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Transitional Democracy in Indo-China

Updated On: Oct 20, 2006

Who ever said that Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is only about economics? One Vietnamese group is trying to make use of the upcoming APEC summit (to be held in Hanoi on 18-19 November) to highlight the need for greater democracy in Vietnam.

The group, called “Bloc 8406”, comprises of more than 2,000 people drawn from different sectors of society. The name is taken from the date of the publication of the group’s first manifestation- 8 April 2006.  Some of the signatories of the manifesto included the retired Vietnam People’s Army Colonel Pham Que Duong, a former vice-head of the army’s history academy; Professor Hoang Minh Chinh from Hanoi’s National Political Institute and prominent lawyer Nguyen Van Dai. On Friday 13 October, the group released the text of a letter that it sent to US President Bush and the leaders of 19 other countries who would be attending the APEC conference. The letter called for international support for democratization in Vietnam.

The government’s response thus far has been fairly restrained. Any strong reaction to the group is likely to jeopardize the Vietnamese government’s joining of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and its bid to be a United Nations non-permanent Security Council member in 2008. The government is also eager to avoid embarrassment as the host of the APEC summit. However, the government has, in August, arrested at least one member of the group, Trong Quoc Huy who had been using the internet to communicate with other pro-democracy activists. Even stronger action is likely after the APEC summit.

Yet Vietnam is not the only country grappling with the issue of political liberalisation. Even a supposedly democratic country, at least formally, Cambodia has been struggling to improve its democratic credentials. The United Nations has earlier published a report highlighting the systematic violation of human rights in Cambodia. The UN Special Envoy Yash Ghai said, “Many policies of the government have subverted the essential principles of democracy and due process, deprived people of their economic resources and means of livelihood, and denied them their dignity.” The Human Rights Watch has also earlier warned that Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared to “be following the Burmese model by imprisoning peaceful critics of his increasingly authoritarian government”

Hun Sen’s consolidation of power is evident in his recent reshuffle of the government and systematic removal of his coalition partner, FUNCINPEC, from key governmental positions. FUNCINPEC is currently going through a leadership transition as its previous leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh has just been replaced by Keo Puth Rasmey, Cambodia’s ambassador to Germany and Ranariddh’s brother-in-law. FUNCINPEC’s Secretary-General Nhek Bun Chhay explained the decision to a news conference, saying that, “The prince has rarely spent time inside the country, and we needed a leader who is regularly at work with the party in the country.” It remains to be seen how the new leader will be able to rebuild the credibility of the party and position FUNCINPEC as a viable opposition to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

Yet there is another country with an even more serious need for political liberalisation- Myanmar. Earlier this week, yet another high profile political detainee died in prison. 34-year old Thet Win Aung died while serving his 59-year sentence (since 1998) for calling for educational reforms. The Association of Political Prisoner, a Non-Governmental Organisation based near the Thai-Myanmar border. said that more than 125 political prisoners have died in Myanmar since 1988. Other human rights group and the United Nations estimate that more than 1,100 political prisoners are held under inadequate and brutal conditions. The humanitarian conditions inMyanmar are also dire.

In contrast to MyanmarVietnam’s political environment is admittedly, liberal. Compared to CambodiaVietnam’s lack of a formal democratic system provides a partial offset of its (only slightly stronger) governance structure. However, there is still much room for improvement. The upcoming APEC summit will be a good occasion for the international community to nudge Vietnam towards greater liberalisation.

Sources:

Viet Pro-Democracy Hopes Seeks Attention (The Straits Times, 19 October 2006)

Cambodia’s Royalist Party Votes to Remove Prince As Leader (The Associated Press, 19 October 2006)

Nearly 300 Friends and Sympathizers Attend Funeral of Myanmar Political Prisoner (The Associated Press, 19 October 2006)

Dissents Call on APEC Leaders To Support Democracy in Vietnam (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 13 October 2006)

Vietnam’s Government Calls Dissents’ Actions “Unacceptable”  (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 12 October 2006)

Vic: Cambodian Protest Over Hun Sen Visit (AAP Newsfeed, 12 October 2006)

Heed the Call of Vietnam’s Bloc 8406 (Asia Times, 14 September 2006)