Vietnam may look like a success story, but with Burma's recent thaw, it's now the most repressive country in Southeast Asia.
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.
These fears provide those concerned about human rights in Vietnam with something that has been in short supply in recent years: leverage. The Communist Party long ago reaped the rewards normally offered to isolated authoritarian regimes as incentives to change -- World Trade Organization membership, improved diplomatic relations, and preferential trade deals -- without making the substantive concessions on human rights that are customarily required. But as Vietnam worries about being left behind in south-east Asia, the U.S. and European governments, which profess to care about political reform in Vietnam, should take advantage and apply the consistent and firm pressure that has been lacking in the past.
As the Vietnamese leadership grows more and more concerned about Chinese intentions in the region, in particular about competing territorial claims over resource-rich islands in the South China Sea, it has begun discussions with the Obama administration about military cooperation. This is a natural opportunity to press the Vietnamese on human rights, and U.S. officials have been saying the right things so far. "There's certain weapons systems that the Vietnamese would like to buy from us or receive from us, and we'd like to be able to transfer these systems to them. But it's not going to happen unless they improve their human rights record," Senator Joe Lieberman said after visiting Hanoi with Senator John McCain in January. The Vietnamese leadership is facing pressure from its own people to stand up to its historic enemy China, and American military backing would make Vietnam's navy a much more credible adversary in the South China Sea.
But if Burma has shown anything, it's that international attention from activists, journalists, and human rights groups is essential in holding Western governments to account for these sorts of promises about human rights. Burma would not have received premature rewards without accompanying reforms; the international uproar would have been too great. In addition, Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken numerous times -- as have countless other dissidents around the world -- about the moral authority conferred upon their causes by support from the international public.
The problem with the Vietnamese pro-democracy movement is that it has not captured the international imagination like Burma, Tibet, or China -- despite its members advocating similar positions and making comparable personal sacrifices. "We don't have any leaders that have won the Nobel Peace Prize like the Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi. These are voices with international influence," said Nguyen Quan, a Vietnamese-American doctor whose brother, Nguyen Dan Que, is a prominent activist who has spent more than 30 years in prison and is now under house arrest. Nguyen Quan represents the movement abroad in meetings with foreign governments, an often Sisyphean task. "We have to work very hard to get people to pay attention. People still don't want to talk about Vietnam because of the war. But the more we talk, the more we are exposing the abuses of the Vietnamese government," he said. Two U.S. Congressmen nominated Nguyen Dan Que for the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
Burma has also shown that predicting how and when regimes will change is a fool's game. But if modern history is any guide, the Vietnamese people have shown that they are fully capable of standing up to oppression. The current government was reminded of this during unprecedented events in January. Outside the northern coastal city of Haiphong, a fish farmer led an armed insurrection against local authorities who attempted to confiscate his land after his lease expired (private ownership of property is not permitted in Vietnam). He became a national hero, and in a dramatic turn of events the central government and state-controlled press, which initially criticized the farmer, came to his defense. Next year, similar leases are set to expire throughout the country, potentially affecting thousands of poor villagers. "This is a ticking time bomb," Thayer said.
Thus far, the Communist Party has been adept at navigating such time bombs -- and shaping the narrative of contemporary Vietnam into one of economic success and political stability. But with the changes wrought by Burma's turnaround, and the Vietnamese Communist Party's parallel crackdown on its critics, the time has come for human rights to finally take center stage in the West's dealings with Vietnam. The country's pro-democracy movement -- embattled but emboldened by years of persecution -- says it is ready to tell its story to the world. Nguyen Quan, who is in regular contact with his dissident brother Nguyen Dan Que, recalled a conversation the two had recently. "He told me that things are different now. People aren't afraid like they were 10 years ago. More and more young people are getting involved," he said. "The more they arrest people, the stronger and bigger the movement becomes."
IAN TIMBERLAKE/AFP/Getty Images