Vietnam is gearing up for its next party congress, which begins April 19. The timing could not be worse for the conclave, which occurs every five years. There is unrest in the central highlands and growing discontent with the party leadership, and the economy, which is ticking along quite nicely, will come under strain as global growth slows.
The most pressing issue is the ethnic unrest in the central highlands. A wave of protest in the provinces of Dhalak and Gia Lai in the middle of the country, the worst such incidents in years, has shaken the Communist Party leadership. There will be no quick fix: Poverty, religion and an uneasy ethnic mix all contribute to the tensions.
Part of the problem is religion. Communist parties are never comfortable with divided allegiances; Vietnam’s party has a history of suppressing both Buddhists and Christians. In recent months, Christian protests have sparked confrontations between the government and believers; scores have been hurt and several killed. In an attempt to stem the violence, the government last month granted nationwide recognition to a Protestant church, the Evangelical Church of Vietnam. That is a start, but only just: The ECV accounts for only about 25,000 of Vietnam’s estimated 750,000 Protestants. Buddhists have won no such relief. Human-rights groups complain that Hanoi continues its crackdown against adherents of the faith.
The religion problem is intertwined with another issue: Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, who make up 15 percent of the country’s population. For example, Protestantism is popular among the Hmong people because that church preaches in their native tongue. When persecuted by the government, they have fled to the central highlands from the north. Friction between local Vietnamese and resettled Hmong add to the tension. Refugees take land away from longtime residents, and land is dear in the central highlands. Finally, there is a problem of history: The Hmong are looked at with suspicion because of their close ties to the United States during the Vietnam War. Some officials have even accused Washington of stirring up the recent unrest.
Cooler heads concede that the causes of the problem are homegrown. Vietnam’s Commission for Ethnic Minorities and Mountainous Areas acknowledges that the government has come up with “no effective measures” to deal with “difficulties” among Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Land is in short supply and traditional cultivation practices have contributed to deforestation, which compounds the problems. Poor harvests have aggravated the situation; in Dhalak Province the government estimates that 100,000 people need aid, two and a half times the normal number of people who require assistance at this time of the year. As a stopgap measure, Hanoi is providing emergency food aid for ethnic minority groups.
If there is a bright spot, it is the economy. According to official figures, the economy grew 7.2 percent in the first quarter of this year, just below the government’s 7.5 percent target. But Vietnam will not be immune to the slowdown in the global economy; foreign markets will contract and commodity prices should fall.
Continued growth is essential, however, if the government is to keep unrest under control. In one promising sign, the government last week announced that it will inaugurate a new trade policy in May that will lower tariffs for a wide range of products over the next five years. Trade policy is only one part of what must be a broad-based reform program. That is why next week’s national party congress is so important: It will lay out the economic plan for the next five years and select the Central Committee that will pick the Politburo that will lead the country.
The current Central Committee met last weekend to finalize recommendations for the congress. Usually, about one-third of Central Committee and Politburo members step down, because of old age. But there are rumors that Party Secretary General Le Kha Phieu and Prime Minister Phan Van Khai will be forced to retire at this year’s meeting. Reportedly, there is widespread dissatisfaction within the party about their leadership and their commitment to reform.
The new leadership must end the doubts. Progress toward economic liberalization has been halfhearted. Foreign investment has been deterred by government interference and concerns about the rule of law. For nearly a decade, the world has seen Vietnam as a tiger in waiting, eager to unleash its potential. Those dreams remain largely unfulfilled. The party congress is the time to get the country back on track.
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