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.
Within ASEAN, only Laos scores as poorly as Vietnam on political rights, according to Freedom House, with the two Communist neighbors both receiving the lowest possible mark of seven, a score unchanged for years as Burma improved to a six for 2012.
Since the introduction of a new parliament in early 2011, Burma has passed reforms including the right to protest, strike, form work unions and publish material free from pre-publication censorship, says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia at Human Rights Watch (HRW). Still no such liberties exist in Vietnam, however, with HRW noting in its annual report released last week that rights there took “another step backwards” last year.
“There is growing recognition within parts of the Vietnam government that the game is over and they can no longer hide behind Burma,” says Robertson. “Whether that realization is in turn leading to a willingness to make reforms is hard to say – but what is quite certain is that any improvement in rights that arises in the constitutional reform process will be sold hard by Vietnam as an indication that they are reforming.”
According to the charter amendments as they stood ahead of a three-month public consultation ending on March 31st, Vietnam’s new constitution is expected to include greater mention of terms like democracy and human rights, as well as adding presidential powers. The new charter may also enshrine the right to establish labor associations and to strike, according to state media reports.
Whether the newly written constitution will provide a platform for tangible political reforms remains unclear, however. Opinions are mixed.
Le Quang Binh, director of the Hanoi-based Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment which supports minority rights and has held recent consultations with constitution-drafting officials, says that unprecedented, positive signs do exist.
Participation is wider and deeper compared to anything seen previously in Vietnam in what has been the first-ever opportunity for the public to voice opinions on the constitution, he says.
The consultation should have been longer than three months, he adds, especially as it runs through the long Tet New Year holiday. Still, constitution-drafting officials were open to discuss sensitive issues like the role of the Communist Party during a seminar last month, says Binh. “I think they want to listen to people, for sure,” he adds.
Harsher critics have warned though that constitutional revisions are more or less set in stone after months of careful drafting by officials before being presented to the public on January 1st.
Democracy lawyer Dang, who also took part in meetings with members of the drafting team last month, remains cautious, at least for the short-term.
Constitution-writing officials are under strict instructions from the highest echelons of the Communist Party, he notes, predicting that the government would simply ignore the recent radical online petition signed by himself and thousands of others.
In the longer term though, inviting the public to speak out means the genie cannot be put back, says Dang. Too many leading figures in Vietnam have backed the call for major democratic change.
“These are senior party members who have signed,” he says of the online petition. “So gradually the government will accept these views.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.