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“Piss on Trump” Opens Up Much Needed Debates on Individual Rights Among Vietnamese

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Mai Khoi and her one-person protest "Piss on Trump". Photo credits: Facebook Do Nguyen Mai Khoi/AP/Getty Images.

In the late night of November 11, 2017, I saw the picture of Vietnamese singer Mai Khoi, a pro-democracy artist who has been dubbed “the Vietnamese Lady Gaga” by Western media in the past two years, holding a sign saying, “Piss on you, Trump” where the word “peace” was crossed out and written over by “piss”.

She was protesting President Trump, who, in her words, was “a misogynistic man”, and unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, had failed to mention the critical conditions of human rights defenders in Vietnam during his trip for the APEC 2017 meetings.

2017 marks the year that the pro-democracy movement there has experienced some of the worst crackdowns in recent times. During Trump’s visit, activists reported that they were being followed and that police guarded their houses, many also had to take refuge from their homes temporarily. Even before the trip, rumors have been circulating around that more arrests were to be made in the coming days, which worried many observers.

Yet, for Mai Khoi’s one-person protest, I did not think much of it at first. I chuckled at her sign, and then because of the report on Twitter by American journalist Bennett Murray, who works for German media, that police had started to harass her, I became a bit worried. But still, I went to bed hoping she would not get into too many troubles with the government. She is a public figure, the police would have been a bit more careful, I thought.

What I would never expect was to wake up the next day and found out not only that she was still being harassed by the police, but a backlash against Mai Khoi on social media in Vietnam also began. Even more perplexed was the fact that the critics not only were members of the general public or the government’s Internet trolls but also from some of the pro-democracy and pro-human rights camps inside and outside the country. And there were so many arguments being thrown around from everyone, myself included.

Mai Khoi was criticized for protesting against Trump instead of Xi Jinping who also in Hanoi at the same time because some thought Xi is the bigger enemy of all Vietnamese. Afterall, it was China that went after our sea waters, not the U.S.

There were people who complained that her message was too crude, or that it was not good manners to treat Trump that way. People even suspected that the Vietnamese government had allowed her to protest to make the U.S. president to “lose face.” Had she replaced the word Trump with Xi, she would have been beaten up right then and there by the Vietnamese authorities, some said.

The worst criticism probably was about her choice of fashion. Mai Khoi was also scolded for not wearing a bra. No proper woman would dress like that, so she did not deserve the right to protest, was the explanation of one critic. Many people demanded that she must give a reason to protest Trump. Not liking Trump or just hating his guts was not good enough, they argued, we hated Xi Jinping because the Chinese took our islands, but why did you have to hate Trump? What did Trump ever do to Vietnam and Vietnamese people?

Those who supported her simply stated that it was her right to protest and that it did not matter what her reasons were. Mai Khoi had the right to choose whom to protest against, and she did not have to offer a reason for why she picked Trump and not Xi.

So you can see how one could come to tear her hair out, trying to understand the phenomenon, like I was. And as the events unfolding before my own eyes, with each and every Facebook status and comment of people debating over Mai Khoi’s conduct, it started to dawn on me. We, the current generation of Vietnamese, have all been scrambling for pieces of information on human rights and individual freedoms without any guiding light for so long. And as such, each person was trying to scratch the architecture of those concepts based on his or her own understanding, which may or may not be in line with the already existed international standards.

And because the difference in understanding the very same concepts among us was so large that it seems as if everyone was fighting with each other, one way or another, about whether Mai Khoi had the right to protest the way she did. It was then that I could see why our thoughts and arguments were so different from each other, or why we had spent so much time to debate.

But who could blame us for wanting to go through such lengthy debates to get to the bottom of our arguments with one another? We were born and raised in an extremely closed society for such a long time. And for about half of our population, it has also been two, three generations living under a one party’s rule, one way of life, where individualism was banished from society to give space to communal and collective living.

Today, we are still living in a society that values uniformity and conformity over diversity, because our totalitarian political system controls our every single move. Worse, our ancestors also preserved a culture of obedience and filial piety and passed it on to us, where individual expressions were neither encouraged nor welcomed.

