Overseas Vietnamese call for Reforms in Hanoi

Thirty-six prominent Vietnamese living overseas have signed a sweeping open letter to Vietnam’s president, supporting local intellectuals and calling for fundamental reforms and democratization of the country.

The letter is signed by doctors, lawyers, scientists, educators, artists and others from France, the United States, Canada and Switzerland. It is couched in unusual terms, starting off with a condemnation of China for what the group calls a consistent six-decade strategy ranging from “betraying Vietnam at the Geneva Conference in 1954, preventing the negotiation for a peaceful settlement between Vietnam and the United States in 1968, taking over the entire Paracel Islands by force in 1974, conducting a border war in 1979, and taking over part of the Spratly Islands by force in 1988.”

The letter closely parallels one signed by 20 well-known intellectuals in the country which was sent to the Communist Party’s politburo and the chairman of the National Assembly, saying that without radical reforms, China’s "penetration and disruption of all aspects of our economic, political and cultural life" would continue until the nation was reduced to vassal status.”

Although government officials pay little attention to overseas Vietnamese critics, as with the signers of the July 11 letter in Vietnam itself, the signers of the letter are hardly fringe figures. Retired State Department official David Brown, writing about the original 20 in Asia Times Online, said the July 11 signers “are men and women with excellent revolutionary pedigrees. In party jargon, they are "patriotic personalities". Their reputations for probity and a penchant for frank talk make them the sort of person who is eagerly sought for sound bites by the national media. More than others in Vietnam's public life, they can credibly claim to express what's bothering a broad swath of the public.” The open letter has since gone viral, Brown reported, with as many as 1,000 others adding their signature to it.

China, the letter released by the overseas intellectuals continues, “has methodically undermined the economy of Vietnam, sucked up its natural resources, violated its territorial integrity, treated its fishermen on the Southeast Asian Sea with cruelty, and carried out various schemes to Sinicize its population.”

Having said that, however, the intellectuals say the best way for Vietnam to stand up to China is to change its own constitution “in order to strongly push the process of democratization with the establishment of three separate and independent institutions: The National Assembly and a system of representative organizations at lower levels, a judicial system, and a governmental system. Processes for free elections should be established. Democratic freedoms of citizens as determined by the Constitution and by international treaty laws and agreements should be respected. A concrete example is the freedom to express oneself through demonstrations in protesting the violent activities of China in the Southeast Asian Sea.”

Certainly, Vietnam remains one of the most harshly repressive countries in Asia. According to an analysis by the Freedom House blog, “Vietnam is not an electoral democracy. “ Corruption and abuse of office are serious problems, the government keeps tight reins on the media and uses the courts to silence critics. Internet use is tightly restricted. Political bloggers have been harassed, detained or jailed. Religious freedom is restricted.

The letter calls for the release of citizens who have been arrested and jailed for “having peacefully struggled for freedom, democracy, sovereignty, and national unity and for changes in the legal, economic, financial, educational, health and other systems so as to push back on corruption, decrease injustice, increase potentials, and protect national resources.”

Although the Vietnamese government for many years sought to woo specialists and intellectuals home from abroad to help rebuild the country, the numbers have remained quite small, the letter says, amounting to only some 500 annually of a total of over 300,000.

That is because present Vietnamese governing institutions have “not only forsaken the trust of people living inside the country but have also created obstacles for those living outside who want to contribute to the goal of making ‘the people rich, the nation strong, the society just, democratic and civilized’ that the government itself has proposed.

In addition, the letter said, government leaders distrust Vietnamese intellectuals abroad who have abroad have the facilities for doing research and for rallying support for solutions advantageous to Vietnam from foreign governments and international communities.

In face of the consistent strategy of China towards Vietnam and China’s expansionist and hegemonic ambitions that have become increasingly clear, the country and people of Vietnam are demanding that their leaders promote national strengths and unity amongst the entire people, inside and outside the country, to meet the present dangers. We hope that you have the courage to take advantage of this unique opportunity to bring about a thorough revolution and to establish a government that is truly of the people, for the people, and by the people so as to raise Vietnam to its rightful place in the region and in the world community.”