Is There Opposition in Vietnam?

Vietnam's pro-democracy activists appear to have missed an unprecedented opportunity in the wake of the July visit to the US by head of state Truong Tan Sang. That was followed by an official Paris trip by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung that was intended to signal an axis rotation to the West not unlike President Barack Obama's pivot to the East.

The fact is that a vigilant police force has assiduously rounded up enough protesters and dissident bloggers to keep their lesser counterparts in line. The inability to capitalize points to the fact that if there is going to be change in Vietnam's political makeup, it is likely to come from factions inside the Vietnamese Communist Party rather than from without.

There are signs of growing factionalism and calls for change within the party. At the same time, there are outside forces agitating for change, particularly the United States government, which is urging greater political and intellectual freedom as a condition of Vietnam's entry into the TransPacific Partnership, a huge trade pact that Vietnam needs both economically and as a political bulwark against China and its increasingly aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Some of the most enthusiastic activists tried to prove an opposition presence through 11 anti-China demonstrations in Hanoi in 2011 and pluralistic voices on social media ever since. They have also been unable to capitalize on the so-called Petition 72, drafted earlier this year by 72 respected scholars and former government officials. It offers a proposed constitutional alternative to Vietnam's current one. Petition 72, among other proposed changes, would would abolish Vietnam's one-party structure.

Yet there is a fundamental difference in the mentality of the intellectuals considered close to the Party.

In an April 26 interview on BBC Vietnam, Nguyen Dinh Tan, a professor at the Ho Chi Minh Institute of National Politics-Administration, said: "Indeed in Vietnam we can say that there is no rival with the Vietnam Communist Party. If there are to be opponents of the Vietnam Communist Party as an organization, I think there is none."

Tan was right. Objectively, the answer is, "No." Even the proposed establishment of a Social Democratic Party by lawyer Le Hieu Dang in August, which almost became a reality, does not seem to make a big enough impression on the ruling party to be a political counterweight.

Various evaluations of the current situation estimate that there are three groups within the Vietnamese Communist Party. The first consists of about 30 percent of party and government intellectuals, including officials who are considered "loyal" and possess the rights and privileges of the system and have vested interests in keeping things the way they are.

The second group, comprising about 20 percent of the party, are intellectuals in state agencies who no desire change but aren't in a position to act on their views.

The third group, making up about half the party intellectuals, isn't particularly affiliated with any special interests or positions and have an eclectic outlook.

If this is accurate then then a well-organized civil society would be able to attract at least half of the intellectuals working for the party and the state.

The Burma Script? In the coming years, Vietnam's political transformation is likely to be impacted by international democracy and human rights movements and through pressure groups in the country, and even from internal Party politics. Thus, the transformative political scenario in Vietnam would be created by the process of continuous contacts and friction, starting with the crude form of friction between the new and old political forces.

Democratic tendencies may gradually form within the party, inspired by groups who are considered reformists, radicals or simply those desiring change for personal motives. Also there is a small probability in the next three to four years that this group will be a decisive influence with the power to change the face of the nation's politics.

In terms of popular sentiment, and even within the regime itself, a myriad of images appear to be jarringly different, unlike 1988 when the party garnered the "citizens' confidence and love" as some cadres began to break rules and experiment with market-oriented enterprises. Some were punished for their efforts, but years later would be hailed as visionary pioneers.

The current situation is described as an unprecedented crisis of confidence by a majority of the population for almost the entire party system and government at all levels.

If the Communist Party had enough courage to conduct a public and transparent referendum on the subject of independent parties, a number of new organizations would be born now.

The emergence of organizations and their initial platforms, including logistics and finance, is not too daunting for independent political groups. The problem is whether they could spread their influence.

Previously, some protest activities led to hope, but there is virtually no unified movement for democracy and human rights. Only the "72 recommendations" group should be viewed as a starting point, but its call to arms is still quite limited.

In particular, if the civil movement is backed by human rights advocates in the United States and Western Europe, its probability of success will be much more promising.

Currently, people are talking a lot about the political experience in Burma. Clearly, President Thein Sein and his allies have been successful in avoiding bloodshed and the collapse of the economy.

If Vietnam's politicians would enlist the help of the West as Burma has they would perhaps temporarily restore the nation's economy. Democracy henceforth would be more pronounced, particularly the avoidance of a fierce confrontation arising from public discontent -- that would be the optimal scenario for the nation's future.

(Pham Chi Dung is a journalist, poet and writer. He was arrested in July 2012 on a charge of overthrowing the people's administration then was released 6 months later without any charge.)