Vietnam: Amending the constitution

abcnews.auABC reporter Richard Aedy:

Saturday 16 March 2013 7:45AM.

Now to Vietnam.

The government there wants to change the constitution. It was written in 1946 and was amended 4 times since, and most recently in 1992. From January to the end of this month the government has asked for public comment on the draft amendment,  but it hasn’t been pleased with the comments that have come in. Party’s Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said some of the comments (quote) “show the decline of political thought and morality in Vietnam”. So,What is going on?

I’m joined with Dr Jonathan London, assistant professor of Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.

Jonathan, welcome to the program

Dr Jonathan London: Thank you very much for having me.

Let’s start. Why is it? Why the government want to alter the constitution?

Well, I think that many authoritarian governments, Vietnam included, have believed in to occasionally make constitution changes, not only to insure the constitution is in line with the demand of the government but also is the way of trying to boost their legitamicy of the government in the eyes of their population.

What does it want to change, specifically?

Some of the items that were up for discussion relate to Vietnam’s transition to the market economy, and, you know, essentially Vietnam has been under the market economy for the last twenty years since the last constitutional revision. There are some aspects of the constitution that require adjustment or amendment to make them more suitable.

There is also though, as I understand, an amendment that would completely reinforce the grip of the communist party on the State?

Well, in the last several alternations of the constitution, the communist party’s claim its political authority is fairly established in Article 4. It is also stated in the preamble of the constitution that the party is the indispensable force in Vietnam’s politic and social life and so a fundamental part of the constitution is to assert the supremacy of the party.

And the army is subject to the party rather to the state, isn’t it?

That’s right. As in most one party states, the constitution specifically states the military and state are subordinates of the party, it’s the same in the case of Vietnam’s constitution as well.

Now, you mentioned that it brings in line more with the fact that it’s a market economy and pretty much it has been since the last amendment was made. So those reforms making to the market economy, have they led to, well, to a fairer society?

Vietnam has experienced over two decades rapid economic growth and most of the population have benefited very significantly in the same tangible improvement. And what occurred along the way is it creates inequality and some indications that inequality of incomes and assets are actually intensified within the last several years. And what occurred recently is slow down of Vietnam economic growth due to both development of world economy and also system’s macro-economic turbulence in Vietnam are related to economic mismanagement, and some of its macro-economic turbulences have been generating economic insecurity among the population, exasperating social vulnerability. Now overlaying this, it has been an increasing sense that corruption has really taken whole of the government and make it not only ineffective in managing the economy but also unaccountable and lacking of clear vision for Vietnam’s future.

Right, I have been holding myself back, Jonathan, until this point. But given that, what are the suggestions and comments on the proposed constitutional changes that are so upset the party’s leader there?

Well, firstly I would say that the launching of public consultation was intended to be a ritualistic event that there will be some minor expressions of disapproval but it was more something like a generally state mass which the party and State have not anticipated. What it has gotten is a remarkable out-pouring of supports for major constitutional reform and major political reform. They were started with a petition signed by a group of 72 notible intellectual and public figures. Most of them have long and strong tie with the party and State. And their suggestions include the abolishment of Article 4 which recognises the communist party is the supreme and indisputable political force, getting rid of the Article which states the army should be the subordinate of the party as well as getting rid of the preamble of the constitution which resolves the indispensability of the (communist) party, also undertaking the constitutional reform to ensure the rule of law which Vietnam presently doesn’t have. Really it was a classic recommendation that Vietnam adopts a multi-party democratic constitution they drew the party’s ire.

Yes, so the party puts out its draft which primarily focus on reflecting the fact it is market economy having it reflecting in the constitution. And instead the group, in fact a small group of intellectuals it has to be said, published something, it says actually we want to say much more important things. But there is something different, isn’t it? Even with seventy odd intellectuals signing something like that and became something, I don’t know, a more mass movement. How was that happened?

Well, there were a few things. Firstly, the initial petition that was signed by the 72 intellectuals started to gather support as it was circulated in the internet and increasing the number of people signed the petition. One of the dramatic things, however, occurred in the aftermath of the speech that General secretary of the (Vietnamese) Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong, made to some provincial political officials in which he complained that there are ideological retrograde tendency and even unethical behaviour among some of the people who involved in asking for constitutional reform. A young journalist, Nguyen Dac Kien, who writes for a relatively obscured news paper called “Family and Society” went on line, and on his webpage he responded to the party general secretary’s remark that was televised. He launched a scavenging attack in which he actually said the party’s general secretary is completely wrong in his sentiment. And Nguyen Dac Kien, the journalist, who lost his job, no surprise there the day after, reiterated Vietnam needs to abandon out (restriction) for the competition and draft the constitution based on multi-party democracy. And that, in turn, was followed by an explosion of activities that went viral and the original petition has up-warded to more than ten thousand signatures at this point in time. Most recently the party and state tried to discredit the signatories of the petition and have tried to suggest, as they often do, that many people call for fundamental reform represent (quote) “hostile forces” (unquote). So they tried to bottle it all up. But in the meantime there have been some really remarkable and impressed development in Vietnam’s politics around this constitutional reform.

So what…what has specifically happened since then?

Well, there have been no arrest yet, that might well happen, really the most significant thing is intangible which is, you know, Vietnam has never seen anything quite like this, and we would be foolish to predict it would resolve in any important constitutional reform. They represent a credit juncture of sort in the development of Vietnam’s political culture. Because never in Vietnam’s contemporary history has politic being discussed in a quite critical and open manner. I think, regardless what will occur in the next month, it has a significant development in that politic in Vietnam is all of a sudden interested. You know this is the country with enormous up-potential and there are lots of frustrations that problems with government and with the lack of accountability and incompetent are hurting the future of the country. It’s really tangible in Vietnam and people are sensing the opportunity of finding their political void.

Jonathan London, Department of Asian and International Studies, at the City University of Hong Kong.