In their intolerance of valid criticism, Vietnam and Laos are only hurting themselves
The governments of Laos and Vietnam have only hampered their countries’ progress by, in the first case, slapping three activists with harsh prison sentences and, in the second, stripping a mathematician of his citizenship. In both cases, talented people who could have benefited their homelands have been cast aside. Their nations’ futures have been denied their respective gifts because they criticised the ruling regimes – both of which claim to be socialist in nature. They should instead be upholding socialism’s methodology of encouraging critiques to strengthen government and society.
Lao activists Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad and Lodkham Thammavong were sentenced in late March to 20, 16 and 12 years’ imprisonment, respectively. They were judged guilty of treason, issuing propaganda against the state and holding gatherings aimed at causing social disorder. Between September 2014 and February 2016 they’d participated in activities critical of the government. In December 2015, at a demonstration outside the Lao embassy in Bangkok, they’d expressed dissatisfaction with their government’s human-rights record.
And so they should have: Vientiane has never adequately addressed the 2012 disappearance of prominent community activist Sombath Somphone, a globally recognised figure. His apparent abduction indelibly scarred Laos’ international reputation. The three activists in their public statements also railed against government corruption and deforestation, the fight against which Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has allied himself.
The three were arrested in March last year when they returned to Laos to renew their passports. Before their court hearing they were held incommunicado, only to finally show up on
state-run television apologising for being traitors to the party, government and people. It can only have been a forced confession, and thus a violation of rights standards adopted by the United Nations, of which Laos is a member. In January 2015 Laos pledged to guarantee the freedoms of expression, of the press, and of assembly and association in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights it ratified in 2009.
Vietnam ratified the same UN convention in September 1982, and yet has an appalling record on rights. In the latest case, sparking international outrage, blogger Pham Minh Hoang was stripped of his citizenship and deported to France, where he’d lived a long time. Hanoi saw the former mathematician as an enemy because of his calls for democracy, but he surely represented no threat to the government.
Hoang lived in France from 1973 to 2000, when he returned to work as a mathematics lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City’s Polytechnic University. He was convicted in 2011 for publishing articles critical of the government, served 17 months in jail and another three years under house arrest – and then resumed his criticism. For its own good, the communist regime should have been far more tolerant. Hoang has the skills to contribute significantly to the country’s ongoing economic reforms. He was nurturing the next generation of mathematicians. His advocacy of workers’ rights and human rights in general should have been welcomed as well.
In Vietnam, as in Laos (and, yes, Thailand), freedom of expression ought to be a fundamental right, and if given even guarded leeway can bring much benefit to society. Smart leaders know that a country cannot be built except on a foundation of respect for the people.