Nguyen Van Dai (center) and fellow political activists Pham Troi (left) and Nguyen Trung Ton (right) stand in a courtroom during their trial in Hanoi on April 5, 2018. Photo: AFP / Vietnam News Agency

There’s a pattern to repression in Vietnam. Whenever disparate groups critical of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party attempt to come together into some kind of unified organization, putting their differences aside and coalescing around a shared goal of a democratic Vietnam, they are quickly rubbed out. It happened after disparate groups formed Bloc 8406 in 2006, and less than a decade later when many of the same people formed the Brotherhood of Democracy.

Since the Communist regime “is incapable of being renovated bit by bit or modified,” it should be “completely replaced,” stated the Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam, a petition co-written by Father Nguyen Van Ly and published on April 8, 2006, giving rise to the Bloc 8406’s name.

In May 2013, seven years after he helped found Bloc 8406, the famed lawyer Nguyen Van Dai once again attempted to create a larger political organization, the Brotherhood for Democracy. “It is time for domestic democracy activists to gather to discuss and find the shortest path for democracy in Vietnam,” he wrote shortly before his arrest.

Before the Brotherhood’s creation, pro-democracy movements in Vietnam “were just individual-based,” he added, and “there was no coordination. That was why they were weak.” He went on:

“Now with the Brotherhood for Democracy, we can maximize the strong points of each individual, creating collective strength to fight more vigorously and, at the same time, help one another to overcome weak points. This helps to create a solidarity between us.…

“If there are only a few associations or political groups, there is no way to force a big change in Vietnam. At the moment, we need many associations and groups to develop in different areas, including people from all walks of life, so in the future they can be big and strong enough to create a coalition, a bigger organization.”

The Hien Phap group, or Constitution Group, founded in June 2017, isn’t such a hierarchical group, but nonetheless it’s on the verge of being wiped out. Those allied around Hien Phap, a loose network of online commentators, journalists and activists, stress that in accordance to the 2013 constitution – hence the name – the Vietnamese people are already assured a multitude of human and civil rights.

Indeed, Article 25 of the Vietnamese constitution grants rights to freedom of speech and assembly. So, too, do numerous international laws on human rights to which Vietnam is a signatory.

It differs in another respect. Rather than starting from the position that the Communist system “is incapable of being renovated bit by bit or modified,” they point out that civil rights are already present in Vietnam and, regime change or not, ordinary people must understand that they do have rights today, even in a codified form, and these should be expressed, in spite of the communist government denying them in practice.

One problem, they argue, is that the Communist government is simply not abiding by its own promises; not heeding its own words. There is, indeed, a subtle nod to the Communists’ own history, all the more potent as Vietnam celebrated the 75th anniversary of National Day last week.

When Ho Chi Minh read out Vietnam’s proclamation of independence on September 2, 1945, he purposefully prefaced his new command with passages from the American Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

The not-so-subtle insinuation Ho Chi Minh was making, as he read from those texts in Hanoi 75 years ago this month, was that colonial France and the United States (which at the time was tentatively supporting French attempts to reassert its authority over Indochina after the Second World War) were failing to live up to the ideals of their own founding documents.

What Ho Chi Minh was demanding for Vietnam was nothing more than what the French and Americans had implemented for themselves, he pointed out. And any opposition to Vietnam’s attempt to chart a similar path was not just hypocrisy from the Westerners but a deviation from their own history. 

But it goes deeper than that. In many ways, the message of the Hien Phap group is one well-trod by dissidents living under dictatorships.

The Czech playwright and anti-communist dissident Vaclav Havel, for instance, once implored those living under tyrannous governments to behave as if – to behave as if they lived in freedom; to behave as if they could express their natural rights, even if the regimes behaved otherwise. If people did this, Havel recognized, then the essential lies people are instructed to accept under tyrannies withered away.

“They must live within a lie,” he described everyday life in authoritarian states. “They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

Vietnam’s government instructs its people to accept many lies – from the basest, that the Communist Party is the arbitrator of nationalism and the only representative of the people, to the more intricate, that the Party and the State are one.

But the essential lie pointed out by the Hien Phap group’s activity – albeit not always so explicitly – is that rights to free speech and assembly do exist today in Vietnam, even in codified form, and that liberty will come if the Vietnamese people behaved as if the constitution constrained government activity regardless of whichever party is in office. More than that, when the Communist government doesn’t abide by its own constitution it is the government acting illegally, not the people.

To state their own case, the group played a major role in the protests of June 2018 against two controversial bills: the law on special economic zones (SEZs) and a new cybersecurity law. The latter bill was accepted and became law in January 2019, greatly strengthening the government’s ability to repress content shared on social media, although it has rarely been used in recent years, since the authorities prefer to continue using the tried and tested Penal Code.

But the former bill, against SEZs, was dropped. Critics argued that it allowed the government to lease Vietnamese land away for 99 years to any foreign bidder, though attention was centered on China, given China’s role as the bête noire of Vietnamese nationalism and since one of the three planned SEZs was close to the Vietnam-China border.

Such was the opposition in 2018 from these nationwide protests, some of the largest witnessed in living memory, that the government postponed the SEZ law from being debated in the National Assembly and hasn’t spoken of it publicly since.

Seldom in living memory has Vietnam’s national government backed down over a proposed law, especially one championed by a prime minister, in the face of public anger. For sure, local protests often force provincial or district officials into U-turns, but the SEZ law was billed as a major development for Vietnam’s economy, and its demise no doubt lost the national coffers hundreds of millions of dollars – and lost officials considerable sums in corruption kickbacks.   

But, as could be expected, the government took its revenge.

Nine people associated with the Hien Phap group were arrested soon after the protests, most prosecuted because of comments made on social media and charged for “abusing democratic freedom” – that most Orwellian of terms – or for “making, storing, spreading information, materials, items for the purpose of opposing the State of Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” Article 118 of the hated Penal Code.

The latter carries a possible 20-year prison sentence; the former seven years.

Crackdowns on the group have continued since. In June of this year, eight of the activists connected to Hien Phap group, who were first arrested in September 2018, were sentenced to several years in prison. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hanh and Hoang Thi Thu Vang received eight- and seven-year stretches respectively. Others received between two and five years.

(More information on those brave activists now in jail can be found on the website of the 88 Project, a vital initiative in Southeast Asia’s struggle against tyranny.)

In August, US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said that “the US government is deeply concerned about Vietnam’s conviction and sentencing of eight members of the Hien Phap civil-society organization in Vietnam to more than 40 years in prison.”

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.