Cablegate: The Evolving Nature of Vietnam's Civil Society

DE RUEHHI #1215/01 1870820
R 060820Z JUL 07





E.O. 12958: N/A


Ref: A) Hanoi 06; B) HANOI 02

HANOI 00001215 001.2 OF 003


1. (SBU) A Vietnam Institute of Development Studies (VIDS) study
concluded that the structure of civil society in Vietnam is
broad-based, with many different types of organizations,
associations and groups operating in the country. Most of these
organizations work at providing services to the poor and
disadvantaged. The VIDS study and our contacts assess that civil
society's impact in influencing public policies on human rights,
social policy and national budgeting, and in holding the state and
private sectors accountable, is "very limited." The role of the six
Communist Party-affiliated mass organizations in Vietnam has evolved
in that they now are drafting laws and are doing a better job of
representing the interests of people at the grassroots level, our
contacts say. The GVN has started to have some "positive views"
about civil society, although experts continue to question GVN
intentions toward it. The GVN wants more "safe" groups to take on
social tasks that it cannot. At the same time, however, the GVN
wants to prevent groups from becoming more politically active. GVN
leaders likely will continue to move cautiously in granting civil
society "more space." End Summary.

Assessing Civil Society

2. (SBU) Experts at the Vietnam Institute of Development Studies
(VIDS), a member of the Communist Party-affiliated Vietnam Union of
Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA), recently published an
exhaustive study of civil society in Vietnam. The World Alliance
for Citizen Participation, an international non-governmental
organization (NGO), developed the approach and methodology for this
study. VIDS experts looked at 74 indicators related to the
structure, values and impact of civil society, as well as the
socioeconomic environment in which it operates. The study concluded
that the structure of civil society is broad-based, with many
different types of organizations, associations and groups operating
here. Most of these organizations work at providing services to the
poor and disadvantaged. Structural weaknesses include a "lack of
strategies and weak umbrella organizations and networks." As for
values, the VIDS study concluded that civil society practices and
promotes positive values "to a moderate extent." The most important
values are poverty alleviation and non-violence. A major civil
society weakness in the values area includes "minimal efforts" by
people "to promote transparency and democracy within their

3. (SBU) The VIDS study assessed that civil society's impact in
influencing public policies on human rights, social policy and
national budgeting, and in holding the State and private sectors
accountable, is "very limited." However, the study said that civil
society's efforts at meeting societal needs are at a "medium level."
Civil society has done well in informing and educating people,
empowering women and supporting people's livelihoods. As for the
socio-economic environment, the VIDS study concluded that civil
society, given the GVN's "management" of NGOs, is operating in a
"slightly disenabling environment."

Civil Society in the Vietnamese Context

4. (SBU) Civil society is segmented into various organizations with
different functions, Oxfam Great Britain Coordinator Le Hoa and law
professor Hoang Ngoc Giao explained. Despite their affiliation with
the Communist Party, the "old" mass organizations and professional
associations are broadly accepted as an integrated part of civil
society. The Communist Party-affiliated mass organizations are: the
Women's Union, Farmer's Association, Trade Union, Youth Union,
Veteran's Association and Fatherland Front. Among the larger
professional associations are VUSTA and the Vietnam Union of Arts
and Literature. The "new" types of organizations (which began to
appear in the early 1990's, but are "not yet fully recognized" by
society) are NGO's, community-based organizations (CBO's) and other
types of informal organizations.

5. (SBU) According to participants in the VIDS study and our
contacts, the term civil society until recently had a "negative
connotation" in Vietnam. Just three or four years ago, people
avoided mention of the term because it was "sensitive," Hoa and Giao
told Poloff. Why we can now discuss civil society defies simple
explanations, Hoa said. It is a function of educating GVN leaders,
growth in civil society-like organizations, the push from donors and
other variables, she asserted. For his part, Giao said that some
politicians have concluded that the GVN must grant civil society
more space or risk damage to its legitimacy.

HANOI 00001215 002.2 OF 003

6. (SBU) 74 percent of the Vietnamese population belongs to at least
one organization (including the mass organizations), according to UN
Development Program (UNDP) statistics. However, not all Vietnamese
organizations are deeply anchored in civil society, the VIDS study
showed. For example, some members of mass organizations are also
public sector employees.

A Matter of Language

7. (SBU) In Vietnamese, two expressions are commonly used to refer
to civil society: "xa hoi cong dan" and "xa hoi dan su." "Xa hoi
cong dan" means "citizens." "Xa hoi" denotes society; "cong" means
public (as opposed to family and private); and, "dan" means people.
"Xa hoi dan su," mean while, literally translates to civil society.
According to the VIDS study, the debate about language is important
in that "civil" is not a clear term in Vietnamese because it
indicates what it is not (i.e., it is not related to military
activities), but does not say much about what it is. Both
expressions are used, but "xa hoi dan su" is more common, probably
because it is the literal translation of the English term.

