With open dissent and repression on the rise, Vietnam’s one-party rule shaken

“His bookshelves are filled with the collected works of Marx, Engels and Ho Chi Minh, the hallmarks of a loyal career in the Communist Party, but Nguyen Phuoc Tuong, 77, says he is no longer a believer,” The New York Times’ Thomas Fuller reports from Ho Chi Minh City:

A former adviser to two prime ministers, Mr. Tuong, like so many people in Vietnam today, is speaking out forcefully against the government.

“Our system now is the totalitarian rule of one party,” he said in an interview at his apartment on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. “I come from within the system — I understand all its flaws, all its shortcomings, all its degradation,” he said. “If the system is not fixed, it will collapse on its own.”

Fear of such a collapse is one reason why the ruling Communist authorities have imprisoned at least 40 dissidents so far this year, matching the 2012 total, Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director John Sifton told a recent Congressional hearing.

“The fact is that a growing number of dissidents—including religious leaders, bloggers, and politically active people—are being convicted and sent to jail for violations of Vietnam’s authoritarian penal code,” he said.

The US needs to raise such cases “assertively” with Hanoi, said Vo Van Ai, international spokesman for the church and president of the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights.

Addressing the hearing, he called on Congress and the State Department “to look behind Hanoi’s mask, beyond the veneer of state-sponsored freedom of worship, and recognize the full extent of religious repression.”

The latest crackdown on dissidents indicated that the Communist authorities are especially anxious to prevent the politicization of recent rural protests that could arise from an alliance with largely urban-based dissidents such as Buddhist youth leader Le Cong Cau or human rights activist Le Quoc Quan (right).

“Since unifying the country 38 years ago, the Communist Party has been tested by conflicts with China and Cambodia, financial crises and internal rifts” Fuller notes:

The difference today, according to Carlyle A. Thayer, one of the leading foreign scholars of Vietnam, is that criticism of the leadership “has exploded across the society.”

In an otherwise authoritarian environment, divisions in the party have actually helped encourage free speech because factions are eager to tarnish one another, Dr. Thayer said.

“There’s a contradiction in Vietnam,” he said. “Dissent is flourishing, but at the same time, so is repression.”


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Eight years on, Cuba’s Ladies in White collect Sakharov prize

Members of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White have finally collected their Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which was awarded by the European Parliament in 2005.

The group was awarded the prize for their campaign to free 75 dissidents jailed in the Black Spring of May 2003. The jailed activists included poets, doctors, journalists and democracy advocates, who received between 15 and 28 years in prison for allegedly threatening “the security of the State.”

Ladies in White began as a spontaneous political protest, but the women now meet every Sunday to pray at the Santa Rita church in Havana. The group had to postpone collecting the award  because Cuba’s Communist authorities banned members from travelling abroad until exit permits were allowed in January.

“Our dignity is much bigger than the hatred of those who repress us,” said Laura Labrada, daughter of the group’s late co-founders Laura Pollán.

One of the group’s co-founders Berta Soler (left), who attended the ceremony with several other members, said their work was far from over.

“We need a Cuba where there is proper freedom and human rights,” she said, urging “real reforms, not just cosmetic change.”

After accepting the prize, named after the prominent Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, Soler called for a minute of silence to honor Pollán and Oswaldo Payá, winner of the 2003 prize who was killed in a car crash last year, reportedly after being rammed by members of Cuba’s security services.

Cuba allowed Payá to collect his prize, but Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the 2010 award, was barred from travel. He is expected to do so in the next few months.

“No people can be oppressed forever,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said at the award ceremony in Brussels. Highlighting the eight-year delay, he said it “showed the valor you have displayed in your work, and that no dictatorship in the world can stop democracy in the long run.”

Schulz cited human rights reports that the number of arbitrary arrests for political reasons rose to a record 6,602 in 2012.

“If the governing cupola believes it has the full backing of the people, if they really believe what they say in public, then they would not need those kinds of numbers,” Schulz added.

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Unreformed security forces threaten Zimbabwe transition

The failure of Zimbabwe’s unity government to push through security sector reforms may prevent a smooth transition of power as the country prepares for elections later this year, according to a new report.

A genuine democratic transition is unlikely without implementation of the proposed reforms to depoliticize the security forces, currently dominated by elements loyal to President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, as outlined in the Global Political Agreement, says the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a Harare-based think-tank.

Speaking at the launch of the report – “Security sector factor in Zimbabwe’s political and electoral affairs” – ZDI director Pedzisai Ruhanya called on the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to fulfill their obligations as guarantors of the power-sharing deal to rein in security chiefs ahead of the elections.

