With Quang’s death, is political change on the horizon?
Ever since Vietnam’s president, Trần Đại Quang, died in late September, the country’s political landscape is in uproar. The leading figure behind widespread repressive measures imposed on Vietnamese society, Quang left behind a history of human rights abuses and political repression. With the president out of the picture, is change a real prospect for Vietnam?
At the age of 61, Quang died last week in a military hospital in Hanoi following a year-long battle with an unspecified serious illness. A former chief of internal security who became one of the most high-profile leaders of communist Vietnam, Quang’s demise has opened up a gaping power vacuum. The Vietnamese leadership shares power between four “pillars”, made up of the president, prime minister, chief of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) and the national assembly chair. The vice president, Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, will assume the president’s duties until a new president is elected by the national assembly late next month.
Though the presidency is a typically ceremonial role, each iteration of the position and its corresponding influence is dependent “largely on the personality” of the individual who holds it, according to Huong Le Thu, senior Vietnam analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The 2016 re-appointment of Nguyen Phu Trong as the general security of the VCP was one such case of personality-led politics. A leader of the party’s old guard, Trong holds Soviet-style economic training, and has long seen China as a key ideological and strategic ally. A budding Quang-Trong rivalry had been an open secret in Vietnamese politics since last year, with the latter determined to underscore the ideological roots of the Party. The loss of Quang, then, is a spanner in the works of the Politburo’s rival factions.
Yet internal political wrangling aside, Trần Đại Quang certainly left his mark on Vietnamese society, earning himself a fearsome reputation for his orchestration of a wave of crackdowns against dissenters. In the words of Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, “President Quang’s legacy is a multi-year crackdown on human rights and putting more political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam than any time in recent memory.”
Accordingly, Quang is seen by many pro-democracy activists and rights groups as responsible for the expansion of the Ministry of Public Security’s reach into daily life in the country. This was marked by a significant increase in police presence and rights abuses, corruption and extortion right along with it. The violence only exacerbated following America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). An ensuing crackdown saw bloggers and prominent activists – including previous political prisoners like Nguyen Bac Truyen and Truong Minh Duc – sentenced to long prison terms absent international diplomatic oversight.
But it is not only dissidents that have come to feel the anger of the government under Quang’s iron fist. The living conditions of Vietnam’s 53 ethnic minorities have declined across the board as well. Despite two decades of economic growth and rising wealth in society, ethnic minorities in the country continue to be regarded as a national underclass.
Shunned groups like the Lai Dai Han – children born to Vietnamese women as a result of sexual violence by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War – have struggled for recognition and inclusive treatment. Tens of thousands of adults with mixed Vietnamese-Korean ancestry live on the margins of Vietnamese society, although they have begun to call for justice for their families.
The Lai Dai Han are a fraction of the 12 million people out of Vietnam’s 90 million population that stem from minority backgrounds, but their plight is shared equally. Minorities consistently account for more than two-fifths of Vietnam’s poor. One study found that minority workers are paid up to a quarter less, for the same work, than their ethnic majority Kinh colleagues.
Moreover, ethnic and indigenous groups like the Hmong and Montagnards routinely see their lands confiscated and are forbidden from practicing their religions as the government considers them a menace to societal peace. After the Vietnam War, Hmong and Montagnards were subject to long “re-education,” torture and hard labour in prison camps owing to their alignment with the US military. To this day, they often receive little to no compensation for the land that is taken from them, despite the fact that it tends to be their major source of food and income.
It is important to consider that Quang was able to exert so much influence over Vietnam’s internal political scene because of his ability to manoeuvre the party landscape and establish a strong presence in the government. Given the strength of Quang’s voice as president, and the ensuing rivalry with Trong it caused, the next president is likely to be a weaker figure. Trong is likely going to promote a less boisterous and ambitious character for the presidential office.
Former VCP Central Inspection Commission head Tran Quoc Vuong or Ho Chi Minh City Party Secretary Nguyen Thien Nhan are among the names that have been floated as potential successors of Quang, leading to a reshuffle within the VCP architecture as responsibilities are being redistributed. This comes at a time when the VCP Seventh Plenum also focused on internal Party reform to revamp the government without ceding ground to democratisation demands.
Quang’s death will undoubtedly usher in a new era for Vietnam’s VCP, with the coming reshuffle to set the political agenda for years to come. For society, however, things will remain the same. Calls for basic human rights are sure to go unheeded by a Trong-dominated government, Quang or no Quang.