A recent proposal by Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to update the definition of the country’s economic policy will likely force official recognition of independent civil society groups to bridge the gap between the government and the people, according to economists, activists and lawyers.
According to the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper, the communist party last week proposed officially shifting the definition of Vietnam’s fiscal policy to a “full market economy” with a “socialist direction” in a draft political report for its 12th National Congress, to be held next year.
While the government has informally sought to implement a market economy since the late 1980s, the report said the new definition is in line with Vietnam’s goal to “have a comprehensive market socialist economy legal framework in accordance with popular standards of a modern market economy and global integration” by 2020.
Hanoi-based economist Ngo Tri Long told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the new policy definition will require the government to recognize independent civil society groups, in addition to those already operating under state sanction, in order to legitimize its embrace of a market-based economy.
“The three major pillars of a market economy are the state, the market and civil society,” Long said.
“If you want to operate a market economy, you have to have all three of them.”
Long said that all democratic systems incorporate civil society as a means of “connecting people with the government,” as well as to protect the rights of citizens.
“[NGOs] can participate in building, debating and monitoring the implementation of policy,” he said.
Pham Chi Dung, chairman of the unrecognized Association of Independent Journalists, called the need for an independent civil society in Vietnam “obvious,” adding that the groups can only effectively work for the people when they are debating policy and can operate free from government influence.
He noted the need for groups to scrutinize policy in the country, such as in January 2013, when 72 Vietnamese intellectuals, former party members and political dissidents, submitted a draft constitution to the National Assembly and published it online in response to a call for public discourse on proposed amendments to the country's 1992 charter.
“They especially stressed the problems of authoritarian politics and economic monopolies, urging the need for those basic changes,” he said.
Communist Vietnam does not tolerate dissent, and rights groups say authorities have frequently used vague provisions in the law to detain and jail dozens of writers, bloggers and activists in recent years.
In its annual survey of political and civil liberties in 2014, U.S.-based Freedom House said that although Vietnam is attractive to foreign investors, the country “remains an entrenched one-party state, and the regime imposed harsher penalties for free speech online, arrested protesters, and continued to ban work by human rights organizations.”
In recent years, scores of unsanctioned civil society organizations have formed in Vietnam and appear to have been given some room to operate, as news of their activities remain uncensored online.
And while lawyer Tran Quoc Thuan, the former vice chairman of the National Assembly Office, told RFA unsanctioned civil society groups operate “quite openly” in Vietnam, he said their campaigns remain “weak.”
“Their work has not taken deep root in the people, so most of their activities remain limited to their own members, and they operate as small groups of intellectuals,” he said, adding that there are “many different opinions between them.”
“I see that the government does not stop them and there is no indication that will happen unless their activities become too strong … [but] I hope they will be more proactive and employ better measures to attract more people, because if they limit their activities to within their groups, their campaigns will not be able to develop.”
Nguyen Van Thach, an activist in central Vietnam’s Danang city who has been frequently harassed by the authorities, likened the lack of rights in the country to a system of slavery.
“Many constitutional rights are not respected in reality,” he said, adding that the problem stems from a society in which political and economic leaders traditionally enjoy substantial benefits over the common citizen.
But Thach said he had been inspired by a growing sense of responsibility among Vietnamese who are willing to challenge the system in a bid to better the country.
“All civil society organizations have contributed their voices, debates, demands, and criticism to help awaken the people,” he said.
“This will inevitably lead to greater freedom and the process is irreversible.”
Reported by Nam Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.