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Human Rights

Vietnam: Activists Refuse to Engage in Government’s Cat-and-Mouse Game

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Photo credits: Frontline Defenders.

Around noon on November 16, 2017, journalist Pham Doan Trang, a member of our editorial board, found herself stuffed in a car driven by plained-clothes police, some of whom she might have recognized from the dozen of times they have come and kidnapped her in broad daylight before.

Just less than half an hour earlier, she was an invited guest of the EU delegation at the swanky Lotte Building in Hanoi, Vietnam, together with Dr. Nguyen Quang A and two other activists, Nguyen Chi Tuyen and Bui Thi Minh Hang.

All of them, except for Nguyen Chi Tuyen who managed to avoid police detection, was kidnapped by the authorities almost immediately after they left the EU meeting. It was the latest episode in a ludicrous game of cat and mouse that the Vietnamese government had orchestrated for years.

While telling his Facebook friends about his experiences on November 16, 2017, where he was detained illegally and interrogated for five hours, the prominent pro-democracy intellect, Dr. A, also recalled that the police had done this to him 14 times just between last year and now. They also guarded and surveilled his home heavily, as well as almost followed him around all the time.

Doan Trang alone has been taken against her own will to various police stations for interrogation a few times just this year, sometimes for the entire day. This last one on November 16 was for 12 hours, which ended when police drove her home around midnight.

But she was not even certain that night if they were going to actually release her until the car stopped at her house.

Because “the police like ‘the surprise factor'”, she said. “They would love to terrify you and make it impossible for you to expect what was going to happen next. They rule by fear and instilling fear in you is their favorite job. You just have to learn how to become fearless.”

Fearless, determined, and completely devoted to the democracy movement in Vietnam would be the words to describe the woman many people view as one of the leading activists in Vietnam, journalist Pham Doan Trang.

Last year, during Barrack Obama’s May 2017 visit to the country, Doan Trang and Dr. A were also kidnapped by the authorities to prevent them from attending a meeting which was specially arranged by the Obama administration, so that the U.S. president could meet Vietnam’s independent civil society’s representatives.

For Doan Trang, in trying to make it to the meeting with Obama, she had to travel thousands of kilometers by car while still recuperating from a knees surgery. Her fellow activists had to accompany her, and one of them even also assumed the role of her personal nurse because Doan Trang was too weak to take care of herself. All the while, the group had to lay low and went under the radar so that they could avoid police detection.

Her knees injuries also came from the police who had crushed them while breaking up a peaceful march in 2015. Doan Trang and hundreds of other residents of Hanoi were protesting against the city government’s decision to cut down some 6,700 trees.

Back to the morning of May 24, 2016, despite their efforts to divert police attention, secret agents eventually caught up with Doan Trang’s group and found them at a motel about 100 km away from Hanoi, just a couple of hours before the meeting with Obama was supposed to start.

They were all illegally detained and interrogated, and Doan Trang was held in her motel room until those who were guarding her received confirmation that the Obama meeting was long over. Only then they would let her and her friends go.

Dr. A also received similar treatment. The police came to his neighborhood early that day in May 2016, around 6:00 A.M., and snatched him away. They confiscated his electronic devices, stuffed him in their car, and drove him around Hanoi and other local proximities like Hung Yen. After receiving confirmation that Obama had boarded his plane from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, they took Dr. A back to his home and released him around 1:00 P.M. the same day.

Neatly placed name cards left on the meeting table without the faces to match, and their empty chairs during the entire discussion vividly displayed the life of dissidents in Vietnam: The authorities do not hesitate to use whatever available means to subdue their bodies and silence their voices.

And on that day, it particularly seemed as if no single world leader could change such fact, not even the U.S. president.

Things did not change for the better this year either.

Before and during President Trump’s visit to Vietnam earlier this month, dissidents and activists like Dr. A and Doan Trang had reported that they were surveilled and followed by both police and plain-clothes officers. Some said they were even prevented from leaving their houses on certain days when world leaders – like Donald Trump and Xi Jinping – were in town.

