BANGKOK — Five days of joint US-Vietnam naval exercises that started Monday in Vietnam are the latest signals of growing cooperation between the one-time enemies.

But as the US and Vietnam draw closer, the communist government’s human rights record is raising questions among activists whether the US is sufficiently vocal about political, economic, and free speech violations in Vietnam, a single party state.

According to Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch: “There is a real need for sustained US pressure on Vietnam to free political prisoners, respect freedom of expression and the vibrant blogosphere that is making Vietnam one of the fast growing users of the Internet in South East Asia, and repeal repressive laws that Hanoi uses to quash individuals and groups that the government doesn’t like.”

Vietnam’s record is one of frequent human rights violations, according to Human Rights Watch, which accused the government of systematically suppressing freedom of expression, association, and of peaceful assembly.

“Independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule are routinely subject to police harassment and intrusive surveillance, detained incommunicado for long periods of time without access to legal counsel, and sentenced to increasingly long terms in prison for violating vague national security laws,” Human Rights Watch reported.

Land rights is another divisive issue in Vietnam, potentially angering many more people than the jailing of activists. On Tuesday what was the second major land protest so far this year — over alleged state appropriation of land from farmers for investment projects — was broken-up by a force of 2000-4000 police. The stand-off involving an estimated 700 farmers took place at Van Vieng, outside capital Hanoi, after local authorities said that they would take control of 500 hectares of land for a new satellite town.

Land in Vietnam is owned by the state, but much farmland is under 20 year leases that are due to expire in 2013. The deadline raises the prospect of more clashes if the government tries to force people off land to make way for large-scale investments.

Blogging in Vietnam

It is not just street protestors who end up facing the government’s wrath. The charging last week of writers Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai, and Ta Phong Tan on vague charges of “propaganda against the state” has put renewed spotlight on Vietnam’s treatment of those who speak out — and on how far the US is willing to push Vietnam on reform.

Vietnam’s Thanh Nien newspaper reported that the bloggers posted 421 articles on the Independent Journalists’ Club website between September 2007 and October 2010 — content that amounted to “distorting the truth, denigrating the party and state.”

Hanoi-based lawyer Le Quoc Quan works closely with some of Vietnam’s hard-pressed pro-democracy activists. He estimates that Vietnam holds between 300 and 600 political prisoners, a category not recognized by the government. He told the Monitor that the three detained writers “did nothing but express their freedom of press.”

News media in Vietnam is linked to or run by the Communist Party, but the web has offered alternative voices a chance to write – often anonymously – about usually off-limits issues such as relations with China and political reform.

An estimated 70 percent of Vietnam’s 90 million residents were born after 1975 and Internet use is growing, with just over 30 million Vietnamese now online according to government statistics. However France-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders lists Vietnam as an “Enemy of the Internet,” and proposed new Internet laws in Vietnam appear to underscore this.

While the law has not been finalized, foreign companies such as Facebook may have to open local offices and pass user information to the government, while bloggers will in future have to use their real names when posting. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, but there is an easy work-around and the social-media network has more than 3.6 million subscribers in the country.

In response to the proposed law, 12 US lawmakers, both the Republicans and Democrats, wrote to Facebook, Google, and Yahoo last week, urging the companies “to advocate for the freedoms of speech and expression for the citizens of Vietnam by continuing to provide your technologies to the people of Vietnam in a manner that respects their rights and privacy.”

If Vietnam tightens Internet restrictions, the fallout might be economic as well as political. Recent research by McKinsey & Company consultancy — based on a survey of nine countries including Vietnam — estimates that the Internet “contributes an average 1.9 percent of GDP in aspiring countries.”

Discussing the proposed law, a Google spokesperson told the Monitor  that “we believe that access to information is the foundation of a free and prosperous society {and] an essential contributor to economic growth for countries and companies alike.”

And Vietnam’s economy is indeed growing. A 7% per annum average since 1986 is only bettered in the region by China. This expansion has lifted average yearly incomes over US$1100 –- middle-income according to the World Bank — which describes Vietnam as “a case study in many development textbooks.”

But Vietnam’s broader economy has been battered by double-digit inflation reaching 23% in August 2011. Reining in inflation likely means damping down pro-growth policies in the near term at least.

That could cut into government’s aim of attaining average income levels of US$3,000 by 2020, which the World Bank says requires “nearly 10 percent annual growth in per capita income over the next decade.”

In early 2012 Hanoi pledged additional economic reforms, with some focused on state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that make up around 40 percent of the country’s output.

Recent scandals have prompted analysts to cite some of the SOEs as mismanaged and a possible drag on growth, after eight officials were recently jailed after state-run shipbuilder Vinashin collapsed after incurring $4.6 billion debt.

Marco Breu of consultancy McKinsey says that “continued reform of the ownership and management incentives for these enterprises is likely to be crucial to long term growth.”

Where the US fits in

With trade between the US and Vietnam growing 10-fold to $15 billion a year since 2001, human rights groups say that the US should use its growing economic and military leverage with Hanoi to push for political as well as economic reforms.

Speaking in Hanoi in February, Kurt Campbell, US assistant secretary of state for East-Asia and Pacific affairs, said the US was working on it.

“We did make clear that for the United States and Vietnam to go to the next level it will require some significant steps on the part of Vietnam to address both individual cases of concerns, human rights concerns, but also more systemic challenges associated with freedom of expression, freedom of organization,” he said.

Whether the US has the will or means to influence Hanoi is unclear, however, and there may be lingering distrust of the US among party cadres in Hanoi – regardless of US-China rivalry or the Communist Party’s wariness of its big brother in Beijing.

Some Vietnamese officials believe that “the United States’ long-term goal is to erode the Vietnamese Communist Party’s monopoly on power,” according to a July 2011 Congressional Research Service report.

Given the history between the two countries that is a vast exaggeration of US influence in the region, say analysts.

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