Sunday, January 24, 2010

The real cost of the civil society crackdown in Vietnam

The conviction and sentencing of four democracy activists in Vietnam last week attracted some attention from the Western media as well as condemnations from the US Embassy and the British Foreign Office.

Most reports, probably correctly, place the trial in the context of a wider crackdown on free speech that has seemingly gathered pace over the last year, ahead of the Communist Party congress in 2011.

While the jailing of men like Le Cong Dinh, a prominent human rights lawyer, tends to attract publicity, it is important to point out that people like him are true outliers in Vietnam.

Most Vietnamese have probably never heard of him and the influence of men like Dinh and other democracy activists is probably limited to a few hundred other marginalised campaigners.

Given that the Vietnamese government has never shown any hesitation in rounding up vocal democracy campaigners, the jailing of Dinh is not a surprising development.

What is more worrying for Vietnam's development is the wider crackdown of the last year or two on free speech in a more mainstream context and on Vietnam's emerging civil society. To cite a few examples:

  • The editors of two newspapers that were known for probing corruption cases - Thanh Nhien and Tuoi Tre - were sacked and several reporters jailed after they exposed a particularly embarrassing graft case.

  • A new regulation was introduced preventing bloggers from writing about "political" issues.

  • A number of bloggers were arrested and detained, although not charged, for publishing anti-Chinese comments on the internet and expressing concerns about a large bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands.

  • Vietnam's only independent think tank - the Institute of Development Studies - closed down after the government issued a directive that would have curtailed its ability to research.

  • Facebook has been regularly blocked over the last few months, seemingly amid government fears that young Vietnamese were using the website to discuss socio-political issues and form interest groups.

It is widespread restrictions such as these on mainstream Vietnamese, rather than the jailing of a few outspoken dissidents, that could threaten Vietnam's (up to now) very successful transition from a poverty-stricken nation with a backward, state-controlled economy to a thriving middle-income country.

Over the last few years, Vietnam had made some very positive if humble steps in terms of increasing transparency and fighting corruption. The ongoing crackdown appears to show that the more conservative elements within the Communist Party feel threatened by some of these developments and want to roll back this progress.

However, without promoting a stronger civil society and more openness, it will be harder for Vietnam to maintain its impressive record of economic growth.

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