Ho Chi Minh City
The taxi’s tires swished in the afternoon downpour as we sped down Nguyen Kiem Street. It was rainy season in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese shopkeepers, armed with waist-high bamboo brooms, attempted to clear the flooded sidewalks, but the deluge only intensified. I paid the driver and ducked into a cafe, leaving behind the buzzing motorbikes and neon-lit clothing shops of Phu Nhuan District. I settled into a dark corner on the top floor and ordered a sua da, oil-black coffee served on ice over a thick layer of tooth-achingly sweet condensed milk.
Do Nam Hai arrived several minutes later. He had a tan, round face and wore the pleated khaki pants and tucked-in polo shirt that in Vietnam signals time spent abroad. He walked confidently, but with some exaggeration–as if he were trying to convince himself and whoever might be watching that it was OK for him to be there.
“Are the police here?” I asked him.
“Yes, of course. They are downstairs,” he replied, smiling almost sheepishly, as if an unwanted guest had tagged along. On cue, a head popped up from the stairs below, scanned the room, located our table and disappeared. This would happen several more times during our conversation.
Do Nam Hai, 48, is one of Vietnam’s most outspoken political dissidents. In various petitions and articles circulated on the Internet, he has called on the ruling Communist Party to step aside and allow multiparty elections. He has also demanded that the government grant its citizens freedom of speech, assembly and religion. For his trouble, he now endures daily harassment and monitoring by the secret police. They repeatedly cut his phone line and prevent him from seeing his friends. He has been unemployed since 2004, when his boss, under pressure from the police, fired him from his position at a bank. Just recently, in this very cafe, the police beat him and hauled him off for one of many interrogation sessions. He hasn’t been to prison yet, but he has no illusions.
“One day, I think I will go to jail,” he told me. “But I believe that what I am doing will make the country better. I am not scared.”
The Communist Party maintains strict one-party rule in Vietnam. It prohibits political opposition, owns and operates the domestic media, and tightly controls most aspects of the country’s civic life. It deals swiftly and harshly with its critics, who have been rare since the North forcibly reunited the country in 1975. Those who have dissented tended to be lone intellectuals who published secret newsletters for tiny audiences, or artists who cloaked their critiques in layers of symbolism. To criticize the government openly was to sign up for a life of isolation and prison, a path few chose.
That all changed in April of 2006. A group of dissidents including Do Nam Hai drafted two pro-democracy manifestos and posted them online. If the police response was predictable (“Four hours after we posted one, the police confiscated my computer. Then they confiscated me!”), the public’s was not. More than one hundred people signed the petitions initially, an astonishing feat made even more so by the signatories’ decision to disclose both their names and addresses. Eventually, more than 2,000 people inside Vietnam signed, along with 30,000 Vietnamese overseas. The group came to be known as Bloc 8406, after the date of the second petition, but also in a conscious evocation of the former Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. The signatories come from all parts of the country, which is significant in Vietnam, given the cultural distinctness of its northern, central and southern regions. They are doctors, lawyers, scientists and even a former officer in the North Vietnamese Army. The country has not seen organized opposition on this scale in decades.
“Bloc 8406 is different from the anti-Communist groups of the 1980s and ’90s, almost all of which were based outside of Vietnam. Many of these groups espoused, in equal parts, violent means and unrealistic goals,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The Bloc 8406 dissidents are using peaceful means and not suggesting violent overthrow. This is a much more thoughtful challenge to the Communist Party’s claim to represent everyone in the country.”
In presenting themselves so publicly, the dissidents were taking a calculated gamble. The country was on the brink of securing membership in the World Trade Organization, a prize long coveted by the party, and world leaders were to descend on Hanoi later that year for the high-profile Asia-Pacific Economic Conference. In the run-up to these milestones, the country’s human rights record was coming under international scrutiny, and the government needed to avoid scandal. Although the authorities harassed and questioned some dissidents in the weeks and months after the petitions were posted, they could do little more. The dissidents saw an opening, and they rushed to fill it, starting new political and labor organizations and online journals. The dissidents felt emboldened to speak up for their fellow countrymen, who had been silenced by fear for years.
“Many people from all parts of the country are unhappy with the one-party system,” Do Nam Hai said. “The Vietnamese people want democracy. I know this because they tell me. I understand their aspirations.”
But when the party got its WTO prize in 2007, it was newly free to act without fear of international consequences. The police, intent on setting an example, rounded up eleven activists. Last spring, in a series of show trials, the courts convicted them of attempting to overthrow the government and handed out jail terms ranging from eighteen months to eight years. In all, about twenty dissidents received jail terms last year, bringing the total number of Bloc 8406 members and affiliates in prison to around forty, according to Human Rights Watch. In the end, however, the regime wasn’t able to avoid embarrassment.
