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Vietnam's new dissidents thrive via Internet

Blogs, chats fuel surge in efforts to push democracy

HANOI -- Nguyen Khac Toan, a key figure in Vietnam's increasingly active dissident movement, is lucky to live in Hanoi's beautiful French Quarter, particularly since for the next two years he is not allowed to leave the neighborhood.

The 55-year-old former army officer, released from prison in an amnesty last January after being convicted of espionage in 2002 for communicating with opposition political groups in France, is legally barred from leaving the district until the end of 2008.

But, using the Internet, Toan has continued his political activities, joining a surge in dissident activity over the past six months that is pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in Vietnam's changing society.

Along with like-minded democracy advocates, Toan helped found Bloc 8406, so named because the group was launched on April 8, 2006. Bloc 8406's "Manifesto for Freedom and Democracy" has since garnered more than 2,000 signatures.

Toan helped launched an alternative political party in June and attempted to print an independent newspaper in August. Earlier this month, he and 13 associates announced the formation of an independent labor union.

The dissidents have no mass following, and their actions do not present a serious challenge to the communist government's rule. Still, the rise in dissident activity reflects Vietnamese citizens' increasing access to information, and their increasing willingness to make their voices heard.

Officially, the government ignores Bloc 8406. In a news conference early this month, government spokesman Le Dung refused to refer to the group by name, saying only that "some individuals have recently used the label 'democracy' to present false positions and distort the situation in Vietnam."

The police, however, have not ignored them.

"We have been repressed severely since mid-August," Toan said in a recent group interview with six dissidents in Hanoi. "I was interrogated for 12 days, my house was searched illegally, and my computer, mobile phone, and books on democracy were confiscated."

Other dissidents in Toan's circle said they had also been interrogated and had property confiscated. Bloc 8406 members have also encountered more subtle restrictions. Last week, lawyer Nguyen Van Dai and charity worker Luong Duy Phuong were prevented from leaving Vietnam by customs agents at the Hanoi airport when they tried to attend a Christian lawyers' conference in India.

Dai, who represents many of the dissidents, has run unsuccessfully for Vietnam's National Assembly as an independent candidate. In a recent interview, he said the dissidents would like to see Vietnam become a multiparty democracy like South Korea.

"The South Koreans drew many lessons from America, but adapted them for an Asian people," Dai said. "We think it's the best fit for Vietnam."

Dai is among a number of dissidents in their 30s and 40s who were initially inspired by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and hoped such changes could spread to Vietnam. He was working in a factory in East Germany in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.

The older generation of dissidents includes Hoang Minh Chinh, 84, the former head of the Communist Party's ideology institute, and monk Thich Quang Do , 77, of the banned Unification Buddhist Church. They have quarreled with the government for decades.

But the recent activism of the dissident movement is fueled by a younger generation, exposed to new political ideas through study abroad and, especially, the Internet.

Blogs have proliferated in Vietnam over the past year, though most are carefully apolitical. Bloc 8406 would be paralyzed without Internet chat and voice-over-Internet programs, which members use to communicate beyond the reach of police telephone taps. A number of Bloc 8406 members used such technology last week to listen live to a pro-democracy demonstration by Vietnamese-Americans in Washington, D.C.

Vietnamese law prohibits the use of the Internet to attack the government or undermine public security. A national firewall attempts to block political websites, but many get through anyway.

Nguyen Tien Trung, 23, an information-technology student, is one of the best known young dissidents who marshal the power of the Internet. Trung became disillusioned with Vietnam's government while studying in France. In March, he wrote a scathing open letter to Vietnam's minister of education, which circulated widely via blogs and e-mail.

"In France, in my school, I don't have political subjects, like Marxism-Leninism," Trung said in a telephone interview from Copenhagen, where he now lives. "But in Vietnam, my friends in polytechnic university, they must spend much time to learn political subjects. I think it's one reason that the quality of education in Vietnam is not good enough."

Trung runs a website called "Democratic Youth of Vietnam." He said the vast majority of Vietnamese students abroad have turned against Vietnam's single-party system.

The increasing dissident activity has coincided with a rise in open demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, usually over land disputes. Some demonstrations have involved hundreds of farmers from rural provinces.

Meanwhile, Vietnam's press, while state-controlled, is becoming increasingly critical. This year, newspapers have pursued scandals in the ministries of transportation and education and, most recently, land deals and alleged nepotism by the governor of the country's State Bank.

But such limited dissent is far from the massive and open protest that brought multiparty democracy to countries like South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

The majority of Vietnamese inside the country, young and old, seem satisfied with their government. Economic growth averages 7 to 8 percent per year. For many, patriotism and support for the country's leaders and the Communist Party are indistinguishable.

The United States and European countries have consistently taken up the cause of imprisoned dissidents. The State Department listed Toan as a "prisoner of concern," along with Internet dissident Pham Hong Son, who was released in an amnesty in August.

But recently, the United States congratulated Vietnam for increasing openness and tolerance of dissidents. President Bush is scheduled to visit Hanoi next month for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

US Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, has urged Bush to meet with dissidents while he is in Hanoi. The White House would not comment on whether or not Bush is considering the idea.

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