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Three recent developments should interest Vietnam observers.
1. The expulsion from the Communist Party of General Tran Do in January and the arrest of dissident Nguyen Thanh Giang in early March.
2. The Vietnamese government's rejection of a UN report critical of its record on religious freedom, and
3. The apparent endorsement of a financial reporting mechanism endorsed at the meeting of ASEAN Deputy Finance Ministers in Hanoi on March 19.
In January Tran Do, a former general with the North Vietnamese army and a long term critic of the Vietnamese Communist Party was expelled from the Party. On March the 4th Nguyen Thanh Giang - a 63 year old geophysicist and a prominent dissident - was arrested for allegedly possessing 'anti-socialist documents'.
Do and Giang are the latest of a growing number of people who have been openly critical with rampant corruption in Vietnam. The government also acknowledges that there are serious problems with corruption. The difference is that whereas the government sees themselves - the Communist Party of Vietnam - as the only organisation capable of fighting corruption, dissidents such as Do and Giang, and before them Doan Viet Hoat and Nguyen Dan Que, see the Party's monopoly on political power as the fundamental cause of corruption. As a result, they have called for constitutional reform to remove the Party from its monopoly on political power and from its control of the military and the police.
The expulsion of Tran Do and the arrest of Nguyen Thanh Giang are clear signs of a tougher stance towards dissent, possibly intended for the domestic audience. But Giang's arrest also created some tension between the US State Department who called for his release, and the Foreign Ministry of Vietnam who regarded the US State Department's Press Statement as a 'brazen interference into Vietnam's internal affairs'.
Shortly after this exchange, a spokesman for Vietnam's Foreign Ministry also dismissed a critical report compiled by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance as 'lacking objectivity and goodwill'. The same spokesman was reported by Reuters as saying that 'Vietnam will not accept any foreign individual or organisation that wishes to travel to Vietnam to carry out investigations into religious or human rights issues.' Taken together all these developments point to a considerable hardening of attitude both towards internal dissent and external criticism.
On the other hand, after the ASEAN Finance Ministers met in Hanoi on 18 March to discuss ways to tackle the region's severe economic slump and prevent a similar crisis in future, Vietnam is expected to endorse a new surveillance mechanism designed to provide better information and financial transparency to attract more foreign capital to the region. Vietnam's Finance Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung told Reuters that information flows needed to be improved because 'the world is integrating'.
These developments serve to underline the Vietnamese government's continued commitment to the policy of economic liberalisation without political reform. Underpinning this policy is the unspoken but clear belief that if you continue to bring home the bacon then you are in a much stronger position to keep domestic dissent in check. In good times, when the region was enjoying double-digit growth, when it was comparatively easy to attract investment, this policy seems to have worked well.
WATCHPOINT: With political reform seriously in doubt, whether internal dissent can be kept entirely in check remains to be seen.
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AFG Venture Group is an Asia and Australia based corporate advisory and consulting firm with over 20 years experience in creating alliances, relationships and transactions in Australia, South East Asia and India; including a 15 year history of corporate and equities advisory in Australia, undertaking merger, acquisition, divestment, fund raising and consulting for private and public companies.
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