Not only that none of us was taught about human rights and freedom in school, books on these subjects were not that easy to get printed and sold in Vietnam. We also have not experienced using suitable platforms to engage in meaningful debates or learn how to agree to disagree. Engaging in political debates was not something that we could claim we were particularly trained for.

We had no experience living with different political views and diverse ways of life. In other words, we all thought we wanted to live in pluralistic society while in fact, we had no idea what it meant.

The Internet was the miracle that arrived and took many of us to a different world when it introduced us to new, and at the time could have been somewhat strange to some, concepts.

Nevertheless, instinctively, many of us knew that we wanted to experience living with the values of liberty, freedom, and individual rights. With every single aspect of our life, from our homes to our schools, from our bedrooms to our classrooms, from family life to society, being kept under a tight control, the pressure to take off the lid was unstoppable.

And with that, in the past twenty years since the Internet was first introduced in Vietnam, each of us had slowly learned – mostly by ourselves – how to push up that lid, so that we could reach the definition of human rights and liberty that many societies had long been established as universal and common values.

And though these values could have tasted like fresh dews in the early morning to us when we first had them, we also need to learn how not to choke on them.

The Mai Khoi’s incident was just another example of us still learning how to best apply the definitions of individual rights and freedom in our everyday’s life. Pro-democracy activist Paulo Nguyễn Hồ Nhật Thành wrote on his Facebook this morning: “Mai Khoi (unintentionally) created a debate where both sides, for and against her, had to utilize all that they had learned in order to create their best arguments, while members of the public could watch and learn … Only by having more debatable incidents like this, could us then, as a society, truly absorb the concepts of individual rights and freedom”.

I happen to agree with Paulo. As painful and uncomfortable as we are in having to debate with other people, including our dear friends who do not agree with us, we must continue this practice. At least, we are doing something that the generations before us were not afforded the opportunity to do so, and that is to open up dialogues and to engage each other in discussing our individual rights with our social issues as the backdrop.

Only through practice then we can come to have a common, better, and more thorough understanding of the freedoms we are all fighting for. This, I believe, is something Vietnamese people and activists can agree on.

We may disagree what freedom and individual rights mean, but nevertheless, we all want to have them and practice them. We may fight about what is the definition of pluralism, but there is no doubt that many of us do not want to continue living under the current one country-one leading party’s regime.

Opinion-Section

The Real Casualty of Loc Hung Garden Incident: The People’s Trust

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When the officials of Tan Binh District in Ho Chi Minh City gathered over one thousands police officers and other forces to bulldoze some 200 houses at Loc Hung garden, they destroyed not only the shelters of a few hundred people but something else much more important.

What also crumbled and got buried deep in the rubbles was the people’s trust, or whatever left of that trust, in the current regime.

“I have to tell you honestly, the trust between the people of this community and the government has totally broken down over the decades. We cannot trust them after so many broken promises. They have told us that they would meet with us and provided us with documents about the projects, the plans. We received nothing. There is no trust.”

Cao Ha Truc, one of the persons representing the 124 households living in Loc Hung garden, spoke to me over the telephone on January 9, 2019, about 12 hours after he was released from the police station and came back to a home that was no longer there.

Truc told me that he was a vegetable farmer until the local authorities engaged in what he called “shady tactics” to stop him and others from continuing farming a few years ago.

In a video clip recorded earlier in the day, he said:

“They oppressed us by cutting off our means of survival, by letting water to flood our vegetable fields, and we could not live (rightly) for eight years.

We could not raise cats and dogs because they would die when the land was submerged in one meter of water. It took one month for the water to drain, but then the environment became polluted. We had to find other means of living.

We have lived here through three generations by farming vegetables, but now we had to flat out the land and built the Level 4 houses to keep on living.”

Truc was refuting the government’s claim that the residents living in Loc Hung were constructing houses illegally when it confirmed that some 112 homes were demolished on January 8, 2019.

Loc Hung garden is a complicated legal issue involving land rights and land possession which began to challenge the Ho Chi Minh City’s government starting in the late 1990s.

The Vietnamese government, in general, had faced more and more legal headaches concerning land disputes over the years, due to the rapid development happening across the country.

