An earful of criticism, but will Vietnam listen?


With Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet beginning his six-day official visit to the United States June 18, it is the first by a Vietnamese head of state to the US since the end of the Vietnam War 30 years ago.

While it is a significant diplomatic breakthrough, however, it also saddles Triet with the unenviable task of defending his regime’s policies while trying to woo more American investors. Vietnam’s human rights record is being strongly criticized by human rights activists expressing their dismay at the government’s recent crackdown on dissent.

Human rights concerns

In Vietnam itself, Triet has managed to maintain a business-friendly and squeaky-clean image. As the Communist Party secretary of southern Binh Duong province in the mid-1990s, he oversaw many policies popular with foreign investors and local people. Later, when he became head of the party in Ho Chi Minh City, he was credited with leading the campaign against the Nam Cam mafia, which brought down many important politicians and policemen. So in 2006, when the party approved Triet as the new head of state, he and the new Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung were widely seen as representing the pro-reform faction in the ruling Communist Party.

The Financial Times this week described the president as “charming, business-friendly and eager to project himself as responsive to the public.” But few who understand Vietnamese and see Triet in interviews would say he is either charming or charismatic. In a country where politicians are hardly challenged in public, Triet, albeit a nice man, often delivers dull and boring speeches.

The US is now Vietnam's biggest trading partner and bilateral relations are closer than at any time since the Communists took over in 1975. However in recent months, Hanoi has launched what is said to be one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years. At least eight pro-democracy activists were arrested or sentenced, including a dissident Catholic priest who was sentenced to eight years in prison. In May, two Hanoi human rights lawyers were sent to jail for “spreading propaganda against the communist state”, a day after three other activists were convicted of similar charges in Ho Chi Minh City.

In a bid to show his concern, on May 29, President George Bush and his deputy Cheney met with four Vietnamese-American pro-democracy activists at the White House.

As pressures from the outside have grown urgent, Vietnam, a few days before Triet’s trip, released two dissidents, one of whom had been detained right after returning from a fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Soft authoritarianism

Since the mid-1990s, it can be said that Vietnam has entered the “soft authoritarian” stage. As Francis Fukuyama suggested, the concept of soft-authoritarianism or neo-authoritarianism, has become an increasingly popular “potential competitor to Western liberal democracy”.

In an interview with Triet in May, the German newspaper Der Spiegel asked Triet if in Vietnam today, people could criticize the party, but could question the ultimate leadership. Triet replied, “I often have discussions with people who demand pluralism and much more. One can discuss these issues, but only within the framework of the law.”

When Vietnam’s president said people can discuss “pluralism and much more”, but “only within the framework of the law”, there is some truth in this statement. The space for freedom of speech is being enlarged, because since Vietnam began revamping its economy in 1986, the pressure for political reform has been up. It’s just that when the Communist Party speaks of political reforms, they mean administrative reform, which is supposed to increase the government’s efficiency and to head off democratization threats.

According AFP, when in Washington, Triet will get “an earful of rights complaints” from the president of the most powerful superpower. The question is: Will he, and the party, listen?

In an interview with American newspapers ahead of his visit, “defended his crackdown and dispelled any notion that Vietnam was against human rights,” AFP said. The phrase “his crackdown” is misleading, as it implies the Vietnamese president somehow is a strongman leader who can easily impose his policies. Speaking of “his crackdown” gives the impression that if Mr. Bush can persuade Mr. Triet over dinner, things will change in Vietnam.

But the consensus-based decision-making system still exists in Vietnam. The final powers lie in the hands of the Political Bureau members. Since Le Duan, chief of the Communist Party for three decades, died in 1986, strongman politics started to decline. Now each Political Bureau member has his own power base, with no one capable of dictating to the rest.

There was even a rumor that the recent crackdown was initiated by the pro-China faction, who do not fancy a closer relationship with the US. If it is true, the latest release of a few activists after the wave of trials shows that even a supposedly hard-line group could not ignore calls from outside.

And we should remember when an authoritarian regime is under pressure, the various factions, whatever their differences, tend to group together. There is a strong sense within the party that they need to project an aura of unity, which asks for compromises. And Triet, whatever labels one applies to him, is certainly no advocate for liberal democracy.

The regime is relying on a booming economy as the main source of legitimacy. But whether it can block the road towards full democratization or the ruling party is simply living on borrowed time is open to debate.