On blogs and social media, agitated Vietnamese are bypassing their authoritarian government’s monopoly on mass communication, reporting on its failings and galvanizing discontent with its rule. Some have railed against personal injustices, others have challenged the system itself. Truong Duy Nhat, a disgruntled journalist who retired from his newspaper job to focus on creating his own blog, was particularly blunt in his condemnation. In a post written not long before his arrest, he blamed Vietnam’s two highest-ranking officials for the country’s “political chaos” and “uncontrolled corruption” and concluded: “If you cannot manage effectively, you should resign.” Following his arrest at the end of last month, two more people were arrested within three weeks for criticizing the government online. The charges against them, typically described in the language of the regime as “abusing democratic freedoms” — carry jail terms of up to seven years.
Faced with economic trouble, infighting and unprecedented public criticism, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is cracking down on dissent. Forty-six bloggers or activists have been sentenced to jail so far this year, surpassing the total of 40 in the whole of 2012. In its 2013 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranked Vietnam 172nd of 179 countries — with Iran and North Korea among the few with worse scores. According to the group, only China and Oman have more people in their jails for Internet-related activism. So heated has the onslaught on public criticism become in recent weeks that Vietnamese journalists who spoke with TIME required anonymity for fear of reprisal, and even foreign analysts based in the country would only speak off-record.
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The Web has become a particularly potent — and, in the eyes of the Communist Party, dangerous — means of challenging the state’s official narrative and authority because, while all traditional media remain owned and regulated by the state, Internet access in Vietnam has spread exponentially in recent years. Authorities deploy a firewall to block access to some websites with information and views they deem potentially troublesome. But activists are constantly devising new ways to bypass the firewall, and more severe measures by authorities to restrict Web access risk interfering with commercial or recreational online activity, which could cause a wider public stir.
That explains, says Sarah Cook, an East Asia analyst for the Washington-based advocacy group Freedom House, why authorities have felt compelled to intensify their hunt against problematic individual bloggers and, to ensure it has “a chilling effect on the local blogosphere,” hand them longer prison sentences. (It also may explain why the government has turned to deploying a network of hundreds of proregime “public-opinion makers”: anonymous online users assigned to develop blogs praising government policy and troll online forums to rebut commentary critical of the regime.)
The crackdown comes amid political flux that has left the party’s top leaders feeling vulnerable. The government is currently drafting reforms to the country’s 1992 constitution, and, in a bid to display inclusion, earlier this year held a public consultation process in which citizens were invited to give input. The most notable feedback was not likely what the government expected: a group of several dozen prominent intellectuals and former party officials took the opportunity to propose their own constitution, posting it online. They called for multiparty elections and other basic tenets of democracy, along with an end to the party’s position as the ultimate source of power. Their petition attracted some 30,000 online signatures of support. The government wants to signal to the public that it is willing to reform but on its own terms as it “struggles to maintain a political system that permeates all aspects of society,” says Andrew Billo, of the New York–based nonprofit Asia Society. By arresting bloggers whose criticism is spurring calls for faster reform, “they want to send a message that [reforms] will occur on the government’s terms, not the terms of those outside the party.”
Economic mismanagement — punctuated by a series of high-profile corruption scandals — has been a major driver of dissent. For years Vietnam was praised as an economic miracle, as its economy transitioned in relatively short order from postwar devastation to industrial boom. In the two decades after the government instituted economic reforms in 1986 to push the country toward state-managed capitalism, GDP growth averaged above 7%; in 2005 it grew 8.4%, second only to China in Asia. With prosperity rising for most sectors of society, the public mainly bit their tongue at evident signs of mass corruption. But amid slowing growth — this year it stands at 5% — the public has shown less inclination to overlook the sticky hands that plague the economy.
(MORE: Why Vietnam’s Political Reshuffling Won’t Fix a Struggling Economy)
Complaints about the economy have also helped take politics out of the shadows for a generation of youth who long saw little point in being fussed over matters that didn’t seem to affect their livelihoods. “Young Vietnamese people before didn’t use the Internet much to discuss political issues because they had been taught to accept that politics was only for the Communist Party to decide on,” says a Hanoi-based Vietnamese journalist. “But since 2008, during the economic crisis, young people started to care more about politics because they saw that there was a connection” between Vietnam’s political system and economic problems, adds the journalist, who strings for foreign news agencies and helps organize free-speech and democracy campaigning through the Web.
In the recent past, dissidents were relegated to the margins and garnered little publicity. Now information and views that differ from the state’s spin are available to those who seek it online. This has raised skepticism of the government’s labeling of critics as menacing traitors (overseas agents of “hostile forces,” as the party frames them) and it has generated sympathy for the efforts of those caught in the dragnet, say observers. The presence of well-known figures, like Cu Huy Ha Vu, a prominent lawyer with revolutionary lineage, among the bloggers in jail has also raised the public profile and acceptability of dissident activity, observers add. The son of a famous poet who was a close companion of Ho Chi Minh during the communist revolution, Vu was imprisoned in 2010 and is serving a seven-year sentence after he publicly challenged the legality of a number of government decisions and called for democratic reform.
As more of the public come to see dissident groups as benevolent, many who would have previously shied away from independent, online news organizations with a reputation for defiance might now view them as legitimate sources of information — and potential allies. “In earlier years, only Catholic people came to our organization when they had a problem,” says a Saigon-based Vietnamese journalist for a Catholic-affiliated online news organization whose staff is often harassed (and sometimes arrested) by authorities because of their reports on government abuse. “Now anyone might come to us when they have a problem to spread the word about what happened to them.” Soon after Dinh Nhat Uy, the most recent blogger to be arrested, was detained by authorities, his family sought out the news organization to cover his case in depth. “His mother spoke with me directly because she thought we could help.”
At this juncture, few are predicting mass turmoil or uprisings like those that have spread across the Arab world in the past few years. Indeed, in Vietnam’s recent past, official repression has a tendency to ebb and flow. But, adds an American specialist in Vietnamese politics based in the country, “if current social tensions are not dealt with by political leaders, it is possible to imagine such a scenario arising in the future.”