Some 500 intellectuals in Vietnam have signed an online petition calling for a revision to the constitution which would allow for multi-party elections and for the separation of the country’s executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.
The petition was published on a number of well-known blogs Tuesday following a call by the ruling Communist Party this month for public suggestions on proposed amendments to the constitution.
Nguyen Dinh Loc, Vietnam’s former Minister of Justice, and just one of several former senior officials to have signed the petition, said that it was “obvious that there must be some changes” and that it was only “a matter of how much.”
“It’s hard for me to say exactly, but we have called for intellectual input from all of the people so I am sure some suggestions will be adopted to allow for a rather new constitution,” Loc told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
The former minister said that Vietnam’s most recent constitution, approved in 1992, had not been amended enough within the past 10 years to keep up with the vast changes in the country.
“Our society has democratized more and more. It’s a real democracy, not just a symbolic one,” he said.
“Now we need to have more fundamental changes.”
Loc said that the petition also called on the government to rename the country to better reflect the state of the social climate.
“Right now we call it the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but socialism is a long term goal,” he said.
“At the moment we have not achieved true socialism, so we should return to the old name ‘Democratic Republic of Vietnam’,” he said.
While Vietnamese authorities have said that they will accept comments from the public until March 31 about revisions to the constitution, which could be adopted in May, they have also been cautious about the consultation process.
Topics seen as sensitive, which include the possibility of multiparty elections or improving land rights, have been explicitly excluded from the constitution debate.
Sources told RFA that many of the websites hosting the petition had been shut down by official censors to prevent the public from accessing it.
Father Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, the Bishop of the Vinh Diocese in central Vietnam, said that wide ranging proposals were included in the petition, “but the most important concerns the direction of the constitution—which is the right of the people to decide, not one of a political party.”
“Another issue is the differences among the executive, legislative and judicial powers,” Hop said.
“Then [the draft] must go through a referendum for the people to speak up about the constitution,” he said.
“Those are the three basic principles … in a democratic process.”
Hop said that the new constitution must also include provisions for greater religious freedom in the country, which he noted was recognized by Vietnam as a signatory to the International Convention on Human Rights.
“Vietnam is involved in the [global] integration process and it has signed several international agreements,” Hop said.
“When Vietnamese legislation does not comply with agreements such as the International Convention on Human Rights, for example, the convention is given greater value than the national law,” he said.
“The constitution should be modified for Vietnam to integrate better internationally, as well as to comply with the conventions it has signed.”
Hue Chi, the manager of a website that has criticized the government’s support for bauxite mining in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, said that the response to the call for recommendations had been substantial.
“The people who signed this petition understand the laws. They include lawyers. So the proposed petition is quite comprehensive,” said Hue Chi, who is also a university professor.
“We don’t belong to any organization. We are just individuals—Vietnamese citizens—who care about the nation’s future,” he said.
Hue Chi said that as the government had requested the people’s opinion on constitutional changes, “we decided that we needed to propose what the Vietnamese people want and care about the most.”
“That was how this petition came to exist.”
Hue Chi said that the suggestions for amending the constitution should not be viewed as a threat to the Communist leadership, but rather as a way of helping them to overcome social “challenges” that have made their grip on power more tenuous.
“For quite a long time we have thought about [changing the constitution] and this is a historic movement that we can’t resist taking part in,” the professor said.
“I think the Vietnamese Communist Party is facing challenges, which include [a transition to] democracy and [respecting] human rights,” he said.
“If they can gain the people’s trust, then the Party can maintain their leadership as before. There is no reason that [this movement] would deprive the communists of their current position.”
Nguyen Minh Thuyet, a former delegate to Vietnam’s National Assembly, or parliament, said that while he is a communist, he does not believe that “imposing” the Party’s leadership on society is the proper way to govern the country.
“We want the leadership to be based on credibility, quality and real capacity,” Thuyet said.
“Besides, it would ruin the party if we include in the constitution that an organization such as the Communist Party should have absolute leadership over the whole of society forever,” he said.
“To do so would make the communists less determined to gain the trust of the people.”
Writer Vo Thị Hao said that a constitution is as important to a country’s people as their own physical well-being.
“It’s the most important contract to protect the people’s freedom and democracy,” Hao said.
“I think everybody needs to be interested in the constitution, not only writers, lawmakers or managers,” he said.
“Everyone contributes a bit of heat to light the fire, wake up the popular conscience and make the people reflect on what they have accomplished in the hopes that life will be better and cruelty will disappear.”
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Long. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.