So when it came to those events surrounding the kidnapping on November 16, the Vietnamese activists’ community was not exactly taken by surprise. However, because living under such oppression has become a way of life, it also prompted a quick response from them. Civil society organizations were not silenced, instead, they immediately condemned the authorities’ conducts.

Without any probable cause, no arrest warrant, the forceful taking of individual citizens into police custody violates even Vietnam’s own criminal procedures, leave alone international legal norms and practices.

Worse, this has been a routine violation.

Back in December 2015, dissident attorney Nguyen Van Dai and his assistant Le Thu Ha were taken into police custody and had been held without trials ever since.

In July 2016, dissidents Nguyen Bac Truyen, Truong Minh Duc, and Pham Van Troi were also taken into custody and later charged with Article 79 of the Penal Code for subversion against the State, together with previously arrested Dai and Ha.

Doan Trang said no one in Vietnam could really tell for sure each time an activist got snatched by the police, that whether it would be just for a few hours of questioning, or the government would press charges and put someone away for a couple of years.

Her take is to treat today as if it would be the last day she could still be a free person and try to make the most of it.

In a country like Vietnam, she said, there would always be so much to do and so much more needed to get done. And getting things done she did.

Doan Trang came to the EU meeting with an updated report on the Formosa environmental disaster, a new report on Vietnam’s Laws on Religion, and an update on the overall human rights situation in the country. She collaborated with others on these projects in 2017, and at the same time, published a book on introduction to politics. All were done while she still had not fully recovered from last year’s knees surgery and constantly been harassed by the authorities.

So perhaps, now is also the time that the Vietnamese authorities must stop playing this insipid game of catch and release.

It was like child-play, Doan Trang described her encounter with the police officers on November 16 on her Facebook status following her release.

The EU delegation initiated this meeting with members of civil society organizations and held it right before their annual Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam (which will supposedly happen later in December this year). The delegation wished to consult the civil society actors on issues regarding the country’s environment, labor rights, and the overall human rights situation, pending their ongoing EVFTA (EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement) negotiations with Vietnam.

Ironically, all the while the EU delegation were wishing they could learn more about how Vietnam has been implementing human rights, the activists’ illegal arrest and detention happened right under their nose.

The police grabbed these activists as they were leaving the building where the meeting took place. It seems as if the Vietnamese authorities could not wait to put their hands on the nation’s most valuable prizes in trade negotiations with foreign governments.

But to Doan Trang and many of her fellow activists, being viewed as some prized pawns that Vietnam could use to exchange for economic interests, like trade agreements, undermines their cause.

And they refuse to be treated as such.

Rather, Doan Trang wishes the international community views her numerous arrests and others’ arrests and imprisonment during the past three years since she came back to Vietnam (after finishing her fellowship at the University of Southern California), as glaring evidence that the country is still ruled by a one-party dictatorship.

Only by seeing the Vietnamese regime for what it is and not giving it the presumed legitimacy of a democratic government, one that respects human rights and the rule of law, then foreign governments – like the EU – could truly press Vietnam on matters like respecting the people’s will and peaceful democratization process.

No one likes to see this cat-and-mouse game with the police to continue, except for the authorities themselves.

This is how Doan Trang hopes the world would react to the Vietnamese activists’ arrests and imprisonment: Do not request Vietnamese authorities to release one or two activists on an individual basis for humanitarian reasons.

Instead, the international community should call them out on their totalitarian characteristics, their disastrous human rights records, and inform them that their methods of oppressing dissidents and the democracy movement render them an illegitimate regime.

Land Rights

Tensions Mount in Aftermath of Attack on Dong Tam Village

Leader Le Dinh Kinh killed, wife tortured, and 22 others charged, as civil society demands answers from government

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As details and testimonies slowly emerge from Dong Tam after a surprise government raid early the morning of January 9, tensions between officials and civil society activists continue to mount as the two groups fight to clarify events that led to the deaths of 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh and three police officers, as well as the arrest of more than 30 villagers.

Compounding tensions is the fact that Vietnam is a one-party authoritarian state in which all official news, press, and media outlets are controlled by a single communist party. Citizen-journalists make ample use of social media to counter the systemic bias, as the general population struggles to establish the facts.

