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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 14, 2006
ASIA HAND
Heed the call of Vietnam's Bloc 8406

By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - If Vietnam's aspiring democrats finally prevail, April 8, 2006, will go down in the national history as the beginning of the end the Communist Party's monolithic, authoritarian grip on power.

On that day, hundreds of democratic-minded Vietnamese took the courageous step of publicly declaring and signing their names to a "Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam", coincident



with the Communist Party's 10th National Congress in Hanoi.

Since then the group has grown into a thousands-strong pro-democracy movement popularly known as Bloc 8406, named after the date the group first publicly called for a political transition toward more participatory democracy. The domestic dissident movement represents the most potent political challenge ever to Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, which took power in the south militarily in 1975 and has ruled with an iron fist ever since.

And the group is gradually upping the ante of its activities. On August 22, Bloc 8406 publicly declared its four-phase proposal for Vietnam's democratization, including demands for the restoration of civil liberties, the establishment of political parties, the drafting of a new constitution and, finally, democratic elections for a new representative National Assembly that would be charged with choosing a new national name, flag and anthem.

The petition was publicly disseminated and signed by representatives from all three of the country's main regions, including former Vietnam People's Army officer Tran Anh Kim and prominent Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly. Bloc 8406 claims that young educated professionals represent the core of its membership - a stark contrast to the Communist Party's mostly crusty cadres.

The government is obviously spooked by the group's growing visibility and has reacted to the perceived challenge to its authority with its trademark jackboot harassment and crude violence. Scores of Bloc 8406's members have in recent weeks been harassed, interrogated and, in the case of Ho Chi Minh City member Vu Hoang Hai, brutally tortured. Other high-profile members have had their telephone lines cut or mobile phones confiscated.

On August 12, security agents rounded up and interrogated five Bloc 8406 members in Hanoi who had planned to launch a new online political magazine aptly called Freedom and Democracy. Agents later confiscated their equipment, documents and at least one desktop computer, forcibly putting the new publication's August 15 launch date on indefinite hold.

Significantly, Bloc 8406 has launched its campaign of civil disobedience while the world spotlight is focused squarely on the country's next move. Vietnam's communist leaders have wooed the international community with its impressive economic-reform credentials, casting aside its old cloistered communist ways to embrace the global marketplace.

Those credentials will likely be enough to win permanent normal trade relations, a motion that is now pending with the US Congress and widely viewed as the last stepping stone for Hanoi's accession to the World Trade Organization this year. Meanwhile, the Communist Party is preparing to put its best foot forward when hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi in November, an event that will be attended by world leaders, including US President George W Bush.

At the same time, Bloc 8406 leaders have indicated their intention to intensify their activities during the high-profile meetings - putting the two sides on a potentially dangerous collision course. The new group has acknowledged that while it may escape direct harassment during the actual APEC event, it fears that its members will face the government's wrath before and after world leaders and the international media have come and gone.

"A favorite tactic of the communist regime is to round up dissidents prior to international events, use the individuals as bargaining chips before the event, and then resume the harassment and arrests after the regime has achieved its immediate goal - whether it be a smooth meeting or winning trade privileges," the group recently posted on one of its internationally hosted websites.

The mounting crackdown on the fledgling movement indicates clearly that, contrary to some analysts' predictions, the party's new, younger leaders have no intention of undertaking political reforms to complement their economic and financial reforms. New Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and President Nguyen Minh Triet have already demonstrated in their heavy-handed reactions to Bloc 8406 that they are as bent on preserving the party's monopoly on power as their predecessors were.

Many Western governments and multinational corporations are now seeking to engage Vietnam's communist leaders to gain access to the country's many virgin market opportunities. Yet most investors would agree with Bloc 8406's assertions recently posted on its VietTan.org website that "the Communist Party's refusal to liberalize the political system has resulted in widespread corruption and stagnation" and that "a pluralistic political system is a precondition for peace stability and long-term economic prosperity".

Significantly, Bloc 8406 has repeatedly reached out to the international community for validation of its democratic aspirations. On May 9, a group of 50 US congressmen signed an open letter in support of the group's democratic initiatives. In an August 23 letter, the Bloc 8406 members recently harassed by government authorities for planning to launch a new publication, perhaps oddly, perhaps not, called upon the Swedish government to "raise your voices in protecting us".

Asian history is littered with aspiring democracy movements that rose only to be crushed by authoritarian regimes while the West looked on in silence. And those pivotal moments have had a lasting impact on the region's democratic development. Myanmar, nearly 20 years after the military government's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, still has not recovered from the national trauma. The same case obviously could be made for China's ruthless 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen.

There are growing indications that Vietnam is approaching its own moment of democratic truth. Unfortunately, many Western governments now approach Vietnam with a guilty historical conscience, and seem increasingly loath to criticize the Communist Party's abysmal rights record while it implements the wrenching economic reforms necessary to transition from a command to market economy.

But now is clearly the time for the international community, including multinational corporations, unequivocally to lend their support to the daring democrats behind Bloc 8406, who clearly represent Vietnam's preferred future political course.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


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