Dissident voices: Dr Nguyen Quang A

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Dr Nguyen Quang A laughs as he explains the cat and mouse games he’s obliged to play with the police and Communist party henchmen.

As a prominent intellectual and dissident, he and a network of fellow writers face frequent warnings and harassment as they challenge the authority of the Communist party.

He’s an optimist who believes that Vietnam is in the preparation phase before a democratic transition, although he warns that a long struggle against repression still lies ahead.

“The security people are very smart. They learned from the masters, the KGB and the Stasi,” he says. “They carefully calculate when they can move against you and when they should hold back.”

A 68-year-old former army officer, businessman and one time Communist party member, Dr A says that he is treated with relative forbearance by the authorities.
Younger dissidents, ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups are much more likely to be threatened, imprisoned or attacked.

“I adopt a high handed approach and take the initiative when they try to intimidate me,” he says, “if you allow them to be in charge, they’ll take advantage.”

Representatives of the party’s proxy, the Fatherland Front, occasionally come to his house in Hanoi on a mission they describe as “persuasion and education”.

They once tried to stop him attending an anti-China rally outside the Chinese embassy. He brushed them aside, despite their efforts to get him to the police bureau over supposed problems with his son’s motorcycle license.

“They are really the thought police, ” says Dr A, “the uniformed police at least also have a valid role in maintaining law and order. These activities are more insidious because it’s an attempt at mind control”.

Returning from a conference with civil society groups in Burma recently, he was selected for a baggage search that turned up a copy of a banned book on the life of Ho Chi Minh – including salacious details of the former leader’s private life.

Dr A responded indignantly and directly challenged the customs officials. They became so confused they let him walk off – with the offending book.

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Anti-China protests have helped galvanise opposition sentiment . Photo courtesy of Hallyu.com

He belongs to a group of writers, scientists, economists and academics called the Civil Society Forum which openly challenges the Communist party’s monopoly on power.

Some are still party members themselves and many are former members. They use their connections and contacts to try to influence opinion at the highest levels of government.

The challenge from such eminent intellectuals is taken seriously by a ruling elite that is itself riven with factional infighting.

Observers say the fact that such critics have not been arrested, or at least silenced, shows how much Vietnam has changed in recent years.

Activists have been able to use the explosive growth in social media in Vietnam, particularly Facebook, to express their views and build networks of support.

Dr A urges young dissidents to organise themselves effectively to mount a powerful challenge to the government from below.

He believes that the country’s twenty million industrial workers will provide fertile ground for opposition activists. Many workers feel underpaid, and they resent poor conditions in the factory and lack of job security.

Students may present another opportunity for those seeking to organise opposition. They can be influential at higher levels of society, spreading the message of dissent to family and friends.

The authorities appear to recognise this and campus activities are kept under tight surveillance.

“The people know, the people discuss, the people do, the people supervise.” Protestors in Hanoi parodied a communist rhetoric in their march. Photo courtesy of RFA.

Activists are more willing to express their frustration with government policies.  Photo courtesy of RFA.

Religious groups, with their existing networks and organisations are also seen as crucial to more effective opposition.

Challenging the government so directly, however, remains extremely risky. At least 30 bloggers are currently in jail. Other activists have been threatened or beaten up by party affiliated thugs.

The response of internal security forces sometimes appears haphazard and contradictory. It is extremely hard to predict who will be targeted and when.

Religious groups and marginalised ethnic minorities far from the big cities are often singled out for harsh treatement. Prominent intellectuals are closely watched and occasionally picked up by police.

On Thursday, June 25, police swooped on a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City while it was being addressed by another prominent dissident, Pham Chi Dung, the Chairman of the Independent Journalists’ Association.

He was held and questioned for eight hours before being released.

“This is designed to intimidate and threaten people who are thinking of speaking out,” says Dr A, “that’s why they arrested him in front of all the other people so they can humiliate him and scare the others.”

Signs of progress, though, sometimes come in small and unexpected details.

Mr Dung said that a representative from the prosecutors’ office was present while he was being questioned – unlike on a previous occasion – and the room where the interrogation took place was more comfortable than in the past.

Optimists see such gestures as a sign that the police may be paying more attention to legal norms.

Dr A pins his hope for the future on the development of civil society. He urges young activities to push harder at the limits of tolerance and expand their networks.

The public space to express dissent has increased substantially in recent years, although progress has not been consistent and there have been setbacks and crackdowns by the authorities.

Protests that began in 2011 against China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea was a galvanising moment for government critics who accuse the Communist Party of being too close to China.

The authorities have since felt obliged to allow public discussion of a once taboo subject.

In his younger years, Dr A studied in Hungary, then a Communist ally of North Vietnam, and was able to observe attempts to organise opposition to Communist rule in eastern Europe.

He believes that eventually the party in Vietnam will feel the need to negotiate with its critics and then the transition to democracy will enter a new phase.

He looks to Taiwan and South Korea as examples in Asia of authoritarian regimes that were eventually forced to accomodate opposition demands after facing a forceful challenge to their legitimacy.

Dr A regards himself as a moderate who advocates a middle way, but he proposes cooperation across the spectrum with those seeking democractic progress.

He cautions however against those would seek revenge against party leaders and demand punishment for alleged corruption and other crimes. He says such an approach would be counter-productive and scare off potential reformers inside the Communist party.

In the end, he believes, prominent figures in the party will accept the inevitability of political reform and that’s when the transition to a more democratic system will begin in earnest.