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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

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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To Tell or Not To Tell Them About My Personal Assets: A General Secretary’s Dilemma

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Photo Courtesy: KHAM/POOL/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

In a surprising move right before the 7th Party Central Committee plenary meeting, a group of Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) members and citizens have publicly demanded – in a letter – that the General Secretary, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, discloses his personal assets in according with the VCP’s own rules.

The demand was quickly spread on social media in Vietnam in the past three days.

The plenary meeting, which commences on Monday, May 7, 2018, in Vietnam, concentrates on discussions involving the integrity, capacity, and merits of the Party’s strategic personnel.

The timing of both the letter and the plenary meeting is at the high of the anti-graft campaign initiated by the Party’s chief in the past two years, right after his power was successfully consolidated at the last Party’s Congress in 2016.

For a long time, the question concerning personal assets of Party’s leaders and high officials has been on the mind of the people in Vietnam where corruption is high.

But this is probably the first time that a group of Party’s members publicly asking the Head of the Party to be transparent about his own assets and declare them.

Mr. Trọng, of course, could keep silent and does not have to respond to the letter.

Dr. Nguyễn Quang A, a long-time dissident intellect and one of the signatories of this letter, is not optimistic either: “I believe it is highly probable that he would not respond at all”.

While Trọng could continue to stay in his safe zone and only respond to the public and the press in pre-arranged conferences as he has done in the past, this time, there are three important reasons for him to consider responding to this written demand from his own comrades.

Trọng should have his assets declaration form ready because the laws required him to do so.

Vietnam’s laws required that officials – which include the VCP leaders – have to prepare an annual assets declaration form.

Accordingly, “officials are defined as Vietnamese citizens who are either elected, appointed, or approved to hold a position or title, according to their terms in the VCP’s system.” – (Article 4, Vietnam Law on Cadres and Civil Servants).

Trọng is not only the General Secretary, he is also a current member of the National Assembly.

Vietnam’s laws then also require that all candidates running for the National Assembly have to submit assets declaration forms prior to the election.

This is done in according to the 2012 amendments to the Law on Preventing Corruption.

If Trọng refuses, he indirectly declares he is above not only the law but the Party as well.

As the General Secretary who famously declares: “the Constitution (of Vietnam) is the most important legal document after the VCP’s Manifesto,” Trọng must act according to the Secretariat of the VCP’s Decision 99/QD-TW, issued on October 3, 2017, where it clearly states that the assets of all Party’s leaders “must be public for the people to know.”

One must understand the crucial role of the Secretariat in the VCP and how powerful this body is to appreciate Decision 99/QD-TW. According to the VCP’s rules, this is the body which governs the daily operation of the Party. Mr. Trọng is also a member of the Secretariat.

If he refuses to comply with the Secretariat’s decision, then he has violated the core principle of the Communist Party: centralized democracy. The VCP operates in a system where the minority must obey the majority; subordinates must obey upper management; an individual must obey the organization.

Thus, while an individual may disagree with a decision of the Party, that individual must still “strictly complies”.

As a person who dedicates his life to sustain the Party, Mr. Trọng must know that this principle decides the VCP’s survival. If he doesn’t respect it, then he has put himself above the Party.

No one will believe Trọng is committed to fighting corruption when he refuses to be transparent about his own assets.

Transparency International ranked Vietnam as the second most corrupted country in Asia after India in March 2017.

The VCP’s chief has initiated an ambitious campaign against corruption in the past two years, a Vietnamese version of Xi Jinping’s “killing tigers, swatting flies.”

Earlier this year, he reaffirmed such commitment to weed out corruption at all levels by famously declared there would be “no off-limit zones” for the campaign.

The slogan “Burn the Furnace” became well-known to many Vietnamese, where corrupted officials are seen as “wood logs” ready to be thrown into the fire.

Trinh Xuan Thanh – a more famous “wood log” who was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year – gained international attention when German police alleged that Vietnamese secret services had kidnapped Thanh in broad daylight in the middle of Berlin last summer.

Vietnam insisted that Thanh came back to Vietnam voluntarily to turn himself in.

While the international community may think that repairing a deteriorating diplomatic relationship with Germany is crucial for Vietnam, such task is still secondary when compares to maintaining the VCP’s legitimacy with its own people.

The public in Vietnam is clearly divided over Trinh Xuan Thanh’s case.

One of the main reason for those who support the government’s conducts – including the alleged kidnapping – in such matter is because they want to believe in the commitment of the Party and of Mr. Trọng in fighting against corruption.

But their belief does not come blindly.

An important question has been lurking among the public in Vietnam – and yet no one has dared to raise it – was whether Trọng has ever committed corruption himself and if that is the case, then would he be prosecuted as well?

An even more important question concerns over the legitimacy of this “Burn the Furnace” campaign initiated by Trọng. Is he really committed to fighting against corruption or is he using such a campaign to target and eliminate other factions within the VCP?

For now, most people in Vietnam probably would not go that far to question Trọng’s intention over his anti-graft campaign, but they do want to know whether he is a “clean” official.

And for this, Trọng would need to be transparent about his own assets by providing to the public his assets declaration form according to laws.

Social activist Nguyễn Anh Tuấn comments, “whether Mr. Trọng is transparent about his own assets will say a lot about the legitimacy of the anti-corruption campaign he has initiated”.

“If he is transparent about his assets, then it is great because his subordinates would have no excuse to delay declaring their own. The public and the press will have some basis for monitoring officials”.

“On the contrary, if he ignores the people’s request this time, then they have reasons to question his commitment to fighting corruption”.

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