Chiang Mai, THAILAND
Last week, BBC correspondent Bill Hayton shared an excellent article in Forbes about Vietnam’s recent string of trials convicting pro-democracy lawyers, bloggers, and human rights activists.¹ He simultaneously observes the nation’s economic liberalization, astonishing legal dynamism, and stifling, bureaucratic obstinacy. The past few decades have seen unprecedented levels of development and wealth in the third world country. In 1986 Vietnam instituted its doi moi (literally, “new change”) policies, which opened the Vietnamese market to foreign investment and heralded a huge step toward international integration. In 1995, the US and Vietnam normalized relations; in 2006, Vietnam was accepted as a member nation to the World Trade Organization; and this year, Vietnam is serving as the hosting chairman of ASEAN.
And yet, despite Vietnam’s continual economic growth and increasing levels of prosperity, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) still rules as stalwartly as ever. The Ho Chi Minh City Appeals Court recently upheld the charges leveled against big-shot lawyer and former Fullbright scholar, Le Cong Dinh. He is among fifteen others accused this year of political crimes. His conviction—actions “trying to overthrow the state”—has earned him a five-year sentence in prison. Hayton comments,”It is tempting to think that in a country enjoying the benefits of massive foreign investment and economic liberalization, that such language is simply a legacy of the past. It is not. At its core, Vietnam’s political system remains firmly Leninist.”
The Party, in fact, is stronger than ever. From my own observations living in Vietnam, I have heard very little dissent. Most people see the direction of economic development taken by the state as beyond reproach. Denied basic freedoms of thought and expression, Vietnamese citizens seem content with the elusive promise of wealth and job security, and nationalism runs very, very high. They generally don’t think about their role in the nation’s vulnerable civil society or their more basic, long-term, constitutional guarantees. Hayton, again:
International aid and investment has not brought multi-party democracy to Vietnam; instead it has made one party rule more efficient and effective. That is the way the Party likes it. Life is getting much better for the vast majority of Vietnam’s people and so long as that continues, that is the way things will stay.
We should heed his dire warning. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Vietnam is only fueling the political quicksand: the more social and financial capital the international community puts in, the stronger the social pressures the Party is able to apply, until the grasp of the state drowns civil society altogether. Then any resistance is quickly muted, and it will probably be too late to hear its death cry. After all, what clamor can civil society raise to object to Le Cong Dinh’s conviction?
The entire picture is not so bleak, however. Hayton is wise to point to phá rào (literally, ‘break throughs,’ which he translates as ‘fence-breaking’), the sort of legal pliability only possible in a corrupt state like Vietnam, where personal connections can ease or avoid certain legal restrictions. We see a similar picture in Burma today, where NGOs and individuals with close ties to the military are permitted far wider political deviation. Hayton says,
While the legal system remains under Party control, there <are> enough…gaps within it to allow all kinds of activities. Even where the law is ‘difficult,’ its implementation can be delayed or adjusted with the help of connections and favors. The result: economic dynamism and systemic corruption.
The increasingly successful and peaceful labor strikes in Burma over the past year prove a salient example of the junta’s recent easing of its grip on civil society, perhaps in a bid to woo international observers before the upcoming election. There is a rumor circulating, confirmed by foreign analysts such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), in dialogue with the government, which holds out hope for the possible legalization of trade unions after the election at the end of the year.² As it is now, the 2008 constitution provides for the organization and representation of labor groups. But, as we know, there is a large divide between law and policy in many countries in the region. As a result, workers’ rights are by and large ruthlessly suppressed.
Recently, however, the junta has refrained from arresting strikers and has even mediated labor conflicts. Interestingly, some of the garment workers who staged a sit-in, demanding higher wages and shorter hours, were relatives of military officers.³ This fact alone might dampen the idealism of any democracy activist, but this system of corruption and power based on personal relations is endemic to countries like Burma or Vietnam.
Instead of denying the role of civil society in problematic settings such as these, we should be attentive to the successes various non-governmental groups and actors have found by working within those constraints. The only way forward is to break through the fences of central party bureaucracy and apparently whimsical public policy. Democratic reform is an iterative process, one that requires civil society to engage with the party in order to expand on emerging cooperative initiatives.
¹ Hayton, Bill. “The Limits To Political Activity In Vietnam,” in Forbes, July 13, 2010. <shttp://www.forbes.com/2010/07/13/vietnam-activism-freedom-markets-economy-politics.html>.
² Roughneen, Simon. “Freedom of Association in Burma: Sunlight or False Dawn?,” in The Irrawaddy, July 16, 2010. <http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=18981>.
³ Macan-Markar, Marwaan. “ILO Calls for Trade Union Revival in Burma,” in The Irrawaddy, July 14, 2010. <http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=18963>.