8. (SBU) The Vietnamese term for NGOs refers to organizations
"external" to the State. Until just a couple of years ago, the term
was not used because external organization activity was associated
with "anti-State" behavior, rather than positive or necessary
activities, our contacts explained. Today, the term has generally
been accepted as an "imported" term used to designate certain types
of organizations.

9. (SBU) Today, "civic organization" is the usual concept used in
discussing organizational life in Vietnam, according to Bui The
Cuong, a Vietnamese academic. These civic organizations
collectively constitute "a civil society." For their part, VIDS
study participants concluded that a "broader understanding of civil
society is not yet fully part of mainstream political thinking."
However, new ideas are being formulated about civil society and its
organizations are increasingly perceived "as not just passive
followers," they added.

Mass Organizations' Evolving Role

10. (SBU) Oxfam's Hoa told Poloff that experts continue to debate
whether the six mass organizations constitute part of Vietnam's
growing civil society. These mass organizations, some of which have
millions of members, have a dual mandate, she explained. On the one
hand, they disseminate Party lines and policies to their members and
are tightly linked to the Party by means of Central Committee
members in their key leadership posts and "Party groups" within
their respective executive committees.

11. (SBU) On the other hand, mass organizations represent their
members and often lobby the GVN on their members' behalf, Hoa
continued. At the grassroots level, the mass organizations are
"close to the people" and thus do a good job of "representing their
interests," she said. A mass organization chairperson can bring
local problems to the attention of local Party leaders. Mass
organizations also provide social services at local levels; for
example, the Women's Union provides credits to women to start up
businesses and has been somewhat active in combating

12. (SBU) Civil society experts have concluded that mass
organizations have brought about "positive results" by increasing
citizen participation at the local level, Hoa added. International
NGOs such as Oxfam are working more with the mass organizations in
providing social services. "Most donors see potential advantage to
working at the grassroots levels with the mass organizations," she
offered. For his part, Giao said civil society and mass
organization groups operating at the commune levels have experienced
less Party interference because the Party has fewer resources at
that level. Local Party affiliates need these groups to carry out
social work and have for the most part left them alone, he added.

13. (SBU) Mass organizations are increasingly involved in the
legislative process, Hoa and Giao explained. The Women's Union, for
example, drafted last year's Law on Gender Equality (LGE) (Ref A).
Giao said two main factors are driving this trend: 1) the GVN is
responding to international donors pushing for more civil society
involvement in legislative processes; and, 2) mass organization
leaders want their organizations involved. Giao criticized the LGE,
however, "because it did not define what the problems to be
addressed are." The Women's Union and GVN drafted the law for the
sake of making a law, but not for solving problems, he asserted. He
said it is "good" that the mass organizations are drafting laws, but
that their legal capabilities need to be upgraded.

HANOI 00001215 003.2 OF 003

GVN Adapting To New Realities

14. (SBU) The GVN has started to have some "positive views" about
civil society, although experts continue to question how "sincere"
it is, Hoa said. She has observed some positive changes. For
example, the GVN used to develop its five year Social and Economic
Development Program internally, but now it consults donors and NGOs
because it "seems to recognize the benefit" of their participation.
While civil society's impact is still limited, and the process is
not entirely open, it is significant that the GVN calls for comment,
she added.

15. (SBU) Over the past three years, the GVN has begun to adapt its
laws and policies to meet "the new situation." In 2003, the
Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) issued a decree that has served as
the basis for the ever evolving legal framework for organizations;
this 2003 decree replaced a 1957 decree on organizations. The GVN's
2002 Comprehensive Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy, which the
GVN formulated in cooperation with the donor community, was one of
the first development documents to mention the role of NGO's in
Vietnam's overall socioeconomic development.

16. (SBU) On the current version of the draft Law on Associations
(LOA), civil society groups lobbied successfully for changes to it.
They have argued that this law should be a legal document "not for
managing people, but for facilitating development," Hoa and Giao
said. (Note: the National Assembly has yet to see the latest
version of the LOA reportedly because Party power brokers are
worried about its political and security implications (Ref B). The
current version of the LOA would make it easier for Vietnamese to
form organizations. End Note.)

17. (SBU) In addition, the GVN will "soon" issue a decree governing
the operations of CBO's, Hoa said. The Ministry of Agriculture and
Rural Development (MARD) developed the decree, but MARD officials
consulted outside groups, such as Oxfam, in drafting it. At the
beginning, MARD officials seemed to share the views of Oxfam and
other NGO's, Hoa stated. Civil society experts are anxious to see
if the final decree will "facilitate" CBO operations, she said.


18. (SBU) Because of the overlap between State, Party and civil
society, much of the change in Vietnam's civil society has taken
place within the State sphere. However, more groups operating
outside, or on the outskirts of, the State have cropped up in recent
years, thus presenting GVN leaders with a dilemma. GVN leaders
clearly want more "safe" groups to take on more of the social tasks
that the government cannot. However, at the same time, the GVN has
yet to demonstrate a willingness to "unleash" civil society. We
probably can expect, at best, that GVN leaders will continue to move
cautiously in granting civil society more space. End Comment.


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