Catharin Dalpino on Mother Mushroom in Vietnam

Catharin Dalpino is Professor Emerita at Georgetown University, where she taught Southeast Asian Studies and launched the university’s Thai Studies Program.  She is also Adjunct Professor in the Washington Program of Seton Hall University.   Professor Dalpino has also taught Southeast Asian politics, security and international relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; George Washington University and Simmons College. From 1993 to 1997 she was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. 

Professor Dalpino has also been a Fellow at the Brookings Institution; a Resident Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; an Associate at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy; a Visiting Scholar in Southeast Asian Studies at SAIS; and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.  From 1983 to 1993 she was a career officer with The Asia Foundation, and was the Foundation’s Representative for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  In that capacity, she re-opened the Foundation’s programs in Laos and Cambodia after a hiatus of fifteen years.  She was the founding director of the Aspen Institute Program on Agent Orange in Vietnam (2007-2009).  She was the founding president of the board of the War Legacies Project; a member of the US-Thailand Fulbright Board; and a Board member of the Commonwealth Club of California. Image courtesy of Catharin Dalpino.

Can you first briefly describe the growth of the civil society in Vietnam in recent years in general and the development of social media in particular?

Civil society’s growth in Vietnam has been a very incremental and cautious one. It is partly fueled by the development of quasi-NGOs that work on a number of issues, including environmental and social service issues. It is also fueled by the internet, and social media in particular. In contrast to the way that civil society grew in Eastern Europe in 1980s, it is much more in keeping with Vietnam’s trajectory of the past 20 or 30 years. It is going to grow even more. The government must learn to view civil society not always as a threat, but sometimes as an asset. That is a very difficult line to walk.

How have the expansion of the civil society and the growth of social media affected politics in Vietnam? How has the government responded?

Vietnam, like virtually all countries, has an interest in developing the internet for its own developmental purposes. The government is not against the internet per se, but the government is against the internet being used as an instrument of free expression. The government is then in a quandary because there is a Vietnamese government objective for internet to reach across the whole country. In recent years, there has been a very high incidence of mobile phone ownership in Vietnam, one of the highest per capita in the world. The younger generation began using the internet for social media and blogging in part because the Vietnamese are urging overseas education for many of their students. Then the students come back acculturated to social media. The government is wary of social media. When it crosses the line, by criticizing the government or the Parry, the state becomes punitive of social media users. They are tacitly acknowledging that this is a losing game for them. In fact, whenever the government bans a website, there are a million hits on the website. Most people who are savvy about the internet know about proxy servers and other ways to circumvent government control. In some ways, the Vietnamese government is getting encouragement from China’s firewall and from Thailand’s crackdown on bloggers. In Thailand, it is now against the law to criticize the monarchy and the military government. There are about 1400 political prisoners in Bangkok right now that are bloggers and users of the internet. The government understands that this is a losing game. They don’t expect to be able to repress the internet or bloggers’ freedom of expression, but in the interim they want to punish those who become too prominent in their views or too outspoken. That is probably a losing game as well.

Human Rights Watch has reported that Vietnam is holding approximately 110 political prisoners. Can you explain who they are and why they have been incarcerated?

There are three kinds of political dissidents in Vietnam: those who are linked to religion, particularly to Christianity; those who are members of the revolutionary generation and have spoken out about corruption in the communist party and the failures of the revolutionary goals; and those who are the bloggers of the new-age, younger generation. Mother Mushroom would be the poster child for the third kind of political dissidents. I would caution, however, that we do not use Mother Mushroom as the poster child for the post-Vietnam War generation because there is another kind of generational stereotype, which is the young Vietnamese citizen who is very happy with the kinds of economic gains that Vietnam has been able to make over the past 20 years. In one sense, Mother Mushroom is typical of a new-spirited inquisitiveness in her generation, but that doesn’t speak to the entire younger generation in Vietnam.

Who is Mother Mushroom? What influence did Mother Mushroom have in Vietnam before her arrest? Why was she arrested?