State media announced yesterday that 22 individuals have been charged: 20 for murder, including two of Kinh’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, as well as 2 others for obstruction of officials. Murder is among the most serious charges of the Vietnamese penal code, with punishment ranging up to and including the death penalty.

The clash in Dong Tam was the culmination of a land dispute that had been simmering for years over private farmland earmarked for a military airport (Mieu Mon). Experts state that land disputes in Vietnam have become increasingly common, at Loc Hung garden in Ho Chi Minh City most recently, due to the ambiguous laws that the ostensibly “communist” country has enacted regarding land ownership.

According to villager testimonies, around 3 AM the morning of January 9, 2020, approximately 3,000 officers from the police, riot, and armed forces carrying clubs, sticks, guns, shields, and tear gas grenades poured into Dong Tam village (My Duc suburban district, Hanoi), targeting village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house.

Collecting eyewitness accounts, citizen-journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang explained: “as violent skirmishes broke out, police used an explosive charge to blow a hole into village leader Kinh’s house, all while firing bullets and tear gas. Other officers tightly sealed off all the paths and alleyways in the village and used German shepherds to hunt down ‘culprits’. The villagers responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Police completely collapsed the roof of Le Dinh Kinh’s house and more than 30 members of his extended family were taken away.”

Trang reports that the Dong Tam area is currently under complete lockdown and no independent journalists have been allowed in, noting state media outlets simultaneously began reporting the same story January 9, citing a single source: Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security. The brief statement from the ministry stated that a number of officers ‘sacrificed themselves’ in the line of duty, while one ‘hostile culprit’ died.

It was not until January 10 that state media identified the “hostile culprit” as village leader Le Dinh Kinh himself, who was accused of leading a mob of villagers to “obstruct officials” who were working on constructing a wall delineating Mieu Mon Airport. Officials did not explain why this work was being done at four in the morning, nor why 3000 officers were present in the village rather than closer to the Mieu Mon work site, a few kilometers away. Officials handed over Kinh’s body to villagers the same day (January 10).

Security footage showing numerous riot police marching through Dong Tam, early on the morning of January 9. Photo: Trinh Ba Tu

Luong Tam Quang, deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security, explained at a press conference January 14 that Kinh was shot because he was “holding a grenade” and posed a threat to security forces. Quang, however, confirmed that the Ministry of Public Security did not have an arrest warrant for anyone when police stormed Kinh’s private residence.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, told land rights activist Trinh Ba Tu that Kinh was shot right in front of her, twice in the head, once in the heart, and once in the left foot. A viral video of Kinh’s body on social media showed a single bullet hole near his heart, and an unexplained long surgical scar down his abdomen.

Kinh’s funeral was held January 13, but the area of Dong Tam remained under high security, with the internet cut. Little to no footage of the funeral is available, and supporters were largely prevented from attending.

Public outpouring of support for Kinh has been swift on social media, with many seeing him as a exemplary moral leader who consistently fought for the weak. In his lifetime, Kinh was a peasant farmer, a revolutionary soldier who had fought against the Americans, a Communist Party member at 20, head of police in his village, and both party secretary and chairman of the village’s Party committee in the 1980s.

That the Vietnamese government has killed a model Party member has intellectuals commenting on the inherent symbolism, stating Kinh’s murder represented the communist regime “digging its own grave”.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, herself suffered harsh mistreatment from the authorities, and in a surreptitiously recorded video that has spread on social media, she details how police slapped and kicked her repeatedly to force her to falsely confess to using grenades and petrol bombs.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, explains how police repeatedly slapped and kicked her to force her to sign a false confession.

Her son Le Dinh Cong, adopted daughter Bui Thi Noi, and her grandchildren Le Dinh Doanh and Le Dinh Quang are also likely victims of forced confessions, as their battered images appeared on state television January 13, stoically confessing to making petrol bombs and other weapons to attack police. They admitted they had broken the law, even implicating prominent activist Nguyen Anh Tuan and blogger Le Dung Vova in encouraging “anti-state” activities.

