Opinion: The Changing Face of Vietnam

If change is to come to Vietnam, the catalyst for it is likely to be the country’s youth, a full 60 percent of whom were born in the decades since the end of what Vietnam calls the American War, and who increasingly feel little allegiance to a government they regard as out of touch and wrongheaded.

Some 44 percent of the country are under the age of 24, testament to a surging birthrate. The struggle for democracy knows no age group. Among dissidents who have spoken out are blogger Nguyen Van Hai, the youth activist Nguyen Tien Trung, Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, Father Nguyen Van Ly, Lawyer Le Quoc Quan, and former policewoman Ta Phong Tan, among many others.

Most recently, Dinh Nhat Uy, 30, on Oct. 29 was handed a 15-month suspended sentence for criticizing the government on Facebook. This past August, 21-year-old student Nguyen Phuong Uyen was released following an appeal against her six-year prison sentence for handing out anti-government leaflets.

“Rights activists continue to suffer from intrusive police surveillance, interrogation, monetary fines, and restrictions on domestic and international travel,” according to Human Rights Watch’s 2013World Report. “Police use temporary house arrest to prevent them from participating in protests or attending trials of other bloggers and activists. In a number of instances in 2012, unidentified thugs have assaulted dissidents and police have done little or nothing to investigate.”

Despite this, there is no shortage of Vietnamese youths who are willing to do what they believe is right. Two generations have endured Vietnam’s communist experiment along with a glimmer of economic prosperity at the turn of the millennium. That unfortunately has crumbled into economic mismanagement.

For the most part, these are not Vietnamese who lived through or remember the war or the long struggle for independence against the French and Japanese before that. This is a new generation that sense something has been denied to them by a party formed during a different time and place, and they can see it through social media. The Communist Party can no longer purport to stand as the defenders of Vietnam against foreign oppressors. Marxism-Leninism has been largely abandoned globally by the former Socialist states in favor of what they call “market socialism” or “state capitalism” except for a couple of economic and political backwaters like Cuba and North Korea.

Vietnam’s own state capitalism has spawned a rapacious regime that seizes farmland for development projects, compensating villages at rates far below market value, sparking widespread protest that has on occasion turned into pitched battles with police, who have reacted brutally.

The shape Vietnam assumes as envisioned by this new generation remains uncertain. However, at the least they are asking certain non-negotiable requirements including political pluralism and respect for human rights (freedom of speech, religion, assembly, etc.). They are growing impatient and they are paying the price.

Vietnam’s democratic activists are using traditional and modern means to spread their message. This growing population is tech-savvy, with the means at their disposal to protest without going to the streets. While there is no substitute for an old fashioned march, the manner in which revolutionary thought is disseminated has taken on the form of Twitter and Facebook. English is increasingly favored as a second language, with some French and Chinese, giving them entrée to the wider world via social media.

The new generation is also, as a result of the Internet, increasingly exposed to ideas and experiences from around the world. Such is the freedom, but also challenge, that comes with tearing down the old and establishing new foundations.

A democratic Vietnam would necessarily reflect the attitudes and priorities of its citizens and, as a result of its their exposure to a variety of cultures around the world, has the potential to end up as being one of the most cosmopolitan in terms of ideas.

The new Vietnam may in fact be a combination of many things – a British-style parliamentary system with American fashion and material pursuits and a Singaporean-inspired foreign policy, all finely coated with a layer of Vietnamese traditions and sensibilities. It would be as varied as the world, and limited by the aspirations of its future leaders.

Regardless, the political structure in Vietnam must change if the country intends to move forward. This is not a call for armed revolution but political revolution. However, attempts to speak out and/or mobilize against the Communist Party are quickly stifled before dissent can take shape.

Given the manner in which the people feel free to criticize the state and the means to do so at their disposal, change in Vietnam is only a matter of time, however. As the young inherit the country, so too will their ideas.

However, the burden of reform is not theirs alone. The international community cannot continue to respond to Vietnam’s transgressions with a collective shrug of indifference. In doing so they are, if not complicit, than at the very least an accessory to the goings-on of the Vietnamese government.

(Khanh Vu Duc teaches at the University of Ottawa’s Civil Law Section and researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel)