More than 30 people are in prison or awaiting trial for blogging about corruption and other politically sensitive issues, according to Bloggers and netizens behind bars: restrictions on internet freedom in Vietnam, a new report from the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
“The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) perceives the Internet’s expansion as a potential challenge to its political monopoly,” says the report.
“Apart from a brief period of relative tolerance in 2006 when Vietnam was seeking membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi, the government has systematically cracked down on Internet freedom, stepping up controls of the Internet and service providers, intensifying monitoring and censorship, arresting, harassing and intimidating ‘netizens and introducing new legislation to criminalize controversial web content,” it notes.
Eager to exploit the Internet’s commercial potential, the authorities have since realized its subversive impact, the report notes, and the regime now routinely subjects bloggers and other “netizens” to arbitrary detention, harassment, intimidation, assaults and violations of due process rights.
The crackdown on bloggers is “definitely backfiring,” said Penelope Faulkner, vice president of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights. “This is why Hanoi is worried: They have been promoting Internet access for trade, now they fear they have unleashed something they can’t control.”
In an indication of the regime’s anxiety (and authoritarian learning), the state is following a precedent set by China and, more recently, Iran, by mobilizing hundreds of pro-regime bloggers to counter on-line dissent and promote the party line, the BBC recently reported.
“On the one hand, they hate social media because it is out of their control,” said Alexander Vuving, an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. “But at the same time, they use it.”
Unable to suppress online social networks, Vietnam has “learned to tolerate, and even exploit them when they serve state interests,” the report notes:
In order to contain social networking and subject it to tighter state control, in May 2010 the government launched its own version of Facebook, a state-run social network called GoOnline, which requires users to register with their real names and ID numbers when opening an account. So far, the site has only a modest following, but the government aims to have 40 million users (almost half the population) by 2015. According to OpenNet Initiative, an academic project which investigates Internet filtering practices, expanded membership of this site would significantly strengthen the state’s monitoring and surveillance capacities.
“It has, without question, expanded the scope of political discourse in Vietnam and significantly ratcheted up pressure on the state, which is increasingly viewed as corrupt and unaccountable,” said Jonathan London, an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong, while conceding that “its longer term effects on politics remain uncertain.”
Vietnam Committee on Human Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
“During Hugo Chávez’s presidency, the bolivar has been devalued by 992 per cent,” and the latest – “one of the worst-timed devaluations ever” – serves as “a powerful reminder that, sooner or later, the economic laws of gravity end up determining political calculations”, notes Venezuela’s former minister of industry and trade:
The imperative to devalue was driven by a combination of bad policies and ideological necrophilia: love for ideas that should be long dead, and have been tried before with disastrous consequences. …Ideological zealotry and a penchant for grabbing private companies and putting them in the hands of inept or corrupt political operatives has also destroyed what was left of the export capacity of the country.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s designated heir, said the president was undergoing a “new phase” of “tough” treatment for his cancer in Havana.
“Today our commander is undergoing alternative treatments … they are complex and difficult treatments that must, at some point, end the cycle of his illness,” Maduro said in comments on state TV.
But some analysts believe power has already started to pass into the hands of a new generation.
“The transition has already begun in Venezuela, and the election campaign has also begun,” said Tulio Hernandez, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela. “The transition has also begun in people’s heads. Sometimes, there are mistakes among government spokespeople, who start to speak of Chávez in the past tense.”
Critics accuse the government of secrecy and paranoia over Chávez’s condition:
El Chigüire Bipolar (The Bipolar Capybara) — the country’s answer to the Onion — parodied Vice President Nicolás Maduro with Orwellian language: “The President is stable, some days less stable, some days more stable and occasionally is in a state of excessive stability.”
But, Time reports, the opposition, “internally conflicted and demoralized” after losing October’s presidential election in October, “appears to be falling apart” …..
……as its less-measured members scream and shout that by not appearing at his own inauguration, Chávez is no longer the President. “The capital of Venezuela has moved to Havana,” said opposition figure Leopoldo López. Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition’s leader who lost to Chávez in the recent presidential election, has remained relatively quiet though has continued to insist that Chávez should offer some proof of life. “If the President of the republic can sign decrees, I call on him to show himself, to talk to Venezuela,” he said.
“The vast majority of the population feels nothing has changed. … A major cultural shift is required,” says a leading human rights advocate.
“Reform is only being driven by a handful of people,” said Jared Genser, a former international legal counsel to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (left) and one-time Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
His concerns were shared by fellow human rights activists at a recent forum of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank, The Washington Times reports:
Washington’s relationship with Myanmar has warmed over the past year, as President Thein Sein’s government has released hundreds of political prisoners, legalized opposition political parties, eased restrictions on the press and enacted laws to strengthen workers’ rights. The Obama administration rewarded Myanmar by waiving import sanctions. Congress in August extended some sanctions by a year but gave President Obama the authority to waive the import sanctions.
Mr. Obama visited Myanmar in November, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the country once known as Burma.
“My unsolicited advice to the U.S. government on this issue would be to go slow and to retain as much leverage as you can,” said Frank Jannuzi, who heads Amnesty International’s Washington office.
“Now we are in a situation where those sanctions have been suspended and they are en route to being rescinded, and so the question becomes: How does the United States use its leverage to try to ensure that there is no backsliding on the process of reform?” he said.
“The United States must retain as much leverage as possible and appreciate the extraordinary value to a government that lacks democratic legitimacy … of being within the U.S. embrace,” Jannuzi added.
“We do need to move slowly … in terms of how we respond and reward the progress,” said Tom Malinowski, director of Human Rights Watch’s office in Washington. “Our policy needs to be tied very, very clearly and precisely to what is happening on the ground at any given moment.”
“This is not a gift to be given lightly and is one that the United States should use to ensure that there is real progress on all of the unaddressed issues.” [RTWT]
The reform process is also at risk of stasis due to an “institutional Catch-22”, one analyst suggests.
“Because a constitutionally-mandated quota of non-elected military representatives composes 25 percent of the Parliament, any change to the constitution requires the approval of the military representatives,” says Kristine Eck, a Professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at Sweden’s Uppsala University and a Senior Researcher at Oslo’s Peace Research Institute:
For a full transition to democracy to ever occur, the constitution must be amended to give civilians full control of the legislature and the military. But this cannot be done without an initial concession from the military to allow a constitutional amendment which would absolve them of their right to hold mandated seats in the Parliament.
The armed forces may respond to international pressure to make reforms, she suggests, but ….
Myanmar’s leaders are playing a clever game: as long as Myanmar appears engaged in a democratic transition and peace talks, there is actually no incentive to ever achieve either of these ends; the country is rewarded by the international community for the process itself even if the end is ultimately unachievable.