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In Vietnam, free expression comes at a price

ANALYSIS: Ruthless crackdown on bloggers smacks of desperation

<p>Nguyen Phuong Uyen, left, and Dinh Nguyen Kha, on trial in Long An province in May (AFP photo/Vietnam News Agency)</p>

Nguyen Phuong Uyen, left, and Dinh Nguyen Kha, on trial in Long An province in May (AFP photo/Vietnam News Agency)

  • ucanews.com reporter, Ho Chi Minh City
  • Vietnam
  • June 7, 2013
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Troung Duy Nhat’s arrest last week was accompanied by a little surprise from the government. In the subsequent days, the popular blogger’s website became a booby trap, with malware downloaded onto visitors’ computers that stole personal information about the user.

It was the latest audacious attempt by Vietnamese intelligence to build a stronger profile of the country’s dissident community.

Close to 40 bloggers and activists have been arrested so far this year. Observers say the intensity of this crackdown reflects a growing instability within the ruling Communist Party, born of rampant corruption, political infighting and a weakening economy.

Troung Duy Nhat was accused of “abusing democratic freedoms” in his calls for social reform in the one-party state; calls that grow ever more pressing as public anger spreads and the economy continues to tumble.

Unlike in China, where censorship arose simultaneously with the internet and therefore where dissent can be snuffed out before it spreads, the Vietnamese authorities have a comparatively weak grip on flows of information around the country.

High internet penetration rates coupled with a highly literate population has fuelled the explosion in online blogging in recent years, and growing disquiet with the government has emboldened these scribes to push the limits of freedom of speech in the country.

“Vietnam's political elite feel especially embattled because bloggers have taken to criticizing individuals – the party secretary general, the prime minster and the state president – directly,” says Vietnam expert Professor Carlyle Thayer, at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

“The bloggers are both reflecting popular dissent and driving it. Certain bloggers have acquired a reputation and a following.”

Around 30 percent of the country accesses the internet regularly. As in Myanmar, where regime members were known to use exiled media to learn of topics that were off-limits for state media, the tight control of information in Vietnam has led to a paradox whereby these blogs become key tools for the government to assess the public mood.

Yet their authors are enemies of the state. Millions of dollars are being spent each month on clandestine surveillance and, in a major trial in January, 14 activists and bloggers were handed sentences of up to 13 years.

Another trial in May resulted in prison sentences of six and eight years for two young activists (Dinh Nguyen Kha and Nguyen Phuong Uyen, respectively) who had distributed leaflets critical of the government.

In a further twist, they had called for greater independence from China, whose goods dominate the market and whom many Vietnamese feel is starting to gradually take over the country. The harsh sentencing reflects an additional nervousness within the Vietnamese government over its subservience to China, with Hanoi eager not to allow its citizens to dictate the terms of the relationship.

The economic downturn has only made matters worse for the government. Where five years ago Vietnamese were more content with a strong economy, and were thus largely supportive of the government, this has dramatically changed.

Growth has slowed from around eight percent to closer to five percent, and social spending and support for the citizenry has been cut.

The loss of jobs has coincided with closer scrutiny of the endemic corruption within the government and business elite, which many feel has been a major contributing factor to the economic crisis.

State-owned banks and companies have suffered hugely due to malfeasance and mismanagement, and the impact on people has been severe.

It has thus been something of a political awakening for Vietnamese who, despite not enjoying democratic freedoms, had lived in relative comfort. This sentiment has provided ample ammunition for bloggers in their attacks on the Communist Party, which in turn has led to the current crackdown.  

“The unfortunate upshot is that independent bloggers are getting caught in the middle of the party's internal strife and being punished for merely pointing out the government's many policy and management failings," says Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

What is perhaps most frightening for the Communist Party, which came to power through national front tactics, is that the current crisis will embolden the citizenry to form a cohesive movement that could one day take power in the same manner the party did.

Despite the crackdown, public confidence in speaking out is growing, as is the list of targets – constitutional amendments, changes in policy towards China, respect for human rights, land rights and so on.

“The Vietnamese one-party regime is not under imminent threat of a ‘Vietnamese Spring'. But there is intense in-fighting among the elite … [and this] is affecting governance,” says Thayer. With the party now planning for leadership selection in 2016, this is only likely to grow.

It means however that unless a major shift in the attitude of the government takes place, the risks for bloggers will also intensify.

Troung Duy Nhat’s call for social reform is something the party knows must take place sooner rather than later, but the swelling political prisoner population does not bode well.

The spread of the internet has provided a dangerous lure for activists, who know the high cost of exercising the rights they are demanding of the government.

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