Departing diplomat sees “very positive developments”

Elenore Kantner with a prominent activist from HCMC, Pham Le Vuong Cac

Elenore Kanter with a prominent activist from HCMC, Pham Le Vuong Cac

Vietnamese human rights and democracy activists have paid an emotional farewell to a Swedish diplomat who has done much to support their cause in recent years.

Elenore Kanter, the Counsellor and Deputy Head of Mission at the Swedish Embassy, said she had seen much progress in the development of civil society organisations during her time in Hanoi.

She left for Stockholm on Friday, July 17, after completing her three year posting.

In a farewell meeting with independent bloggers she said many restrictions on freedom of speech remained but she was encouraged by the growing openness and confidence of activists.

During her term, the Swedish Embassy was one of the first to help Vietnamese bloggers raise their voices against Article 258 of the penal code, which was used by the authorities to prosecute three prominent bloggers; Truong Duy Nhat, Pham Viet Dao and Dinh Nhat Uy.

That led to the launch of the “No 258” campaign, calling for the amendment or scrapping of the law, which criminalises the “abuse of democratic freedoms” for the purposes of infringing upon the interests of the state.

It was the first collective effort by independent civil society groups to promote and protect human rights in Vietnam. It sought to gain from the government’s attempt to run for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council for 2014-2016.

Elenore Kanter gave her views to a group of young bloggers before she left Hanoi.

Q – What do you think of the situation of freedom rights in Vietnam after almost three years working in Vietnam?

Kanter – Well, I would say many of these fundamental freedoms related to the political and civil rights are limited in Vietnam, like the right to expression, I mean to express almost what you want and whenever you want; the right to choose your own political leader or political party, and freedom to assembly and associate. Those are freedoms that are still limited in Vietnam.

Also, I’m trying to have a long term perspective. I met a lot of Swedish people working in the 1970s and 1980s, and, you know, they described a very different Vietnam to me. Foreigners were not allowed to meet with Vietnamese people. I’ve heard so many love stories between Swedish people and Vietnamese people who had to go hiding in the streets, hiding themselves from the police.

So I think if you have that perspective, there has been a very big change in a very positive way, so that you are here today, in this round-table meeting with an open discussion. It’s a sensitive topic but still I think there has been progress.

Kanter stood at the gate of the embassy to check the bloggers were not harassed by police.

Kanter stood at the gate of the embassy to check the bloggers were not harassed by police.

Q – We would like to have your comments on the democratisation movement in Vietnam.

Kanter – I think two fundamental things for democracy to thrive are pluralism and strong civil society.

I’ve been here for three years and during those three years I have seen some very positive developments with regard to civil society. When I came here, there were not so many independent CSOs. We may call them democratic movements but they were very underground and not so open or transparent.

So what I’ve been so impressed with during the last three years is that there are many independent CSOs, like the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers, the Vietnamese Women for Human Rights, the Association of Former Political and Religious Prisoners, the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, all of these organizations.

I’ve been impressed because their approach has been so transparent and open. People in these organizations are openly expressing who they are, what they want, and why they want this.

Also I think it is a very constructive point, you know, to look at the many HR obligations or norms that Vietnam has agreed on, and say ‘OK, it’s great that the Vietnamese government has signed these things, but now we would like to see the implementation. We would love to see the follow-up’. I believe it is one of the most important roles of civil society to be the watchdog, to be independent from the state, to focus on monitoring and to always ask for more information, transparency, and accountability.

So when you ask me about democracy movement, I am talking about civil society, because I think civil society is a very important part of the movement and because I’ve seen so many positive things. You see, more and more people come together in an open way, expressing and working together. For many organizations, people are signing with their names, not with their pen names. It is very important because we need to normalize civil society, to say that it’s not something strange. It is very natural in a society that people come together and work for one common interest. It is very natural that sometimes they agree with the government and sometimes they don’t. Not a big thing.

Elenore Kanter received the "No 258" statement from the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers (August 7, 2013). Photo courtesy of the NVB.

Elenore Kanter received the “No 258” statement from the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers (August 7, 2013). Photo courtesy of the NVB.

Q – Hmm, honestly we think the Vietnamese can be very selfish and it is difficult for them to cooperate.

Kanter – I think for any change to happen, in any healthy society we need trust which is so important – you know, trust between the people, between the people and the government, between different groups. In a way, it surprises me, because as a people you have been through so much together and you’ve been so dependent on each other. It surprises me a little bit when I hear you say that.

