Vietnam’s 1st Think Tank Disbanded

A scholarly institute rejects new government orders covering what members can and cannot do.
2009-09-16
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Members of the Institute of Development Studies shown in an undated photo.
Members of the Institute of Development Studies shown in an undated photo.
Courtesy of www.vnids.com

BANGKOK—Vietnamese scholars have dissolved the country's first independent think tank to protest a government decree curbing the right to conduct, publish, and openly discuss research.

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS), comprising 16 of Vietnam’s most widely esteemed scholars and economists, announced the decision on its Web site late Monday, hours before the decree took effect. IDS was founded in 2007.

“We believe that if we continue our operations tomorrow as we did before, we will face a lot of trouble,” IDS president Nguyen Quang A said in an interview.

Pham Chi Lan, an economist and IDS vice president, said, “With this new decision, we can hardly operate. It would be very difficult for us to raise our voice as an institution.”

In a statement posted online, the think tank said, “‘On Sept. 14, 2009, IDS’s council convened and decided to disband the institute to protest Decision No. 97,” signed by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on July 24.

Approved topics

The decision prescribes a list of 267 topics that scientific and technical organizations are allowed to study and bars them from publishing results bearing on government policies.

One article of the decision states, “If a scientific or technical organization has opinions commenting on the guidelines or policies of the Party or the state, it must send them to authorized party or state bodies and is not permitted to publish them under the organization’s name.”

It also bars scholars from discussing their research openly.

Asked in an interview whether IDS may have failed to provide sufficient transparency regarding whether IDS received money from foreign countries to operate, Dr. A replied, “No, definitely no. There is no such thing. That is a slander.”

“We also sent a letter to the security body on Jan. 16, 2009, as well as to members of the Politburo and the Central Committee of the Party, about this matter, but have not received any response,” Dr. A said.

“Our experts will continue their work independently, as private researchers. As to the future, we will have to wait to see if the government changes its policy.”

'People will scoff'

IDS initially protested the decision in an Aug. 6 letter, it said.

The Ministry of Justice, on behalf of the prime minister, responded that government directives outlining appropriate areas of research and publishing are common worldwide.

“We have done thorough research and found that no country has a restricted list of research areas,” IDS said in its statement, adding, “People will scoff at this decision, which will harm our leaders’ and the country’s prestige.”

“Why is it that a person can publish his or her criticism, but organizations cannot? The decision allows individuals to give their opinions or criticism in public. This means individuals who want to raise their voices can be easily gagged or criminalized.”

“Does this mean that the decision doesn’t encourage people to give their opinions, intimidating anyone who wants to do so?” it continued. “Banning open, independent thought goes against science, progress, and democracy.”

Government officials weren’t available to comment on the closure.

IDS has comprised a number of top Vetnamese intellectuals, including economist Le Dang Doanh, writer Nguyen Ngoc, historian Phan Huy Le, and scientists Phan Dinh Dieu and Chu Hao.

Many of them have served in the government and belong to the ruling Communist Party.

“I am saddened that we have to disband this institute,” Le Dang Doanh, a member of the IDS board, said.

“It was established with support and guidance from former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet. We hope that one day we can merge with [another] institute to do what Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet had hoped we would do, when conditions are favorable.”

Decisive control

Vietnam’s Communist Party wields decisive control over politics, religion, media, and academia.

Hanoi drew international criticism recently when it arrested, then released, three bloggers whose online writings diverged from the official line.

The Vietnam Foreign Ministry said Bui Thanh Hieu, also known as Nguoi Buon Gio, Pham Doan Trang, and Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh had been arrested legally for national security reasons.

Analysts say Vietnamese authorities want to prevent blogs becoming a news source and a tool for opposition groups.

Original reporting by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated from the Vietnamese by Hanh Seide. Service director: Diem Nguyen. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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