Vietnamese ’Democracy’ in Action

May 31, 2007
Wall Street Journal Asia

The Vietnamese National Assembly elections on May 20 created a certain amount of publicity because 875 candidates were vying for only 500 seats and 180 of those candidates were “independents” not aligned with the ruling Communist Party. But of those running outside of the Party, 150 had secured its approval before launching their candidacies. Only 30 “self-nominated” candidates were allowed to run.

For many months, the ruling Communist Party in Vietnam promoted this vote as a sign that the country is opening up politically. Party leader Nong Duc Manh said the next National Assembly would perfect “the socialist rule of law of the people, by the people and for the people.” No one actually believed any of this rhetoric, especially since even independent candidates must be screened by the party’s Fatherland Front before they can run. One thing, however, has changed:

Government and Party officials were at greater pains to bill this election as a sign of gradual democratic reform than they have in any election for the past 20 years. Why?

The answer is that the Communist Party in Vietnam has embarked on a campaign to change its image abroad. The end goal is for the ruling elite to emerge as winners in what appears to be a more democratic environment, despite the fact that it remains a ruthless dictatorship. Thus, it is quite possible that within the next few years there will be a supposedly multiparty election in Vietnam. This last election can be viewed as a small and early practice run for the regime.

But it will not be real democracy. The clearest sign, if there were any doubt, is that the latest election happened to coincide with the worst crackdown on political dissent since Hanoi launched its doi moi, or “renovation,” efforts 20 years ago. One after another, democracy activists have been sentenced to years in prison simply because they advocate for the right to choose the government freely and fairly. Others are still awaiting trial, accused of “plotting to overthrow the government.” That charge can carry a death sentence.

With the current crackdown, the Vietnamese democracy movement is facing both an important challenge and a tremendous opportunity. The challenge is, first, to survive. The Communist Party is trying to eradicate all independent organizations, especially political parties. However, if the movement can live through this crackdown for the next six months, a year or even beyond that, then it will be a turning point for true democratic changes inside Vietnam.

After 32 years of continuous persecution, the democracy movement in Vietnam refuses to fade away. For the first time, the movement no longer consists of individuals but organized groups. Never before have the communist authorities seen such a grassroots movement represented by so many independent political parties and organizations openly challenging their rule. Coupled with increasing social discontent, especially from the peasants and factory workers, the desire inside the country for real changes indeed is stronger than ever before.

But the democracy movement also needs help from the outside world. Free nations can pressure Hanoi to immediately free all dissidents who have been imprisoned and to respect human rights, especially freedom of speech. As more Vietnamese are bravely asserting their freedom of association, outside non-governmental organizations can provide the experience and resources to nurture the nascent civil society taking root.

At this critical juncture for the Vietnamese people, it is important for the world not to embrace a corrupt dictatorship but to look beyond the lure of short-term interests. The wind of change is blowing in Vietnam and the international community can play a very important role in affecting the direction.

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Mr. Do is the chairman of Viet Tan, an underground political party in Vietnam.

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