Prominent Vietnamese human rights activists have mixed views on the country’s future for democracy as they greet the Lunar New Year Tet holiday this week amid the government’s continued campaign against rights defenders, bloggers and dissidents.
Nguyen Bac Truyen, a former political prisoner and activist who opposes forced evictions and advocates for the rights of the Hoa Hao sect of Vietnamese Buddhists said he remains hopeful about the future of democracy in the one-party communist state.
“Even though I had been in jail, been on probation and now still have many difficulties in life, I believe that democracy and human rights in Vietnam will come very soon,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
Although police continue to harass him almost daily, he has chosen to remain in Vietnam instead of going abroad, he said.
He wants to remain in the country, he said, “to continue my fight for the cause that I have been pursuing.”
Vietnam’s government has publicly vowed to issue a law on religion this year, he said.
“I think such a law could somehow meet part of what Hoa Hao followers in particular and other religion followers in general want,” he said. “We will wait and see if they [the government] will deliver on their promise in 2015.”
Dissident writer Tran Duc Thach, who has exposed corruption, injustice and human rights abuses though his writings, expressed hope for the future as well.
He was arrested in September 2008 as part of a crackdown on peaceful dissent in Vietnam and sentenced to three years in prison.
People will eventually reach a point will they will challenge the repressive government, he said.
“The democracy and human rights movement has spread far and wide in our country,” Thach said. “A better future for Vietnam is the truth, it is not an illusion.”
He went on to say that when the people’s suffering under the repressive government becomes too much, they will rise up against it.
“A government can only survive if it has people’s trust; otherwise, it will collapse,” he said. “I see that clearly day by day. The government that lives on people but does not get closer to the people, but rather harasses them, will collapse.”
‘I believe in young people’
Tran Anh Kim, the former deputy head of the military political department of the eastern coastal province of Thai Binh, was sentenced in 2009 to five-and-a-half years in prison on charges of “subversion” for pro-democracy activities.
He was released this year before Vietnam’s Tet Lunar New Year holiday, and echoed Thach’s sentiment about the people rising up. The Lunar New Year— celebrated by Vietnamese, Chinese and Koreans—begins on Thursday.
“First of all, I believe in young people,” he said. “Second, I believe in intellectuals. They [the police] still contact me and try to gag me, but the more they try to silence me, the louder my voice becomes. People are fed up everywhere. They have not spoken up yet.”
Last month, 13 Vietnamese social activists said they had been attacked by police and taken into custody after visiting Kim.
Authorities detained them for several hours before forcing them to confess that they had broken the law by visiting Kim, who is on probation, VOA reported.
Labor activist and lawyer Le Thi Cong Nhan, who represents an organization called Viet Labors, which advocates the creation of independent labor unions in the country, had a different take on whether workers’ rights would improve in Vietnam this year.
She said although a labor union did exist in Vietnam, it was recognized and controlled by the government. The union has representatives in many companies, including foreign-invested ones, although workers’ rights are not fully protected nor are their voices heard.
“Workers in Vietnam’s current economic situation are exploited,” she said. “Basically, Vietnamese workers are suffering, and because the majority of them do not have higher education, they must become workers. [But] they don’t have any legal protection when conflicts arise because of the small-scale economy with very low technology and one ruling party which only takes advantage of cheap labor to attract investment.”
Nhan’s group tries to raise awareness of the benefits and rights to which workers are entitled and to educate them about human rights and democracy so they can eventually set up their own organizations, she said.
“That is not a political ambition of Viet Labors because politics doesn’t just mean that workers will become politicians or they will have their own party,” she said. “I can’t predict that because that is part of their rights.
“Workers are also citizens and they have that right when the time comes and when they think it is necessary. Right now, Viet Labors just want to focus on the biggest goal—to establish independent labor unions operated by workers.”
Obstacles to overcome
Civil society activist Pham Thanh Nghien, who is a member of several civic organizations in Vietnam, said the establishment of such groups in the country varies because of government restrictions and harassment.
Nghien was sentenced to four years in prison and three years of house arrest in January 2010 for going on a nonviolent hunger strike to protest China’s claim to the disputed Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam.
“There are a lot of obstacles for them [workers’ organizations] to overcome, she said. “From the end of 2013 until now, some organizations or groups have appeared, which have breathed fresh air into Vietnam’s democracy movement.”
But Nghien, a member of the country’s blogger network and the Former Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience association, said she believes hurdles still remain.
“The organizations have not laid out very ambitious goals for their activities, and they don’t work together to cooperate on specific activities,” Nghien said.
As far as activities, she said, they have only issued joint statements or held joint protests.
“They need to work together to have more specific activities in order to have more positive effects on the development of freedom in Vietnam,” she said.
In the meantime, Vietnamese authorities continue to crack down on bloggers and activists.
Last week, three activists, including well-known anti-China activist and government critic Le Thi Phuong Anh, were jailed for up to a year and a half on charges of anti-state activity, according to media reports.
Government critics and bloggers are usually charged under Article 258 of the country’s penal code, which critics say is vaguely worded and used to prosecute anyone who speaks out against the government.
Because the state controls the media, the Vietnamese have turned to blogs and social media for news that contains less propaganda.
As of the end of last year, Vietnam had detained 29 bloggers for “abusing democratic freedoms,” “subversion,” “antigovernment propaganda” or “trying to overthrow the government,” according to Reporters Without Borders.
Last week, authorities also revoked the online operating license of an outspoken newspaper for “fabricating information” and rescinded the reporting credentials of the outlet’s editor-in-chief after the publication ran several articles exposing cases of alleged official corruption.
Yet, authorities also freed two bloggers, who were jailed for posting comments critical of the government just as the country prepared for Tet, a time during which it is common to grant prisoner amnesties, according to media reports.