HANOI — Ninety-eight percent of Vietnam’s National Assembly voted in favor of revisions to the Southeast Asian country's 1992 constitution on Thursday, but critics say the changes are a step backward for the country.
Nguyen Sinh Hung, chairman of both the National Assembly and the drafting committee, said the final document was the result of lengthy discussions and based on input from many different groups of people.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says the revisions represent a missed opportunity for more substantial reforms that could have brought the nation's governance into closer alignment with international human rights standards, and that critical issues such as judiciary independence were not touched.
New revisions also require armed forces be loyal to the party, and he calls Article 4, which reaffirms the central role of the Communist Party, one of the biggest sticking points.
“Article 4 is important because it goes against the international covenant on civil and political rights which sets out that people have the right to participate in their governance and elect governance through period exercise of free elections,” he said.
New amendments also expand one tenet of the 1992 constitution that approved private land confiscation for “national interests,” stating that land can now be confiscated for economic or development purposes.
This issue of land reform was raised earlier this year by a group of intellectuals that signed a petition calling for constitutional changes that include free and fair elections and private ownership of land. The petition was posted on several popular blogs after the government launched a public consultation on a proposed draft.
“That sort of grant of authority for the state to essentially seize land for projects again raises some significant questions of what limitations will be placed there," said Robertson. "To what extent will people have the right to appeal? To what extent will people be able to contest land seizures by government when in fact it’s not for the larger public interest... [but] actually some crony who wants the land and has friends in the party to help him out.”
Local media outlets have said the amendments would provide a sustainable legal framework for Vietnam’s continued development and integration of public and private sectors. But some critics say the amendments only reaffirm the state's central role in the economy.
Riddled by mismanagement and corruption, the state-run sector has racked up billions of dollars of debts and is considered by many to be the root cause of Vietnam’s current economic problems.
Adam Sitkoff, director of the American Chamber of Commerce, says the American business community is disappointed with the final draft.
“Corruption and conflict of interest issues are embedded in the fabric of how SOE's [state owned enterprises] work in Vietnam," he said. "Without addressing fundamental governance issues, the problem of reform is going to remain challenging because investors that come in are wondering which overextended SOE conglomerate is going to be the next one to fail or... be forced to take bad assets onto their balance sheets.”
Inclusion of the wording on state-enterprises could also impede negotiations on the U.S.-led trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Sitkoff says.
“One of the things in TPP is the state-owned enterprise chapter that seeks to level the playing field, and so the fact that in the final text that that somehow snuck back in is almost seen as a step backwards.”
Sitkoff says while many other countries in the region face similar problems, Vietnam has to introduce reforms in order to be competitive.
Although the country has attracted substantial foreign investment, Sitkoff says it is limited to certain sectors , and the government cannot afford to take anything for granted.