By Cat Barton
By Cat Barton
"If one day I have to go to prison, I'm certain it will be a Communist prison, because I'm dying to be free"
When Vietnam's communist leaders asked for public comment on their plan to amend the country's constitution they did not anticipate unleashing an unprecedented debate on the party's monopoly on power.
What was supposed to be a ritualistic consultation has morphed into a fierce open discussion on topics like human rights and land ownership on everywhere from state television to dissident blogs.
The furore started when 72 respected academics submitted a petition in January through the National Assembly as part of the consultation process, calling for multiparty democracy, respect for human rights, private land ownership and an apolitical army that served the people not the party.
They also called for the abolition of Article 4, the clause that protects the party's power, and for a clear separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government -- revolutionary demands in the one-party state that have spread like wildfire online.
"Vietnamese from all walks of life, including party members, are calling for them to remove Article 4 from the constitution. It is necessary for the people and for the party itself," prominent dissident Nguyen Thanh Giang, one of those who signed the petition, told AFP.
By guaranteeing the party's supremacy, Article 4 has "led to corruption and abuse of power," and allowed the unaccountable leadership to become "totally removed from reality and an obstacle to Vietnam's development," he added.
Nearly 6,000 people have signed the petition so far -- the public consultation period on the reforms ends on March 31 -- and it has even found support among a section of the Communist Party itself.
Deputy minister of justice Hoang The Lien even called for more controls on party power "to fight against the abuse of power and monopoly," during an online discussion organised by the government.
The leaders have not yet made any specific proposals themselves on what changes they would like to make to the constitution, which was first approved in 1946 and has been amended four times since -- most recently in 1992.
Founded in 1930, Vietnam's Communist Party led the country to independence from the French and then to victory over the Americans in a decades-long bloody war.
It has ruled unified Vietnam as a one-party state since 1975. The party tightly controls public debate and routinely imprisons dissidents who question the political system or call for change.
Some 25 years after the party initiated market reforms, Vietnam is mired in an economic slowdown, which experts and public opinion blames on mismanagement. This has caused an unprecedented erosion of trust in the party leadership.
In a bid to seem progressive and legitimate, Vietnam's rulers regularly -- albeit as a token -- ask for public input on policy issues. But with public dissatisfaction high, the constitutional reform bill has touched a raw nerve.
"Vietnam is in uncharted waters," said Jonathan London, an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong, adding the leadership "has to be rattled".
"The true significance of recent developments lies not in whether they result in any immediate reforms, which is unlikely, but whether and to what extent they have resulted in an altered political landscape," he said.
The party has already hit back, with top leaders issuing stern warnings about those who seek to use the consultation process to "sabotage the party".
Officials have warned that there is no plan to allow private ownership of land -- a very sensitive issue as land disputes currently account for more than 70 percent of complaints by citizens to local authorities.
And when journalist Nguyen Dac Kien came out on his blog to criticise leaders -- in particular the head of the party who said seeking reform was a sign of "moral deterioration" -- he was fired from his state-run newspaper.
"If one day I have to go to prison, I'm certain it will be a Communist prison, because I'm dying to be free," he wrote in a poem called "Freedom" which, like his original essay, has gone viral online.
With support for Kien and the petition growing rapidly online, it appears the dissenting voices will not be silenced.
"We're 37 years late with political reforms," said former top government official Nguyen Trung, in an open letter to the leaders of Hanoi, referring to when the communist party took control of unified Vietnam.