Mother Mushroom is a woman in her late 30s who has been arrested twice. She was arrested in 2009, but was held only for a few weeks. Her arrest last year was much more serious and it is interesting that what she was arrested for was not what she was charged for. She was arrested for visiting a political prisoner and attempting to support him. She was ultimately charged for political propaganda against the state under Article 88. So arresting her for visiting a political prisoner was a pretext for why they were really arresting her. She came by her protests initially through her experience studying foreign languages at the university. A lot of her protest topics concern the environment and Vietnamese-Chinese relations. What we are seeing in Vietnam is an instrumental approach to protests. She and other activists are not simply protesting freedom of speech as a categorical imperative, but also specific issues like police brutality. A lot of her protests are focusing on party corruption, which creates discontent within the party itself. As the party attempts to deal with this, the last thing it wants is for bloggers to raise this issue and so party officials come down particularly hard on those that criticize the government. Bloggers are not the only ones criticizing the government either. There is increasing criticism within the government, the party, and the legislature. The government imprisoning somebody like Mother Mushroom is a way of sending a cautionary warning to a much larger group of people.

We should not overemphasize any one individual in this phenomenon. There are no major demonstrations in Vietnam in Mother Mushroom’s defense. Part of the problem with individual dissidence is that an individual becomes very popular with the international community and less so inside. She is hardly the first dissident to be imprisoned so most people know what is going to happen to them if they protest. What we have seen in some parts of Southeast Asia in the last four years is a good demonstration of how you can suppress private thought. Hanoi knows it cannot extinguish it. This is a losing game in the long run. The government is just managing its losses over the long run and keeping the party together and under control.

What does Mother Mushroom’s imprisonment reveal of the Vietnamese government?

The government is not only trying to get at Mother Mushroom. They are trying to get at her network of Vietnamese bloggers. Forming that organization was a very brave thing to do because it gives the government a much larger target.

Mother Mushroom’s 10 year sentence has attracted a lot of international attention. The U.S. among others have called on Vietnam to release her. How do you think her trial has affected Vietnam’s international reputation?

Her arrest and her very long sentence have drawn a lot of international attention, and that draws upon the longstanding paranoia of the Vietnamese government about anything that is coming in from the outside. In one sense, her very high profile internationally is probably not going to help her because it just feeds the Vietnamese fears about some kind of political or military assault from the outside--particularly from exiled groups. So the extent to which other governments and human rights groups champion her can in theory hurt her in the long run because they are making an example of her as a beleaguered activist. There is a price that she is paying for her international fame, and that is part of the reason for her long sentence.

This has been a struggle that has been going on for 25 to 30 years. She is just one of the most recent and higher profile examples. Vietnam has learned, as other countries have learned, how to play dissident poker. Dissident poker is when you put somebody in jail and the international community protests and then you reduce their sentence or release them from jail when it is to your purpose. Oddly, it is an asset to have someone like her in jail because now they have someone they can use in a deal.

Mother Mushroom’s lawyer has said that the blogger will file for an appeal. How successful do you think an appeal will be?

The appeal will keep the issue on the front burner and keep the issue in the press. The government may decide to reduce her sentence if it seems useful. The appeal itself is unlikely to reverse the sentence.

Vietnam is one of the five communist regimes left. What is the greatest challenge to the survival of the Hanoi regime?

The Vietnamese Communist Party is very different now than it was 15 years ago. It is not doctrinaire anymore. It is not a Marxist party anymore. I would describe it as an authoritarian government that is very corporatist and has been in power for a very long time. The greatest challenge will be maintaining economic development and growth so that the broader population is content enough with the performance of the party, and therefore will not challenge it. A sharp economic downturn would be more of a danger to the legitimacy of the party than any blogger or dissidence. The party will attempt to maintain that economic progress, which will be difficult now that the United States has withdrawn from the TPP.

There is a party-to-party relationship. Hanoi will get support from Beijing from its suppression of outspoken dissidents. There is no clear equivalence between Vietnamese Communist Party and Chinese Communist Party. There are many differences. If China became more liberal, Hanoi would lose some of that support that energizes its efforts. If Vietnam became more liberal, there would not be that same effect on China. The complicated relationship essentially supports Article 88 and the other attempts to quash dissidents.

Mother Mushroom has mobilized the international community more than the domestic community. However, one of the issues that could really catch fire is corruption. If that ever becomes the perfect storm, and party officials unhappy with corruption tentatively ally with the bloggers, then the government would really have a problem. It is not only economic development, it is who gets what in the share of that economic development. That issue would be the most dangerous to Hanoi. As Vietnam moves toward being more of a middle-income country, this issue of income distribution is going to become increasingly important. After all, more than half of the population was born after the war and does not quite understand the revolutionary ideals of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation.

Dissidence will increase over time. Whether it will have a real, genuine impact on the political system of Vietnam will depend on a time when those who are unhappy within the system decide to make common cause with the dissidents.

Julie Tran CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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