HANOI: At a secret gig in a Hanoi house, a clutch of democracy activists listen intently to the words of a bluesy ballad, a small act of defiance by critics of Vietnam’s communist regime who hope a visit by Barack Obama will open rather than cramp their space to operate.
“Hey you, hey my sister,” ends the mournful lament by pop star turned activist Mai Khoi, “Are we free, are we really free?”
It’s a question Vietnam’s dissidents are asking themselves as the United States embraces their country’s authoritarian leaders who still ruthlessly crackdown on protests, jail dissidents and ban trade unions.
The US President flies into Hanoi in the early hours of Monday morning, the 10th Asian trip of his presidency, shoring up his much-vaunted pivot to the region.
Relations between the two countries have seen a complete reversal from foes battered by a ruinous war to regional allies and burgeoning trade partners.
That friendship has been given fresh impetus by Beijing’s increasing saber rattling in the disputed South China Sea.
“The two countries have become each other’s indispensable partners,” Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert at City University of Hong Kong, told Agence France-Presse. “This has quickly become one of the most vitally important relationships in the region.”
‘Obama’s last chance’
For Vietnam’s dissidents, many of whom are also ardent critics of China, that closeness creates a quandary.
Hanoi is increasingly moving within the orbit of a powerful and democratic ally that many Vietnamese, particularly its large youth population, admire.
But they also fear that the burgeoning alliance may come at the expense of their arduous struggle for greater freedoms, one Washington has historically supported.
In the run up to Obama’s visit, speculation has centered on whether the US may finally lift an arms embargo imposed on Vietnam since the war.
Washington has historically maintained that the arms issue is directly linked to Hanoi improving its dismal human rights record.
But dissidents fear that strategy may trump rights, especially since the ban was partially lifted in 2014 to include some maritime purchases.
On Saturday night Mai Khoi, who is dubbed ‘Vietnam’s Lady Gaga’ for her eye-catching outfits and outspoken views, performed her latest song at a darkened, non-descript townhouse at an acoustic gig open to invite-only guests.
It was penned after authorities barred her from standing as an independent candidate in elections.
Before her set she told AFP that she wants Obama “to use his last chance to push the Vietnamese government” to realize the treaty commitments they have made.
Her concerts are now held in secret and live streamed over Facebook after authorities shut down one of her nights two weeks ago—a web of repression that ensnares everyone from bloggers to political activists.
Officially she is meant to apply for permission and have her lyrics vetted before she goes on stage.
“I sing with my heart, so why do I have to ask for a license?” she fumed.
Loudspeakers and posters
Just hours before Obama’s arrival the limited extent of one-party Vietnam’s democratic progress was on full display.
Loudspeakers across Hanoi called on people to embrace their “right to vote” alongside colorful propaganda posters as parliamentary elections took place.
But Mai Khoi and more than 100 other independent candidates were barred from standing as ruling communist party cadres dominated the list for seats in Vietnams’ rubber stamp chamber.
Activists that boycotted the elections or urged others to do so say they have been punished.
“The authorities have focused on cold terrorism activities, guarding activists at their home, allowing civil vigilantes and plainclothes police to brutally beat civilians,” said blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh, who has been barred from leaving his residence for the last ten days in southern Ho Chi Minh City.
For Pham Doan Trang, another dissident blogger, Vietnam’s relationship with Washington has become “one sided.”
“I feel like the American government has given the Vietnamese a lot over the years but the Vietnamese government haven’t given much back in return,” she said.
Vietnam was quick to embrace the US-led initiatives such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that slashes tariffs.
But critics say the government has paid lip-service to rights reform and they are closely watching what Obama does during his three-day trip to change the formula.
“I would like Obama to persuade his (Vietnamese) partners to improve the human rights by closing the gaps between their rhetoric and deeds,” Nguyen Quang A, a former entrepreneur and banker turned democracy activist, told AFP.