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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

39 Vietnamese Froze To Death In England: A Question On The Rule Of Law

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Vigil in Hanoi, Vietnam for the 39 dead people. Photo credits: Green Trees

“No one is above the law, but no law is above basic decency, justice, and kindness.”

This sentence is one of the first things you will see on my Facebook profile, right below my profile photograph.

Today I want to share some thoughts about that quote, mostly in light of the recent tragedy in which 39 people were found dead in a refrigerated lorry in Essex, in the United Kingdom. I am not a professional lawyer, and I don’t claim to know everything about this issue. But I think some people need to reexamine their concept of “rule of law” and what it really means.

I do believe no one is, or at least no one should be, above the law. And this applies to everyone from presidents to illegal immigrants. It is true that illegal border crossing is a violation of the law. Staying and working in a country without proper legal documentation is also a violation of the law. Growing marijuana is a violation of the law in the UK. There is no question about that. And, if any persons violate the law, they should be tried in a fair and just manner, and if found guilty, should be punished accordingly.

That said, I completely agree that the 39 people who died in that lorry were violating British law as they illegally entered the country and had intended to stay and work there illegally, without paying taxes. Had they been alive and arrested by the authorities at the border or afterward, I would have completely agreed that they must be given a fair trial, and if found guilty of committing a crime, should have been convicted and punished according to UK immigration laws, which I assume to be deportation. If they had violated any other laws against the community where they intended to reside, they also should have been tried and punished in accordance with the law as mentioned above. It’s that simple. You break the law, you get punished by the law.

On the other hand, doing something legal isn’t always right, and doing something illegal is not always wrong. No law is above basic decency, justice, and kindness, that is my belief. And that extends to the way you treat people, even those who break the law.

Some people say that we shouldn’t have mercy or empathy for those who break or try to break the law. Some accuse these people of being “parasites”, “greedy” and “stupid”, who “disgrace” their own countries of origin in the eyes of the world. I’m not sure that those who work hard in another country to support their families at home can be described as “parasites”, “greedy”, “stupid”, or a “disgrace”. But I am certain the majority of people in the world do not see looking down on their less fortunate compatriots as a virtue or a source of pride. I think this shows a lack of basic decency and respect for other fellow human beings.  

Some people say that the 39 people who died deserved their fate because they broke the law and had to pay the price, that they should’ve seen it coming. These 39 people, of course, would’ve broken several laws had they been successful in their (supposed) attempts. Are any of these laws punishable by death? Not that I know of. Do you think anyone who violates these laws should be given the death penalty? I don’t, and I’m fairly sure most people don’t either.

So how, exactly, did these people “deserve to die” for breaking those laws? How, exactly, did these people “deserve to die” for wanting to make more money even if they and their families were not that desperate? How, exactly, did these people “deserve to die” for not choosing the legal way to work overseas?

People who break the law deserve punishment in accordance with the law. But they don’t deserve to die, especially in that manner. It is not just.

Such responses demonstrate a lack of empathy and kindness that is, unfortunately, still quite common, not just in Vietnam, but also around the world, despite many efforts to promote the importance of empathy in our society. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their rationale and feelings. We cannot be kind to others without having empathy, without being able to look beyond ourselves and focus instead on other people.

Understanding the context is an important first step in developing empathy and kindness. Context is integral at every step of the legal process, from lawmaking to handing judgments and punishments, and in the everyday assessment of any situation or person. Jumping to conclusions without considering all contextual information and imposing your own views onto the problem can be dangerous, as you will be focusing on the surface problem and blinded to other underlying issues. You won’t be able to understand fully and correctly either the whole picture itself or the people involved. That lack of understanding will lead to bad solutions that won’t solve problems, but which will likely make things even worse.

Most importantly, I believe kindness makes the world a better place. Don’t confuse being kind to be lenient. It is not mutually exclusive to hand out just judgments and punishments while at the same time trying to understand and treat people well to help them right their wrongs. That is what I believe to be restorative justice instead of retributive justice. I suggest we not focus on their shortcomings, but rather on how we, as a society, as a country, as humanity can help the victims’ families and prevent as many people as possible from suffering such tragedies ever again. That requires not cruelty and apathy, but a balance of rationality and empathy.

The rule of law doesn’t mean you must uphold the law over people without exception. It doesn’t mean people who break the law are bad and don’t deserve our mercy or respect. It doesn’t mean that we can just punish someone and be done with it. We need more than just the rule of law to run our society in a way that improves most if not all of us. We need to have basic human decency, justice, empathy, and kindness in dealing with each other.

