Harsh repression despite lack of opposition

Hoang Duc Binh was sentenced to 14 years in prison for reporting on police violence

The Vietnamese Communist party faces no organised opposition and endures no restraint on its use of a formidable internal security apparatus, yet it continues to crack down on dissent as if its survival was at stake.

This week an appeals court upheld a 14-year prison term on a young activist for live-streaming an environmental protest on Facebook.

At the same time, in Germany, a court is hearing evidence of the Vietnamese government’s alleged involvement in an extraordinary abduction case – in which a former Vietnamese official was plucked from the heart of Berlin in broad daylight by a team of agents.

Why would a government once noted for its understated caution in international affairs risk its reputation, and economic ties with the European Union, for the sake of one middle ranking state bureaucrat ?

And why would the courts, doing the bidding of the Communist party, sentence a growing number of independent bloggers to prison terms out of all proportion to their alleged offences ?

Turning back the clock

The answer appears to lie in the character and world view of one man and the circle of security inclined officials around him.

Nguyen Phu Trong consolidated his grip in January 2016 when he was reappointed as general-secretary of the Communist party. At the same time, he succeeded in dispatching his chief rival, the long serving prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, to political oblivion.

Since that moment, the authorities have redoubled their efforts to crush the country’s fledging civil society movement and reign in the increasingly free use of social media.

Even more emphasis has been placed on a highly publicised anti-corruption campaign which has also seen the downfall of senior officials associated with the relatively liberal former prime minister.

Mr Trong was always known as something of a Marxist ideologue at a time when Vietnam appeared to be edging away from the orthodoxies of the past and testing the waters of a more pluralistic approach.

He now appears determined to turn back the clock, apparently convinced that only hard-line party rule can stave off change and gradual democratisation.

The leadership has been helped in its goals by a changing international climate, with China increasingly succumbing to one-man rule, and Western countries losing interest in promoting democratic change.

“Abusing democratic freedoms”

Before the revitalisation of Mr Trong’s political career, Vietnam showed signs of being constrained by international opinion, moderating its prosecution of bloggers who had seized opportunities presented by the sudden growth of social media.

This week, there was barely a murmur from the outside world as Hoang Duc Binh stood in an appeals court to hear his 14-year sentence confirmed for the crime of “abusing democratic freedoms” and obstructing the police by reporting their assault on a peaceful march.

He was dragged from his car by police officers last May more than a year after he had reported on the protest march by fishermen, whose livelihood had been damaged by a toxic spill from the Formosa steel plant.

The protest movement that grew up following the Formosa disaster appears to have convinced the leadership that civil society groups were becoming too powerful.

Damaged reputation

Human Rights Watch said that speaking out for rights and freedoms was enough for an “outrageously long prison sentence” in “Vietnam’s one party dictatorship”.

The words have no effect on a government that senses that Washington and European countries have no intention of linking human rights to broader economic and security ties.

Mr Trong’s zealous pursuit of at least one “economic criminal”, however, does appear to have backfired.

The plucking of Trinh Xuan Thanh from a Berlin park last summer for alleged corruption has not only undermined relations with Germany but continues to damage the government’s reputation at home and abroad.

There were reports of internet failures in major cities as the trial of one of the alleged kidnappers got underway in Berlin this week.

Mr Thanh’s German lawyer, Petra Schlagenhauf, said Vietnamese agents appeared to believe they could act with complete impunity in the heart of a foreign capital.

Vietnam continues to deny any role in the abduction. But German officials believe the orders came from the top, with the operatives on the ground doing what was required of them and ignoring the potential consequences.

The operation would appear to bear testimony to the single minded determination of Trong and his supporters to pursue their domestic agenda at all costs.