Just when Vietnam’s fragile economy seems to be healing and once again enticing global investors, one of its courts this week sentences 14 “subversive” writers to prison. Predictably, the scorn of human rights groups and Western media rains on the Communist Party that runs the country.
Why does an otherwise media-saavy government subject itself to international outrage over human rights? The obvious answers are (1) The Party is unwilling to tolerate dissension, and (2) Vietnam invites global attention to send the message to would-be subversives.
The reality is more complicated, rooted in history. To understand what’s going on with civil rights in Vietnam, it helps to remember the mood in America right after 911.
The defendants convicted in Vietnam this week were arrested in 2011 when the government linked them to a Viet Tan, a group led by Vietnamese Americans in California. Vietnamese authorities contend the group aims to overthrow the Vietnam government.
Human Rights Watch says Viet Tan isn’t a terrorist organization but has evolved from an anti-communist resistance movement into a group committed to peaceful political reform, democracy and human rights in Vietnam.
Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung says his government is “regularly challenged by conspiracies to spark sociopolitical instability and violate our national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
That perception helps explain Vietnam’s increasing crackdown on dissidents, including the 2011 conviction of well-known poet Cu Huy Ha Vu, the 2012 sentencing of two Catholic activists for distributing “antigovernment leaflets,” and long prison terms recently given three prominent bloggers.
No doubt this is happening in part because the current regime feels threatened and wants to stay in power.
Even so, the threat that Vietnam’s rulers perceive is not paranoia. It is real. Of two million overseas Vietnamese, most left their homeland to get away from Vietnam’s Communists. Most are now Vietnamese Americans. For some, the Vietnam War has not yet ended. That’s why the Communist Party, in a sense, governs as if it is still at war.
Countries at war, including Western democracies, are less tolerant of free speech, religion and assembly. They are oppressive. Like Vietnam today, the government — and so far most of Vietnam’s citizens — value stability more than liberty. That’s because Vietnam was at war for centuries, almost always defending itself against intruders such as China, France, and — from Hanoi’s perspective — the US. As a people, the Vietnamese are tired of war. They want stability.
To maintain political and social stability, Vietnam has been willing to outrage Human Rights Watch and readers of the New York Times. And doubtless Hanoi would gladly debate which countries have more political prisoners today.