All four subjects were covered in scrapes, black eyes, bruises, and swellings, and looked down as they spoke during the entire recording, appearing to be reading from statements off-camera.

Forced scripted confessions, particularly those aired on state television, are common in authoritarian regimes, like Vietnam, China, and North Korea.

State media also reported that Le Dinh Chuc, Le Dinh Kinh’s second son, is laying in a hospital; his condition is unknown.

The January 14 press conference further identified the three police officers killed in the raid as: Colonel Nguyen Huy Thinh, Captain Pham Cong Huy, and Lieutenant Duong Duc Hoang Quan.

After days of state media reporting that the villagers attacked and killed the officers by grenades, knives and petrol bombs, deputy head Quang admitted that the three individuals had fallen down a four-meter skylight in Kinh’s residence while pursuing suspects. He alleges that Dong Tam residents, upon seeing the officers in the well, poured gasoline and lit them on fire.

All three officers have been given posthumous awards and the honorary title of “martyr” by President and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their service.

Vietnam has cracked down on those challenging the official narrative, and according to citizen-journalist Pham Doan Trang, the government has arrested people in Can Tho, Quang Ngai, and Dak Nong for posting online about the event. She also notes that land rights activists (and brothers) Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong, who are in direct contact with the Dong Tam villagers and have worked to smuggle information out, are currently at high risk of arrest.

Facebook itself is now complicit in the oppression, activists say , as the government—using a cybersecurity law it passed in 2018—has succeeded in pressuring the company to remove videos and posts regarding the Dong Tam attack; Vietnam’s own online army has succeeded in bringing down some activists’ profiles through coordinated campaigns.

An example of a notification that users in Vietnam see for “banned” content. Photo: Dinh Thao

Vietnamese civil society organizations have responded accordingly, organizing several campaigns to bring awareness to the event, as well as pressure the Vietnamese government to address inconsistencies and unknowns in the government’s “evolving” narrative.

Luat Khoa Magazine, an independent journal that covers legal and political issues in Vietnam, has mailed a letter to To Lam, head of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security with a list of fundamental legal questions for Mr. Lam to answer (English translation here), while a nationwide, weeklong “Pray for Dong Tam” color campaign launched Sunday, Jan 12, calling for calm, mourning, and an objective investigation into what transpired January 9 (English translation here).

Perhaps most significantly, the “Dong Tam Task Force”, an ad hoc organization established by leading Vietnamese activists, launched January 13 to organize, coordinate, and facilitate fact-finding in the Dong Tam attack (English translation here). It also aims to protect the remaining village witnesses from further government harassment and arrest.

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Land Rights

Long-simmering Land Dispute in Hanoi Suburb Explodes in Violence, Killing 4

In scenes resembling a war zone, Dong Tam villagers vow to fight to the death to resist “corrupt” land reclamation

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Amid sounds of explosions, screams, and gunfire, the villagers of Dong Tam, a rural commune 35 km southwest of Hanoi, clashed with Vietnamese police in the early morning hours of January 9, killing three police and one civilian, state-controlled media reported this afternoon.

According to the BBC, at 4 AM, police cordoned off Dong Tam in coordination with local ground forces and forcefully reclaimed 59 hectares of land from villagers who had battened down the hatches in anticipation of the move. The villagers, who were never officially notified but had only heard through unofficial channels, declared in video recorded an hour before the attack that they would “fight to the death”.

In a message to fellow Vietnamese citizens, a villager of Dong Tam states that the government is shooting at them. He declares that the villagers will “fight to the death”. Nguyen Anh Tuan

The land had been earmarked since 1980 to form a part of the Mieu Mon military airfield, but in 2015, the plan was expanded to take up more nearby farming land and generalized to become an airport.

Citizen-blogger social media reports say police burst into the village with tear gas and grenades filled with plastic ball bearings, and descended upon village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house, shooting and killing one individual, who remains unidentified as of this report.

