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Press Release: On the Detention of Our Editorial Board Member Pham Doan Trang

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In the afternoon of November 16, 2017, the Vietnamese police kidnapped a member of The Vietnamese’s editorial board, Pham Doan Trang, almost immediately after she had left the meeting with the EU delegation in Hanoi held earlier that day.

The police had illegally seized her personal property, including her cell phone and laptop, and kept them since. Pham Doan Trang was held incommunicado during the entire detention, and legal representation was not allowed.

By midnight, the police escorted Pham Doan Trang back to her home in Hanoi and continued to surveil her, effectively putting her under house arrest.

The meeting with the EU delegation was held right before the commencement of their annual Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam, which is going to be in early December 2017. During the meeting on November 16, Doan Trang provided the EU delegation with an updates report on Vietnam’s current human rights situation, the report on the Formosa environmental disaster, as well as the latest report on the right to religion in Vietnam.

We strongly condemn the kidnapping, unlawful taking of property and putting Pham Doan Trang under house arrest. These conducts are in direct violation of both Vietnam’s and international laws, and as such, they have put a member of our editorial board in grave danger where both her physical and mental health have been negatively affected, especially when Doan Trang is still undergoing treatment for her previous knees injuries.

We, therefore, demand that the relevant authorities of Vietnam to immediately intervene and cease the ongoing illegal house arrest, investigate the unlawful individual conducts listed above, and prosecute those who have committed such crimes, in accordance to the current legal standards in Vietnam.

Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: 2021 Is Going To Be A Busy Year Of Elections

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Vietnam National Assembly Hall. Photo courtesy: Reuters.

We release the Vietnam Briefing every Monday, Vietnam time, with an emphasis on politics and foreign affairs. The briefing today is mainly about the different kinds of elections Vietnam is going to have this year.


COVID-19:

  • COVID-19 vaccinations will be rolled out this month.
  • Hai Duong Province will end lockdown from March 3.
  • Hanoi’s closure order for street vendors, cafes and historical sites has remained unchanged, but just as we briefed last week, many places are still open.

We are starting to know what the next National Assembly will look like

It’s true. We don’t need to wait until the general election ends on May 23 or for the results to be released in June. The National Assembly’s Standing Committee revealed in early February and last week the “tentative proportion” or “tentative allocation,” of seats for Parliament’s next term (2021 – 2026).

This means we can now see which government and Communist Party bodies will tentatively hold how many seats in the National Assembly.

The tentative number of seats is officially stated in the Standing Committee’s Resolution 1185/NQ-UBTVQH14, which is dated February 5, 2021 and which was debated again last week during the committee’s session that ended on February 23.

More details: 

  • Approximately 95 members of the National Assembly are members of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) Central Committee, including 12-14 members of the Politburo and the Central Secretariat.
  • Outside-of-the-party members: 25-50 (5-10 percent).
  • Members from the central government: 207 (41.4 percent).
  • Members from the military: 12 (excluding the minister of national defense).
  • Members from the police: 2 (excluding the minister of public security).
  • Other seats are also planned to be allocated to other government and party bodies.

Context:

  • The general election will be held on May 23 for both the National Assembly and local legislative bodies at all three levels (province, district, and commune). The results are expected to be released in June. The first National Assembly session will be held in July, mainly to elect top officials of all three branches of the central government.
  • General elections are held every five years, shortly after the Communist Party congresses.
  • Free and fair elections? That’s what the government says, but it’s not the view of Freedom House, a human rights organization, in its 2020 report: “Elections to the National Assembly are tightly controlled by the CPV, which took 473 of the body’s 500 seats in the 2016 balloting. Candidates who were technically independent but vetted by the CPV took 21 seats. More than 100 independent candidates, including many young civil society activists, were barred from running in the elections.”

Curious about how this election works? Pay close attention to two things: the role of the Fatherland Front – the Communist Party’s external arm – as a vetting agency and how the government deals with independent candidates.


Vietnam to run for a seat at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council

That’s what the Deputy Prime Minister announced last week before a United Nations’ session in Geneva, Switzerland.

Vietnam apparently doesn’t have a good record on human rights. But just like other authoritarian states such as China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, it has a chance to win one out of 47 seats on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s 2023-2025 term.

