1999 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 7.0
Civil Liberties: 7
Political Rights: 7


Vietnam has been hard hit by the Asian economic crisis. The country continued to cope with its worst economic downturn since the government initiated economic reform a decade ago. Direct foreign investments fell 48 percent in the first nine months of 1999 to $921 million, down from $1.78 billion in the same period in 1998.

The government introduced new measures to shed itself of money-losing state-owned companies. A new Enterprise Law was passed in May 1999 to simplify the establishment of local private enterprises, and by year's end the government was expected to issue a decree on the sale and leasing out of certain small state-owned enterprises. Caps on share ownership by private investors in state enterprises were also to be eliminated. On August 1, the government introduced registration for housing ownership and land use rights certification by all citizens as a step towards establishing legal ownership and transfer of property rights.

The government also tried to appease public discontent and divert blame for its own economic mismanagement by cracking down on corruption and abuse of power. Actions included heavy sentences for those found guilty of graft and corruption and expanding the penal code to cover economic crimes.

However, not all has gone smoothly. To maintain receipts from licenses and other administrative charges, the Ministry of Trade issued a new decree requiring all locally owned trading and tourism firms to acquire registration certificates for their branches or representative offices. Many wildcat strikes occurred. Most result from employers violating regulations of the Labor Code, such as extra working hours without compensation and refusing to annual pay raises. Unemployment remained high, more than nine percent in Hanoi. To alleviate the problem, the government signed numerous contracts to send 25,000 workers abroad to Taiwan, Japan, the Middle East, and other places.

There were also many social issues. Drug use and youth crimes have been increasing. In June, the government strengthened cooperation with neighboring countries against drug trafficking and launched a nationwide antidrug campaign. Society-at-large censure the children of rich families who are seen to flaunt their wealth and power. Their illegal motorcycle racing in city streets is a high profile public nuisance. The government's severe spending cuts on social services in the past decade have forced many children to lose access to public education and health care services, and the number of HIV cases is increasing. In the first three months of 1999, 85 new HIV cases were confirmed, bringing the total number of government acknowledge HIV carriers to 500.

The government continues to maintain a strong hand over society. A prominent dissident was released but his home telephone line was cut. In April, a new decree on religious freedom was issued, but police detained 20 evangelical Christians for participating in an "illegal religious event," a three-day spiritual retreat and Bible study session that was organized by the unofficial Vietnam Assemblies of God Church. The police also broke up the first meeting in 17 years between two top leaders of the independent United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. The two were exiled to different parts of the country following the creation of a state-sponsored Buddhist church in 1981. Restrictions on the national media were further tightened in June to prevent journalists from reporting anything that do not benefit the country. In December, the government announced that the customs department will increase seizures of illegally imported publications and singled out Thailand's Nation, Singapore's Straits Times, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, and the Asian Wall Street Journal for inaccurate portrayals of Vietnam.

Vietnam was colonized by France in the nineteenth century and was occupied by Japan during World War II. It gained independence in 1954 and was divided into the Republic of South Vietnam and the Communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north. After years of fighting, North Vietnam crushed the U.S.-backed South in 1975 and reunited the country under a Communist government in 1976.

In 1986, the government began decentralizing economic decision making, encouraging small-scale private enterprise, and dismantling collectivized agriculture. Economic reforms accelerated as Soviet aid dwindled after 1990, and Vietnam looked increasingly to Asia and the West. The 1992 constitution codified many economic reforms, although it retained the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) as the sole legal party. A president, who is nominally elected, replaced the collective state council. However, in practice, the VCP makes all key decisions.

The unrest and financial turmoil that swept other Southeast Asian countries in 1997 strengthened the position of hardliners and military figures adverse to economic reform. Nevertheless in 1998, several thousand prisoners, including political and religious dissidents, were released in two mass amnesties. No official reasons were given for the event. Numerous human rights groups and monitors have complained of government obstacles and harassment in attempts to observe or report on human rights practices in Vietnam.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai paid an official visit to China in October 1998, the first by a Vietnamese head of state since the two countries normalized relations in 1991. Vietnam has largely adhered to China's strategy of upholding the old political power structure of the Communist Politburo while pursuing economic reform and slowly integrating the economy into Southeast Asia's regional system. Vietnam hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit of leaders in December 1998, to mark Vietnam's full integration into the regional group.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Vietnamese cannot change their government democratically. The VCP maintains tight control of all political, economic, religious, and social affairs. The Politburo and its five-member Standing Committee decide important policy and leadership issues. The Fatherland Front, a VCP mass organization, controls candidate selection for the national assembly. New membership in the VCP has been falling in recent years. Today about 2.3 million are members out of a population of 78 million.

The judiciary is not independent. The president appoints judges, and the VCP instructs them on rulings. Though somewhat less aggressively than in past years, authorities continue to monitor the population through mandatory household registrations, block wardens, and surveillance of communications, informants, and official peasant associations. A new draft of the criminal code subjects fewer offenses to the death sentence, and the government may switch from shooting to using lethal injections and electrocution as "more civilized ways" of execution.

The media are state-owned, and in recent years, the government has shut down several newspapers for violating the narrow limits on permissible reporting. In a recent case, a prominent newspaper editor was detained for more than a year for reporting on high-level corruption. The government has announced plans to regulate local Internet use, which has been growing at 30 percent annually. It is unclear how this will be carried out in practice.

Assemblies require a permit and are limited to occasional small demonstrations over nonpolitical issues. Vietnamese have some latitude to criticize government corruption and inefficiency, but it is illegal to advocate political reform. Foreign aid money has helped to launch several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Vietnam. Although they are government controlled or licensed, NGOs offer another avenue for assistance to better reach the grassroots communities. There are now around 300 government-approved NGOs.

All clergy must belong to the government-organized Buddhist, Christian, or Roman Catholic churches and must obtain permission to hold meetings or training seminars, operate religious schools, appoint clergy, and repair places of worship. In the central highlands, the government restricts the Protestant religious affairs of the ethnic Montagnards and has arrested clergy and worshippers. Authorities reportedly restrict exit permits for Muslims seeking to make the religious pilgrimage to Mecca.

All unions must belong to the state-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, and all union leaders are VCP members. The 1994 Labor Code recognizes only a limited right to strike and allows the prime minister or the court to terminate strikes for national good.

Local authorities impose internal travel, education, and employment restrictions on ethnic minorities. Women face social and employment discrimination. Prostitution of women and children and international trafficking for that purpose were reportedly increasing.

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