This tragedy is a failure and a lesson for all of us Vietnamese as a society and as a country.

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A Sexual Predator Walked Free As Arbitrary Application Of The Law Failed Everyone In Vietnam

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Illustrative picture of sexual assault victim. Photo credit: INIMAGE

A perpetrator in a sexual assault case was caught on tape in Hanoi where he forcefully came onto a woman in an elevator of a building and kissed her on the lips.

The news coincided with what would have been about one year after the #MeToo movement first marked its impact in Vietnam. Last year, an intern at Tuoi Tre newspaper went public about her sexual harassment allegations against her boss in April 2018.

The recent sexual assault case stirred up even more public outrage in Vietnam this time and made headlines on international news outlets as well.

It is because the police in Hanoi only issued an administrative fine against the perpetrator where the whole world had already watched what he did to the woman and believed criminal charges should have been filed.

Images of him assaulted the victim was spreading rapidly online, but anger erupted on social media – from both men and women alike – after the authorities announced the fine of 200,000 VND (Approximately USD 8).

The public felt that the legal system had failed them.

During March 11-12, 2019, Vietnam underwent its third review under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in front of the Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland. The recurring theme for the line of questions from the Committee concentrated on the ability of Vietnamese citizens to utilize their national legal framework to protect their human rights.

Vietnam’s legal system often faced criticisms from the international community due to its arbitrary application of the law in political cases. Vaguely defined penal codes under the category of “national security” crimes have been used to silence dissidents.

Most often, political opinions are all deemed to be either act of subversion against the people’s government or propaganda against the state.

And as such, for a while, arbitrary application of vague penal codes seem to be the problem that only political dissidents face in the country. Naturally, the call to reform the legal system in Vietnam has mostly been originating from this same group.

However, all of that has changed in March 2019 with this sexual assault case.

In just one night, an online campaign started by two young female activists, Ngoc Diep Dao and Nguyet Ha, on change.org gathered over 2,000 signatures.

The petition calls for legal reforms in the country with a specific request to the National Assembly to pass new legislation protecting victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

In recent months, the sexual assault in the building’s elevator was not the only case where the law failed to protect the victims of sexual assault and violence.

A nine-year-old girl alleged that a male adult raped and beat her, but the suspect was allowed to be released on bail because the authorities had deemed that his conducts were not dangerous enough to the community.

A male teacher who inappropriately touched his fifth graders was not criminally prosecuted.

The inability and unwillingness to prosecute the alleged perpetrators in these cases strongly highlighted the concerns of the Human Rights Committee during the ICCPR review: Vietnamese people currently do not have the support of a functional legal system to address their grievances when their human rights and their dignity are being violated.

The law enforcement, in the “elevator assault” case, arbitrarily applied a decree on protecting public order and preventing domestic violence instead of using a criminal code on assault.

The authorities’ excuse that Vietnam has yet to pass a specific penal code to punish the perpetrator in sexual assault and sexual harassment cases and therefore the law could not further protect the victim – as in the case at hand – is not a legally sound argument.

The forceful and unwanted kiss on the lips is a classic assault and battery. Vietnamese authorities in the past had sentenced a young woman to nine-month-imprisonment for slapping a police officer. The slap on the cheek or an unwanted kiss on the mouth have the same criminality in nature: they are both conducts that fall under the category of battery and assault.

While specific, well-defined sexual assault and battery crimes should and must be included in Vietnam’s Penal Code, at the same, we shall not tolerate the police who refused to apply a regular battery and assault charge against the perpetrator either.

It seemed that the Deputy Prime Minister, Truong Hoa Binh, might have agreed. On March 22, 2019, he had requested the City of Hanoi and its police to conduct a review of the case.

In the meanwhile, the people continue to voice their demand to change the current legal framework to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment.

Even though change.org itself is being blocked here and there in the country this year (coincidently after the new Cybersecurity took effect earlier in January), by the time this article goes to press, close to 4,000 Vietnamese people and 14 civil society organizations have signed the petition during the past four days.

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Vietnam: Social Media Successfully Forced Government To Leave Traditional Fish Sauce Alone (For Now)

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Traditional fish sauce production. Photo credits: baonghean.vn

Social media in Vietnam carries quite a force when it comes to having a say in public affairs, and the government is well aware of that. The effect of the new cybersecurity law of 2018 and its attempt to reign in the people’s power remain to be seen. However, the vibrant online civic space in Vietnam just recently proved how effective it could be in fighting against illogical and unreasonable governmental regulations.