Land Disputes Developed with and within Land Development 

Vietnam’s economy grew exponentially in the past three decades after the communist regime decided to “open up” and explored a “free market with socialist characteristics.” In big cities like Hanoi and Saigon, some investment and development projects crashed head-on with the former way of life: farming.

Being an agriculture society for thousands of years, the fact that there were farmers even in the big cities probably should not surprise anyone. However, the clash between the old and new ways of life – coupled with the lack of a clear legal framework – had created long-lasting social, economic, and political problems to date.

Loc Hung garden incident was not the first and definitely, would not be the last of its kind.

In Vietnam right now, there could be hundreds of thousands of land-lost victims who are known as “dân oan” in Vietnamese, often translated into “victims of injustice” in English.

As of January 8, 2018, some may want to add another 124 households from Loc Hung area to this population.

At the same time, the local government has not exactly been transparent about the legal basis to support their claim to the land.

What the public knows thus far includes a still pending, development project for a public school system from K-12 on the land where Loc Hung garden is located, and that this project was postponed numerous times during the last five years.

Before that, both the City and District’s authorities had failed to carry out the other public construction projects they previously proposed for the area.

In report No. 6035/UBND-NCPC sent to the Government Inspectorate dated October 20, 2016, the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City admitted two critical matters:

1) The public school development project has yet to be executed and was still only a prospect, and

2) The land dispute with the residents at Loc Hung garden would have continued to be classified as “complicated and long-term petition” has the project already started.

This report and its conclusion showed that the government has always recognized the land dispute at Loc Hung garden is not a matter of black and white, and that it anticipated a lengthy legal battle with the residents once the project begins.

Information on the pending development project, as well as the proposal on compensation and relocation of the residents, is not made readily available to either the residents of Loc Hung or the public as prescribed by laws.

Was There Due Process?

The official reason for tearing down the hundreds of homes given by the enforcing authorities, the People’s Committees of both the Tan Binh District and the Ward 6, was to enforce the order to remove illegal constructions at Loc Hung garden.

For the enforcement and removal to take place, the law in Vietnam required the authorities to provide three critical documents with sufficient public notice to the violating individuals or entities:

  1. The report conducted by the appropriate authorities on the violation
  2. The decision to penalize the violation, and
  3. The decision to enforce

(Law on Land 2013, Law on Administrative Penalization 2012, Decision 166/2013/NĐ-CP on Enforcement of Judgment, and Decision 102/2014/NĐ-CP on Administrative Penalization Relating to Land – all links in Vietnamese).

These documents also shall be served upon the violating individuals and entities, giving them an opportunity to remove voluntarily.

Cao Ha Truc told me he did not receive any of the three required documents but cautioned me that he could not speak for all others in the area.

The state-owned newspaper that published the story about Loc Hung also did not enclose copies of these essential documents.

When I called the office of the People’s Committee of Tan Binh District and asked for copies of the documents to be provided electronically according to laws, they turned me down. The desk person stated that I would need to show up in person to make my request.

The law prescribes a specific duty to the enforcing authorities, which is to establish that the required documentation exists and that the affected people are duly noticed. When the government has yet to provide them, we cannot conclude that there was due process.

Who Owns the Land in Vietnam?

Land ownership in Vietnam “belongs to the entire people with the State acting as the owner’s representative and uniformly managing land. The State shall hand over land use rights to land users in accordance with this Law.” (Article 4, Law on Land 2013).

I noticed the word “shall” was added in the English translation that I have found online. Its addition would make a significant difference, legally.

The Law on Land 2013, however, provides in details a long list of specific scenarios where the Vietnamese government would hand over the right to use the land to the people. At the same time, it also prescribes another list of situation where the government may perform land recovery and land requisition.

The main legal issue in Loc Hung garden case has always centered on the farmers’ right to possess the land and land use right from 1975 to date.

The government claimed they acquired the land and the other 1.2 hectares nearby from the old regime’s Postal Services under Government Council’s Decision No. 111/CP dated April 14, 1977.

The residents claimed that Decision No. 111/CP only covered the 1.2 hectares because the 4.8 hectares in question have been used for farming during the last 60 years in an undisrupted manner and without any disputes. They also claimed that the 4.8 hectares belong to the Catholics Church and the church gifted it to the farmers in 1954.

