Kerry B. Collison Asia News
Sunday, February 2, 2014
New hope in the New Year for Vietnamese democracy?
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung released a New Year’s message on the first day of 2014 to the surprise of the Vietnamese nation
The message was different from others so far, which were usually released by the Party or head of state and usually for the occasion of Tet (Lunar New Year). But the most important differentiator was the content, which notably raised the issue of innovation in Vietnamese official institutions, including ministries; removing the prevalence of monopolies in the economy, which will be important to achieving market-economy status; and the transition to democracy.
will enhance the creative capacity of each person, improve social cohesion and nurture the unity of society, conveyed the Prime Minister. In the New Year message, he compared democracy and the rule of law to twins that must develop hand-in-hand in modern political systems. The ultimate goal, as the slogans have put it: ‘Rich people, strong country’. Dung also clarified the difference between the people and the government: ‘The people can do everything that the law does not forbid. The government can do only things that the law allows’.
This is the first time that issues of democracy were addressed in such an elaborate way by a Vietnamese leader. Previously, official messages were too general to hold on to. But while the New Year message received excitement among Vietnamese intellectuals, other analysts are cautiously skeptical and awaiting for words to be followed by action.
Dung’s choice of 1 January for his message was no coincidence, strategically adding to the theme of change. With the 12th Congress due in 2016, the speech may also be an early pitch for support. Last year was a shaky time for the prime minister in domestic politics. Not only did the Politburo vote to discipline Dung over deficient management of the economy and state-owned enterprises, but the new constitution also enhanced the role of the president, Truong Tan Sang. While Dung’s presence at the Shangri-La Dialogue in May 2013 – elevated his position in external relations, he needed to reaffirm his position inside the country. As such, Dung’s New Year message may in no small part be an attempt to secure his position in the domestic political arena. Indeed, Dung has sensed the desire of the nation well — he knows that at the current atmosphere whoever carries the ‘democracy flag’ will have the people’s support.
While the leading role of the Party has been reaffirmed with the new 2013
, the document includes various general provisions referring to personal freedoms, rights and democratic values. But none of these make room for multi-party politics, nor do specify monitoring and supervising mechanisms for the ‘Party’s responsibility before its people’.
However, there may be cause to place greater hope in Dung’s New Year message and in it being more than just a political manoeuvre driven by internal Party competition. Other forces have led to a general atmosphere in Vietnam that seems more receptive to democratic reform.
First of all, Vietnam has contributed to human rights previously through international conventions (Vietnam is a signatory to most UN Conventions) and regional engagements. Second, as a member of
, it has contributed to ASEAN human rights mechanisms, including the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (2009), ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, and is also a party to the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (2012). While controversial, it was also elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2013.
Still, how indicative the New Year message is of domestic power competition within the ruling elite, and/or a maturing political atmosphere, and/or external stimuli having an effect on the democratisation process is unclear. One thing is certain: no changes will take place overnight. As Dung stated, ‘No country is capable of realising democratic values at all levels and in all spheres at the same time’. Vietnam is no exception. Most importantly, the message conveys Dung’s intention for change, and that is opening a space for change. Some more time is needed to see what can come out from yet another declaration of good intentions. Perhaps this coming Tet (Lunar New Year) message will bring more clarification.
Dr Huong Le Thu is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS).
Kerry B. Collison
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