Saturday, December 17, 2011

Can Vietnam Change?

The greatest obstacle to democratic reform in Vietnam comes from its government

The Communist Party of Vietnam finds itself at a crossroads. By confronting China over maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, it has inflamed the passions of nationalism and antagonism towards its northerly neighbor.

Citizens have taken to the streets to protest Chinese activities. Yet paradoxically the government has cracked down on protest for fear of jeopardizing their now-fragile relationship with China. In this strange world of Vietnamese politics, nothing is what it seems. Thus the government is both champion and oppressor of anti-China sentiment brewing in the country, an honest reflection of the schizophrenic nature of its leaders.

Nevertheless, there is some agreement that change is coming to Vietnam in this decade or the next, for better or worse. Its leaders may attempt to stifle change, particularly democratic change, in order to preserve the status quo. Of course, such a decision will only work against Vietnam as a whole, never mind the Communist Party.

Perhaps unknowingly, the government has set into motion events leading to its demise -- that is, political reform. By inflaming the passions of nationalism, its citizens have demanded action against China. When the government is seen wavering and suppressing demonstrations against China, acts that are seen by the people as appeasing China, the Communist Party risks diminishing its status among its citizens (although some democratic and human rights activists would argue the party shouldn’t govern in the first place). The people will begin to question if the communists should be the rightful rulers of their country and will seek democratic reform.

Change is natural

By chance, this year has been the year of the Arab Spring. Old tyrants have fallen and new, albeit troubled, democracies have begun to emerge across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Syria remains a battleground for democratic reform as the government has stood its ground against change, killing perhaps thousands of its citizens.

Vietnam, like much of the world, isn’t living in a vacuum and has witnessed these changes and atrocities taking place. Thanks to the internet and social media, these events can be studied by every Vietnamese citizen with a computer and internet connection.

For the Arab Spring, all that was required for change was an event, a catalyst. In Vietnam, that catalyst has yet to occur, but the South China Sea disputes and the party‘s uncertainty have planted the seeds of reform. When party politics impedes the development of a nation, perhaps it’s time for change.

The leaders of Vietnam can ride this wave of change when it happens, or they can fight against the tide. However, one would hope that the current leaders of Vietnam can see past the short-term pains and embrace what is not only necessary, if not inevitable, but natural.

The authoritative nature of Vietnam’s communism can almost be seen as training wheels for a young nation that, until the departure of the French, had never enjoyed true independence. Like a stern and critical parent, the party has dictated the lives of its citizens, telling them what they may or may not know, and what they can or cannot do. But a nation, much like a person, grows up and matures. This young adult, no longer a child, can see the faults in his or her parent, can determine for him or herself what is right and what is wrong; and when repeatedly treated as an infant, will almost always rebel. For the party to fight against change, it will only harm Vietnam and stifle natural national growth.

The hypothetical next step

How then can the leaders of Vietnam best proceed, assuming of course they are amenable to democratic reform? As we have seen from the Arab Spring, the tearing down of each and every old institution of the previous government has done little to smooth the transition to democracy. If there is to be reform in Vietnam, it must be done with the assistance of current institutions of government. In other words, there must be some level of collaboration between the old and new Vietnam.

Peaceful democratic reform should ideally start at the top with constitutional reform. These new laws should reflect the democratic aspirations of the people and serve as the foundations of the new Vietnam; however, the exact changes required in a constitutional reform are beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say, these changes should respect the rights and dignity of the individual, and provide for the necessary freedoms of the people. Once constitutional reform is resolved, what follows after will hopefully be a gradual transition towards a democratic state, requiring elections at all levels of government.

Agents of change

Of course, in all of this, the crucial role played by Vietnamese citizens has been omitted. Who but individual citizens will hold the most influence in the new Vietnam? Change will happen, but democratic reform will not occur unless the people of Vietnam demand it. Part of growing up is accepting responsibility for one’s actions. You can talk about change but if you don’t act on it, change will never occur. The Vietnamese people, should they truly desire reform, must be the primary agents of change, and they must be willing to accept the consequences of their decisions. The government is unlikely to upset the status quo unless there is pressure from within, and it is up to the citizens to apply said pressure.

And what about the millions of Vietnamese living abroad? A great majority of those were refugees of the former South Vietnam, whose attitude towards the Communist Party in Vietnam is particularly antagonistic. It’s a view that will be passed on to successive generations, especially in the United States, where anti-communist sentiments held by Vietnamese-Americans are high.

Political reform allows for the healing of old wounds, or at least bridging the divide. Vietnamese citizens who have lived and grown up abroad offer a unique perspective towards the building of a new, democratic Vietnam—points of view that native citizens may not have due to having been raised in different environments. During the process of constitutional reform, these overseas Vietnamese can be consulted in an effort to unite all Vietnamese people.

However, for any of this to occur, there must first be a willingness to change. And although change will happen, regardless of the actions of the government or the people, it is up to them to shape their destiny. Ultimately, they are responsible for their future. Change must come from within for it to succeed and endure, for any change from without will be forced and doomed to fail.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)

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