Context:

  • Vietnam was elected to the very council once in 2013, serving a two-year term from 2014 to 2016.
  • Government persecution targeting dissidents and human rights defenders has been increasingly harsh over the past five years, according to the data collected by The 88 Project.
  • Vietnam has consistently been categorized as a “Not free” country by the international rights group Freedom House.
  • Vietnam is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and it will serve until the end of this year.

Vietnamese ambassador runs for re-election to International Law Commission

It seems Vietnam is actively seeking more influence on the international stage. Here is another election at the United Nations that Vietnam is campaigning for, according to VietnamPlus:

“Vietnam’s permanent missions to the United Nations (UN) in New York and Geneva have recently sent diplomatic notes to the UN and member countries informing them of the candidacy of Ambassador Nguyen Hong Thao to the International Law Commission (ILC) for the 2023-2027 term, marking the official start of the Vietnamese candidate’s campaign for re-election to the UN’s important law organ. 

In 2016, Ambassador Thao became the first Vietnamese to be elected as an ILC member. During the 2017-2022 term, he actively promoted ILC’s research results, delivered speeches and joined discussions at the ILC.”


The Dong Tam appellate trial will be held on March 8

Remember the high-profile Dong Tam trial in September? The appellate trial opens on March 8 and will last until March 10.

Six defendants have appealed their sentences to the People’s High Court in Hanoi.

What should we expect? 

  • The trial will very likely result in the affirmation of the lower court’s verdict with little or no adjustments to the defendants’ convictions and sentences.
  • Similar to the trial in September, the appellate trial is expected to be closed to the public, with no independent and international media, and no independent observers allowed to attend; even family members of the defendants may be refused permission to observe the trial.

Learn more about the Dong Tam case:


Amnesty International’s new investigation into hacking group Ocean Lotus

Two weeks ago, we mentioned the hacking group Ocean Lotus in our briefing, indicating that the Vietnamese government is likely behind the effort to target dissidents and foreign entities.

Last week, another report on the matter was released by Amnesty International. Here is what it says:

“Our investigation was not able to attribute Ocean Lotus’ activities to any company or government entity. However, the extensive list of people and organizations targeted by Ocean Lotus over years shows that it has a clear focus on targeting human rights and media groups from Vietnam and neighbouring countries. This raises questions about whether Ocean Lotus is linked to Vietnamese state actors. The consistent evidence linking Ocean Lotus to Viet Nam should trigger the Vietnamese authorities to undertake an impartial, thorough and independent investigation into the group’s unlawful activities and human rights abuses.”

Context: 

  • The Vietnamese government has kept silent on the issue.
  • The Vietnamese government also has accused Amnesty International of “distorting Vietnam’s reality” and of “intervening in Vietnam’s internal affairs.”

Read more about Vietnam:

Where to now for Vietnam after Trong? (East Asia Forum – Feb 27): “Events over the past year have brought major long-term trends in Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy to the surface. The country will be less aligned with China. In the next decade, it will likely have its first non-conservative leader since the Cold War’s end but its leaders continue to value the Leninist state model.”

Vietnam’s unresolved leadership question (East Asia Forum, Feb 25): “Pham Minh Chinh emerged as a new star. […] Chinh is also a potential candidate to succeed General Secretary Trong when Trong vacates his position. In that case, Chinh will have reached a position his predecessors — Nguyen Tan Dung and Nguyen Xuan Phuc — wanted but did not get. The question is whether Trong wants and has enough time to groom Chinh to handle the roles of general secretary and state president.”

Supply chain bottlenecks in Vietnam (Bangkok Post, Mar 1): “Vietnam’s economy has fared better than that of almost any other country except China during the Covid-19 crisis. It grew by 2.9% last year while most other countries fell into recession. One consequence of the crisis was that manufacturers realised the importance of diversifying supply chains, and many accelerated the China Plus One policies that they had initiated because of the US-China trade war. This led to a surge of investment in Vietnam from global manufacturers last year.”

Capital meant for Myanmar may seek havens in Vietnam and Cambodia (Nikkei Asia, Feb 27): “The military coup in Myanmar has forced investors who had earmarked capital for the country to look for nearby alternatives. Delta Capital, Anthem Asia and other funds that have solely focused on Myanmar are adopting a wait-and-see approach, and those with a wider geographic footprint are funneling money to destinations like Cambodia and Vietnam. Vietnam is especially frothy.”