The facts that all parties could agree with would probably be the size of the disputed land and that the current government did allow the residents to continue living and farming undisrupted on such real property since 1975 to date.

On January 8, 2019, the Tan Binh District’s division of the Central Propaganda Committee issued a publication, stating that the residents who have been living and farming at Loc Hung garden would be entitled to compensation according to the policy for agriculture lands.

What would be the justification to compensate the residents if there wasn’t any legal basis for them to live there in the first place?

And could there ever be a monetary compensation that is enough to gain back the people’s trust in their government?

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Farmer’s Death Sentence Upheld On Appeal: New Climax For Land Dispute In Vietnam?

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Farmer Dang Van Hien. Photo courtesy: Luatkhoa.org

The Social Republic of Vietnam is known to be notorious for its land management system since the day of its inception.

‘People’s ownership of land,’ whilst sounds misleadingly progressive, has never meant spatial justice for Vietnamese citizens nor intended to guarantee national housing security. Government leaders, alongside with pro-government scholars, often and explicitly, assert that the so-called ‘People’s ownership of land’ is a necessary evil to preserve economic growth.

Under this system, the local government can act as a proxy (or to lend support) to investors, corporations and impose price controls with regards to buying land and property from ordinary citizens for commercial and/or industrial purposes, without the application of any market mechanism. Indeed, the system does accelerate the land-acquisition process, but it also entails corruption, nepotism, and large-scale internal displacement. Unsurprisingly, in 2017, after decades of reforms, 70% of all national administrative complaints and accusations are still land-related.

And again, the story of unresolved land dispute conflicts repeated in Dang Van Hien case.

Long Son Commercial and Investment Company (Long Son), an investor granted the right of using land by the provincial authorities of Dak Nong, decided that it was time to carry out an all-in attack on any farmer who involved in land disputes with Long Son and was not willing to comply with its eviction demands.

It is also noteworthy that these long-lived conflicts between the company and the involved farmers, including defendants Dang Van Hien, Ninh Viet Binh, Ha Van Truong, have all been reported to the competent officialdom, but the farmers only received silence back.

The position of the local government, until now, is still unknown. However, it was these eight years of constant terror tactics and threats made by Long Son toward the farmers, reportedly, that had led to the tragic ending of three deaths and several other injuries in October 2016.

On October 23, 2016, armed with ‘primitive weapons’ and several bulldozers, over thirty workers of Long Son Company advanced into the farms on the disputed lands, leveled half thousands of cash crops and surrounded the farmer’ houses in groups.

The farmers then responded with their improvised firearms. Dang Van Hien fired his gun in the air with the hope of dismissing the crowd. The attempt was unsuccessful and triggered further escalation from Long Son’s employees with rocks and bulldozers approaching. Desperate and probably was also in fear, in the end, Hien and Binh shot aimlessly into the group of workers even after they turned around and ran away. Three persons were killed and 13 others injured.

In the first trial by the lower court earlier this January, when the court announced the verdict that Hien received the death sentence for the murders, the attendees turned the courthouse into chaos. Unfortunately, the court of appeal has recently agreed with the first-instance court and upheld the judgment. And again, the villagers from Hien’s neighborhood reacted with outpouring outrage, and in a sense, out of despair right at the court’s doorsteps.

Legalwise, the court’s decision now faces widespread criticism from lawyers and independent scholars where most of them concur that the punishment for Hien is too harsh and unnecessary. It was the responsibility of Long Son, whose actions in the past eight years were both unlawful and provoking, which have caused the farmer’s retaliatory measures. Some are also pressing on the fact that both the trial and appellate courts have failed to consider the numerous mitigating factors in favour of Hien under Vietnam’s Penal Code. These include the fact that Hien voluntarily turned himself in and he and his family have made financial reparation to the victim’s families.

Politically speaking, the court seems to be, arguably, insensitive about the nature of the case. Land disputes have been and will continue to be the most problematic social conflict in Vietnam, and an unconvinced judgment like this will only consolidate public notion on the relationship between interest groups, crony capitalists, and the government.

