Even by recent standards in Vietnam, Monday’s life sentence handed down on Phan Van Thu was widely considered harsh.
In the second mass subversion trial in less than a month in this authoritarian Communist state, 21 of Thu’s supporters received jail terms of between 10 and 17 years to be followed by five years of house arrest.
Meanwhile, intellectuals, church leaders and current and former army and party officials have put their signatures on an online petition calling for revisions to the constitution to separate executive, legislative and judicial powers and allow multi-party elections.
Support for this direct challenge to the status quo has grown steadily.
“When we signed the petition we decided to accept whatever might happen,” says democracy lawyer and leading dissident Le Hieu Dang, one of the signees. There have been no repercussions so far, he adds.
Amidst a crackdown on public dissent, Vietnam stands at a contradictory political crossroads and the line between activities deemed acceptable and illegal remains ill-defined.
Whereas Thu and his supporters were found guilty of secretly spreading information deemed subversive, the petition is a response to a three-month consultation process in which the government has called for public opinions on proposed changes to Vietnam’s 1992 constitution.
Dang describes this event as Vietnam’s most opportune moment for political change since the disintegration of the Soviet Union – Hanoi’s main backer of the time – following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“When the government is collecting public opinions, this is the best time to speak out about democracy,” says Dang, himself a Communist Party member for 40 years.
But will Vietnam initiate meaningful political reforms?
Communist Party critics say that internal pressures – and to a lesser extent those outside the country – mean the government has to produce something tangible when the constitutional changes are ratified, most likely in October.
Recent public criticism inside the country has reached unprecedented levels amid a growing number of scandals involving corrupt state companies and reports of excessive largesse by government officials.
Although the shackled press – like political activists – must operate within narrow, ill-defined parameters, newspapers regularly allude to rising public disapproval at the Communist Party, which in turn has recently attempted to reestablish discipline and respect.
In January, Vietweek, an English-language publication by Than Nien newspaper, ran stories which took aim at the tourism ministry over suspect visitor numbers and even ridiculed the central government for a string of “absurd” new laws regulating the behavior of its own officials.
Civil servants in Vietnam have been barred from playing golf, according to these new rules, cannot drink beer at lunchtime and are no longer permitted funerals with more than 30 wreaths.
“If such regulations are drafted only to be exposed as impossible to enforce, they would end up becoming a laughing stock,” Saigon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) newspaper wrote in a recent editorial.
Meanwhile, Vietnam is being left behind in the region when it comes to political and civil liberties, say rights groups.
Although former pariah Burma was ranked lower than Vietnam on democracy in 2010, according to Freedom House, since then “Burma has definitely overtaken Vietnam when it comes to political rights,” says Sarah Cook, a senior East Asia research analyst for the Washington-DC based rights organization.