Mitsubishi pulls out of Vinh Tan 3 coal project in Vietnam (Reuters, Feb 26): “Mitsubishi Corp has decided to pull out of the Vinh Tan 3 power plant in Vietnam, two sources familiar with the company’s thinking on the matter told Reuters, as it shifts away from carbon intensive businesses in the face of climate change. Mitsubishi’s move to exit the estimated $2 billion project shows how willing Japanese companies and financiers are to drop their once-strong support for coal amid pressure from shareholders and activists.”

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Military General Appointed To Lead Party’s Propaganda

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Sen. Lt. Gen. Nguyen Trong Nghia. Photo courtesy: Hoang Thuy/baohatinh.vn

It was a week of Tet (Lunar New Year), containing COVID-19, a new draft decree on personal data protection, and an unexpected appointment of a military general to the top seat of the Communist Party’s propaganda commission. 


COVID-19

  • Vietnam is expected to secure 60 million doses of vaccines, Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long said on February 19. One day earlier, the health agency announced that 204,000 doses of the vaccine will be available in Vietnam by February 28.
  • The cafes, street restaurants, and historical sites closure order in Hanoi has remained unchanged, but in fact, many cafes and restaurants are still open.

It’s been a long time since a military general led the Communist Party’s propaganda machine

One needs to look back to the 1980s to see military generals running the Communisty Party’s propaganda departments. Le Quang Dao, Dang Quoc Bao, and Tran Do were the ones holding this position back then. General Tran Do later became known as the high-ranking member of the Party who called for a multiparty political system in Vietnam in the 1990s; he was expelled from the Party in 1999.

Not until last week, however, had another general been appointed to the position. Sen. Lt. Gen. Nguyen Trong Nghia was named the chairperson of the Party Central Committee’s Commission for Popularisation and Education (also known as the Commission for Propaganda) on February 18. He previously served as vice chairman of the General Department of Politics of the Vietnam People’s Army.

One unusual thing to note: He’s not yet a member of the Politburo, making him the first non-Politburo-member to chair the commission since the 1990s.

Propaganda experience: RFA reported: “Nguyen, 59, had previously overseen the creation in 2017 of a 10,000-member army cyber unit, Task Force 47, which monitored political comment online, countering statements opposing Vietnam’s ruling party.” 

Context: The military has already occupied two out of 18 seats in the Politburo, which is also an unusually high number because over the past 20 years only the Minister of National Defence has held the position. If Gen. Nghia is going to be appointed as a member of the Politburo in the coming years, that would make a record three generals in that Party body.


Here comes another attempt to detail the Cybersecurity Law

It’s been almost three years since Vietnam’s National Assembly passed the highly controversial Cybersecurity Law. No guidance on the law’s implementation has been given as the central government usually does in the case of decrees, circulars, and decisions. 

A draft decree was made available to the public for comments at the end of 2018, but it quickly disappeared after a huge backlash from domestic and international actors. 

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security’s website announced another draft decree to address personal data protection. 

You can find the full text of this document in Vietnamese here (Google Drive link). The draft decree is available for public consultation from February 9 to April 9. 

We have taken a look at the text and here are nine takeaways.

Spoiler: The draft decree has a lot to do with the government dealing with foreign services, such as Facebook and Google. It is not necessarily good news for these companies.


Vietnam – Myanmar relations amidst political instability in Myanmar

Three things you need to know about Vietnam’s position on the political tensions in Myanmar after the military overthrew the elected government led by the National League for Democracy.

  • First, the government called on the international community to further support the transition to democracy in Myanmar, matching the wishes and interests of the people of Myanmar, as reported by VietnamPlus. This statement was made on February 15 by Ambassador Le Thi Tuyet Mai, Permanent Representative of Vietnam to the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other international organisations in Geneva, during a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
  • Second, four days later, Ambassador Le Thi Tuyet Mai made another statement at a session of the WTO, saying Vietnam wanted to strengthen its trade ties with Myanmar. According to VietnamPlus: “Vietnam hails Myanmar’s achievements in structural reforms and impressive economic growth in the past year, and wants to continue bolstering the economic-trade and investment ties with the nation in the time to come, a Vietnamese diplomat said.”
  • Third, Vietnam’s military has significant investments in Myanmar in cooperation with the country’s military. A rights group named Justice for Myanmar released an investigative report in December 2020 accusing Viettel – a Vietnamese military telecommunications corporation – of assisting the Myanmar military in war crimes and crimes against humanity through Myanmar’s Mytel company.

