Vietnamese test taboo on debate over Communist Party monopoly
Communist leaders unleash fierce discussion on separation of powers and democracy
When Vietnam's communist leaders asked for public comment on their plan to amend the country's constitution they did not expect to unleash an unprecedented debate on the party's monopoly on power.
What was intended as a ritualistic consultation has morphed into a fierce open discussion on topics such as human rights and land ownership, everywhere from state television to blogs.
The furore started when 72 respected academics submitted a petition in January through the National Assembly as part of the consultation, 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," said prominent dissident Nguyen Thanh Giang, who signed the petition.
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 be 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.
Deputy minister of justice Hoang The Lien called for more controls on party power "to fight the abuse of power and monopoly", in an online discussion organised by the government.
Leaders have not made any specific proposals themselves on what changes they would like to make to the constitution, which was first approved in 1946 and has since been amended four times - 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.
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.
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".