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World Perspective | VIETNAM

Big Brother Still Knows Best but Now Keeps Some Distance


HANOI — On Sundays, the magnificent Catholic cathedral on Nha Tho Street is packed for Mass. Pagodas throughout the country again buzz with activity. Small groups of farmers gather outside the Communist Party headquarters here almost daily to meet with officials who hear--and sometimes act on--their grievances.

The press is no longer just a monolithic propaganda machine, and scores of lively newspapers have sprung up. Artists have newfound leeway to choose their topics and display their work abroad. One of Vietnam's most respected novelists, Dung Thu Huong, told People magazine in April: "The government is a bunch of liars. They are corrupt, ignorant, incompetent leaders." She did not go to prison.

All this might not seem reflective of life in a repressive society, but Vietnam's policy on human rights remains the subject of ongoing controversy. The U.S. State Department and New York-based Human Rights Watch summed up the situation with similar assessments in their recent annual reports: Human rights in Vietnam have improved significantly in recent years but still fall far short of acceptable international standards.

"Dissidents of all kinds are less frequently imprisoned than in the past," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, director of the rights group's Asia division. "Instead they are subjected to less overt forms of harassment and intimidation, including surveillance and restriction of their freedom of movement or their ability to work. But the threat of imprisonment remains real for those who publicly challenge the party's authority."

Vietnam rejected the Human Rights Watch report as biased and maintains that there are no political prisoners among the estimated 66,000 inmates held in the nation's 48 prisons.

Although human rights activists say dissidents aren't killed, don't disappear and aren't tortured in Vietnam, Amnesty International has listed more than 40 people who are in prison or under house arrest for religious or political activities--undertakings that Hanoi contends would threaten national security.

Vietnam's official policy is straightforward: The Communist Party--headed by 18 elderly Politburo members whose lives were shaped by war and ideology--knows what is best for 77 million Vietnamese.

Le Kha Phieu, the party's secretary-general, said last summer: "Our people won't allow any political power-sharing with any other forces. Any ideas to promote 'absolute democracy,' to put human rights above sovereignty, or support multi-party or political pluralism, are lies and cheating."

But in the past few years, human rights activists say, Vietnamese authority has become less intrusive in the lives of ordinary citizens and the party has concentrated its energies on the handful of dissidents who speak out, such as Gen. Tran Do, a wartime hero and a member of the Communist Party for 58 years. He was expelled from the party last year and generally put off-limits to diplomats and journalists after criticizing the party.

"I never anticipated that my original dreams of building a strong and beautiful society could turn into today's bitter reality--a society that has independence but does not yet have freedom," Do wrote in 1998. "Sooner or later, the party will have to change. 'Change or die' is a slogan that is very applicable to today's party."

Change has come, albeit modestly. The Big Brother neighborhood monitors aren't as intrusive now. Citizens are able to freely move about the country, to get passports for travel abroad, to socialize with foreigners in their homes. Foreign-language publications such as Newsweek and the International Herald Tribune are widely available in the cities; the Internet and satellite TV are increasingly accessible.

Reduced government interference in daily lives also has led to a resurgence of religion, which is practiced openly but under the auspices of official organizations. Freedom of religion is protected under Vietnam's Constitution, as are the independence of judges and juries, and freedom of speech and the press.

Hanoi would argue that it hasn't violated those guarantees. Human rights activists, however, contend that the party views individual freedom as subservient to its own survivability, which, they say, is inherently contradictory.

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