On the other hand, some believe the judgment is deliberative. Activists contend that the judgment is a signal to landowners and dissidents alike, warning them that any conduct deemed to be challenging to the ultimate authority of the government in distributing land and assigning land purposes will never be tolerated in Vietnam.

Nevertheless, if the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Tran Dai Quang, refuses to grant Dang Van Hien a reprieve this week and the competent judicial branches also fail to request a reconsideration of the case by compelling a trial by cassation, Hien could very soon be the first farmer getting executed due to a land dispute in the history of the Communist Party’s ruling in the country. And that would be a very worrying sign for the deterioration of land administration under the current regime.

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From #MeToo to ‘Creating Our Own Tables’: How High Is The Glass Ceiling in Vietnam?

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Photo courtesy: kathmandupost.ekantipur.com.

The glass ceiling for women in Vietnam, to me, is as high as the sky for most.

Recent stories about sexual assault and other violent crimes against young girls and women not only caught the public attention but also gave observers glimpses of a patriarchal society which has remained – for centuries – the same in term of gender equality.

On May 28, 2018, Phụ Nữ (Women) newspaper published an online story, detailing a groping incident three days before, where the victim was one of the biggest music stars in Vietnam, Mỹ Tâm. As one of the most beloved pop singers in the country, known to many of her fans as the Queen of Ballads, Mỹ Tâm probably has one of the largest fan bases, if not the largest.

But none of that great fame was able to protect her from being a victim of sexual assault.

To add insult to injuries, Mỹ Tâm was assaulted while performing on stage at a private event in front of the whole audience, yet all she could do was to retreat to the backstage.

No one came to assist her; no one confronted the perpetrator who was mentioned in the article as an “important official.” The only kind gesture to show some sympathy for Mỹ Tâm was the fact that someone dared to make a report to the press.

It is still a big taboo for women who accuse men of sexual harassment and assault in a country like Vietnam because there would always be the fear that the public may not be sympathetic toward the victims.

It is true that when compares to other East Asian countries like its neighboring Japan, Vietnamese society shows signs that it is catching on to the #MeToo movement where people publicly support the victims.

The recent alleged rape allegations made by an intern at Tuổi Trẻ newspaper helped demonstrated this point.

But in a culture where, for thousands of years, women have been taught and praised for being able to keep quiet of their sufferings while making sacrifices for the sake of others, victim-blaming in most cases should come as no surprise.

People may not defend the perpetrators, but they will judge the women if they don’t fit the “proper” Vietnamese woman standard.

On April 27, 2018, dancer Phạm Lịch publicly alleged rocker Phạm Anh Khoa had made improper sexual advances at her. About a week later, another female dancer Nga My and an unnamed stylist also made public allegations against Pham Anh Khoa for sexual misconducts. And while Khoa eventually apologized for his behaviors on May 15, 2018, he only did so after UNFPA dropped him as one of its goodwill ambassadors, his appearances on TV were canceled, and a rock concert in Hochiminh City pulled the plug on him.

The public backlash against Khoa began after an NGO that works to promote gender equality in Vietnam, CSAGA, organized an event for him to explain his side of the story.

People quickly pointed out that CSAGA was given Khoa a platform to normalize improper and illegal behaviors against women because he was not acknowledging any faults, he was explaining that his conducts were “industry standards.” Phạm Lịch recently told reporters that she could not find any work for the past month after making her allegations against Khoa public. It is not too far-fetched to infer that she is likely being punished by the industry for breaking the silence on sexual abuse.

Both Khoa and CSAGA apologized immediately after the backlash, but with his half-hearted attempt to explain himself, Khoa inadvertently opened the pandora box and revealed a culture of subtle victim-blaming in Vietnam.

Such a culture became even more vividly portrayed just last week when a nude model alleged that a famous artist had raped her at work. Many commentators online, including democracy activists and lawyers, shifted the burden of proof to the alleged victim and insisted that she must prove she had forcibly fought back during her ordeal or it would not be rape.

No means no simply was not enough.

The victim’s credibility was questioned, and her job as a nude model took away a significant portion of public sympathy. People, women included, scoffed at her story when information surfaced that the perpetrator allegedly had used a condom.

