By Martin Petty
HANOI (Reuters) - The Vietnam of today wasn't what Le Hieu Dang had hoped for when he joined the Communist Party 40 years ago to liberate and rebuild a country reeling from decades of war and French and U.S. occupation.
The socialist system of the late revolutionary Ho Chi Minh has been corrupted, he says, by a shift to a market economy tightly controlled by one political party that has given rise to a culture of graft and vested interests.
"I fought in the war for a better society, a fair life for people. But after the war, the country has worsened, the workers are poor, the farmers have lost their land," Dang told Reuters.
"It's unacceptable. We have a political monopoly and a dictatorship running this country."
Opinions like this might be normal in many countries. But in Vietnam, where politics is taboo, free speech is stifled and the image of unity in the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) sacrosanct, analysts say the significance of comrades speaking out publicly cannot be understated.
The CPV-dominated National Assembly on Thursday approved amendments to a 1992 constitution that, despite a public consultation campaign, entrench the party's grip on power at a time when discontent simmers over its handling of land disputes, corruption and an economy suffocated by toxic debt amassed by state-run firms.
Dang is vehemently against the amendments, and not alone in his views, which are of the kind that have landed dozens of people in jail as part of a crackdown that's intensified as dissent has risen and internet usage soared to a third of the 90 million population.
Draconian cyber laws were tightened further on Wednesday, when the government announced a 100 million dong ($4,740) fine for anyone who criticizes it on social media.
But what has jolted the party is that the loudest voices calling for a more pluralist system are coming not from the general public, but from within its own ranks, an open act of mutiny not seen since the CPV took power of a reunified Vietnam in 1975, after the communists' triumph over U.S. forces.
"Vietnam has entered a new phase. The existence of rivalries within the party is already known, but it's now more transparent in a way never seen in the past," said Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert at City University in Hong Kong.
"The rise of this group and its advice will influence the tenor of party discussion. What's clear is this is a period of uncertainty and competition."
CRISIS AND DEADLOCK
This year, Dang and 71 others, among them intellectuals, bloggers and current and former CPV apparatchiks, drafted their own version of the constitution, in response to a routine public feedback campaign ostensibly aimed at placating people and boosting the party's dwindling legitimacy.
Their draft was posted online and 15,000 people signed an accompanying petition calling for the scrapping of Article 4, which enshrines the CPV's political monopoly.
But lawmakers did the opposite and redrafted the article to expand the CPV's leadership role and the military's duty to protect it. In a summary of 26 million public opinions on the draft, a commission of the National Assembly said the majority of Vietnamese supported one-party rule.
"Theoretically, democracy is not synonymous with pluralism," the commission said in a report in May. "No one can affirm that multiple political parties are better than one party."
On Thursday, not a single lawmaker rejected the new draft, which expanded Article 4 to state the party is "the vanguard of the Vietnamese workers, people and nation".
A draft of the amendments, published weeks ago, outraged opponents.
The initial 72 democracy advocates were joined by others and 165 of them, including retired government officials, published a statement on the Internet two weeks ago warning lawmakers to reject the amendments.
They said if National Assembly members passed the amendments, they would be complicit in a "crime against the country and its people" and would "only push the country deeper into crisis and deadlock".
Many of the party's open critics took part in the wars to liberate Vietnam from Western powers in the 1950s, '60s and '70s and have become new revolutionaries of sorts, confronting issues that most Vietnamese are afraid to discuss.
Nguyen Quang A was once part of an advisory think-tank which disbanded itself after the government introduced laws that limited the scope of its work five years ago.
It included former CPV members, diplomats, businessmen and academics. But they stay in touch at monthly meetings to debate social, economic and political issues, some of which they address in commentaries posted online.
"We want to create an environment to facilitate the emergence of other political forces and put forward a process to transition from dictatorship to democracy," he told Reuters.
"We hope some of our members can play a bridging role to make the party listen to us. It takes time, but we have to pressure them to change and convince people not to be afraid."
Dang and his CPV allies are going a step further. They plan to remain in the party so they can drum up support from disenchanted members to set up an opposition party to scrutinize the CPV's policies and keep it in check.
Despite their fierce rhetoric, they insist the plan to set up the Social Democratic Party is not an attempt to overthrow the ruling party but an attempt to create a more liberal coexistence between parties that would benefit the country.
Ho Ngoc Nhuan, vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City branch of the Fatherland Front, the CPV's umbrella group that manages big organizations under Marxist-Leninist principles, said the feedback campaign and constitution amendments were a "tragic comedy" that showed the party was out of touch with the people.
It was time, he said, to shake up Vietnamese politics.
"We face many problems in Vietnam, big crises, so how can we solve it with one all-powerful party? We have to get their attention, so we're calling comrades in the party to join us so we can break this chain," Nhuan said, admitting that it was proving difficult to convince them.
"The new generation can't explain socialism to us anymore. They're called the Communist Party, but they no longer believe in their own ideology."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)