Campaigners in China aren’t the only ones feeling the heat from an overbearing communist regime. While global attention has been focused on the detention of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, dissidents in Vietnam have also been receiving heavy sentences for what the government terms ‘anti-state’ activities.
Last month, for example, saw an appeal by one of the most senior officials ever to be tried for dissent. Former Communist Party official Vi Duc Hoi, 54, was given a five-year jail sentence, with an additional three of house arrest. The sentence was, admittedly, a significant reduction compared with the eight years jail time and five years house arrest originally handed down. Still, Human Rights Watch wasn’t alone in describing the sentence as ‘very severe.’
And Hoi certainly isn’t alone.
Lawyer Cu Huy Ha Vu was sentenced to seven years jail and three years house arrest late last month, having been detained after allegedly being discovered in a hotel with a woman who wasn’t his wife. His laptop was seized, his house was searched and he was charged with anti-state activities.
The same month, Bui Chat, founder of Giay Vun Publishing, was also arrested after he returned from Buenos Aires where he travelled to collect the Freedom to Publish award from the International Publishers Association. He was later released, but is said to be facing ongoing surveillance.
Last year, a blogger was arrested after she posted an entry describing a high-ranking official’s son as a womanizer. She was finally released last month, with authorities quoted in the local press saying she’d been sufficiently ‘cautioned.’
It’s often said that in all things security, Vietnam treads a similar path to China. Certainly, Beijing is in the midst of what many see as the most intense crackdown in years on dissidents over fears that the so-called Arab Spring could reach Asia’s shores. And for those looking for interesting parallels, Cu Huy Ha Vu’s case offers a particularly striking one.
Cu Huy Ha Vu comes from first-rate communist stock—the son of a famed poet who was a close confidant of Ho Chi Minh. This has an eerie parallel with China’s Ai—arrested in Beijing en route to Hong Kong—who himself is the son of a celebrated poet and who was previously thought by many to be untouchable.
Yet it would be wrong to try too hard to tie together events in Vietnam and China. For one, the intense ‘wider’ crackdown in Vietnam can actually be traced back to 2007.
‘It started after Hanoi got what it wanted—WTO accession—and has continued since,’ says Duy Hoang, spokesman for democracy organization Viet Tan, which is itself banned in Vietnam. ‘And the crackdown wasn’t a response to the 11th Party Congress, but to the regime’s growing nervousness over the growing democracy movement and blogosphere.’
Up until mid-January, most of the recent repressive measures were interpreted as a bit of house cleaning prior to the Congress. The blocking of Facebook (first haphazardly in 2009, then intensified in the days leading up to the event), various arrests and even the supposed crackdown on illegal Chinese labour were all seen as part of this pre-Congress sanitising. After all, the reasoning went, no one wanted dissenters around asking questions prior to an event whose main purpose is ensuring one-party supremacy. Warring factions within the Communist Party, meanwhile, were determined to prove they weren’t soft on security.
But the crackdown has outlived the Congress.
Vu appears to have run into trouble after trying to sue the prime minister over a controversial plan for bauxite mining in central Vietnam and ceding a large swath of land along the Sino-Vietnamese border.
‘It’s widely believed Vu was persecuted as retribution for taking on the prime minister,’ says Hoang.
Vu was arrested on November 5 last year, with documents he’d written calling for multi-party democracy and interviews given to foreign media used as evidence against him, according to the Nhan Dan newspaper.
‘These articles carried many contents denouncing the State of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. Through the investigation, the Vietnamese authorities found 40 documents with different topics, including a number of articles written by Mr Vu, rejecting the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam,’ Nhan Dan reported.
It had been hoped that foreign pressure might force the government to halt this ongoing wave of arrests. The European Union has been especially critical, arguing that with economic growth should come freedom of speech. Its April 4 statement said Vu’s conviction, ‘is not consistent with the fundamental right of all persons to hold opinions and freely and peacefully express them.’
This comes as the EC and Vietnam are currently looking at the possibility of launching negotiations that could lead to a major free trade agreement. The bilateral trade agreement Vietnam signed with the United States, which went into effect in 2001, is credited with spurring the economic growth of the communist nation.
But the issue of Vu may now further complicate these talks. ‘The esteem of the international community for Vietnam, and Vietnam's own long-term economic progress are not sustainable if peaceful expression, particularly on key issues for the future of the people and the country, is suppressed,’ the EU statement continued.
The United States, for its part, has also voiced its ‘deep concern,’ and along with the EU has said that the France-trained lawyer’s conviction was inconsistent with international human rights conventions. Vietnam is a party to these.
Yet while activists hope the development of a civil society in Vietnam will foster democratic values, some observers complain that the concerns voiced by foreign countries are rarely backed up by more coercive measures, such as the denial of foreign aid.
‘We voiced our concern about the sentencing of Cu Huy Ha Vu, as we have consistently in other cases. Our assistance programs are not, however, linked,’ says a USAID spokesman.
But although aid might not be seen as a viable lever by foreign governments, they may be able to exercise influence in another way. The United States has, for example, indicated that rights issues are a hurdle to closer defence cooperation between the two nations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as much at the East Asia Summit last October.
Such pressure could offer a glimmer of hope to those pressing for change.
‘General messages urging improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record are good but nowhere near sufficient,’ says Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson. ‘They need to be specific on what needs to happen.’