Vietnam’s democratisation movement

Author: Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet, ANU

Since the mid 1990s, public criticism of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) government has expanded to involve thousands of citizens across the country. From this ferment of criticism numerous individuals, networks and organisations have emerged that oppose the present regime — which many call authoritarian or dictatorial — and advocate democracy.

Civil society advocates contend that democracy also requires citizens knowing how to express themselves, listen to others, negotiate, and compromise. (Photo: AAP)

Today this democratisation movement is a significant feature of the country’s political scene. Sometimes the people involved demonstrate. More often they post essays, letters and petitions on blogs and other websites, publish in Vietnam-based online pro-democracy magazines, or send their views directly to government and CPV leaders.

A key question for many of these dissidents is how can Vietnam democratise? While all implicitly, and often explicitly, endorse non-violence, they have different approaches to changing the political system. Underlying these approaches are contrasting views about the relationship between democracy and social and economic development.

The first approach contends that while the CPV is a major cause of Vietnam’s laggard development, corruption and other weaknesses, it can and must lead the country to democracy. Democratisation, they argue, does not require jettisoning all current political institutions.

Vietnam already has several democratic features. Sovereignty resides with the people and the Constitution provides for human rights and elections. The major problem is that these key elements of democracy are not properly practiced because the CPV has excessive power. The CPV itself can fix these problems, wrote one such dissident in 2008, by ‘initiating a transfer of political power to the people’. By doing so, the CPV will enhance its flagging prestige, therefore saving itself, and prevent grave national hardship and turmoil.

The second approach stresses organised confrontation with the regime. Its advocates argue that the CPV will never champion real democracy. As one major advocatefor this approach stated in 2006, the present system is ‘incapable of being renovated’ and should be ‘completely replaced’.

These critics insist that a multiparty political system that protects free speech and other elements of democracy must come first; only afterwards can Vietnam develop. And the only way to achieve this is to directly and openly demand democracy. This requires vigorous organisations, including political parties, to challenge the CPV. Those organisations will also facilitate a more sustained democratisation movement that can withstand the imprisonment of individual activists.

Rather than demanding fundamental political change, the third approach advocates remaking the system by actively engaging it. The most urgent task, they argue, is neither to remove the CPV nor to create a multiparty political system, but to stop policies and actions that hurt people and the nation’s development. This should be done by arguing with authorities at all levels, opposing harmful programs and officials, and promoting better ones. Democratisation, they contend, is about improving people’s lives. As that happens, democratic processes will emerge. There is no need, said one dissident, ‘to be political or carry a flag for democracy’. This may even lead authorities to be unresponsive.

This is one reason the engagement approach eschews organisations, demonstrations and petitions against the government. Its advocates also argue that low-key struggles for better living conditions have already brought improvements. For example, they claim the CPV had to endorse family farming in the 1980s because of unorganised but persistent peasant discontent with collective farming. Widening dissatisfaction also forced the CPV to replace its centrally planned economic system with a market economy.

A fourth approach links expanding civil society to democratisation. It agrees with engagement advocates that democracy is far more than a multiparty electoral system. Both engagement and civil society approaches also see a role for the CPV in Vietnam’s democratisation — not as its leader, but as one of many participants. Civil society advocates urge people to use lawful means to criticise bad policies and officials, and to push for improvements.

But the civil society approach does not prioritise engaging government authorities. Rather, it emphasises encouraging citizens to create civil society organisations. Democratic governance, argue civil society advocates, doesn’t emerge on its own. People must struggle for it, albeit peacefully and without upending society and the economy. Central to that struggle are civil society organisations making their case and interacting with others with whom they agree and disagree. Civil society advocates contend that democracy also requires citizens knowing how to express themselves, listen to others, negotiate, and compromise. By participating in civil society organisations people learn these practices.

Several dissidents in each approach have been harassed, detained and interrogated by security police and other government authorities. Some have been imprisoned for spreading propaganda against the state, abusing laws governing speech and association, and other offenses. But repression has not halted, and at times may even have aided, the growth of Vietnam’s democratisation movement. How this movement will play out remains to be seen.

Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and an Affiliate Graduate Faculty member at the University of Hawai’i.