HO CHI MINH CITY
Let’s take the really bad news first. Not only did it stink, but the Obama administration, which should lambast this kind of thing, held its nose and instead ramped up its ongoing courtship of Hanoi as a hedge against China.
Last week, at the 65th anniversary of Vietnam’s public security forces, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged the police to continue to crush relentlessly any fledgling political bodies that might threaten the dominance of the ruling communist regime.
He told the massed ranks of the state 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 creation of any political party except the Communist Party of Vietnam. Keep that in mind when you castigate nearby Burma, which may oppress opposition parties horribly but at least allows them to exist.
Days before Mr. Dung’s odious exhortation, its effects were demonstrated starkly once again when the police arrested professor Pham Minh Hoang, a lecturer in applied mathematics at the Ho Chi Minh City Institute of Technology.
Mr. Hoang was charged with belonging to an opposition group, and during his arrest, 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, teachers, lawyers and independent bloggers and sentenced them to many years in jail.
Last month, the noted lawyer Le Cong Dinh lost his appeal against a five-year sentence for “trying to overthrow the state” and went back to his cell along with his fellow pro-democracy advocates - one of whom was sentenced to 16 years.
These men also were convicted of espousing “peaceful evolution” - the notion that as a country develops economically, there will be a concurrent societal evolution that will permit greater political openness.
This idea, often touted by quislinglike Western governments as they lean over backward to excuse certain “strategically valuable” regimes such as Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, has proved fallacious more often than not.
That certainly has been the case in Vietnam, where economic development has, if anything, been accompanied by more and more draconian moves against any form of political pluralism.
A Canadian diplomat in Hanoi told me that the country was going backward and its brutal crackdown on citizens espousing peaceful evolution made him “despair.”
One of his American diplomatic colleagues informed me that public security officials claimed quite aggressively that political dissidents were criminals. “That is stupid and offensive,” he said.
Yet there was a stunningly muted response from Foggy Bottom and the White House and even from Congress.
Indeed, last month, on the 15th anniversary of the normalization of ties between Washington and Hanoi, the Senate Foreign Relations chairman and great liberal Democrat Sen. John Kerry, said, “Vietnam’s domestic politics are gradually changing, becoming more open and transparent.”
Of course they are. That’s why the Vietnamese arrested Mr. Hoang and Mr. Dinh and all the rest. That’s why they ban all other political parties.
That’s why they rigorously 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, Mr. 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 President Kennedy said: “Political action is the highest responsibility of a citizen.”
And now the bad news:
Vietnam has a collapsing currency. On Aug. 17, the same day when Mr. Hoang was arrested, Mr. Dung’s government devalued the dong for the third time since November.
After the official 2.1 percent devaluation, the dong plummeted 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 of 17 monitored Asian currencies.
Vietnam also has racked up a catastrophic trade deficit this year that has nearly doubled to $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.
Mr. Dung’s communist regime is not only throwing innocent pro-democracy advocates into jail, but it has proved utterly inept at running an economy.
Second memo to the dinosaurs: Consider why, despite social unrest, Thailand’s economy is booming.
The reason lies in last week’s comment by 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 the sleeping apologists down at Foggy Bottom, along with the misguided strategists at the Pentagon who are coddling Hanoi in order to curb the rise of China, would be strongly advised to take a long, cold look at what’s going wrong in Vietnam.
Roger Mitton is a former senior correspondent with Asiaweek and a former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for the Straits Times of Singapore.
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