Mired in economic malaise, attacked by bloggers and riven by infighting within the ruling Communist Party, Vietnam took an unusual step last week -- it apologized.
In a widely broadcast speech, Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong acknowledged that the government had failed to curb corruption in its top ranks. The statement was widely read as an indictment of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who has come under fire from his party and the public in recent weeks.
The government statement spared Dung from any stiffer action. But experts say the apology is not the end of the saga but rather just the latest result of a host of greater problems that have put pressure on the Vietnamese government as competing factions fight for control.
“It’s half time and the score is still zero to zero,” said David Koh, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “The ones seeking to bring [Dung] down are still in power.”
The Communist Party in Vietnam has been divided between hard-liners and those who back the opening of its market, said Michael Buehler, a Northern Illinois University professor and Southeast Asia expert with the Asia Society. Dung falls into the second camp.
The prime minister has faced corruption scandals in state-owned enterprises as the country liberalizes its markets. In August, one of his allies was arrested for conducting “illegal business.” At the same time, economic woes in once-booming Vietnam have worked against Dung.
The government made some serious errors leading up to the bust, said Jonathan Pincus, a Vietnam-based specialist with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Large enterprises owned by the state were allowed to borrow heavily and speculate on land and finance, Pincus said. Some lost big. Corruption reportedly also played into the woes of the faltering state shipbuilder and shipping company.
“The reason people have tolerated things for so long is the party has claimed the system is giving them a better life,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of Southeast Asia programs at Freedom House. “That the government is taking care of you. All these stories of corruption and cronyism -- and all the genuine economic woes that Vietnam is undergoing -- are cracking that open.”
Bloggers have lashed the prime minister with accusations of shady dealings. One blog that professes to reveal the inner workings of the government is named “Officials Doing Journalism,” hinting that it is being written by government insiders. The fact that the blog has so far gone unpunished while many other online critics have been jailed only adds to the intrigue.
“What is really unique about this latest incident is the blogging crowd has really gone after party insiders to an incredible degree,” Buehler said. “It’s given the Vietnamese public insight into how the party works.”
Besides the public apology, the government also appears to be mollifying its citizens through other steps, such as banning Communist Party members from holding lavish weddings. But experts caution the apparent efforts at appeasement do not mean the Communist Party is weakening in the country.
“This is an attempt for the regime to distance itself from the ‘outliers’ and continue as it has been,” Gunawardena-Vaughn said. “They want to salvage a problematic situation and move on.”
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary-General Nguyen Phu Trong, foreground, and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung prepare to attend the opening session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on Monday. Credit: Hoang Din Nam / AFP/Getty Images