This time, it was all about the fish sauce which for the majority of Vietnamese people, could very well be the essence of their souls. If anything could cause an uprising in the country, interference with the people’s consumption of their fish sauce might very well be it.

Three years ago, when the disastrous Formosa marine pollution erupted, the fear of not being able to have a safe supply of fish and salt (the main ingredients for making the fish sauce) prompted thousands of Vietnamese to take to the streets.

So for this reason alone, one would assume that it must take a very gutsy governmental department to take on a fight against the producers of this national treasure.

To everyone’s surprise, the Bureau of Production and Market Development for Agriculture Produce (Bureau) in Vietnam emerged in early March 2019 as the one who was willing to put on the hat of such a fierce fighter.

The Bureau proposed a new set of rules and regulations, detailing the practical steps that all who wish to produce fish sauce in the country must follow.

This particular bureau might have underestimated the outrage from not only the fish sauce producers but also the Vietnamese people at large when the proposed regulation went public.

It could partly be that the making of fish sauce is quite diverse and supposedly done according to the unique traditions and techniques in each region in Vietnam.

Similarly, not many of us would imagine instructing all French winemakers how their bottles of wine should be made or telling the whole Italian cheesemakers that they must follow their government’s detailed steps to produce their mozzarella.

More importantly, for years, the traditional fish sauce producers in Vietnam have been fighting against a few large food corporations who had created a monopoly which mass-produced not fish sauce, but its substitutes.

It turned out that there were two kinds of sauce involved in this battle.

The traditional fish sauce is organically made from fish and salt, and it takes longer to yield the final products.

The other is a chemically induced sauce that may smell like fish sauce but catered to an entirely different taste.

This non-traditional fish sauce substitutes, however, have dominated the market in Vietnam during the past two decades because they are considerably cheaper.

Nevertheless, the traditional fish sauce continues to survive throughout this battle even though their products cost more than those manufactured by the big factories.

Perhaps, because, in recent years, Vietnamese people begin to favor the traditional taste both for health reasons and for protecting the keepsake of their national identity.

I remember this one time when attending college in California, as I was passing by an apartment complex near my school, I suddenly felt the presence of my motherland and nostalgically yearned for my mama’s cooking while the distinctive aroma filled the air from one of the studios.

I am probably not alone in having such an experience where one associates fish sauce with memories of her homeland, making it an essential part of who she is.

And there it went, in the last few weeks, the Vietnamese people were not shy in expressing themselves on social media and letting the government knows that they were firmly against the proposal to regulate the traditional fish sauce’s production.

Their outpouring anger was enough for the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology to quickly announce on March 12, 2019, that the proposed regulation for fish sauce production would be halted indefinitely.

But the abrupt halt did not calm down the public and the traditional fish sauce producers. For the people, the attempted regulation seemed to disproportionately favor one corporation in particular, Masan Group, who had dominated the fish sauce substitutes market in Vietnam.

Almost three years ago, the traditional fish sauce producers had suffered a different attack from another controversy allegedly concocted by a Public Relations firm – T&A Ogilvy – who worked with major food corporations, including Masan.

Back in December 2016, mass media in Vietnam picked up a story from the survey sponsored by T&A Ogilvy where it claimed that 95% of all fish sauce samples collected nationwide contained an alarming amount of arsenic content.

The story was later proven to be entirely false, and the Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, himself ordered an inquiry into the survey’s claims. Nevertheless, the traditional fish sauce producers already suffered losses when consumers panicked and avoided consumption.

This time around, the Vietnamese public seemed to believe that the latest proposed governmental regulation just proved that Masan would not give up on this ambitious dream of becoming the only producer for fish sauce in the country and that the government chose to stay on the corporation’s side.

Because fish sauce is not only a staple in many people’s diet but also a part of their identity, they came to doubt the government’s actual intention for attempting to regulate the production of such caused them.

On social media, people alleged that this whole incident just showcased the intricately entwined relationship between the Vietnamese government and the conglomerates – such as Masan Group.

To have such an allegation coming from its people should be a worrying sign for a regime that has been trying to maintain its dwindling legitimacy like Vietnam. And while the battle is not quite finished, social media will continue to be the much needed civic space for Vietnamese people to voice their concerns and exercise their rights.

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