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Vietnam as Tunisia in waiting

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Published by Asia Time
By Adam Boutzan

Successful rebellions are inherently unpredictable. The middle-class revolt that recently toppled the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia can only be explained in retrospect; hardly anyone, apparently, saw it coming.

Analysts now are pointing to the combustible mix of too many educated young people and too few jobs, a "kleptocratic elite", and the failure of the state security apparatus to defend the regime when the chips were down.

Other analysts are debating whether the Tunisian example will be replicated in neighboring Arab nations, including Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen, and if so, how ought the world's democracies respond to the turmoil.

Foreign ministries from Washington, London, Tokyo to Paris and Berlin are trying to guess what posture is most likely to preserve their governments' ability to find common ground to work with whoever ends up on top of the heap if a revolt succeeds, yet not upset current relationships if the incumbents weather the challenge.

If they are wise, they won't just look at the Arab world.

The revolt in Tunisia looks a lot like the protests that rocked the mullah-cracy in Iran a little more than a year ago. It wasn't about Islam but rather about social justice and personal freedoms. And if that is true, analysts ought to be considering its relevance to all nations, Islamic or not, in awkward stages of development.

In many developing nations education and digitally driven social networking have made young, urban populations aware of what they haven't got. In some places, they haven't got the stuff someone can buy if he or she had a steady job. In other places, they haven't got the right to say what they think or change their leaders, let alone their system.

Vietnam falls into this second category.

Since 1991, the Communist Party elite has done remarkably well at putting stuff into the hands of its citizens. A population that is still haunted by the memory of the abject poverty engendered by the failure of Vietnam's attempt to build real socialism (1975-1986) is happy with what a US$1,200 per capita income brings: better housing, enough to eat, a motorbike, TV, and money to spend on occasional luxuries. The Forbes Magazine-sponsored Happiness Index survey regularly finds the Vietnamese to be among the most optimistic that life will keep getting better.

Yet a handful of Vietnamese persist in complaining in blogs, on Facebook and its ilk that material wealth is not enough and that elemental political freedoms are lacking. So far, the great majority of Vietnamese regard such people quizzically, if at all, as oddballs who haven't learned to color within the lines. They shrug when these malcontents are beaten up or jailed for such crimes as "using the Internet to promote a multiparty system and democracy".

The political passivity of most Vietnamese can't be explained by ignorance of the outside world. The livelier newspapers have reported frequently and without apparent censorship on the events in Tunisia and now Egypt since the Ben Ali regime was toppled in mid-month. And, just as when the riots that rocked Bangkok a year ago were daily media fare, the prevailing sentiment seems to be "thank God that doesn't happen here".

In a nation that was once officially egalitarian but where ostentatious displays of new wealth are now common, a lot of young, educated city people simply aspire to achieve the same degree of vulgarity. Almost all citizens believe that with hard work and a little luck, they'll lead better, easier lives.

The Legatum Institute's "Prosperity Index", a meta-analysis published on January 26, reported that Vietnam had jumped 16 places in the last year and is now 61st of 110 nations surveyed. Tunisia ranked 48th in the same "global assessment of wealth and well-being".

A Vietnamese Communist Party congress has just renewed the nation's political elite, promoting some and retiring others. Often heard through the fog of white noise that pervades such events was emphasis on the importance of continuing to deliver economic growth. Not just quantitative growth, but qualitative growth as well - the sort of investments and policies that can lift Vietnam out of the ranks of the exporters of raw materials and sweatshop goods.

That's a promise that the Hanoi regime may not be able to deliver. Perhaps party members understand that the legitimacy of their rule now depends intimately on delivering ever higher living standards and will act accordingly. However, it seems just as likely that reformers within the ruling party will continue to be hobbled by a sclerotic system characterized by patronage, pervasive corruption and local fiefdoms.

If Vietnam's quarter-century economic advance were to stutter or stall, trouble may well follow. There are millions of youth on motorbikes, each with a 3G mobile phone - anyone who has seen celebrations of football victories by Vietnam's national squad can imagine this same energy turned to political agitation. And if as in Tunisia the mood turned decidedly ugly, if a minor clash or two produced martyrs, if tens of thousands were to challenge the powers that be, can the regime depend on its protectors, the People's Police?

Vietnam, a nation of 86 million, has 1.2 million police according to an estimate by respected security analyst Carl Thayer. Collectively they are a corrupt, abusive, ubiquitous presence that ordinary people avoid insofar as possible. Individually, most police are - as reportedly is the case in Tunisia - lower middle-class people who regard a police career as a way to get ahead.

Specialized police units excel in monitoring and squashing Vietnamese who share their seditious opinions with others. Internal security officials regularly warn that Vietnam's enemies aim to launch an East European-type "color revolution". The police are aided by laws that prohibit the establishment of independent advocacy groups, the sinews of civil society in most nations.

Vietnam's political dissidents appear to be marginalized and few in number, and as long as that's the case no match for the police.
And yet, suppose economic growth did stutter or stall? And suppose a young Vietnamese with a university degree, unable to find steady work, set up a sidewalk business vending watermelons? Suppose several policemen busted him for vending without a permit and confiscated his wares? Suppose he protested to the powers that be and was ignored or humiliated?

These things happen often in Vietnam. And suppose that the young educated vendor then dowsed himself with gasoline in front of a local party headquarters and lit a match?

Adam Boutzan, a pseudonym, is an independent writer.