A heavy police presence, a tightening of censorship and the death of a “sacred” turtle have added to an already charged political atmosphere as Communist Party delegates meet to decide the future leadership of Vietnam.
Plainclothes police surrounded the homes of at least a dozen dissidents, as the party congress convened in secret to settle a barely concealed power struggle between rival candidates.
Other activists had already left their homes after weeks of escalating police harassment and violence in the run up to the five yearly party gathering.
“The police have been really aggressive and threatening. They called me in for questioning and put others under house arrest,” said a well known blogger who fled Hanoi for the south.
Prominent activists in Ho Chi Minh City said they were prevented from going out by plainclothes agents who gathered at the doors of their apartment blocks.
Text messages blocked
The internet has emerged as a key political battleground in the leadership contest, with supporters of rival factions attempting to denigrate their opponents with anonymous slurs and allegations.
Activists say that service providers have now blocked the sending of text messages that contain the names of top political leaders.
The state media has vainly attempted to keep the lid on speculation about the leadership contest, until recently a taboo subject in an authoritarian political culture.
Official newspapers reported merely that members of the Central Committee reached a consensus on the future leadership of the party, and warned against idle speculation on the internet.
That did nothing to curtail widespread reports and leaks that the current party boss, Nguyen Phu Trong, was seeking to block the succession of his rival, Nguyen Tan Dung, the current prime minister.
Party propagandists also felt the need to contest a wave of gleeful chatter on the internet about the untimely death, on the eve of the
congress, of the famed sacred turtle that lived for many decades in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake.
Sightings of the turtle are said by superstitious citizens to coincide with events of great historical significance.
Some used social media to predict the death of the Communist Party, comparing the death of the “old” turtle to the death of the “old” founder of the Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh.
State media could only point out that the turtle was very old and had been sick.
For all the lurid reports of a vicious power struggle in the party hierarchy, most pro-democracy activists have low expectations of any real change or an easing of repression.
“The VCP rules Vietnam as an authoritarian state, and the party’s congress is just an internal affair for the party’s members. The divisions in the politburo and the central committee are all about their own financial and personal interests,” said Truong Minh Tam, a member of Vietnam Path Movement from Hanoi:
“They will bargain and make concessions, keeping their power. In turn, they
will all unite to keep the VCP alive for each of them to continue to stay in power,” he said.
Activists say they have seen struggles inside the party in the past and have had hope of reform dashed too many times before.
“I was a person who used to have expectations that the VCP would have changed and strived for the international standards of human rights and democratic values. However, by now, I have realized that my expectations in a changed VCP were just an illusion,” said Pham Le Vuong Cac an activist from Ho Chi Minh City, who now lives in Hanoi.
Such pro-democracy campaigners say the only hope for change comes from civil society groups, which are attempting to build support in the population at large and demand change from below.
The embattled prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, is seen by some as more favourable to reform than his more conservative rivals.
He has associated himself more closely with market opening and better ties with Washington and has been the first in the leadership to speak out against China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
Until recently Dung was seen as the clear favourite to become general-secretary of the Communist Party, the top post in Vietnam’s collective leadership.
The latest leaks indicate that he may still have some hope despite a severe setback last week when the outgoing politburo refused to nominate him for the post.
Some observers say that a compromise of sorts may yet be reached whereby a Dung supporter is able to head the National Assembly.
Wave of repression
His failure to become general-secretary, however, would be a clear rebuff and mark a severe weakening of his political influence. Persistent allegations of corruption and crony capitalism against Dung have sapped momentum for what once looked like his unstoppable rise.
“Dung has strong support from the government’s officials, and his team has shown better skill in manipulating social media as a platform…and some people believe Mr. Dung could be a Gorbachev or a Thein Sein for Vietnam. Personally though I would not support either candidate as there would be far better choices if the contest was not confined to the narrow field of the party,” said activist, Chau Van Thi.
The congress is due to appoint a new central committee, which will then nominate candidates for all the top jobs of party and state.
Vietnam’s embattled dissidents can only hope that the end of the congress will at least bring a halt to the current wave of repression.