Vietnam: Tales of an avuncular Ho – Asia Times

HANOI – In the lead-up to next year’s pivotal five-year Communist Party congress, Vietnam is doing its best to keep dissenting voices quiet, cowing lawyers, journalists, activists and aggrieved citizens with a combination of arrest, detention, intimidation and surveillance.

Hanoi’s boom fuels heavy traffic, but it’s less-hectic at rush hour around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

At least 19 dissidents have been caught in the government’s dragnet since October. Those who remain free must take great care when airing their views or meeting with foreigners. Asia Times Online recently managed to speak face-to-face with one Hanoi-based dissident who requested anonymity and this story will refer to simply as “Ho”.

He immediately settled into some mordant observations about life as an enemy of the state. “In East Germany, under the Stasi, it was said that one in 50 of the population were spies,” Ho said. “In Vietnam today, it is more like one in 40.”

While Vietnam’s authoritarian government has been criticized for the recent arrests, including round-ups on the eve of this month’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asian Summits (EAS) held in the capital. Hanoi, it is thought that many were arrested precisely to prevent their meeting with foreign journalists covering the gatherings.

Vietnam has served this year as ASEAN’s 2010 chair and the 10-member bloc recently marked the one-year anniversary of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, which has been dismissed as a toothless talking-shop by many activists.

The latest sentences came on Tuesday, when two ethnic hill-tribe villagers from central Vietnam were jailed for plotting anti-government protests, a reminder that the long arm of the law extends to ordinary civilians as well as prominent, often-feisty lawyers and writers.

“There is a long history of government repression in the Central Highlands on the Montagnard people and on those involved in the house churches,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “A lot of arrests do not come to public attention until long after people are jailed, and travel restrictions and surveillance make it very difficult for journalists to travel to the region.”

Journalist and blogger Nguyen Hoang Hai, better known as Dieu Cay, was still behind bars after his 30-month prison sentence on widely viewed as trumped-up tax evasion charges was scheduled to expire on October 20. Officials said he would be detained pending investigation of a new charge of disseminating “propaganda against the Socialist Republic”.

Vietnam is a one-party state and links to banned opposition parties – either real or imagined – are often used against dissidents in court. The government has come down especially hard on the exile-run Viet Tan party, whose members often make calls for democracy.

Cu Huy Ha Vu, a lawyer, was arrested on November 5 for disseminating “propaganda against the state”, according to state television. Reports quoted the Ministry of Public Security as saying investigators found subversive documents on his laptop and that he had advocated for a multi-party political system. Article 2 of the country’s constitution effectively elevates the Communist Party above the law, leaving it the sole legally-permitted political party in the country.

Last year Vu filed an unsuccessful court complaint against prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung over a controversial bauxite mine project in the country’s Central Highlands region. Authorities also rejected a bid by Vu’s law firm to represent six Catholics who were jailed this month after a hasty show trial.

The six were part of a group that protested the authorities’ prohibition of the burial of a deceased parishioner at Con Dau in central Vietnam last May. The refusal sparked a new round of tensions between the government and Vietnam’s large Catholic population. The government says that the cemetery will be turned into a new hotel and leisure compound, and has apparently already sold the land to a developer.

A Catholic priest who requested anonymity said that state encroachment and seizure of church properties is still ongoing two years after state-sponsored gangs broke up a protest prayer vigil attended by over 15,000 Catholics at the site of the former Papal Nuncio residence in Hanoi.

The priest, speaking close to St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi’s cafe and art gallery-laden old quarter, said that he had raised the case of a nearby convent which has had its walls blocked off by a government construction site with US Embassy officials ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Vietnam. “[They] promised to intervene, but nothing happened,” said the priest.

Diplomatic sticking point

Yet the crackdown on dissent remains a sticking point at a time US-Vietnam ties are on a clear warming trend. Speaking in Hanoi on the sidelines of the recent ASEAN and East Asian Summits, Clinton said that “the United States remains concerned about the arrest of people for dissent and the curbs on religious freedom in Vietnam”.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem sat impassively throughout Clinton’s remarks; dissident Ho noted that most Vietnamese never heard Clinton’s criticisms because “the translator ignored her remarks, so they were not carried on TV or in any state-run media”.

Like other activists, Ho is incensed about certain state environmental and investment issues, including the controversial bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands. China’s state-owned Aluminum Corporation of China (Chinalco) is a joint venture partner in the project and it is thought that thousands of Chinese workers are employed at the sites, with few jobs on offer for Vietnamese workers.

Ho said that he believes that many of the Chinese workers “are possibly soldiers” and that most of the profit and resources extracted “will just be sent back to China, with nothing for this country, except what party officials can take for themselves for allowing the Chinese run the project”.

Strong words, not least given that, as Reporters Sans Frontiers says “as the 2011 Communist Party Congress draws nearer, the regime is muffling dissident views on the Internet, and its first target is critics of the country’s policy toward China.” Indeed the government has taken an uncompromising position on the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam, an area thought to be rich in oil and gas.

Along with other Southeast Asian nations with claims to the maritime area, Vietnam appears increasingly threatened by China’s assertion that the South China Sea is a “core interest” on par with Tibet and Taiwan, the latter of which Beijing considers a renegade province. The sea is site to a number of territorial disputes centering on the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Despite the growing chill in Sino-Vietnam relations, state media is prevented by the government from covering touchy issues related to China. For instance, media outlets were forced by the government to pull a story during the course of the recent ASEAN and EAS summits, which reported without going into any detail on Japan’s plans to mine rare earth minerals in Vietnam and the possibility of negotiations over the South Sea China at the meetings.

With the Communist Party congress looming, Ho predicts that despite recent disputes between the two countries “the Chinese will get their man” when senior appointments, including the premiership, are decided at the meeting. China typically pushes back when it perceives Vietnamese officials contrarian to Beijing’s interests are in positions of power.

Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, recounts an instance in the early 1990s of Chinese “pressure to oust politburo member, deputy prime minister and foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach”. Thach, now deceased, led early efforts to re-establish diplomatic ties to the US. Looking ahead to January’s congress, Thayer adds that “it is strongly rumored that Nguyen Phu Trong, politburo member and chair of the National Assembly Standing Committee is favored as the next party secretary general in part because he is acceptable to China”.

Political oppression aside, some here argue that Communist Party rule has achieved economic benefits. Ho acknowledges that almost two decades of 6% average annual economic growth and a jump in average per capita incomes has improved the lives of many ordinary Vietnamese, though he doesn’t trust official statistics. The country’s China-like combination of political absolutism and laissez-faire economics has lured in foreign investment, particularly after the US paved the way for its entry to the World Trade Organization in 2007.

Putting some sugar in the medicine, Clinton praised Hanoi for signing the UN Convention Against Torture during her press event with her counterpart Khiem and contended that less political controls and more civil liberties would buttress their recent economic success. Meanwhile, the clampdown on dissenting voices like Ho’s continues.

When government agents call around, a wry sense of humor helps, he says. “It is not communism, or socialism, or capitalism that matter in the end,” he tells the often-baby faced spooks who visit on mundane and irrelevant-sounding pretexts such as checking whether his electricity is working. “It is rheumatism!”

Leaving his residence, a floor-cleaner is parked outside the door in the hallway with a pool of detergent-laced water running off and with whoever was manning the contraption nowhere to be seen. My interviewee gives a knowing nod, points and smiles ironically and waves goodbye. Then, edging back inside the door, wearing a defiant yet humble smile, he gives one final nod of acknowledgement before gently clicking the door shut.

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