Nearly four decades after the end of the Vietnam War, America's former foe is seen globally as a success story. It boasts a booming economy, a growing middle class, and thriving tourism and manufacturing industries. But as political reforms transform Burma, Vietnam is in danger of becoming something else: the most repressive country in Southeast Asia. This week, prosecutors at a court in Ho Chi Minh City charged three Vietnamese bloggers for "conducting propaganda against the state," the latest in a series of arrests designed to silence a growing opposition movement.
As Burma liberalizes, Vietnam continues to crack down on dissent. Since January 13, when the Burmese junta released hundreds of political prisoners in a major amnesty, the Vietnamese security forces have arrested at least 15 political dissidents and sentenced a further 11 to prison. With Aung San Suu Kyi fresh from an election victory and ready to take her seat in parliament, Vietnam's most prominent opposition figures languish in jail, under house arrest, or in reeducation camps (yes, those are still in use). And as Burma issues visas to foreign correspondents and loosens the muzzle on its domestic press, Vietnam continues to tightly control foreign and local journalists and block Facebook and other "sensitive" websites, prompting Reporters Without Borders to rank it last among Southeast Asian countries in its 2011-2012 Press Freedom Index. By way of comparison, Vietnam is only two spots ahead of China, ranking 172nd out of 179 countries overall.
"Vietnam is starting to recognize that by continuing its crackdown on rights, it invites unwelcome comparisons with Burma as the worst human rights abuser in ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations]," said Phil Roberson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
Political repression is not new in Vietnam. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Communist Party has ruled with an iron fist. But years of Cold War isolation and the lack of an organized domestic opposition -- not to mention the West's feelings of guilt from the war and lingering ideological sympathy for Hanoi among parts of the left -- meant few cared to notice the country's poor human rights record. When the government opened up the economy in the 1990s, foreign investors and expatriates began pouring in, and since then international attention has focused largely on Vietnam's economic miracle. The country went from being one of the poorest in the world in the mid 1980s, with a per capita income below $100, to an Asian Tiger with rapid growth and a per capita income of $1,130 by the end of 2010. To the outside world, which heralded the government's economic reforms, the country looked to be firmly on the path of post-Cold War liberalization chosen by many countries in the former Soviet bloc. It hasn't hurt the government's image that the millions of foreigners visiting and living in Vietnam are largely untroubled by the restrictions on speech and assembly that are an everyday reality for Vietnamese.
Despite this façade of liberalization, the Communist Party's current core leadership is as politically conservative as any since reunification. Headed by a handful of officials including Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and President Truong Tan Sang, this inner circle has mercilessly cracked down on Bloc 8406, a homegrown pro-democracy movement styled on Czechoslovakia's Charter 77. Founded in 2006, the group attracted thousands of public supporters -- and likely many more in private -- before the government decapitated it by throwing dozens of organizers in jail. In addition, the authorities have targeted religious leaders, including Buddhist monks and Catholic priests, for advocating greater religious tolerance, and they have also in recent years harassed and imprisoned Vietnamese nationalists calling for the country to stand up to China. Still, in spite of the risks, Vietnamese activists continue to speak out about political pluralism, corruption, and free speech -- and end up in prison or as political refugees.
The Burmese thaw might prove to be their greatest gift. The changes there should challenge myopic thinking about Vietnam among the international community and bring human rights to the fore. No less than the Vietnamese leadership fears this happening, according to long-time observers of the country. "The leadership is following developments in Burma closely, and it is worried," said Nguyen Manh Hung, an expert on Vietnamese foreign policy at George Mason University. "In the past, Vietnam used its role in ASEAN to push Burma to change. But now, Burma is moving faster than Vietnam." The leadership in Hanoi appears to have miscalculated: Previously, concerns about human rights in Burma were a drag on ASEAN's international legitimacy, so Vietnam and others discreetly asked the junta to shape up. What they didn't bargain for, though, was a 180-degree turn and the resulting drastic reform. With Burma looking less and less like a police state, Hanoi fears unwanted scrutiny. "If Burma improves on human rights and gets rewarded, Vietnam would need to meet the same standards," said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy. The Vietnamese leadership also fears losing its role as ASEAN's key mediator between the United States and China. "Vietnam is worried that Burma is becoming the darling of ASEAN," Thayer said.