As anti-Chinese protests roil Vietnam, a domestic pro-democratic opposition is quietly gathering steam.
- By Steve FinchSteve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.
HANOI, Vietnam — When journalist Pham Chi Dung quit Vietnam’s Communist Party in December, he was so angry he published his letter of resignation on the Internet. One of the country’s leading dissidents, Pham accused the party of rampant corruption and monopolizing power against the wishes of a growing number of Vietnamese. "Never before have specific groups and political cronies benefitted so profoundly from their cooperation [with the party]," he wrote. Plainclothes agents, he claims, have watched him ever since. "If I go anywhere, two of them follow me," he said in a hotel room in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s economic hub in the humid south of the country. It was too dangerous to meet at his office or home, Pham explained.
For 16 years, Pham worked as a member of the Ho Chi Minh City security bureau, the local party-affiliated police force, collecting information on activists, writers, and dissidents perceived to be regime opponents. But when the authorities found he had for years been secretly writing articles critical of the party for overseas Vietnamese-language news sites, they imprisoned him without formal charge in July 2012. Since his release seven months later, and subsequent sacking from the security bureau, Pham has emerged as one of Vietnam’s leading regime critics. He wrote anonymously before his arrest; now he writes under his own name for outlets like the BBC’s Vietnam service, and more prolifically than ever. "Before I believed in the party," he said. "But after what happened, I felt that the Communist Party is not faithful to the people."
If views on the street and online are anything to go by, Pham’s change of heart is reflective of mounting public frustration with the Vietnamese government. Economic stagnation and failure to introduce greater political freedoms have prompted growing dissent — particularly online — threatening the party’s legitimacy. Anti-China protests in mid-May injured at least 129 people, and captured international headlines. But for many Vietnamese, it is exploitation by their own government — not their northern neighbor — that is at the heart of internal unrest.
The country’s poor economic performance is one of the driving forces of discord. From one of the world’s poorest countries after the Vietnam War, the party introduced economic reforms in 1986 known as Doi Moi — "renovation" — and by the 1990s, Vietnam’s economy was one of the fastest growing in Southeast Asia. Between 2006 and 2009, the country’s annual GDP doubled to more than $90 billion.
Yet since then, the economic outlook has been gloomy. This is partly due to the global financial crisis, but mostly arising from structural problems originating from the hybrid capitalist-communist system. Growth driven by easily available credit and top-down, inefficient state-owned companies led to rising inflation — reaching 18.7 percent in 2011, the highest in Southeast Asia. As a result, Vietnamese have seen their spending power reduced in recent years as banks have tried to clear bad debts, said Eugenia Victorino, a Vietnam economic analyst at ANZ Bank.
Limited reform efforts have failed to jumpstart Vietnam’s stunted economy. The country’s GDP rose just 5.4 percent in 2013, a rate economists say remains too weak to prompt a full recovery. All of Vietnam’s developing neighbors reported higher GDP growth in 2013: Laos hit 8 percent; China 7.7 percent, and Cambodia 7 percent.
In October 2012, under pressure to account for the country’s stagnant growth, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made a rare admission of "faults" over the struggling economy. His mea culpa was also, in part, a response to a spat of graft scandals that have emerged under his watch.
Since then, the party has been increasingly public about their efforts to suppress what continues to be widespread corruption. As of November, Vietnamese courts had held 278 corruption trials in 2013, according to a government report. In the past six months alone, Vietnam has sentenced at least three bankers to death on graft charges after they were found to have collectively stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from state-owned companies, including Vietnam Agribank, the country’s largest commercial lender. But corruption crackdowns are a mixed blessing for the Communist Party: announcing ever-wider probes of corruption has drawn greater attention to graft in Vietnam’s state-owned companies.
These injustices are increasingly disillusioning many of the one-party state’s 90 million people, says Chu Hao, a retired deputy minister of science and technology and among the most outspoken of Vietnam’s former senior officials. "Despite government attempts to reinforce its authority and foster [faith in the government], its numerous limitations and shortcomings remain, prompting people to believe less and react more," he said.
In January 2013, Hanoi invited the public to give feedback on proposed amendments to Vietnam’s constitution — the first time, according to a number of dissidents and former party officials, it has consulted its citizens on proposed political changes. In response, tens of thousands of high-ranking party members, army officials, intellectuals, priests, students, teachers, and lawyers signed online petitions calling for a multi-party system — a proposal quietly ignored when Vietnam’s parliament passed only minor constitutional changes in November.
During this period, the government also ramped up efforts to silence its critics: The number of dissidents convicted of subversion and other politically-motivated charges increased from around 40 in 2012 to at least 63 in 2013 according to Human Rights Watch. Although the pace of arrests has slowed in recent months, according to a Western diplomat based in Vietnam who asked to speak anonymously, the government’s detractors remain at risk.
Two bloggers were sentenced to prison in March for criticizing the government under Article 258, one of a number of new directives passed over the past two years designed to curtail criticism on the web. The media remains largely controlled by the state, yet without an effective firewall like neighboring China, the party has struggled to put a lid on online dissent. The number of Facebook users in Vietnam climbed from about 10 million in Dec. 2012 to 24 million in April 2014, as citizens easily circumvented lackluster state filtering.
Meanwhile, a haphazard effort by the state to crackdown on online dissent has left many Vietnamese increasingly emboldened and angry. N
guyen Thu Trang, a 20-year-old Hanoi barista said she has been questioned and harassed by state agents over her critical posts on politics and Vietnamese society. But despite warnings from her parents that she could end up in jail, Nguyen said she would not keep quiet. "Democracy cannot be established immediately," she said during a break from working at an upscale Hanoi café. "It requires a long-term process and people are the key factor."
Nguyen says she has friends even younger than her that are airing their critiques online — a new generation of dissenting voices that have emerged with the popularity of social networking platforms like Facebook. Although these younger web-based activists and more high-profile regime opponents like Pham say they plan to coordinate what appears to be a growing movement, the state still faces little in the way of organized opposition.
Direct political action challenging the one-party status quo remains all but impossible. Only 8.4 percent of representatives in Vietnam’s unicameral parliament are independent of the party. And while their presence has allowed greater debate in how the country is run in recent years, ultimate decision-making remains an opaque process at the highest echelons of the party. The vetting process to even get on the ballot remains strictly controlled by the central government. Nguyen Canh Binh, CEO of private Hanoi-based publishing house Alpha Books, was among a handful of Vietnamese who tried to run as independents in the last parliamentary elections, in 2011. A pragmatic and outspoken reformer, Nguyen Canh Binh is hardly one of the regime’s most aggressive critics. Yet still, he says, the party rejected his candidacy, refusing to approve his application to run on the ballot, without giving a reason.
Nguyen Canh Binh favors what he calls a "middle way" for Vietnam — a non-confrontational approach. He is starting a new educational program outside the state system to teach the country’s future elites how to lead, and has so far printed hundreds of Vietnamese translations of books on Western politics, philosophy and culture. He wants slow, steady change — not a Vietnamese Spring. "We don’t have good knowledge or understand fully the other side of democracy," he said. "We see what’s happening with crises in Thailand and the Ukraine."
Retired deputy minister Chu, however, is pessimistic. Although the government is hearing more about how ordinary Vietnamese feel, it’s not really listening, he says, and that could be the party’s undoing. "They have two choices: get closer to people’s lives and be more democratic. Or, to continue the crackdown and lack democracy," he said. "If the latter is chosen, the regime could collapse quickly."