Recent developments in Vietnam beg the question of whether the country’s political elite are simply too self-serving or incompetent to act in a coherent, forward-looking manner. It is no secret that the most fundamental challenges the nation faces today stem from weaknesses in its governance institutions. Yet gridlocked leadership continues to forestall reforms, leaving economic fragmentation and bottlenecks in place.
And, once again, Vietnam faces the spectre of lost opportunities in the international arena. President Truong Tan Sang’s July meeting with US President Barack Obama was construed as a success in that it broached the possibility of a “comprehensive partnership” with the US, including swift entry into the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership and expanding outlets for Vietnam’s exports.
Obama’s insistence that a comprehensive partnership would be contingent on significant improvements in Hanoi’s human rights record elicited such hopeful sentiments as, “We know, give us time.” Yet, if anything, the human rights situation has severely deteriorated since the Sang-Obama meeting, casting doubt on improved ties.
This summer, a network of young Vietnamese bloggers mustered the courage to openly protest against draconian laws the state has used to silence dissent. The protesters have taken particular aim at Article 258 of Vietnam’s Civil Code, which stipulates prison sentences for those who “abuse their democratic freedoms”.
The presence of such articles, the protesters contend, casts doubt on Vietnam’s suitability for the UN Human Rights council, to which it seeks to be nominated. Yet it has been precisely the state’s brutal repression of these protesters that has demonstrated the inappropriateness of a seat on the council.
The repression also raises questions about Hanoi’s hopes for deepening US ties. For, during the very moments of Sang’s visit to Washington, state security forces in Hanoi commenced a reign of terror that continues to this very hour. The campaign has featured threats, arrests and beatings as well as illegal searches and seizure, surveillance, pressuring of family members, defamation resulting in loss of employment and academic standing, and the indeterminate exile of young reform advocates.
Why has such anger been directed at patriotic young people making the obvious point that Vietnam stands to benefit from reform? Some have speculated that different elite factions are working to undermine each other, which is decidedly plausible.