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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 20, 2012

Blog wars underline Vietnam power struggle
By David Brown

Since early this month the Western press has gotten wind of an extraordinary bit of intra-Communist party bashing underway Vietnam, but most have missed the crux of the story. One after another reporters have filed reports to the effect that Vietnam has launched a new round of repression of the media that populate the vibrant Vietnamese language blogosphere.

Case in point is Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's September 12 instruction to "responsible officials" to investigate and punish bloggers who are publishing anti-regime news. Posted on the government's website, Dung's circular singled out three political blogs: Dan Lam Bao ('The People Make the News'), Quan Lam Bao ('Officials Make the News'), and Bien Dong ('East Sea') for publishing stories considered "slanderous, fabricated, distorted and false, with the intention of blackening the leadership of the


nation, rousing anti-party and anti-state sentiment, giving rise to suspicion and bad opinions within society."

His directive said the blogs were part of "a wicked plot by enemy forces." Dung instructed the Ministry of Public Security to coordinate with the Ministry of Information, and the latter to work with the Communist Party's Propaganda Section, to ensure the emission of "objective and truthful news about the situation of our country . . . and to crack down on mongers of news that isn't true."

Finally, officials and party cadre were instructed neither to read or disseminate information that is published on “reactionary” websites. A bit of digging by this reporter revealed that two of the blogs were set up a few months ago as vehicles for highly partisan attacks on Vietnam's top leaders by agents of their party rivals.

Quan Lam Bao (QLB) first appeared in early June, vowing in its first post to “wipe out corrupt cliques that monopolize the nation’s economic and political life.” By mid-July, QLB was reporting 10,000 “new visitors” daily. The blog's tone is stridently populist, not unlike Britain's Daily Mail or right-wing 'talk radio' in the United States, and its stock in trade is roasting premier Dung and his close associates, often alleging corruption, nepotism and dereliction of duty.

QLB was the first to break news of the banker and Dung crony Nguyen Duc Kien’s arrest on charges of "illegal business activities," 12 hours before the national police made their own announcement. In the next 10 days, daily hits on the site were just short of a million, an unheard of level in Vietnam’s blogosphere.

The Bien Dong blog surfaced on July 3 with a long, mundane account of Vietnam's historic claim to the East Sea and almost immediately segued into ad hominem attacks on President Truong Tan Sang, and detailed speculation that China was dictating the editorial stance of QLB. Unlike the anti-Dung site, however, Bien Dong went almost unnoticed by Vietnamese readers until it was sanctioned in the government's September 12 circular.

The third of the three "slanderous" sites fingered in the circular, Dan Lam Bao (DLB), is rather staid by comparison, a mainstream blog that has built its readership and reputation by addressing the standard concerns of non-party dissidents, in particular what its contributors regard as the regime's limp-wristed response to Chinese aggrandizement and bullying.

Interviewed on a chat line by an Associated Press reporter, a DLB editor professed to be delighted by his blog's new notoriety. On the day the government circular was published, DLB’s daily hits more than doubled to more than half a million, he said.

Meanwhile, seemingly unfazed by the threat of punishment, the editors of QLB continue to post their usual scurrilous attacks on Dung and his cronies. Bien Dong, the anti-Sang site, however, has gone silent.

Unseen hands
Perhaps to underline its neutrality in the intraparty dogfight, DLB on September 14 posted an analysis arguing that if Dung prevails, Vietnam will continue to wallow in corruption and nepotism, and if his rival should topple him, a Sang-controlled government will be Beijing's puppet.

Vietnam's state-controlled mainstream media have dutifully followed up the government's directive with stories analyzing the dangers posed by uncontrolled political blogs. Many simply reprinted copy provided by the official news agency. None seem to have dared to hint that the directive was in fact aimed at suppressing an unseemly airing of intra-regime dirty linen.

To Quan Doi Nhan Dan (QDND, or People's Army), a newspaper that never strays from the party line, the problem is the covert manipulation of well-meaning "intellectuals, social critics, even retired or currently serving officials and party members" by the unseen hand of "foreign organizations."

Quoting sources in the Ministry of National Security who had counted "more than 400 reactionary organizations inside and outside the nation" that were posting distorted and defamatory stories on the internet, QDND concluded that weeding out such bad behavior is, literally, a Herculean task.

Like the mythical Hydra, a beast that grew new heads every time Hercules lopped a few off, the blogosphere is inherently uncontrollable, the army paper said - that is, unless the government fortified security agencies with clearer mandates, more resources and tougher laws.

Of considerably more importance to Vietnam's future than yet another quixotic attempt to police the Internet is the showdown between President Sang and Prime Minister Dung. The two have long been rivals for power and influence.

Sang, according to Vietnamese Communist Party watchers, tried to take down Dung in the build-up to the January 2011 party congress. He ultimately failed; though accused of mismanaging the economy and tolerating scandal, Dung secured another five year term as prime minister. As a consolation prize, Sang was named president, a largely ceremonial role. The third job in Vietnam's leadership troika, general secretary of the Communist Party, went to Nguyen Phu Trong, an ideology expert who'd done a credible job steering the national legislature.

That should have settled internal power struggles for another five years, but it hasn't. It is argued by at least a plurality of analysts that it was Sang who convinced Trong to launch a "party-building campaign" last February that has played a role in exposing recent scandals. Reputedly, Sang played on Trong's well-known concern that the corruption and venality of party members has steadily eroded popular respect for its leadership. The campaign, a classic Leninist exercise in "criticism and self-criticism" from top to bottom, is now building to a climax.

By most reckonings, Dung has been weakened by the recent fracas. In addition to Kien, several other businessmen linked to the prime minister have been arrested in recent weeks. It took nearly three months to secure the agreement of the party’s secretariat to Dung's directive last week against QLB and the other two critical blogs. As noted above, QLB continues to savage the prime minister, his government and associates. Significantly, the rules of the reform campaign provide for ballots of party members to identify and remove under-performing officials. Rumors now are flying that the party's Central Committee will meet in special session sometime in October.

By past form, there's little chance that the Central Committee will vote either Dung or Sang out of office. Many of its 170 members would probably prefer that the two shake hands and get back to doing their jobs under the fa็ade of party unity. However, the bad blood between Dung and Sang is real, it is public and it overlies genuine differences in intra-party temperament and policy views. But with all the dirty laundry aired in the blogosphere, it may now be impossible to put the genie back into the bottle.

David Brown is a retired American diplomat who writes on contemporary Vietnam. He may be reached at nworbd@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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