Friday, August 23, 2013

Vietnam's Ongoing Freedom Struggle

Calls for political reform have grown increasingly loud

 On September 2, 1945, Vietnam declared itself independent from France. History, of course, shows that France did not formally leave Vietnam until cessation of hostilities in 1954 upon the conclusion of the First Indochina War.

It has long been the narrative from the Communist Party of Vietnam that they and only they fought for their nation's independence. Such a view, however, ignores other nationalist elements that, while united in cause with the communists, differed in ideology; and it was this ideological divide that would lead to the Second Indochina War involving the United States.

Party Factionalism Grows
As September 2 nears, 68 years after Vietnam's declared independence from France, there are clear signs that its citizens have not, if ever, given up on their struggle for freedom. Whether reforms are undertaken this year or the next, or sometime within the decade, it has become increasingly clear that the Communists' grip over Vietnam is slowly weakening bit by bit. Yet, perhaps this is not so surprising.

The Internet and social media have allowed common citizens to plug into the global community, to become global citizens with increased awareness of the world and politics around them. The Internet and social media have also allowed members within and affiliated with the Communist Party to monitor discontent within their borders, and see what happens when this discontent gains too much momentum.

Perhaps it is merely cynicism to believe that dissident elements within the party are simply seeking to preserve their standing in society and politics by aligning with democratic activists. Nevertheless, the factionalism shouldn't be ignored. When a political organization such as that of the Communist Party is not only the dominant political party but only political party in the state, it will necessarily attract those who may not share the same political philosophy. The party will become a vessel for those most opportunistic individuals not necessarily cut from the same ideological cloth.

For some within the party, "Communist" is merely a label that could be shed at any point if necessary. The party's symbols and history may have their roots in communism and it, but there is nothing communist about it today. Marxist-Leninism has long since given way to socialist-oriented capitalism. To party members and common citizens, communism is archaic and irrelevant. However, the metamorphosis to multi-party state remains unrealized.

Government accountability
Democracy is not a "one-size fits all" solution and entails its own set of challenges and would, as a consequence, divide the country along ideological lines. Left versus right; collectivism versus individualism; isolationists versus interventionists versus internationalists—these are all challenges Vietnamese citizens would have to face, for the onus on the nation's direction at home and abroad is now on the people.

Stalwart party members may point to Egypt as an example of democracy run amok. What happens when the people's demand for political pluralism is given, and what happens when the people's choice for a leader is not shared by the other half of the country? Stalwarts may argue that Vietnam's current political system is designed to prevent such chaos from consuming their country. Although not incorrect, they would also be wrong.

Singapore and Japan have, more or less, been governed to great effect by one party. Since 1959, the People's Action Party has ruled Singapore; and for much of Japan's post-war history, it has been the Liberal Democratic Party. Although governed in a similar manner as a one-party state, Singapore and Japan are perfectly formed representative democracies. Where these countries differ from Vietnam is accountability.

Though these governments and political organizations may have dominated their country's political history, they were also held accountable to the people through free and fair elections. The media was not muzzled and dissidents were not jailed for expressing opinions opposing the state. When given a choice, the people voted for the same party again and again.

Public participation in state affairs is a necessary step forward for Vietnam. Sound leadership is rewarded with the public's trust, whereas poor leadership is rewarded with a defeat at the ballot box. By refusing to allow the public to participate, Vietnam's leaders are in effect telling their citizens that they, the people, cannot be trusted.

As a consequence, the Communist Party is writing a self-fulfilling prophecy ensuring their demise. Fearing that they will lose control if they undertake political reforms, they choose instead to deny people the chance for free and fair elections. In doing so, however, the Party guarantees that the people will not vote for them (under the banner of the Communist Party or another) in the event of an election.

Opportunity for change
The challenge for the United States, as it pivots to Asia-Pacific and seeks out new partnerships, is to balance ideals against political realities. Although democracy and human rights are core pillars to American international relations, there are other considerations involved. Yet, Vietnam poses far less a complication than present day-Egypt.

With ongoing territorial and maritime disputes with China, Vietnam is unlikely to find itself in the open arms of Beijing. Members within the Communist Party of Vietnam will undoubtedly resist such moves, to say nothing of the people protesting on the street. With each passing day, the party is running out of moves as it faces pressure at home and abroad. The United States can wait. The Communists can't.

Whether due to self-interest or a genuine belief in change, the desire from certain members within the party to join political activists in their cause for democratic reform should be welcomed. It is a welcomed opportunity for change. During this period of activism, Vietnamese citizens should ask themselves, "What kind of Vietnam do I want?" This is a question that must be answered now and not when they are being asked to govern. The democratization of Vietnam is inevitable, this much is clear. The question is whether this democratization will lead to a peaceful period of development, or a period of instability.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa; and researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and BBC Vietnamese Service.)

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