates has demoralized many ordinary people in recent years. Popular newspapers have run lurid stories about wealthy Vietnamese, accusing some of them of cutting open the skulls of live monkeys and scooping out their brains as a gourmet treat, just as the country’s old emperors were reputed to do. This week, the Vietnamese press ran a series of pictures of Mr. Kien’s luxury cars, emphasizing the gulf between the new elites who grew rich during the Vietnam’s boom years, and the millions who now struggle with sky-high interest rates and the threat of currency devaluations and inflation.
The crisis coincides with a fresh crackdown on dissidents.
On Friday 17 August, as US Ambassador David Shear visited Thich Quang Do, leader of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, security agents in Danang beat and harassed dissident monks Thich Thanh Quang and Le Cong Cau (left), a leader of the UBCV Buddhist Youth Movement, according to QueMe, the Action for Democracy in Vietnam NGO:
Giac Hoa Pagoda is the Headquarters of the UBCV’s provincial board for Quang Nam-Danang and also of UBCV’s Buddhist Youth Movement, an unofficial educational movement with over 500,000 members nationwide. For the past three years, the local People’s Committee has forbidden all public celebrations at Giac Minh and harassed and intimidated Buddhist followers on the grounds that the UBCV is “reactionary”, “illegal” and “against the State”.
A prominent Vietnamese rights advocate was also recently beaten by plainclothes security officers.
Le Quoc Quan told RFA’s Vietnamese service that he was attacked by a group of men around 8:00 p.m. on Sunday in Hanoi while he was returning home from parking his car in a nearby lot. Two of the attackers beat him with steel rods. He was injured on the head, the belly, and the knee before passers-by heard his calls for help and the attackers ran away, he said from his home. He said he has been harassed by authorities before and believes the men, who were not in uniform, were connected to the police, adding that one of the attackers had a familiar face.
“I am considered a dissident by the Communist Party. I work to change this regime with nonviolent measures and I have suffered a lot of hardship [for this] in the past five years,” Quan said.
Human Rights Watch called on Vietnam to investigate the attack which, Quan insists will not deter him from continuing his activities against one-party rule.
“It will have a counter-effect,” he said. “I do nothing wrong. What I am working for is good. Why should I not keep working?”
The Catholic lawyer is being targeted by the Vietnamese authorities because of his activism, observers suggest.
“Le Quoc Quan has continuously sought to use his legal skills to represent those being persecuted for asserting their rights, and now he’s become a target,” HRW deputy director Phil Robertson told AFP.
“Top-level leaders in Hanoi need to ensure that the authorities conduct a credible and transparent investigation into this violent attack and hold accountable anyone they find responsible.”
The U.S. “must go beyond a rhetorical defense of human rights in Vietnam,” in defense of activists like Quan, says Allen S. Weiner, a senior lecturer in law at Stanford Law School.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced that the U.S. would sign a new Trans-Pacific Partnership with Vietnam.
“Vietnam’s desire to promote economic development through expanded trade is understandable, and U.S. interest in supporting Vietnam’s economic advancement is commendable. But even as Vietnam seeks to move forward economically, its political system remains mired in a repressive and authoritarian past,” Weiner writes in the Washington Post:
Indeed, Clinton’s announcement came shortly before the one-year anniversary of the first stage of the Vietnamese government’s detention of activists whose “crime” has been to advocate governmental action on a broad range of human rights and social justice issues, including environmental, health, legal, political and corruption-based concerns. More than a year later, almost all remain in detention; one is under house arrest. Real progress in Vietnam will come only when political reform and respect for the rule of law accompany economic progress.
Weiner, who serves as director of Stanford’s Program in International and Comparative Law, has filed a petition with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention challenging the legality of the Vietnamese activists’ arrest and detention.
The detention of one of Vietnam’s leading tycoons “is the latest twist in a slow-burn crisis that has rattled Communist-ruled Vietnam since 2008 and damaged its reputation as one of Asia’s hottest emerging markets,” the FT reports:
Communist party insiders and analysts say that the crisis is not purely economic but also political, as top leaders have failed to adapt to the realities of Vietnam’s increasingly globalized market economy. Numerous attempts to reform wasteful state-owned companies and fight endemic graft have floundered….. As economic growth has slowed, and social disorder seems to be on the rise from violent clashes over land to illegal factory strikes, infighting at the top of the party has increased. Much of the anger has been directed toward Mr Dung, who some government and party officials say has been concentrating too much power in his office and showing favouritism to a narrow group of private conglomerates and state-owned companies.
After failing to oust Mr Dung at the past five-yearly Communist party reshuffle in 2011, his rival Truong Tan Sang, who holds the largely ceremonial role of president, has tried to outflank the prime minister by calling for more economic reform and a renewed anti-corruption drive. Earlier this month, in a symbolic move, the party wrested direct control of the anti-corruption steering committee away from the prime minister and re-established its own internal affairs department.
“When the economy is in trouble and people are losing money, the party knows it will be blamed,” says one senior party official.
The rising in labor militancy represents “a serious political challenge, in authoritarian, one-party Vietnam, where the weak, government-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labour is the only legal trade union and workers who try to organize strikes independently face arrest or other sanctions,” Ben Bland reports from Hanoi:
Foreign diplomats and factory bosses say the government is caught in a bind between the need to develop better communication channels between workers and employers, and its fears that organized labor may become a threat to political stability.
“The government is faced with a big problem in how to address these strikes,” says Youngmo Yoon, who works on industrial relations 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 neighboring 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.
Transparency and accountability are the keys to reforming Vietnam’s corrupt system of governance, writes Harvard’s Pincus:
Addressing the problems as a public security issue is not going to achieve these objectives on its own. The question is whether there is a constituency within the government that supports more stringent accounting and reporting standards, a stronger and impartial judiciary and a green light for Vietnam’s formidable printed media to report on public and private sector corruption.
“The ACB situation magnifies the general lack of transparency, weak corporate governance, fraud, corruption and illegal trading,” says Karolyn Seet, a banking analyst at Moody’s, the credit rating agency, in Singapore. “Vietnam is lagging way behind neighbors like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.”