Fear has long underpinned the authoritarian rule of Vietnam’s Communist Party. Fear of change; fear of the people over which they rule; fear that the people might soon demand more freedom, accountability and transparency than their once revolutionary leaders are willing to allow.
While Vietnam’s communist leaders have recently presided over an economic boom, providing a tantalizing glimpse of a more prosperous future, it has often been spoiled by revelations of government corruption and mismanagement. Official land grabs for development projects, meanwhile, have frequently brought the state into violent conflict with the people.
In Vietnam’s authoritarian context, fear is a two-way street. In seeing some of their fellow activist compatriots suffer the consequences of their activities, the people often suffer in silence. Most people are unwilling to sacrifice their peace and security for an uncertain future, potentially behind bars with hundreds of other political prisoners.
The government has suppressed such dissent through a spate of harsh convictions of activists and independent bloggers on vague anti-state charges. Fear of such punishment, even if political change is desperately needed, is thus a powerful incentive for inaction in Vietnam.
Yet change will eventually come, whether the government wishes it or not. With roughly 60% of the population under the age of 30, a majority of Vietnamese has come of age during a time of rising prosperity and with greater awareness of the wider world thanks to the Internet. Old Communist Party leaders now demographically represent a dying breed.
While the Vietnamese government remains the primary obstacle to political reform, the first hurdle to a freer, democratic state can be found within citizens’ fear for their safety and security. After seeing democratic and human rights activists such as Le Cong Dinh and Father Nguyen Van Ly imprisoned for challenging the government, the people rightly fear their leaders.
Although people may sympathize with and share the views of Dinh and Ly, few are willing to go to prison or risk the safety and security of their families to express such views. As a result, individuals like Dinh and Ly shoulder the burden and suffer the consequences of trying to advance the cause of democracy and human rights.
A recent attempt by the government to appear more participatory badly backfired. A government call for suggestions on constitutional reform sparked an outpouring of public grievances and demands for change, including calls for an end to one-party rule. A group of intellectuals and former government officials released their own proposed constitution, which among other things called for free elections and media.
For real change to occur, the Vietnamese people must collectively overcome their fear of the Communist Party. To be sure, this is easier said than done. Whatever its faults, the Communist Party-led government has delivered the basics. Vietnam is no longer the closed and isolated state it was in the past. People are no longer on the verge of starvation due to economic mismanagement. Vietnam has opened to the world, giving the country an economic lift through greater foreign trade and investment.
Despite the government’s corruption and economic mismanagement, there is no guarantee if the Communist Party was removed from power that its replacement would be better. However, if a new generation of Vietnamese desire more than the basics, they must look beyond the status quo for a better future. The current leaders have no desire to move towards democracy and improve human rights, as evidenced by the Party’s rejection of popular calls for more pluralism in the constitution.
Power of the people
While many Vietnamese whisper about their desire to topple the Communist Party-led government, there is no clear road in that direction. While many have spoken out against the government, they have consistently and severely been punished for “propagandizing” against the state.
In any society, there are leaders and there are followers. In Vietnam, the leaders of the country’s pro-democracy and human rights movements are systematically suppressed or imprisoned to dissuade their followers. Democratic movements have thus been pushed underground where they lack the publicity to gain the critical mass needed to effect real change.
There is a silent majority waiting for the emergence of a democratic leader in Vietnam, as seen in other countries that have thrown off the yoke of authoritarian rule. However, Vietnam’s masses cannot afford to wait for the few to stand up on their behalf. Instead, those who would normally follow must take it upon themselves to become leaders, to muster their family, friends and neighbors to take action.
This is not an invitation for violence but rather a call for civil disobedience, similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful movement of defiance against the British Raj in colonial India. It has proven easy for the government to nip such movements in the bud when they rely on only a few people. But if a significant portion of the population engaged in collective acts of civil disobedience, how would the Communist Party respond?
If only half of the 60% of Vietnamese citizens under the age of 30 participated in a campaign of civil disobedience, the state would suddenly be confronted with some 26 million defiant citizens. There are not enough police officers nor prisons to suppress such a mass movement. Moreover, how many security officials respond when ordered to arrest friends, family and neighbors?
Because Vietnam does not elect its leaders, the government’s power rests in the people’s respect for its authority. As long as the people continue to abide by the government’s established order, nothing will change. If, however, a mass movement of civil disobedience emerged the government would face a dilemma, one that could accentuate the top-level factional tensions recently seen inside the Party.
It is wishful thinking that change can occur from within the government and the Party. While there may be true reformers in these institutions, they operate within the confines of a corrupt and broken system resistant to change. Change will inevitably come to Vietnam, whether this year or over the next decade, whether through peaceful or violent means. While the people may still cower in fear of their leaders, history and demographics are increasingly on their side.
Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese-Canadian lawyer who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to BBC Vietnamese Service.
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