China’s police chief visits Vietnam

Mr. Zhao Kezhi, the Minister of Public Security of China, visited Vietnam and was received by top government officials: CPV General Secretary and State President Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Minister of Public Security To Lam, and Minister of National Defense Ngo Xuan Lich.

China’s Xinhuanet reported:

“Zhao, during the meeting, expressed hopes that the two sides could enhance the synergy between the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and Vietnam’s ‘Two Corridors and One Economic Circle’ plan, expand and grow the economic, trade and investment cooperation, so as to better benefit the people of the two countries.”


84 percent of Vietnamese choose the United States over China

This is according to a survey released by ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute in Singapore on February 10, making Vietnam the second country in ASEAN that favors the United States the most.

Survey question: If ASEAN were forced to align itself with one of the two strategic rivals, which should it choose?


New report by the US Congressional Research Service on relations with Vietnam

The US Congressional Research Service released a report on the US-Vietnam relations on February 16, 2021. This report is meant to inform US lawmakers on matters relating to Vietnam.

Quotes:

“China’s actions in the South China Sea have led the United States and Vietnam to intensify security collaboration. In 2016, the Obama Administration removed remaining US restrictions on sales of lethal weapons and related services to Vietnam. Applications to export all defense items, lethal and non-lethal, are subject to a case-by-case review by the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. The Obama and Trump Administrations prioritized bilateral maritime assistance, including providing 24 new coast guard patrol vessels, aerial drones, coastal radar, and two decommissioned U.S.”

“Although the Trump Administration continued the annual bilateral human rights dialogue and criticized Vietnam’s human rights record in various annual reports and selected statements, it did not appear to assign a high priority to human rights in its overall approach to Vietnam.”


We are happy to introduce our weekly Vietnam Briefing that will be published every Monday (Vietnam time). We will produce the briefings by carefully selecting worthy news stories from verifiable and trusted sources, including Vietnam’s independent and mainstream media, civil society groups, as well as our own sources. In line with the publication’s code of conduct, we will practice no self-censorship and we pledge to be truthful, honest, and fair.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us: editor@thevietnamese.org.

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Tet, COVID-19, Journalists, And The South China Sea

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Celebration of Tet in Vietnam. Photo courtesy: TL/thoibaotaichinhvietnam.vn

COVID-19

The COVID-19 situation continued to worsen throughout the Lunar New Year and serious measures have been put in place.

  • Hanoi has decided to temporarily close coffee shops, street restaurants, and historical sites from midnight, February 16.
  • Students in Hanoi will have to study online until February 28, following similar decisions by Hai Duong, Binh Thuan, Thanh Hoa, Binh Dong, and Binh Phuoc provinces.
  • Ho Chi Minh City’s students will continue to study online until February 28.
  • The chairperson of the Hanoi People’s Committee proposed that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc close universities located in the capital until the end of February. These universities are under the authority of the central government, and not the local government.
  • Hai Duong, a northern province near Hanoi, will be locked down from February 16 for 15 days and citizens have been ordered to stay home. Only essential movements and businesses are allowed. Schools are closed until at least February 28.

Vietnam – one of Asia’s top-performing economies during the pandemic

Report from CNBC on February 10:

“Vietnam was one of Asia’s top-performing economies in 2020 and among the few countries that managed to record growth last year as authorities globally scrambled in their battle against the coronavirus pandemic. It saw 2.9 percent growth in 2020, narrowly edged out by the Taiwan economy’s 2.98 percent growth.”


A state-owned media journalist arrested for defaming provincial officials

It’s not unusual hearing news stories about journalists being arrested in Vietnam. Mr. Pham Bui Bao Thy (Phạm Bùi Bảo Thy) – the head of the representative office of Giáo dục và Thời đại (Education and Era) newspaper in central Vietnam – was arrested and charged by Quang Tri provincial police with “abusing democratic and freedom rights to infringe on the State’s interests and rights and the interests of organizations and individuals” under Article 331 of the Penal Code, according to Tuoi Tre and the Vietnam News Agency.

