While filming a documentary about Ho Chi Minh as his compatriots battled U.S. forces in the 1960s, Tran Van Tan observed how the Communist leader’s embrace of a simple lifestyle endeared him to Vietnam’s poor.
Five decades later, Tan says the Communist Party’s leaders are more concerned with enriching themselves than adhering to Ho Chi Minh’s ideals. Abolishing the one-party system would lead to “healthy competition” and narrow the wealth gap, said Tan, 65, a retired civil servant who now sells tea in downtown Hanoi.
“There are people who don’t have enough food to eat, whose children don’t have enough clothes to cover their bodies in winter,” Tan said. “There are farmers who don’t have land. They are so poor, while many in the leadership are very wealthy. These leaders are so rich that even their children, grandchildren wouldn’t be able to use it all up.”
Tan is among more than 12,000 former bureaucrats, academics and rice farmers speaking out publicly against proposed constitutional changes that would strengthen the Communist Party’s grip on power. The unprecedented movement threatens to increase challenges to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung as he seeks to turn around a slowing economy which posted Southeast Asia’s highest level of bad debt last year.
“Even if this gets clamped down and turned back, it’s not gone. It’s a real thread,” said Ernest Bower, president of Fairfax, Virginia-based BowerGroupAsia, which advises businesses on operating in Southeast Asia. “The party will have to deal with this. If the system grinds down as these big decisions are made, that’s worrisome because it could create slower growth and growing discontent.”
The benchmark VN Index has rallied 22 percent this year, the best-performing measure in Asia after Japan, as easing in some advanced economies spur inflows into emerging markets. The gauge, which climbed 18 percent last year, rose 0.6 percent today as of the morning break. The dong has weakened 0.5 percent this year.
Lawmakers began the constitutional review process two years ago, in part to reflect the country’s shift to a market economy from Soviet-style central planning. On Jan. 2, the party asked for public comments on new clauses and changes to old articles, such as removing language stipulating the state sector will play the “leading role” in the economy.
Two weeks later, the party received one of the biggest challenges to its power since the country reunified 37 years ago after the war: Seventy-two intellectuals and former government officials, including many party members, produced an alternative draft constitution calling for “political competition.” As of last week, the draft received more than 12,000 signatures via an online campaign.
The group, which includes current members of the Communist Party, sharpened its criticism last week after lawmakers refused to consider their proposals. In an online post, they called on state media to publish the document and urged people to reject the “totalitarian regime of the one-party system, which stands above the state and the law and disables many of the freedoms and democracy defined in the Constitution.”
“We expected to have fair dialogue, straight discussions with them, but so far there’s absolutely no discussion,” Pham Chi Lan, who served as an adviser to former Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, said on April 3.
The alternative draft, which calls for democratic elections and private land ownership, contrasts with the government’s proposal, which reiterates the current constitution in calling the Communist Party “the force assuming leadership of the State and society.”
Notable signees of the alternative draft include Ho Ngoc Nhuan, vice-chair of the party-backed Vietnam Fatherland Front’s Ho Chi Minh City unit, and Chu Hao, former deputy minister of science and technology. Farmers from Nghe An, the provincial home of Ho Chi Minh, also signed the petition.
Nguyen Quang A, a retired economist who helped write the draft, warned of violence similar to 2011 uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia if the government doesn’t address land disputes such as forced evictions. About 70 percent of 1.6 million complaints received by the country’s Inspectorate between 2008 and 2011 involved land issues, according to a government website.
Shrimp farmer Doan Van Vuon and five family members were sentenced last week to prison terms of as much as five years for resisting and shooting at police who came to evict the family from their land, according to a posting on the government’s website April 5. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung last year said the eviction was illegal and ordered an investigation.
“We want to avoid any violent clashes which may result in bloodshed,” Quang A said in a March 22 interview. “That’s why we’re doing this now. The party and those in power need to understand the issues to avoid society having to pay a very high price.”
The party has moved to silence detractors. State-run newspaper Gia Dinh & Xa Hoi, or Families and Society, fired journalist Nguyen Dac Kien on Feb. 26 after he wrote a blog post that criticized Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, who had vilified the push for more political parties.
Nguyen Dinh Loc, a former justice minister who had signed the alternative draft, last month said he didn’t participate in writing it after meeting with party officials. The government, which said a sixth of Vietnam’s 90 million people have commented on the changes, extended a March 31 deadline for comments until September, after which lawmakers will consider the changes.
Vietnam routinely imprisons dissidents who call for greater political freedom. In January, 14 activists received as many as 13 years in prison for subverting the government by participating in anti-China protests. Last year, two musicians were jailed for spreading anti-state propaganda after Dung ordered a crackdown on blogs that attacked him.
Internal disputes last year prompted Trong to apologize for the Communist Party’s failure to rein in corruption. Dung and other top government leaders will face confidence votes in Parliament for the first time next month.
Dung said in December the economy may grow 5.5 percent this year after expanding 5.03 percent in 2012, the slowest pace since 1999. Vietnam’s wealthiest 20 percent earned on average 9.2 times more in wages in 2010 than the poorest fifth, up from 8.4 times in 2006, according to the General Statistics Office.
Vietnam’s economy will continue to face difficulties this year, said National Assembly Vice Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan at a conference held by the parliament’s economic committee April 6. The government needs to accelerate economic structural reforms to boost growth, she said.
Tan, who helped with Ho Chi Minh’s documentary, said it’s important to advocate for a multi-party system even though changes may be years away.
“We probably can’t make anything significantly different right now, but we still need to speak out,” he said. “Hopefully it can help change things gradually.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at email@example.com