Q – In the civil society movement in Vietnam, there are possibly some individuals who are out for themselves, that is, they seek personal gains instead of democracy or freedom for Vietnam. From your experience of Sweden, what should we do to exclude such people from the movement?

Kanter – I think that is complicated, but you know, in a way, in the world of civil society there should be nothing to be excluded. I fully agree that civil society should lead by examples and you know, the people involved, that means you, should be open, constructive, honest…

I went to one of the HR coffees arranged by the Network of Vietnamese Bloggers. There was a great mixture of people there but also came someone from the Communist Youth Union (the interviewers laughed). I thought it was great. It is about showing people that people like you and me, we are not strange. We are not hostile or terrorist or violent. We are good people as anyone else.

I met with one HR defender. He used to be jailed, now he is a free man but the police control his house and they called him in the other day. When I asked him about that, he said, ‘No, no, Elenore, it’s actually a good thing. I was in the police station for 12 hours. For 12 hours I could talk to them about democracy, about HR, about their rights, and I could show them that I’m not some hostile force. I’m the father of two children. I’m a medical doctor. I’m not a strange and violent person.’

I was very impressed by that. Living under so much pressure could very easily get you hostile, angry or bitter. But he changed it around and said it was great to talk to the police, that he had even 12 hours in the station.

Elenore Kanter gave an interview to a group of young bloggers before leaving Vietnam.

Elenore Kanter gave an interview to a group of young bloggers before leaving Vietnam.

Q – How do you assess the role of the internet?

Kanter – I cannot disagree about the role of Internet. It is really fundamental in helping people to get information, to influence, to meet and discuss even if you don’t have the ability to physically meet…

And the information is so immediate. It means that we know that there are HR abuses. We all see the terrible thing two days ago about the land eviction where a woman was crushed under a bulldozer. I was opening my phone and there the pictures coming. People were talking about it.

Many of the young people that I have met have been part of the LGBT movement. I must say it is one example of the civil society movement and it has achieved quite a lot during the last five years. Today, there are open pride parades, with more acceptance, and that is, I think, because civil society has pushed it so hard in a very smart way.

Q – But LGBT is not politically sensitive, is it?

Kanter – Of course LGBT issue is not threatening to the political system and maybe that is part of the explanation why it has been easier for them to achieve some change. Anyway, both the LGBT and the tree-protecting campaign are the exercise and experience of working together.

Q – It took Sweden some decades to become one of the richest countries in the world. We think there will be a very long way, say, some hundred years, for Vietnam to go before Vietnam turns into a democracy with strong civil society. On that path, public education must be the key, mustn’t it?

Kanter – Absolutely. I talked before about what is being important, that is an open society, but the absolutely fundamental thing is public education. And the quality of education is so important. And it makes me so sad to read the reports on how corrupt the education system is in Vietnam, in many schools, making the difference between those who can pay and those who can’t pay. However, in a public system, education must be open to all. You needn’t have a lot of money or be born to rich parents.

Q – We suspect that obscurantism is a government policy. For years, the students’ critical thinking has been eliminated.

Kanter – You know, when we are in dialogue with the Vietnamese government we also talk a lot about education. Sweden ranks number 1 or 2 in the world for innovation. Many companies are based on Swedish innovation. And Vietnam ranks very very low when it comes to innovation. That is because if you want innovation, you must emphasize critical thinking, you mush really teach people to think out of the box and keep questioning. It is so important that if you don’t think out of the box there’ll be no innovation.

Q – When we come to civil society, do you think the developments have been fast enough or just too slow?

Kanter – Looking at the development of the civil society, it has been so much faster than I ever expected.

When I arrived at the end of 2012, there were few civil society organizations, but they were not working so openly and in a transparent manner. Now it’s a long list. I know still not so many people are member of these 20 or so organizations, but I think that development is still very positive.

I recognized and understand that here you are not free to meet and work in the way you want. In a way you may feel a bit underground, but I think it has been a big difference and so positive moving from underground to independent. It is a positive sign of civil society in Vietnam.

That is also about being proud that ‘we don’t have anything to hide.’ I wish everyone to be that proud in the mindset.

I wish you to say that ‘I am proud to be a member of the independent civil society movement working for a better Vietnam.’