Just this week, the case of alleged child abuse against Minh Tiệp, a sports newscaster at the national television broadcasting company VTV shows how victim-blaming extends to cases involving teenage girls as well.

When first asked about the alleged abuse, Minh Tiệp used the media to paint the victim, his 15-year-old sister-in-law, as a “bad girl.” She was, according to him, someone who has been dating as early as in 6th grade and always talked back at him and his wife, her older sister, while they were trying to teach her right from wrong.

A member of Vietnam’s National Assembly – Phạm Tất Thắng – played down the case as “one of those that should be dealt with by the family,” even after the father of the teenager told newspapers that Minh Tiệp slapped his daughter. Mr. Pham is a Vietnamese congressperson who belongs to a committee which deals with culture, education, women, children, and teenagers matters.

These stories should not come as surprises once you realized that they all attempted to portray the victims as being “improper.”

Because the “proper” Vietnamese woman only dresses and speaks in an approved manner, she will not work certain jobs, and above all, she endures her sufferings for the sake of others. She will not bring attention to herself and definitely keeps quiet about her injuries and her pains if they would bring shame to her family.

This proper woman thus is a virtuous one who would sacrifice all that she is for the well-being of her loved ones, and for that, she has been idealized, worshipped and expected to be placed on a pedestal throughout Vietnamese history for future generations of girls and young women to follow.

We were taught folklores like Quan Âm Thị Kính, a woman who was being misunderstood all her life, wrongfully accused of crimes she never committed and yet she never tried to explain herself. She would keep her mouth shut and endured the injustice until the day she died, and only after death that her name was cleared.

Then there was the story of Thiếu phụ Nam Xương, a lady wrongfully accused of infidelity by her husband who left for military service and returned home years later. Again, just like Thị Kính, talking back and explaining herself were not the options. And like the other story, our heroine could only use death to prove her innocence, so she killed herself.

Being demurred, forcing oneself to bite her tongue instead of speaking up, and learning the ability to suffer in silence and not complaining are virtues that aspiring young girl was told to keep.

I grew up in such a society for the first 12 years of my life, and despite being raised by parents who would raise other people’s eyebrows for the way they let me speak my mind and shout back at them when I think they were wrong, I had mastered those virtues by the age of 5. I was often seen as a quiet girl, sitting properly and politely with a half smile on her face, whose voice was rarely heard when visiting homes of my parents’ friends. I had convinced myself then, that conforming to societal norms would be the best and easiest way to save myself and my parents from unnecessary headaches.

For the next twenty years though, my life drastically changed as my family immigrated and I was growing up in the West, adapting to a new set of values. I have grown up to become a Westernized woman, one that my parents’ old friends from Vietnam could no longer recognize as the same quiet and demurred child they have met back in the home country.

But who could believe that it only took less than 15 months of living in the old settings among Vietnamese people to morph my 30’s something-year-old self back to my pre-teen’s personality?

I work in the NGO sector, and one would have thought that I must be among comrades who promote the same values as mine – gender equality included – but I have found that I needed to put in twice the efforts compared to my male counterparts in most things that I do. I always felt the need to prove my self-worth to others, and I was constantly looking for approval. Even in my field of work – where people often believe they are somewhat more progressive than the rest of society – it still seems as if the “seats reserved at the table” are only offered to women who fit the “proper” descriptions.

So I bit my tongue instead of speaking back and letting others know how I felt, how I did not agree with them, and how I thought that they were wrong. I sacrificed my happiness to keep others happy. I had changed so much that I could not recognize myself when I stared at the woman in the mirror on the wall one day in the middle of Southeast Asia, and I broke down, completely.

If life was this difficult for me – a woman with an advanced degree from the West – imagine how it would be for those who have fewer opportunities and those who never had the chance to live outside of Vietnam.

While I was lucky to get out of that environment to save myself a trip to the emergency room for depression treatment, it dawned on me how high the glass ceiling is for most Vietnamese women. The #MeToo movement has brought many important issues about women’s rights to the discussion table in Vietnam, and I hope gender equality will now receive the attention it deserves.

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