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.