During the trial of Father Nguyen Van Ly, a priest from Hue who helped Do Nam Hai draft the 8406 petition, the foreign press watched on closed-circuit TV as a security officer covered the defendant’s mouth when he attempted to shout anti-Communist slogans. This image of Father Ly forcibly muzzled, shown on news outlets around the world, has become a rallying point for the movement.
The trials and imprisonments succeeded in driving the movement back underground, however. On my last night in Ho Chi Minh City, I groped my way down a dark, winding alley toward the house of Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, 65, an endocrinologist and longtime dissident. As soon as I arrived at his door (in fact, before I even realized I had arrived at his door), his son emerged, bundled me into the house and swiftly closed all of the blinds. I sat down for a chat with Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, an elegant man who speaks English with a French accent, and whose voice crescendos as he gets going on an important point.
“This is a very difficult time for our movement. I have trouble even leaving my house,” he said. “The authorities’ strategy is to isolate us from the rest of the population.”
Dr. Nguyen Dan Que has been an activist since 1974, when he returned to Vietnam to help rebuild the war-torn country after seven years in Europe. Inspired by talk at the time in Europe of reunification of East and West Germany, he quickly fell afoul of the authorities.
“I had the feeling that a new strategy was needed for Vietnam after the war. The nationalists on the right and the Communists on the left could not take Vietnam forward. There needed to be a new political line of North-South cooperation. In 1975, the territory of Vietnam was reunified, but not the heart,” he said, tapping his chest.
He has spent twenty of the past thirty-three years in prison. In between three separate jail terms, the authorities pressured him to leave the country, but he refused. He says he still has too much work to do here. In his eyes, Vietnam’s civil war did not end in 1975; the true end will not come until there is a government in Hanoi that represents all of Vietnam’s 85 million people. But the economy has grown rapidly since 1986, when the government began a process of economic liberalization, and the party has been quick to claim credit for this. The country had the second-highest GDP growth in Asia in 2006 and living standards have risen. But Dr. Nguyen Dan Que is dismissive.
“Of course life is better now than it was during the war. But this is comparing apples and oranges,” he said. “The party wants to use this economic development to retain power. They look after themselves first, their citizens later.” Indeed, the primary beneficiary of this growth is an apparatchik class with party connections; countrywide, the per capita income is still less than $2 per day. “All of Vietnam’s economic achievements thus far are fragile, since there has not been comparable social and political progress.”
Ensuring future growth has meant new headaches for the party, in the form of peasant demonstrations and worker strikes. To attract foreign investment, provincial governments regularly confiscate land from farmers to build industrial parks and free economic zones, a policy the farmers protested last summer in unprecedented demonstrations in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. At the factories that occupy these parks and zones, strikes have become more frequent because of poor pay and bad conditions. Dr. Nguyen Dan Que said the pro-democracy movement is working hard to make inroads with these potential allies, but the government is making this difficult.
Like it or not, the party will face continued scrutiny as it further integrates the country into the international community. In October, Vietnam for the first time was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. While the dissidents are divided as to what this means (“It’s simply a propaganda victory for the government,” one told me; “It will force the government to open up,” said another), they all agree that the international community has a crucial role to play in their struggle. High on everyone’s list is the United States, which, as Vietnam’s largest trading partner, can claim significant influence on Hanoi.
Despite all the talk of democracy promotion emanating from the White House these days, though, it is foreign-service officers and NGO workers who have done the most for the dissidents, even keeping some of them out of jail. While these Americans may not have the power to shape US policy on Vietnam, said Father Chan Tin, a Catholic dissident in Ho Chi Minh City, they are still doing what they can on the ground to make a difference. “We thank them for their help,” he said.
But Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said the United States government should make a more concerted effort to influence the Vietnamese government, including denying officials visas and imposing human rights reporting requirements. She also said that, given the treatment of Father Ly, the State Department should place Vietnam back on its list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for violations of religious freedom, after having removed it in 2006. “The United States must take a much stronger stance,” she said.
For his part, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que also feels the United States and the international community could be doing more. “The United States can use its economic influence to get the government to reform,” he said. But in the end, it will be the Vietnamese themselves, especially the generation born after the war, which accounts for 65 percent of the population, who will decide. “The process is on the right track. But the biggest factor will be the fighting capacity of the Vietnamese people,” Dr. Nguyen Dan Que said.
If the past is any indication, betting against the fighting capacity of the Vietnamese people would be unwise.