Vietnam's Obstacles to Reform

Vietnam's economic woes might finally be turning a corner; however, the damage has been done, and its impact has been felt by every Vietnamese across the country. Although the crisis was far from being described as depression, depression was nevertheless felt by families bankrupted and now facing an uncertain future due to the government's economic mismanagement.

Even the country's leaders would not escape unscathed, given that some of the perpetrators of financial waste possessed close ties with Party leaders. As if to bolster the public's perception of their government in disarray, as the country continued its economic slide and the people looked at their leaders for a solution, there were instead political maneuverings from those within the Party seeking to capitalize on the prime minister's weakness.

Government corruption and ineptitude has always been a part of Vietnamese politics, but as long as the country prospered as it did during the first half of the new millennium, what reason was there for the people to complain? But now, with the full effect of this corruption and ineptitude being felt by everyone across Vietnam, public trust in the government has vanished.

If ever there was an opportune time for change, now is certainly that time.

Serving the people

The government mismanagement that would give way to Vietnam's economic downturn, though damning, is merely a by-product of a much larger problem. Demands from Vietnamese activists and the international community for democracy, respect for human rights, and rule of law are not meaningless catchphrases: they are urgent calls for Vietnam to modernize.

By themselves, democracy, respect for human rights, and rule of law will neither raise Vietnam from its current woes, nor guarantee Vietnam from future economic difficulties; however, the atmosphere and environment in such a country that embraces the above will be best prepared to prevent such a crisis. Accountability and transparency are by-products in an open and democratic country, qualities absent under Vietnam's Communist leadership.

If the country's leaders do not answer to the people, then why should the people answer to its leaders? If the government does not serve in the best interests of the people, then why must the people respect the government? Beyond the calls for democracy, human rights, and rule of law, the Vietnamese people must demand the attention of their leaders.

Party leaders and Party followers

More than just common citizens demanding change, Party members themselves should ask why they continue to subscribe to a failed system. The Communist Party registers roughly 3.6 million members, comprising about 4% of the population. Context and logic alone dictates that not every Party member shares in the wealth of their leaders. Although the people are no longer starving as they once were so many years ago, the bulk of the country's wealth remains in the hands of the very few; and grassroots Party members are not counted in this "very few."

The question, however, is if there is an opportunity for change from within the Party. Although change from within is not improbable, it is unlikely. Impoverished as these grassroots members are in comparison to their leaders, the alternative of revolting and rebelling against their leaders is far worse in its unknown outcome.

If such a revolt should remove the Communist Party from power, these grassroots Party members in turn lose whatever power they currently possess. The Party member's safety and security, and that of his or her family suddenly come into question. Life might now be far from ideal, but it could also be much worse.

The oppressed and the "oppressed"

There is no silver bullet for political and constitutional reform. The Vietnamese people must for themselves decide which course of action they must take. There are no easy answers, and none should be expected from the international community. However, as much as a challenge this will present to the Vietnamese people, what will be equally challenging is picking up the pieces when reform is finally achieved.

Nevertheless, Vietnam is fortunate in that although the government and Communist Party have been responsible for many of the country's problems, these problems are not so severe as to warrant comparisons to Syria or Libya. Violence and bloodshed are unlikely futures for Vietnam, for the country's leaders have yet to wrong so egregiously as to incite violent retribution from the people.

Unfortunately, this has also bred a certain degree of complacency among the people.

The jailing of dissidents and suppression of basic rights, however, terrible, has largely occurred on an individual basis, and thus the public at large have remained untouched. Therefore, while the public is aware of the government's many wrongdoings, the individuals themselves have not suffered firsthand, and so are divorced from the pain and suffering caused. As such, efforts to mobilize for change are primarily limited to those who have been victimized and oppressed, in addition to activists, far from the critical mass necessary to effect real reform.

Reconciling differences

Yet, if the day should come when the Communist Party finds itself no longer in vanguard of the people, it is not inconceivable to picture an angry mob demanding justice for all the Party's past wrongs. Although justice must certainly prevail, a new nation born from retribution is not the right way to go about it.

Reconciliation, if for no other reason than to resolve past differences peacefully, is necessary for the new Vietnam to move forward. An acknowledgement of past failures, and for the perpetrators of these past failures to admit their fault, is a critical step towards the maturation of Vietnam. For those crimes too egregious to forgive, the courts will have their day; however, for the benefit of the people, much should be forgiven.

Presently, it is difficult to imagine a new Vietnam. Change, even at the most basic level, appears unworkable; and any change will simply serve as an instrument of the Party to strengthen its hold over the nation. Still, there is hope, for if Burma can change then so too can Vietnam.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese-Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and BBC Vietnamese Service.)