Monday, February 04, 2008
Vietnam then and now
I just finished watching the 11 hour PBS documentary history of Vietnam produced in 1983. It is a very well done survey of the war, exhuastive in its scope for a TV production.
It is also in many places incredibly slanted in the leftward direction. Often one gets the feeling it ought to be retitled "The Glorious History of the Triumph of the People's Republic of Vietnam."
So it was interesting for me to run across this snapshot of contemporary Vietnam. The communists may have been "freedom fighters", patriots fighting for the liberation of their homeland. But they are also vicious hoodlums and dictators intent on punishing any and all who dissent.
The Communist Party maintains strict one-party rule in Vietnam. It prohibits political opposition, owns and operates the domestic media, and tightly controls most aspects of the country's civic life. It deals swiftly and harshly with its critics, who have been rare since the North forcibly reunited the country in 1975. Those who have dissented tended to be lone intellectuals who published secret newsletters for tiny audiences, or artists who cloaked their critiques in layers of symbolism. To criticize the government openly was to sign up for a life of isolation and prison, a path few chose.
That all changed in April of 2006. A group of dissidents including Do Nam Hai drafted two pro-democracy manifestos and posted them online. If the police response was predictable ("Four hours after we posted one, the police confiscated my computer. Then they confiscated me!"), the public's was not. More than one hundred people signed the petitions initially, an astonishing feat made even more so by the signatories' decision to disclose both their names and addresses. Eventually, more than 2,000 people inside Vietnam signed, along with 30,000 Vietnamese overseas. The group came to be known as Bloc 8406, after the date of the second petition, but also in a conscious evocation of the former Czechoslovakia's Charter 77. The signatories come from all parts of the country, which is significant in Vietnam, given the cultural distinctness of its northern, central and southern regions. They are doctors, lawyers, scientists and even a former officer in the North Vietnamese Army. The country has not seen organized opposition on this scale in decades.
"Bloc 8406 is different from the anti-Communist groups of the 1980s and '90s, almost all of which were based outside of Vietnam. Many of these groups espoused, in equal parts, violent means and unrealistic goals," said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "The Bloc 8406 dissidents are using peaceful means and not suggesting violent overthrow. This is a much more thoughtful challenge to the Communist Party's claim to represent everyone in the country."
In presenting themselves so publicly, the dissidents were taking a calculated gamble. The country was on the brink of securing membership in the World Trade Organization, a prize long coveted by the party, and world leaders were to descend on Hanoi later that year for the high-profile Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. In the run-up to these milestones, the country's human rights record was coming under international scrutiny, and the government needed to avoid scandal. Although the authorities harassed and questioned some dissidents in the weeks and months after the petitions were posted, they could do little more. The dissidents saw an opening, and they rushed to fill it, starting new political and labor organizations and online journals. The dissidents felt emboldened to speak up for their fellow countrymen, who had been silenced by fear for years.
"Many people from all parts of the country are unhappy with the one-party system," Do Nam Hai said. "The Vietnamese people want democracy. I know this because they tell me. I understand their aspirations."
But when the party got its WTO prize in 2007, it was newly free to act without fear of international consequences. The police, intent on setting an example, rounded up eleven activists. Last spring, in a series of show trials, the courts convicted them of attempting to overthrow the government and handed out jail terms ranging from eighteen months to eight years. In all, about twenty dissidents received jail terms last year, bringing the total number of Bloc 8406 members and affiliates in prison to around forty, according to Human Rights Watch. In the end, however, the regime wasn't able to avoid embarrassment.