IT is safe to say that two events, totally unrelated and on opposite sides of the world, are giving Vietnam’s Communist rulers in Hanoi heartburn and anguish.
The first, of course, is the release of Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, just over a week ago.
A day after being freed, she told a large crowd of supporters to act bravely and work together for human rights and the rule of law.
In the context of Myanmar, it was an audacious message that went out to the entire world, since the regime made no attempt to curtail her address nor her many subsequent interviews.
It would never have been tolerated in Hanoi or Beijing.
Can you image China’s Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace laureate, emerging from prison to tell hundreds of sympathisers to fight for more freedom and human rights?
Or jailed pro-democracy advocate Le Cong Dinh or Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Quang Do doing the same in Vietnam?
Impossible. That is why Hanoi is so apprehensive about Suu Kyi’s release, because if it leads to more liberty in Myanmar, attention will turn to Vietnam.
Questions will be asked. Why are there no elections in Vietnam? Why are political parties forbidden except for the Communist Party? Why are people jailed for espousing peaceful evolution to democracy?
And why are there sanctions against Myanmar, which has many political parties and has held elections – flawed though they may have been; yet we don’t sanction Vietnam?
As the Indian academic Brahma Chellaney wrote in The New York Times last week: “When the United States is courting Communist-ruled Vietnam as part of its ‘hedge’ strategy against a resurgent China, it makes little sense to continue with an approach that is pushing a strategically located Myanmar into China’s strategic lap.”
At the recent East Asia Summit in Hanoi, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was obliged to make a token comment, saying: “The United States remains concerned about the arrest of people for dissent and the curbs on religious freedom in Vietnam.”
As usual, most Vietnamese never heard her criticism because the translator ignored her remarks and they were not carried in any of Vietnam’s state-run media.
But such comments will only become louder and more frequent.
Which brings us to the second event that caused distress in Hanoi: the takeover of the US House of Representatives by the Republican Party, and its near takeover of the Senate.
Aside from influencing trade policy towards East Asia, notably China, it will impact upon Washington’s ties with dictatorial regimes – and it will curtail what Chellaney called America’s recent courtship of Vietnam.
To understand why, consider the new Republican chairman of the International Relations Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who will now set the foreign policy calendar and agenda in the US Congress.
A fiercely anti-Communist right-winger from Florida, Ros-Lehtinen plans to cut foreign aid and take a more critical stance on countries like China and Vietnam.
Having fled dictatorial Cuba as a refugee, she will be unrelenting in her advocacy of human rights and democracy.
Already, Ros-Lehtinen has backed a congressional resolution demanding that normal trade relations with Vietnam be ended unless all political and religious detainees are freed.
The resolution stated: “The thugs in Hanoi continue to imprison and torture at will.”
Expect to hear more of that from the new Republican Congress in Washington, which will not be swayed by talk about improved economic growth in Vietnam.
As Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told me last week: “It will be impossible to just liberalise the economy without opening up the political process.”
It appeared almost as if he were rephrasing Leonard Cohen’s famous message and sending it to the Politburo.
First we take Yangon, then we take Hanoi.