Vietnam, one of the five remaining Communist nations in the world, takes its security very seriously. So seriously in fact that an estimated one in six working people in the Southeast Asian country are employed either full- or part-time in the massive state security network.
According to a BBC report, Vietnam’s Communist-controlled state security apparatus comprise not only the police forces and regular army, but also paramilitaries, rural militia forces and "neighborhood guardians." All of these disparate elements answer to either the Ministry of National Defense or the Ministry of Public Security.
Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Forces Academy estimates that at least 6.7 million Vietnamese belong to the country’s many security agencies, roughly one-sixth of its 43-million working population. As a point of comparison, Vietnam’s largest company, the state-owned PetroVietnam oil producer, boasts a workforce of about 50,000. According to the Vietnam Trade Promotion Agency, the country’s largest industry, textiles and garments, employs about 2 million workers, accounting for about quarter of all industrial employment. But that would make it less than one-third of the state’s total security workforce.
Not surprisingly, Vietnam has an appalling record with respect to human rights. Human Rights Watch has declared that the Hanoi government “systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and persecutes those who question government policies, expose official corruption or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule.”
State security and police routinely harass and intimidate activists as well as their family members. Arbitrary arrests, indefinite detention, censorship, lengthy prison terms as well as torture are commonplace. Under the country’s draconian penal codes, citizens can be arrested for such vague offenses as “conducting propaganda,” “subversion of the people’s administration,” “disrupting the unity of the state” or “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state or its citizens.”
Last year, the power of the police and security apparatus came to bear on rural landowners, farmers and villagers who saw their properties taken from them by force and confiscated by government officials and private sector entities for development. Blogs and websites deemed “subversive” have been shut down and their operators arrested.
The editor of New America Media, Vietnamese-American Andrew Lam, who wrote the book "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," explicitly described Vietnam as a “police state.” But Lam noted that the mobile phone revolution presents a new threat to Hanoi’s iron rule. “Vietnamese are buying up mobile devices at a rate exceeding the country’s own population,” he wrote. “A sign of the Communist nation’s rising affluence, it is also undermining the state’s monopoly on information.”
Indeed, with cell phones available for as little as $20 each, there were, as of 2012, 145 cell phones for every 100 Vietnamese – which means there are more than 130 million such devices across the country. The inexpensive communication units are owned even by children and the most impoverished rural residents. Internet penetration is also rising in Vietnam. “For the government in Hanoi, which maintains a vigorous Internet firewall similar to the one in Beijing, it’s a troubling trend,” Lam stated.
Le Quoc Quan, a pro-democracy activist, told the Associated Press last year that the growth of the Internet is “endangering” the Vietnamese government. "People can actually read news now. There is a thirst for democracy in our country," he said. (Quan himself was arrested shortly after speaking to AP).
Vietnam is not unlike its fellow remaining Marxist states, China, Laos, Cuba and North Korea. Indeed, compared to North Korea, Vietnam is a relatively benign state. According to estimates, almost 9.5 million North Koreans belong to either the state military’s active, reserve or paramilitary forces – equivalent to almost 40 percent of the population. Indeed, this tiny, impoverished isolated state has one of the largest standing armies in the world.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.