The takedown of Vietnam’s most prominent and dynamic politician provided political drama last month. It was a difficult and dangerous time for Vietnam’s community of pro-democracy activists. In a story first published in the online dissident publication Vietnam Right Now, independent blogger Pham Doan Trang recounts how Vietnam’s vast bureaucracy of repression moved to keep non-conformists at bay. Then, assessing the intra-Communist contest, Trang finds the triumph of party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to be, just possibly, a hopeful harbinger of reform.
As party apparatchiks hunkered down in their suits in chilly Hanoi for their great political showdown, I was fleeing in the night in the tropical south of my country.
I leapt onto my motorcycle and sped down small roads between paddy fields as the police closed in on my hotel in a small town near Ho Chi Minh City.
I had gone south to escape mounting repression in Hanoi during the run up to the big Communist Party congress, the most tense political confrontation that any of us could remember.
I have been accused of no crime, but I’m closely watched by police because I write an independent blog and because of my contacts with human rights and pro-democracy campaigners.
Cat and Mouse
Tension had been building for months. In mid-December, the police swooped in on one of Vietnam’s best known government critics, the human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai.
Dai had been badly beaten up by unidentified masked men the week before after leading a civil rights seminar in a provincial town. Now he and an assistant were taken into custody and charged with employing propaganda against the state.
Dai's arrest caused chaos and panic in the dissident community. The mood continued to darken as police gathered outside the apartments of some activists, disrupted meetings of environmental campaigners and staged a massive exercise to display their riot control capabilities.
One organiser escaped on her motorbike to her home in the northern mountains, spooked by the more aggressive manner of the police that occasionally tail her.
Other activists, across the country, were attacked in the street by thinly disguised police agents.
Of course, none of this was mentioned in state controlled media. Most Vietnamese would barely have noticed the change in atmosphere. They seemed far more interested in discussing episodes of Balika Vadhu, the great Hindu epic currently being shown on national television, than following the ins and outs of Communist Party wrangling.
When I was a child, every night for weeks before a congress convened, the national television network would feed us “revolutionary” movies and documentaries “in celebration of the great political event of our party and country.”
Nobody buys into shows like that any more, and even the party doesn’t bother to make the effort. There were token programmes of stultifying propaganda on TV but somehow the Hindu epic seemed more relevant.
The party congress is convened every five years. The factional fighting at this one, the 12th, was more evident than in prior years thanks to independent blogs and leaks by rival factions. Many Vietnamese got their first glimpse of the battles raging at the highest levels of the party.
Very few of Vietnam's 90 million citizens were aware of the covert crackdown on bloggers, party critics and civil society activists. We are marginalised and barely visible in a political system that mobilises great resources to isolate us and deny us space to operate.
A Loud Knock on the Door
I expected a break from the oppressive atmosphere of Hanoi in the freewheeling south, where the communist party plenums, congresses and central committee meetings seem to be taking place on a different planet.
But I was wrong.
One night there was a loud knock on my hotel door. I opened it to see the hotel manager. His face was drawn, his expression anxious.
“You’d better get out quick,” he said. “The police have been badgering all the hotels in the area since you came. They have been showing everyone two photos of you and a notification that they are searching for you.”
He said that I didn’t look like a criminal, so he had denied I was there. But he warned that the police would be back soon to search the rooms and I had to leave immediately.
Somewhat amazed at his display of southern insouciance, I thanked the hotel manager, packed quickly and hit the road. It was 10 pm. I rode for 20 km or so. At one point I came off my bike and cut my leg in my panic. Somehow I found another place to stay.
I heard through friends the next day that I’d better hurry back to Hanoi. The police seemed not to want me “at large” in the country during the party congress, even if I was just taking a bit of a holiday in the sun. In Hanoi, they could keep an eye on me and would probably ease off.
I was not the only one under surveillance, of course. The apparatus of repression in Vietnam is huge and plays cat and mouse with dissidents to keep them off balance and fearful. Five days before the congress began more than a dozen activists in Ho Chi Minh City were suddenly put under de facto house arrest.
Other activists complained about sudden searches of their homes at night to “check the household registration.” That's a procedure often used by the police to find out whether there is any “stranger” or guest staying in a house who had not been reported to the local police station.
In Hanoi, the police seemed more confident that they had things locked down, and they relied more on hi-tech devices. Cell phones were heavily tapped and signals were jammed.
A Welcome Surprise?
Meanwhile, the Communist Party Congress reached a climax.
Barred from going out, Hoang Dung, a fellow member of the Vietnam Path Movement in Saigon, stayed at home and obsessively monitored Facebook – a platform the government cannot shut down. It serves as the prime conduit of information for its 35 million Vietnamese users.
On his blog, Hoang Dung was giving his support to the embattled prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, who he regarded as a powerful man committed to reform, even though accused of widespread corruption.
But Hoang Dung and many others had backed the wrong horse.
The prime minister's last stand at the congress came to nothing and he lost his position not only on the party Politburo, but on its central committee as well.
It was quite a fall for a man tipped until recently as the next general-secretary of the party.
His bitter rival, Nguyen Phu Trong, held on to his post as party boss for another term. It was a remarkable comeback for the 72-year-old Marxist-Leninist scholar.
Conflict between different factions of the party can hardly be something new. There have always been rumours. This time the rumours circulated widely on Facebook. It looked like a particularly fierce contest between a group identified primarily with the party apparatus and another identified with state institutions, led respectively by the incumbent party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong and the prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung.
With his cabinet of technocrats, PM Dung was viewed by many like my blogger friend as a “pro-reform” communist. His daughter was married to the son of a former official under the South Vietnamese regime, which added to his reputation as a pro-western politician.
People saw him as good looking and eloquent, able to speak in an impromptu manner without trudging through a prepared script like other party hacks.
But as PM, Dung also presided over the actions of a police state. During his two five-year terms, the police enjoyed huge power. Many popular bloggers and democracy activists were imprisoned.
Some assumed they were targeted for their resistance to China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Huy Duc, a well known journalist in the south, has a different view. He told me that they had all stood up against the prime minister and angered him.
Certainly, Dung’s ambition to consolidate his power was an open secret.
After surviving a scandal over economic mismanagement a few years ago, he appeared to have turned the tables on the grey party dogmatist, Nguyen Phu Trong. As Dung gained influence, more and more bloggers were arrested.
Trong’s comprehensive victory thus took most people completely by surprise. He had been silent and impassive in the background, not reacting to attacks on him by bloggers and his political opponents. He just ignored all the insults and abuse.
Few seemed to notice that behind the scenes, Party Secretary Trong was carefully calculating his moves. He knew exactly when and how to strike, an essential characteristic for the successful communist leader. Or was Trong just lucky? For all the leaks and the speculation, party politics are obscure and byzantine.
Trong may well be wise, but who can believe that such an old style adherent to Marxist-Leninist doctrine will turn out to be a reformer and advocate of more democracy?
Few dare hope for a sudden opening up, but who knows? Nguyen Phu Trong stayed silent for so long and bided his time before surprising us all. Maybe he will surprise us again now as he consolidates his power.
It’s a surprise that would be very welcome indeed.
Pham Doan Trang is a veteran investigative reporter whose press card was revoked after Vietnamese mainstream newspapers published her accounts of farmer protest against state-aided corporate land grabs in northern Vietnam. Her previous stories for Asia Sentinel are here, here and here.