Vietnam is becoming more and more integrated into the global market, but its human rights record is worse than Burma’s and its government is cracking down on anyone who dares to voice their concerns online. A DiA blogger who wishes to remain anonymous reports
Vietnam is a one party, nominally socialist state run by the Vietnamese Communist Party. The government has resisted democratic reforms, and protests, dissident voices, and criticisms of the party have been met with fierce repression. Since the late 2000s, the Vietnamese government has realised that the internet is an increasing threat to its monopoly on power, engaging in an extensive attempt to block websites and jail bloggers.
Earlier in January, 14 Vietnamese bloggers, writers and activists were sent to jail for their activities with jail terms of up to 13 years, in what has turned into an extended persecution by the Vietnamese state of those trying to exercise free speech. In the latest trial, as in previous trials, the defendants were charged under Article 79 of Vietnam’s penal code, which includes clauses against “subversion of the administration”. This is very difficult thing to defend yourself against when it’s what you were explicitly trying to do.
How is this crackdown being resisted? The liberal dream is that free markets bring with them political freedoms and democracy. Going by this theory, then, all that is needed to improve freedom in Vietnam is increased integration into the global economy.
This has proved to be rubbish. Vietnam joined the World Trade Organisation in 2007, and is very much integrated into the global market. Private capital and increasing free markets do not necessarily cause freedom: Vietnam’s giant neighbour, China, showed that to anyone who still had such an idealistic belief. Massive private investment in China has not lead to political freedoms. A recent report by Freedom House showed that impoverished Burma is now freer than China.
What’s that I hear you cry? Companies could refuse to invest in Vietnam until it improves its freedom of speech? That’s not the way that capital works. Capital is constantly expanding, constantly needing new spaces in which to make profit. Private companies have been flocking to Vietnam. Multinationals that aren’t investing in Vietnam are not doing so because of concerns for the welfare of the citizens, but because they don’t see profit opportunities. McDonald’s, for example, doesn’t refuse to invest in Vietnam because the country lacks political freedoms. McDonald’s doesn’t invest in Vietnam because there is a huge import tax on French Fries.
Citizens are protesting against this crackdown on bloggers, including through what is possibly the most extreme form of protest – suicide. Last July, Dang Thi Kim Lieng, the mother of a detained blogger, Ta Phong Tan, self-immolated herself in front of the local government building near her home in the southern province of Bac Lieu in protest against her daughter’s detention. Tan had been arrested in September 2011, but had not faced trial. In October, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Lieng’s self-immolation holds a macabre significance. It echoes the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in Saigon in 1963. Quang Duc was protesting the oppressive regime of anti-communist South Vietnam (backed by the French and the USA) during the Vietnam War; a regime that was not allowing freedom of expression. However, while Quang Duc is now lauded as a hero in Vietnam, Tan’s mother is dismissed as mentally disturbed.
The Vietnamese diaspora are also protesting and campaigning against the crackdown. For example, The Vietnam Reform Party, Viet Tan, is a US-based organisation which campaigns for democratic reform inside Vietnam. Viet Tan are considered a terrorist group by the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party. The group helped to start the One Million Against 79 campaign, which encourages people to speak out against Article 79. However, despite being very vocal against the oppressive Vietnamese state, the group has very little membership or penetration within Vietnam.
No matter what the Vietnamese government does, the bloggers continue to blog. Indeed, new forms of internet-based protest are emerging. Tech-savvy urban youth have been linking up with rural peasants to record police violence during forced eviction and land grabs by the state, which are then put online. The government is trying to stop them by blocking certain websites, such as Facebook. But they’re not very good at it and are quickly outmanoeuvred by citizens who easily find a way to access blocked sites. Internet cafes proudly and openly display signs saying “GO ON FACEBOOK HERE”. The Vietnamese state’s attempt at regulating internet access is nothing compared to the Great Firewall of China. One could even see it as the Great Firewall of China’s clumsy and less intelligent little brother.
Despite Vietnam’s attempt to repress freedom of expression, according to some, Vietnam’s bloggers are becoming stronger, nimbler, and braver. An awkwardly rephrased line from Les Miserables comes to mind: is this the blogging of a people who will not be slaves again? Let us see what change this movement can bring.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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