The provincial police have accused him of using anonymous Facebook accounts to spread baseless information and to defame some top government officials in the province.

The police have put him under a two-month detention order. 

Another person named Le Anh Dung (Lê Anh Dũng) was also arrested in the same case. Voice of Vietnam (VOV) reported that Mr. Dung, 56, lived in Ho Chi Minh city and he is accused of administering the accounts.

Article 331, previously Article 258 of the Penal Code, is widely condemned by rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Several human rights defenders and dissidents have been arrested and convicted of the crime, including well-known journalists such as Nguyen Huu Vinh, also known as Anh Ba Sam (2014), and Truong Chau Huu Danh (2020).


Is a government-backed hacking group targeting dissidents?

The lotus is seen as a symbol of Vietnam. Look at the national flagship airline’s logo and you will see it. And now, technology experts believe that a hacking group named OceanLotus, potentially linked to the Vietnamese government, is targeting dissidents and human rights organizations.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international rights group, released an interview with Steven Adair, president and co-founder of Volexity, a US-based cybersecurity company that has studied OceanLotus, on February 1. Below is a part of the interview:

“Question: Is it possible to say whether state actors are behind OceanLotus?

Answer: We definitely believe it’s out of Vietnam, but whether it’s a government agency, a contractor working for them, or something else, we don’t claim that we know that. We look at the immense level of effort and resources to maintain all the infrastructure and identify the victims. It’s not something anyone’s going to do in their spare time.”


Human Rights Watch: Vietnam among countries using COVID-19 to justify free speech violations

A report released on February 11 by Human Rights Watch lists Vietnam among countries taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to advance the governments’ agenda of suppressing human rights, especially the right of free speech.

Quote:

“Authorities in at least seven countries have blocked individual news reports or ordered online media or social media users to remove or edit Covid-19 related content. Vietnamese authorities summoned 650 Facebook users between January and March to question them about publishing false information relating to the pandemic, forced all of them to remove their posts, and fined over 160 of them. Vietnamese law does not only target incorrect information, but information that is deemed to defame or insult others’ reputation or honor.”


France’s nuclear attack submarine patrols in the South China Sea

On February 17, a lot of Vietnamese people inside and outside of Vietnam, as well as the state-owned media, will be speaking about the border war with China that started exactly 42 years ago. Anti-China sentiment has been strong in Vietnam, and many people wanted to see world superpowers harshly confront China on issues such as trade, human rights, security, and so on. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are among them. Vietnamese people are desperate to see the United States and other countries on their side. Last week, France seemed to make a strong statement on the issue.

Quoted from AFP:

“The French nuclear attack submarine SNA Emeraude recently conducted a patrol in the South China Sea, Defence Minister Florence Parly announced this week, sparking questions over the timing and tensions in Asia’s hotly contested waters.”


Xi Jinping urges Vietnam to “stand against the instigation of external forces” on the South China Sea issue

It was Lunar New Year in Vietnam and China last week. The two countries’ top leaders, Nguyen Phu Trong of Vietnam and Xi Jinping of China, had a phone conversation on February 8 to exchange wishes and to discuss various issues, according to Xinhuanet, China’s state-owned media agency. Here are a few things to note from this conversation.

Quote:

“China, Xi added, is willing to work with Vietnam to accelerate the synergy of the Belt and Road Initiative with the ‘Two Corridors, One Economic Belt,’ promote the construction of cross-border economic cooperation zones between the two countries, and explore exchanges and cooperation in such fields as healthcare, digital economy and humanities. 

The two sides should strengthen coordination and cooperation on international and regional issues, firmly uphold the international system with the United Nations at its core, oppose protectionism and unilateralism, and support a fast entry into force of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, Xi noted.

China and Vietnam, he said, should properly manage the maritime differences and stand against the instigation of external forces to promote the development of regional peace and stability.”

Vietnam’s major mainstream media outlets, such as The Government’s Portal, Nhan Dan, VOV, and Tuoi Tre, didn’t report the above-mentioned points of the conversation.

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