Le Dinh Kinh and his son Le Dinh Cong have served as village representatives during repeated land disputes with the government. Media outlets have been unable to reach Le Dinh Cong for comment, but villagers say Cong’s family is in police custody and his father Kinh had gone into hiding a few days prior to the showdown. Prominent activist Anh Chi says those in custody include at least Cong’s daughter-in-law and two other family members.

Village leaders direct statements to the country and to the world at 3 AM, January 9, an hour before police descend on Dong Tam village, demanding justice and protection against government oppression. Nguyen Anh Tuan

Another witness describes “thousands of police officers rushing into the village” using flash grenades, firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, blocking off all pathways and alleys, and beating villagers indiscriminately, including women and old people. The witness stated that electricity to the village has not been cut, but the internet has.

According to state media, which quotes an official statement from the Ministry of Public Security, it was villagers who attacked police with “grenades, petrol bombs, and knives” as officials tried to erect a wall delineating Mieu Mon airport. The statement accuses villagers of obstructing official duties and “disturbing public order”, a catch-all often used to describe anti-government actions in Vietnam.

Dong Tam previously made international headlines in April 2017 when it held hostage 38 government officials and police officers in another land dispute with Viettel, a military-owned telecommunications company.

According to VNExpress, 46 hectares were granted to Viettel in March of 2015, only for villagers to complain to the government in June of 2016 that the land was being taken away from farming. Villagers were able to successfully fight off land reclamation from late 2016 until February 2017.

The land dispute came to a head in April 2017 when villagers captured more than three dozen officials and police and held them hostage as leverage for government dialogue. All hostages were released by April 22, after the mayor of Hanoi, major-general Nguyen Duc Chung, came to negotiate with villagers personally.

The villagers of Dong Tam, in a past meeting regarding the land dispute. Le Dinh Cong sits in green, first row, farthest right. His father Le Dinh Kinh sits two seats to the left, in peach. BBC Vietnamese

Vietnamese activists and experts believe the central conundrum causing Vietnam’s land disputes lays in the country’s political regime: “how [does one] allocate land in a Communist country that allows quasi-private ownership rights but still considers all land to be state property”?

According to the NYTimes, “[i]n 2013, Vietnam tweaked its land law in ways meant to introduce more transparency into eminent domain [i.e. government land reclamation] cases. […] But experts say land disputes continue, in part, because the 2013 revisions do not allow private ownership or set clear definitions of what qualifies as the public interest in eminent domain cases.”

Mike Ives of the NYTimes reports further: “[l]and disputes are common on the fringes of Vietnamese urban areas, where land values are often high; villagers are typically compensated at prices well below market rates for agricultural land that is later rezoned for other uses. John Gillespie, a professor at Monash University in Australia who is an expert on land reform in Vietnam, said in an interview that the disputes tended to be more violent when villagers perceived that business interests outweighed public ones.”

Dong Tam, with a population of around 9,000, continues to be under siege, according to social media reports. All parties involved remain on edge, with activist Anh Chi stating that “Tuan Ngo, one of lawyers helping the villagers, came to Dong Tam but was stopped outside. He was threatened to be arrested by a man in plainclothes with aggressive words.”

Images of one of the police officers killed in the clash have also begun circulating on social media, with those on both sides of the land dispute expressing sympathy. Nhu Quynh, whose 27-year old husband appears to have been involved at Dong Tam, inadvertently revealed in her caption that 3000 police officers were deployed. The image (screencaptured below) has since been taken down.

Translated post: “Oh, my husband!!! Of 3 thousand officers, why did it have to be you?” The Vietnamese

Le Dung Vova, a well-known activist and writer has stated of land disputes in Vietnam: “Things will not stop at Dong Tam. […] Similar incidents will keep happening everywhere [as in Loc Hung Garden], with different levels of intensity, especially as land resources become more scarce.”

Update: BBC News has reported that Dong Tam’s leader Le Dinh Kinh has passed away January 10, after clashing with government forces in the early morning hours of January 9.

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Free Press

Minister of Propaganda Says Vietnam’s Press Should Serve Party, Prevent “Self-Evolution”

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At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”. 

Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”

In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.

In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.

“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.

Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.

The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure. 

Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.

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