Vietnam adopted a revised constitution Thursday maintaining the Communist Party's dominant political and economic role in the Southeast Asian state, dousing hopes of reform groups that have been pushing for multiparty democracy, respect for human rights, and private land ownership.
The new version of the charter was overwhelming approved by the Communist-dominated National Assembly, the country's parliament, with 486 of 488 lawmakers who were present voting for it and two abstentions.
The constitution reaffirmed the Communist Party as the "leading force of the state and society," disregarding proposals by Vietnamese groups for political and economic reforms.
Tens of thousands of netizens had made written reform proposals in an unprecedented government process allowing public debate on the charter changes via the Internet.
A key public demand called for the abolition of Article 4, a provision that protects the Communist Party's power, and for separation of powers among the parliament, government and judiciary.
"Rather than listening to the voices of the thousands of Vietnamese citizens who contributed ideas and opinions on how the Constitution should better protect rights and promote more responsive governance, the National Assembly voted in lockstep with the wishes of the government and the Vietnam Communist Party," said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.
"This is a huge missed opportunity for reform that could have brought the nation's governance into closer alignment with the international human rights standards that Vietnam says it respects in word but routinely violate in practice," he said.
Robertson said that this "opening act" following Vietnam's election for the first time ever to the UN Human Rights Council is "hugely disappointing."
But the Vietnamese communist leaders hailed the move.
"This is an historic moment," said Nguyen Sinh Hung, chairman of the National Assembly.
The Vietnamese Communist Party has been maintaining its monopoly on power by banning the formation of other parties.
Questioning Communist Party rule is considered a serious crime in Vietnam and dozens of activists and netizens have been arrested this year for anti-state activities.
Early this year, 72 Vietnamese intellectuals and activists, including longtime Communist Party members as well as government officials, signed a draft constitution proposing multiparty rule, garnering thousands of signatures of support after it was circulated online.
Outspoken economist Nguyen Quang A, who was among the 72, said he was not surprised that the final version did not contain any significant changes.
"This National Assembly belongs to the Communist Party of Vietnam, not the Vietnamese people," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
Hopes raised and then doused
An early government draft removed a provision saying the state sector must "play the leading role" in the national economy, raising hopes the government might dismantle corruption-riddled and unproductive state-owned enterprises.
But the version that was adopted Thursday reinstated that wording.
The failure to limit the role of state-owned enterprises in the new charter is "not an encouraging sign that the country is eager to compete in the global economy," the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam said in a statement.
Campaigners expressed cynicism over the government practice of asking for public input on policy issues.
"The call for consultation was a trap to lure opponents of the party out of the shadows," Nguyen Van Tam, a 48-year-old Catholic activist, told Agence France-Presse after the vote early Thursday.
Crackdown on dissent
Vietnam has come under criticism for its crackdown on dissent. Activists are imprisoned simply for exercising their rights.
Since the beginning of 2012, at least 65 peaceful dissidents have been sentenced to long prison terms in some 20 trials that failed to meet international standards, Amnesty International says.
In a new report this month, Amnesty listed 75 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, some of whom it said have been locked up in harsh conditions for years.
"Vietnam is fast turning into one of Southeast Asia’s largest prisons for human rights defenders and other activists," said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Vietnam researcher. "The government’s alarming clampdown on free speech has to end,” he said.
But Jonathan London of the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong said the fact there had been an open debate over the constitutional amendments was significant, AFP reported.
"The rules of the game regarding politics in Vietnam have changed," he said.
"It was not intended but [the consultation period] gave rise to an extended debate of the sort Vietnam has never seen under the Communist Party rule."
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.