THE LAST TIME LE HIEU DANG MADE an appointment to meet a foreign journalist, in his preferred side-street restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, government authorities ordered Dang not to come, my translator told me as we awaited his arrival. A long-time member of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, and in the past few years a civil rights lawyer, Dang has recently drawn the scrutiny of officials for criticising the party and leading efforts to prompt the government to reform the country’s political system. Dang’s phone calls and movements are constantly monitored, my translator said.
But Dang did keep his appointment with me. He breezed in more than half an hour late, directed us to a private room at the back of the restaurant and ordered a strong, black Vietnamese coffee. Sipping on it, he began to describe how his beloved Communist Party, which has been in power since 1975, has fallen into a decay borne of corruption and nepotism. “State-owned companies are taking everything,” he said, referring to a spate of mismanagement and corruption cases that have recently come to light, involving government-run businesses. “People have lost their enthusiasm to build the country.”
Dang hasn’t always been this disapproving of the Communists. He has been a member of the party for more than four decades, and fought for the communist North against the military-led South, which was backed by anti-communist countries including the US, in the Vietnam War. By the time a victorious North unified the country in 1975, Dang had stopped active service, but remained part of a group of staunchly communist intellectuals.