Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has called for open dialogue with the people to hear “different opinions” on how to run the country, but observers have questioned whether the government is willing to listen to criticism and embrace change.
In a recent online conference to review the implementation of the Politburo’s “Directive No. 5” on learning from and following the ideology of Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, Central Propaganda Department chief Vo Van Thuong said the party is ready to look outside its ranks for ideas on governance.
Thuong said his department is awaiting guidance from the Central Party Secretariat on how to organize public discussions, adding that the communist party “is not afraid” of dialogue and debate.
In the 63 years since assuming power in North Vietnam and 42 years since taking control of the entire country, the Communist Party has been the sole political party and only source of official ideology in Vietnam.
However, over the past 10 years, several organizations have espoused views that are different from those of the party.
In one example, in 2013, a large group of intellectuals signed a proposal to eliminate a clause in the constitution which maintains Vietnam as a single-party state. That proposal was summarily rejected by the government.
Several observers who spoke with RFA’s Vietnamese Service welcomed the idea of open dialogue between the people and the party, but expressed reservations over the safety of stating views that differ from the official party line and whether the government would bother to listen.
Tuong Lai, the former director of the Vietnam Institute of Sociology, told RFA that Thuong must prove that he is willing to embrace new thinking before the people will back him as an agent of change for the country.
“If he wants to earn the trust of the people, then he has to ‘break the fence’ and follow the example of predecessors who have ‘broken the fence’ … only then will he earn a place in the people’s heart,” he said.
“Why doesn’t he go ahead and hold some conversations? The people will believe in him only when he has done so. If, for some reason, he decides to protect his political standing … he will lose people’s trust.”
Reporter Pham Chi Dung said that Thuong’s hand had been forced by a recent standoff between authorities and farmers from Dong Tam commune in Hanoi’s My Duc district during which the farmers held 19 police and officials hostage for a week until they won the city government’s pledge to investigate their land dispute.
“What Vo Van Thuong said is simply trendy because after the Dong Tam incident, government officials and the party realized that if they don’t know how to appease the people, their resistance could lead to an unpredictable situation,” he said.
“They have to consider dialogue because without dialogue the government would be destroyed.”
Dung said that the government of Vietnam is generally resistant to reform and will only adapt when its back is against the wall.
“I think that the leadership of the government will only substantially change when the party hits a dead end,” he said.
“But their situation is not at a ‘dead end’ right now, it’s only precarious.”
Limits on dialogue
Nguyen Trang Nhung, an independent candidate for Vietnam’s 14th National Assembly, or parliament, said that while dialogue may be held, restrictions on what is discussed will make the process ineffective.
“I think that if dissidents and other members of the society are invited to the dialogue, they will be restricted to speaking about certain things and anything beyond that will be prevented,” he said.
“But I do not think that they will hold such dialogues, especially for dissidents, and those who fight for democracy or civil society.”
Nguyen Tien Trung, a former political prisoner who served five years in jail on charges of attempting to “overthrow the government” by supporting the formation of an opposition party to the ruling Vietnam Communist Party, was more optimistic and said he would take part in such a discussion.
“This dialogue is very welcome and I am willing to participate, if there is an invitation from the leaders of the Communist Party and the Propaganda Department, as well as the Central Theoretical Council,” said Trung, who was freed in 2014 following international pressure on Vietnam to improve its rights record.
But he warned that speaking out against the government is not without risk, and called on the country’s dissident community to work together.
“I hope that the intellectuals of Vietnam will raise their voices, as it isn’t as easy nowadays for the authorities to persecute and arrest people amid the strong development of social media,” he said.
“But most importantly, we must unite, support one another, and protect one another, so that we will be safe.”
“If we don’t, we could face serious danger [speaking out] alone.”
The United States and Vietnam will hold the next round of an ongoing human rights dialogue on May 23 in Hanoi. Washington frequently urges Hanoi to free its prisoners of conscience.