Ruhanya urged the ‘securocrats’ to refuse to be used as political pawns by Zanu-PF and to refrain from partisan politics in accordance with an agreed code of conduct, VOA reports, although he conceded that this was unlikely since the military and police derive considerable economic benefits from Zanu-PF patronage.

ZDI was officially launched in Harare in March at a function presided over by Beatrice Mtetwa, Zimbabwe’s leading human rights lawyer and veteran democracy activist. The security forces’ defiance of a high court ruling ordering the release of Mtetwa last month highlights the need for democratic reform of state institutions, say observers.

“I think it shows that we are vindicated in setting out what needs to be done,” said Irene Petras, of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. “Political parties themselves need to look what is happening and see that these things need to be addressed because if we go into the election period with this kind of a police force, with these unreformed institutions, then we are likely to have problems in that election too.”

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Expand Magnitsky provisions to counter Russia’s corruption, says new report

In February 2013, photographer Misha Friedman released a series of powerful photographs entitled “Photo51—Is Corruption in Russia’s D.N.A.?” writes analyst Julia Pettengill. The photographs capture the visible consequences of corruption in the everyday lives of Russian citizens—from the traffic policemen collecting bribes to the major roads closed on a daily basis to allow dignitaries to drive through unimpeded by ordinary citizens.  

The photos underscore the way in which corruption is not only an economic problem, but a moral one, creating a society built on dishonesty and greed rather than transparency and dignity. While corruption is common to all countries, even democratic ones, it is clear that authoritarianism is both a product and enabler of corruption. 

According to the Transparency International “2012 Corruption Perceptions Index”, Russia ranks among the most corrupt developed countries in the world—133rd out of 176 countries surveyed, with the worst offenders at the bottom of the list. According to Sergei Ignatyev, head of the Central Bank, this has cost the country $49 billion in capital flight in 2012 alone. In the West, corruption in Russia is often treated as a fact as unchangeable as the Russian winter—an assessment that is all-too-often informed by a patronising perception of the country as somehow naturally incompatible with building a law-abiding society. Others prefer to conveniently ignore the problems created by this endemic corruption, on the grounds of self-interest, rationalising that the money to be made from the energy and commodities sectors far outweighs the long-term economic; legal; or moral elements of this problem.  

To view corruption as merely a problem for Russians is not only cynical, but also short-sighted. Ignoring this phenomenon enables the continuation of a system in which theft is not the exception, but the rule. In a globalised economy, and with the United Kingdom still struggling towards recovery, endemic corruption in one of the world’s rising economic powers is a problem for the system as a whole, distorting competition and undermining the integrity of the financial sector. 

While billions may be stolen in the Russian Federation, it does not usually remain in the country; it is swiftly transported through shell companies and accounts around the world, laundered in offshore entities as well as European Union countries such as Cyprus and Latvia, and legitimised through purchasing assets in global financial-centres such as London. Such funds can be rapidly put towards the purchase of reputational legitimacy via the financial and legal services of that country, or even the exercise of political influence. 

With the resurrection of the Magnitsky Affair and the unexplained death of the exiled Boris Berezovsky, Russian corruption is now, more than ever, an issue to be addressed by the  international community, according to a new analysis (extracted above).  

According to polls, corruption is one of the foremost causes of dissatisfaction amongst the Russian public and was one of the issues which inspired the mass protests of 2011-2012, says a report from the Henry Jackson Society, a UK-based bipartisan group. It is often tied, both directly and indirectly, to human rights abuses, by entrenching disrespect for individual rights in the political system. The scale of this domestic problem also has significant ramifications in a globalised economy as funds obtained through corruption are laundered and circulated throughout the world. 

The report, with a foreword by Dominic Raab MP, provides a timely reminder of the unique challenges facing Russia, a country burdened with endemic corruption at a critical stage of its economic and political development. It contains stark analysis regarding both the nature and the scale of this criminality – illustrated by the estimated $211.5 billion of illicit capital that left Russia between 1994 and 2011. 

Among the ideas raised by this report is that the U.K. Parliament should pass a similar version of the Sergei Magnitsky (right) Rule of Law Accountability Act, which was signed into law in the United States in December 2012. The law imposes visa bans and asset freezes on the individuals implicated in the imprisonment and death of Magnitsky, as well as any other Russian citizen credibly suspected of human rights abuses.

“Within Russia, the caustic effect of corruption can be seen in the dysfunctionality and human repression of the Russian political system,” said Alan Mendoza, Executive Director for the Henry Jackson Society.  

“Externally, its malign effects are felt through the dispersal of illicit funds around the world, poisoning other countries’ financial systems,” he adds. “The report will make a major contribution towards explaining how we in the West can halt this scourge from spreading.” 



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