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Vietnam's Crackdown on Political Dissent Described as Boon for Business

  • Ralph Jennings

FILE - A U.S-trained lawyer and well-known dissident Le Quoc Quan, right, listens to the judge during his trial in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Economic analysts say many foreign investors are finding an up side to the suppression of dissent in Vietnam, taking comfort in the expectation of business stability as the country’s one-party government moves toward a landmark economic summit later in the year.

Plain-clothed authorities beat rights campaigners and bloggers in 36 incidents between January 2015 and April 2017, often resulting in serious injuries, the New York advocacy group Human Rights Watch said Sunday. Some had joined demonstrations to protect the environment or pushed for human rights, the group said.

Analysts in the country say foreign investors and others with business in Vietnam will either ignore the suppression or take it as a sign that the government is eliminating possible threats to its promotion of a fast-growing economy that depends largely on foreign direct investment.

“At the moment it’s almost implicit that the one-party state will continue indefinitely, and if you want to really criticize it in public, you’re asking for trouble,” said Adam McCarty, chief economist with Mekong Economics in Hanoi. “Businessmen like that sort of stability. You might object to it ethically, morally or on democratic grounds, but on business grounds, it’s a stable business environment.”

Executives from the American and European chambers of commerce in Ho Chi Minh City were unavailable for comment Wednesday on what member companies think of Vietnam's human rights issues.

FILE - Vietnamese Americans protest outside the White House before U.S. President Donald Trump's meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in Washington.
FILE - Vietnamese Americans protest outside the White House before U.S. President Donald Trump's meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in Washington.

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The Southeast Asian Communist government is keen to control dissent ahead of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leadership meetings that it will host through November, analysts say. Vietnam first hosted APEC in 2006. U.S. President Donald Trump and leaders from 20 other countries could attend this year.

Vietnam wants to avoid any embarrassment from protests while showing foreign APEC guests it is “open-minded and eager,” said Frederick Burke, partner with the international law firm Baker & McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.

“There’s not much to complain about, I think. (APEC) will be a big showcase for Vietnam,” McCarty said. “The authorities just don’t want it to be used as a protest scene, as well.”

Human Rights Watch said Vietnamese agents beat activists and bloggers with “impunity.” The rights group demanded Sunday that the government end the attacks and hold the perpetrators responsible. Donor governments, it added, should tell Vietnam to stop.

Vietnamese prosecutors also have formally charged Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger better known as Mother Mushroom, over suspected anti-state propaganda. The blogger, who was awarded the International Women of Courage Award in absentia from U.S. first lady Melania Trump in March, faces 12 years in prison if convicted.

But Vietnam lets a lot of chatter pass to keep the internet open for the benefit of economic and social development, Burke said.

FILE - A man welds an iron door at his workshop in Hanoi, Vietnam.
FILE - A man welds an iron door at his workshop in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Economic growth

Vietnam’s economy grew more than 6 percent in 2015 and 2016 to $200 billion largely on the back of export manufacturing, which in turn has expanded the middle class among an overall population of 92 million. Foreign direct investment disbursements in industries from furniture to consumer electronics last year reached a record high of $15.8 billion. Four decades ago, Vietnam was emerging from wars with China and the United States.

“There’s always a lot of hot politics going and people spout off on the internet,” Burke said. “But there also still seems to be a lot of openness on the Vietnam internet. You can hang yourself from your own tree but the point is that Facebook, Google, all these thing that are closed off in China are open here and it does help the economy.

“But as usual there’s always some sensitivity in different sectors about what gets said about who and how,” he said.

EU concerns

Members of the European Parliament may seek improvements in human rights before ratifying a Vietnam free trade pact signed by negotiators in December 2015, said Oscar Mussons, senior associate with the Dezan Shira & Associates business consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City.

European Parliament members voiced concerns in February when a human rights subcommittee visited Vietnam.

Companies invested in Vietnam for cheap factory labor – a source of wildcat workplace strikes that were common before 2011 – also want to be clear on pay and hours.

“From an investor point of view they will come here and say, ‘so what’s the situation with the workers’ rights and how many hours of extra time can we have them working and what is the minimum salary?’” Mussons said. “So the investors really care about having everything into place."

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