In March of this year, a young candidate for the Vietnamese parliamentary elections drew wide international media attention, as an unprecedented figure in a country where politicians are almost invariably seen as pawns of the all-powerful Communist Party. Placing her even more firmly in the limelight was the fact that, in addition to running for the National Assembly, Mai Khoi is a well-know pop singer, dubbed “Vietnam’s Lady Gaga” because of her flamboyant hairstyles.
Her application to stand for the elections held on 22 May was ultimately rejected by the Electoral Committee, along with that of the hundred or so other independent candidates (not belonging to the Party), but the most significant thing was not this ruling. What mattered most was that Khoi and other politically aware young men and women were present and ready to make their voices heard within a strict single party system.
“I have organised a Facebook event for the next elections in 2021, aimed at enlisting a million independent candidates. That way, the government will end up having to accept more applicants,” the 31-year-old singer tells Equal Times.
The emergence of Khoi and other independent candidates is symbolic of the Vietnamese people’s growing involvement in civil society and political life, which coincides with the coming of age of a generation that grew up during Vietnam’s economic take-off, and that have not suffered the scars of war or the financial hardships experienced by their parents and grandparents.
“Most young people say they are not interested in politics, because they don’t trust the government. Since 1975 (when the country was reunited under Communist rule), we have seen that the government is in control of everything and doesn’t let the people have a say. But I am seeing increasing numbers of young people taking an interest in politics, and I want to contribute to there being more. Vietnam is a young country,” says Khoi.
The young woman, who met with the US president, Barack Obama, in Hanoi, along with a group of activists, says she does not fear reprisals. “I am not doing anything wrong. I’m not afraid because I am following the rules set by the party. I’m not asking for a multiparty democracy. I’m simply saying that citizens should have a bigger say in the country’s decisions.”
Social protest on the streets
Whilst continuity is clearly the order of the day for the powers that be, as seen with the reappointment of Nguyen Phu Trong as leader of the Communist Party (the highest level of executive power, above the president of the Republic and the prime minister), at street level, social protest is reaching unprecedented proportions.
Since April of this year, thousands of people have repeatedly taken to the streets in various cities, after millions of fish were found dead in the centre of the country. Some of the protestors carried placards questioning the government’s response. From the outset, all eyes turned towards the steel plant owned by the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa, in the province of Ha Tinh, where tonnes of dead fish first appeared.
Hanoi, faced with such a delicate issue involving a major investor, remained silent. But on this occasion, the people were not ready to accept it. The protests started on social media and soon spread to the streets, stretching beyond police control. The images of the violence used against the demonstrators stirred outrage among thousands of Internet users.
After almost three months of unprecedented social uproar, the Communist regime acknowledged, on 30 June, what everyone had already guessed: toxic discharge from the Formosa plant was to blame for the ecological disaster. The announcement was accompanied by millions of dollars in fines for the company, but the public outcry had already reached intractable proportions.
The demonstrations continued throughout the summer, with the Vietnamese apparently developing a spirit of protest hitherto alien to them. The last mass march took place in August, when 5,000 people took to the streets in Vinh, the native land of Ho Chi Minh, to call for the closure of the Formosa plant.
The phenomenon unleashed by the environmental disaster has emerged within the context of a civic and political awakening that has been gathering momentum in Vietnamese society. For four decades, the Communist Party has been ruling public life in the country with an iron fist. In recent years, however, its grip on the situation seems to have been slipping.
In 2015, thousands of people took to the streets of Hanoi to protest against plans to fell 6,700 trees. They succeeded in halting the project, something never before seen in Vietnam. A year earlier, in May 2014, violent protests were staged against the installation of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by both China and Vietnam, in the South China Sea.
The demonstrations were fuelled by ardent Vietnamese nationalism and the age-old hostility toward China, but traces of criticism against the government, suspected of conniving with its community ally, were also perceptible at the marches.
The opening up of a regime… little by little
The rise of Internet and social media, with over 30 million Facebook users, has contributed, without question, to the burgeoning of social protest. The demonstrations against Formosa were announced on Facebook, despite the government’s efforts to block social media in the run-up to the call for protest, as it is in the habit of doing during certain events such as the visits of world leaders or the Party Congress.
The phenomenon has also raised the profile of various dissident bloggers, who have been enjoying greater visibility over the last decade or so, due more to the repression they face than the content of their publications.
The arrest, in March, of the blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, more commonly known as Anh Ba Sam, sparked protests in the Vietnamese capital, an unprecedented reaction, illustrative of how society is losing its fear. “It’s still early, but signs of stronger activism are unfolding in Vietnam, suggesting that people across regions and from all walks of life do share common social concerns that go beyond materialistic pursuits. People are taking risks to voice their opinions,” journalist Tu Hong Le said recently in an article in The Diplomat.
The rise of the Internet led former party official Pham Chi Dung and a group of activists to found, in 2014, the Independent Journalists’ Association and the online newspaper Viet Nam Thoi Bao, which attracts 70,000 readers a day (although many of them are Vietnamese emigrants).
Dung, untiringly optimistic despite having been jailed and placed under house arrest on several occasions, sees the new era as very promising and insists that the government will have to keep pace with civil society.
The journalist is convinced that social pressure and Vietnam’s need to develop closer ties with the US and the West, to offset the weight of Beijing, will lead to a gradual opening up of the regime. “Although it may not look like it, Vietnam is opening up, little by little. A few years back, we wouldn’t have been able to set up the association.”
The problem highlighted by Dung and other activists like Khoi is the pace at which the change will come.