LET’s take the really bad news first, because not only did it stink, but the Western governments that would normally lambast this kind of thing held their noses and moved on.
Last Tuesday, at the 65th anniversary of Vietnam’s public security forces, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged the country’s police to continue to crush any fledgling political bodies that might threaten the ruling Communist Party regime.
He told the security services to fight the “cunning plots of hostile forces and to prevent political opposition parties setting up to threaten our government.”
Vietnam’s constitution forbids the existence of any political party except the Communist Party of Vietnam. Keep that in mind when you castigate Myanmar, which may horribly oppress opposition parties, but at least allows them to exist.
Days before Dung’s odious exhortation, its effects were demonstrated when the police arrested Professor Pham Minh Hoang, a lecturer in applied mathematics at the Ho Chi Minh City Institute of Technology.
Hoang was charged with belonging to an opposition group, and while he was being arrested, the police read out Article 79 of Vietnam’s penal code, which bars “activities aimed at overthrowing the government”.
Under this provision, the authorities have detained dozens of pro-democracy activists and independent bloggers and sentenced them to years in jail.
An American diplomat in Hanoi informed me that public security officials have claimed quite aggressively that political dissidents were criminals.
“That is stupid and offensive,” he said.
But there was a deafening silence from the United States and Europe.
Indeed, last month, on the 15th anniversary of the normalisation of ties between Washington and Hanoi, the US senate foreign relations chairman, Senator John Kerry, said: “Vietnam’s domestic politics are gradually changing, becoming more open and transparent.”
Of course, they are. That’s why they arrested Hoang. That’s why they ban other political parties. That’s why they censor the internet.
That’s why, every Tuesday, the nation’s editors in chief troop over to the information ministry to be told what they can and can’t write.
Sure, Senator Kerry, things are getting more open and transparent in Vietnam. And pigs are flying higher too, you know.
Memo to Hanoi: There is nothing wrong with people getting involved in politics. As former US President John F Kennedy said: “Political action is the highest responsibility of a citizen.”
And now the bad news.
Vietnam has a collapsing currency. Last Tuesday, the same day that Hoang was arrested, Prime Minister Dung’s government devalued the dong for the third time since last November.
After the official 2.1 percent devaluation, the dong plummetted further and was not helped when a government adviser let slip that Vietnam risked a foreign-currency liquidity “shock”.
Its currency has now slumped 5.2 percent this year – the worst performance among 17 monitored Asian currencies.
Vietnam has racked up a catastrophic trade deficit this year that has nearly doubled to US$7.4 billion in the seven months to July.
It also has the world’s worst-performing stock market. The benchmark VN Index has dropped 8.4 percent this month, the most of 93 markets tracked by Bloomberg globally.
Dung’s communist regime is not only throwing innocent pro-democracy advocates into jail, but has proved utterly inept at running an economy.
Second memo to the dinosaurs: Consider why, despite social unrest, Thailand’s economy is booming.
The answer lies in last week’s comment by Thai Industry Minister Chaiwuti Bannawat, who said: “The government has a role to play in supporting the private sector, but not leading it. I don’t believe the government is more capable than the private sector.”
That last sentence should be blown up and hung over the desk of every Vietnamese official involved in leading its still largely state-run economy into bankruptcy.
And bureaucrats in Cambodia, which is becoming more and more economically tied to Vietnam, would be strongly advised to do the same.
Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times.