Will Vietnam Follow Myanmar’s Path Toward Reform?

March 7, 2012

Two years ago, when he held the rotating chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged Myanmar to hold democratic elections with the participation of all political parties. In light of Myanmar’s recent political opening, the question arises whether the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) is willing to take similar steps toward democratic reform in Vietnam.

To begin, the differences between Vietnam’s situation and that of Myanmar bear noting. Prior to its recent political changes, Myanmar was isolated and regarded as a pariah state. By contrast, Vietnam has made major reforms since its introduction of “doi moi” (“renovation”) reforms in 1986, which resulted in significant economic advances and integration into the global economy. At the economic level, while Vietnamese state-owned enterprises are strongly favored, the private sector is allowed and encouraged. At the political level, the VCP has also made efforts to create a law-governed state while loosening some domestic political controls, such as allowing party and nonparty members to voice their concerns about — and even, to some extent, criticize — its policies.

Yet, the political changes are neither consistent nor fast enough for the growing number of domestic critics and dissidents (.pdf), who call for greater respect for civil and political freedoms and political pluralism. For these critics, the very nature of the one-party system leads to corruption and abuse of power.

A recent case that underscores the need for wide-ranging reforms is the unlawful land seizure in Tien Lang by corrupt local officials, which has dominated headlines in Vietnam since early January. The incident led Tran Quoc Thuan, a former standing deputy head of the National Assembly Office, to call for comprehensive reforms, including to Vietnam’s land laws. Another reform-minded member of the National Assembly, Duong Trung Quoc, described the Tien Lang issue as the tip of a huge iceberg.

Significantly, unlike many other high-level corruption cases, the Tien Lang issue has been widely reported in Vietnam, suggesting that someone high up in the party-state apparatus approved the coverage. Whether this will herald greater press freedoms and lead to wider political reform remains highly debatable. It may well be an isolated response driven by internal power struggles or an effort to appease the critics. As always in Vietnam, ranked 171 out of 179 countries by Reporters Without Border in terms of press freedom in 2011-2012, the signs are far from consistent — the government’s apparent concern over Tien Lang must be balanced against its continued repression of dissidents (.pdf), most recently with the arrest of 13 dissidents in Phu Yen.

In an interview, Le Quoc Quan — one of three Vietnamese dissidents who met a delegation of U.S. senators during their visit to Vietnam in January — said that a Myanmar-like political opening is unlikely in Vietnam. He contrasts Myanmar’s political history, which includes a major opposition party and free elections, to that of Vietnam, where neither have ever existed. Vietnam also lacks a prominent symbol for democracy comparable to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

The network of Vietnam’s opposition parties (.pdf) remains disjointed and uncoordinated, due in part to their relative inexperience and, more importantly, due to government oppression (.pdf). In fact, opposition parties are not allowed to exist and work in Vietnam, which prevents them from making any concerted effort to press the VCP to carry out major reforms. Furthermore, in addition to lacking a Suu Kyi-like symbol, Vietnam also lacks a reformist figure such as Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, among its top leaders, making top-down, Myanmar-style democratic reform unlikely for now.

According to Le Quoc Quan, the difference between Myanmar’s more severe military dictatorship and Vietnam’s communist authoritarianism, which offers some amount of participation through party-related organizations, also militates against a broad popular opposition movement in Vietnam.

A third important factor involves the two countries’ contrasting international statuses. Prior to its recent steps toward political reform, Myanmar had been sanctioned and isolated for several decades, leaving it heavily dependent on China. In addition to facing domestic pressure for changes, the military leaders also realized that they had to carry out major reforms to open to the West in order to balance China. In contrast, Vietnam does not face major external pressure, and while the European Union and other Western countries regularly raise concerns about human rights violations, they have not imposed any sanctions.

One country that could potentially pressure Hanoi to increase the speed of reform is the U.S. The Vietnam-U.S. relationship has been significantly strengthened in the past few years. A number of high- ranking U.S. officials have visited Vietnam, and the U.S. has become more receptive to Vietnam’s concerns about the South China Sea dispute. In March 2010, the U.S. and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding to increase cooperation in a number of areas of civil nuclear energy (.pdf). There are also suggestions that the two sides want to develop a security partnership. However, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain, have made it clear that such a partnership is only possible if Vietnam improves its human rights record. Thus Vietnam’s willingness to carry out democratic reforms could depend on how badly it wants a strategic partnership with the U.S.

In this, Hanoi’s calculus will be conditioned by another important external actor, China. The tensions between China and Vietnam over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea have brought Vietnam closer to the U.S. Nevertheless, while concerned about China’s recent assertiveness, Vietnam’s leaders still consider ties with Beijing as a top priority. Besides its strong economic reliance on China, ideologically, Vietnam’s leaders are more comfortable with China than with the U.S. Friendly ties with Beijing will reduce the need for a strategic partnership with the U.S., thereby reducing pressure on Vietnam to improve its human right record or carry out any major political reforms.

All of these factors combine to make VCP efforts to address corruption a possibility, even as Myanmar-like democratic reforms remain unlikely.

Loc Doan is a research associate in the Asia Program at the Global Policy Institute. He is currently completing a doctoral thesis on interregionalism and the EU-ASEAN relationship at Aston University.

Source: World Politics Review