Vietnam’s government has asked its 90 million citizens for public comment on their Constitution, and the request has prompted a flurry of rare public critiques from intellectuals, former officials, and civil society groups.
That type of reaction from the public might seem normal in a democracy, but in the authoritarian one-party state that severely restrict free expression and political dissent, it is highly unusual.
The comment period opened in January, when the government issued a call for input on its first constitutional reform since 1992. A group of 72 prominent intellectuals and former officials swiftly issued its own proposed constitution online – a move analysts say took Hanoi by surprise.
Though observers are mixed in their reaction, most agree it's too soon to know what effect the critiques will have.
"Many of the proposals by the petitioners are not new, but a reiteration of past proposals," said Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam analyst at the University of New South Wales in Australia, in an e-mail. "What has changed is that the Internet and blog sites now convey political ideas quicker and more widely than previously when documents were cyclostyled or mimeographed. A wider circle of the party elite are now aware of proposals for political change."
The group is calling for democratic elections, a free media, and private landownership, and their proposed version of the constitution would strike an existing clause that guarantees ultimate political authority for the Communist Party. Such public requests are rare in Vietnam, where dissidents and bloggers regularly receive long jail terms for speaking freely about politics.
They also come at a time when the government is struggling to maintain its legitimacy as banking and economic woes hamper the country's growth. Some investors have lately soured on a country once viewed as one of Asia's most promising economies, although rising exports are helping to offset declining foreign investments.
In late February, as the group’s proposals spurred commentary on Vietnamese blogs, a journalist who had criticized the party's handling of the constitutional process on his personal blog was fired from his day job at a state-run newspaper. The sacking only galvanized critics who are pushing the government for substantive policy reforms.
"No matter what the result may be from this consultation process, it's a step toward democracy and freedom," the journalist, Nguyen Dac Kien, said in an e-mail.
But some civil society groups are quietly seizing the opportunity to lobby the government for change through official channels, according to a consultant who works with the groups and requested anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive.
She says the groups have long been reluctant to openly criticize government policies, but recent public debate over constitutional reform has opened space for them to press the legislating National Assembly for reform on education, labor, migration, HIV/AIDS, and other issues.
"I don't think all the points we make will be accepted,” she says at a Hanoi coffee shop. "But it’s important to engage in discussion because at the moment human rights [in Vietnam] are not sufficient."
The comment period was scheduled to end later this month, but the government recently extended the deadline to September. A Hanoi-based researcher who studies civil society dynamics says that while the call for comments has opened space for some increased advocacy by grass-roots groups, it certainly doesn’t mark the start of any significant institutional reforms by Vietnam’s leaders.
"It's just cosmetic," says the researcher, who also requested anonymity because he does not want to jeopardize his work. "On the more fundamental issues like democracy and the military, [policies] are getting tighter."
He points to the current draft of the new constitution, which includes language that would require the military to remain loyal to the Communist Party. The current constitution requires it to remain loyal to the "fatherland and the people."