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Vietnam and its baby steps

Like a snoozing grizzly bear that has bulked up off the fat of the land, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party rarely makes any kind of decisive move unless an unforeseen catastrophe threatens.

Then the beast will lumber into motion in an unpredictable and often rash manner before lapsing back into a semi-torpid state while keeping half an eye on its fiercely protected domain.

Recently roused by the near collapse of Vietnam’s economy, its leaders took belated, but commendable steps to curtail growth while shoring up its technically bankrupt banks and dangerously sliding currency.

Although there was little choice, the party should be praised for this long-overdue action, which has brought some relief to our neighbour’s citizenry.

Of course, like the doi moi reforms forced on the party a quarter of a century ago, the latest measures are far from adequate and merely postpone the day when Vietnam’s command economy disintegrates from within.

For the moment, however, inflation has moderated to 14 per cent, the stock market has become lukewarm, and the battered tourism sector has improved, with arrivals up 25 per cent over the same period last year.

Hoping to build on these baby steps, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said at the ASEAN Summit last week that Vietnam’s lumbering state-owned enterprises must start to compete with the private sector.

Some hope. But Dung had little option except to try to crack the whip, since his earlier inept oversight of the economy led to him narrowly surviving a leadership challenge at last year’s party congress.

Unfortunately, while there has been some recent minimal progress on the economic front, Vietnam continues to be the biggest stain on ASEAN’s otherwise improving image as regards human rights and democracy.

With Malaysia mulling critical electoral reforms, Singapore taking bold steps in response to last year’s election and Myanmar’s liberating actions stunning the world, Hanoi still moves in the reverse direction.

It stubbornly opposes the formation of any other parties except the Vietnam Communist Party and it doles out stiff jail terms to anyone who advocates the peaceful evolution to a free, pluralistic society.

Last week, prosecutors revealed that 18 people from Phu Yen province have been charged with that “crime” and now face the death penalty.

Few news outlets reported this travesty; instead, they carried endless commentators pontificating about how sanctions on Myanmar should not yet be lifted despite the opposition’s recent by-election victories.

If only there were a legal opposition in Vietnam. If only the West would robustly champion Vietnam’s long-incarcerated dissidents as they did Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues.

But the world is not fair and so the apparachiks get away with their evil deeds, like last month’s sentencing of Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh to 11 years in jail for holding prayer meetings at his home.

I have visited these house churches in Pleiku and Kon Tum in the Central Highlands, where they are set up because the authorities will not allow Protestants to open proper places of worship.

More than Catholics and other faiths, the party fears Protestant clergy because they tend to tell people that they have rights and a free mind, which they should use.

Of Pastor Chinh’s arrest, Washington said that “this case reflects a wider deterioration of human rights conditions in Vietnam”.

Wow, hats off for that staggering statement of the obvious.

Earlier last month, two other activists were jailed for extolling the well-known Catholic priest and political dissident Father Nguyen Van Ly, a founder of the pro-democracy group Bloc 8406.

Ly and the hundreds of other detainees are Vietnam’s true revolutionaries.

They are the ones with the courage of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, not the lickspittles like Dung and his weasly cohorts on the Politburo.

They are the ones who should be celebrated later this month when the 37th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the nation’s reunification is marked on April 30.



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