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Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Draft Law: Made in China?

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Photo credit: Asia Times.

During the first part of last year’s November, the National Assembly of China passed the Law on Cybersecurity and established its effective date to be June 1, 2017.

Then come June 2017, five days after said law went into effect in China, the Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) sent their own proposal regarding a draft of the Cybersecurity Law to the Vietnamese government. It has been claimed that this draft law was the result of a legislative process which began to take place since July 2016, when the National Assembly scheduled Cybersecurity Law as one of its agenda’s items then. The MPS then also established their own drafting team and an editing group to work on the drafts of Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law in late March this year.

After going through various collections of public comments and four draft versions of the law, the final draft (Draft Law) now is in the hands of the National Assemblymen and women. It would be among the items to be discussed when they meet at the end of 2017, and if all things go according to plan, Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law will get approved and signed into laws by the middle of next year.

Yet, whether purposefully or unintentionally, Vietnam’s Draft Law has shocked many people because it is almost identical to that of China’s.

In their proposal submitted to the government, the MPS stressed that they have researched, and thus taken into considerations Cybersecurity laws from China, Japan, the Czech Republic, South Korea, and the U.S when drafting the Draft Law.

I have to make it clear that I do not have any evidence to conclude the Vietnamese government has indeed copied China’s Cybersecurity Law. Moreover, if both countries are functioning under an identical political system, then the use of identical legislative tools would be very understandable. This is even more likely when the MPS openly admitted that they have considered Chinese laws as stated. Besides, copying or learning from other countries’ legislative experiences do not necessarily mean negative consequences.

However, let’s just go straight to comparing Vietnam’s 4th draft of the Cybersecurity Law currently sitting on the desks of the National Assembly’s members and the English translation of the Chinese laws, to see how much they are alike to one another, and whether such similarities will bring negative consequences to Vietnamese people.

1. Two documents, one technical term

There is one technical term in the Vietnamese Draft Law that one should pay close attention to, which is the “critical information system regarding national security” in Article 9.

In the China’s version, there is a similar technical term: “critical information infrastructure” in Article 31.

Both laws centered on these two technical terms, and their definitions are also very much alike. Both are used to define any information, that if being under attack, they would bring harms to national security, social order and public safety.

That information – as mentioned in both Vietnam’s and China’s Cybersecurity Law – would then include energy, finance, transportation, media, and publications, as well as electronic governance.

However, the Draft Law of Vietnam also includes military-security, national secrets, banking, natural resources and environment, chemicals, medicine, and other national security structures.

The Draft Law also does not distinguish between private companies and government agencies when applying the concept of “critical information system regarding national security”. Based on the context of said law’s wordings, the targeted entities are implied to be both of them. The government and the enforcing authorities could also interpret this law as broad as possible.

Baker & McKenzie, in their analysis of the Chinese Cybersecurity Law, has warned all companies whose may have established relationships with those entities which fall under the regulatory perimeters of said law, that this law could very well be applicable to them.

The agencies and enterprises who are within the application of this law shall abide the technical measures and regulations as set by the government, and submit themselves to be under the direct control and observation of the MPS. They will have to obtain all necessary business permits to operate and maintain their equipment while at the same time, must cooperate with the authorities in monitoring users’ information.

These regulations between Vietnam and China are identical.

2. Directly target information considered to be dangerous to the regime

It is not surprising to learn that both Vietnam and China are extremely concerned about cybersecurity.

As detailed in the proposal from the MPS, the Draft Law of Vietnam focuses on underlining the importance of “preventing, fighting against, and neutralizing all activities using cyberspace to intrude national security; subverting against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; propagandizing to destroy the ideology, the internal affairs, and the common national unification; inciting mass protests; and obstructing cybersecurity, from the reactionary forces and those who are enemies of the State”.

Further, Article 22 of the Draft Law clearly states that the Vietnamese government would apply all necessary technical methods to treat such information.

Article 12 of the Chinese Cybersecurity Law has a similar provision when it prohibits Internet users from using “the network to engage in activities endangering national security, national honor, and interests, inciting subversion of national sovereignty, the overturn of the socialist system, inciting separatism, undermining national unity, advocating terrorism or extremism, inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination, disseminating violent, obscene or sexual information, creating or disseminating false information to disrupt the economic or social order, as well as infringing on the reputation, privacy, intellectual property or other lawful rights and interests of others, and other such acts”.

3. Requiring all Internet users to provide true identity

Article 47 of the Vietnamese Draft Law specifically demands all Internet service providers to require “users to provide true and correct personal information. If any user refuses to comply, the service providers shall have the responsibility to deny that user service”.

At the same time, Internet service providers must establish their own verification system to ensure the accuracy and veracity of the information provided by the service users according to Article 33.

Article 24 of the Chinese Cybersecurity Law has the same language as those contained in the Vietnamese Draft Law’s Article 47.

Once businesses and the State can obtain users’ detailed personal information, there will be no guaranty that they would not use it for improper purposes, and would not harm such users.

4. The server is required to be localized within Vietnam’s territory and the providers will have to transmit their data overseas

This requirement has proven to be the most controversial in the past few days among the public in Vietnam.

Article 34 of the Draft Law requires “foreign corporations and providers, in order to provide telecommunications and Internet services in Vietnam, must … obtain business permits to operate, maintain a local representative agency, and the server which manages Vietnamese users’ data shall be stored within the national territory of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.

Article 48 further provides, all personal information and important data concerning national security shall be stored within the national territory of Vietnam. In the event that someone wants to transfer such information overseas, then a security assessment shall be performed according to the related governmental agencies’ requirements.

These rules and regulations have caused many Vietnamese concerns, that Google, Facebook, other social media platforms, email providers, and cloud computing service providers will soon pack up and leave Vietnam’s market.

Surprisingly, Article 37 of the Chinese version also provides for similar regulations as the two above-mentioned Draft Law’s articles.

As recent as this past June, tech giant Apple had to cooperate with a Chinese corporation to invest in a database center to comply with this specific provision. Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon had complied as well.

5. Forcing users and providers to act as informants

If the Draft Law gets passed into law, Internet users, telecom and Internet providers must cooperate thoroughly with the government.

Article 45 requires those who engage in activities using cyberspace must strictly comply with the government’s guidelines and shall allow the government to enforce their cybersecurity’s measures and safeguards.

Moreover, all service providers must work with the government to provide actual identities of those Internet users, while at the same time, shall have the responsibility to fend off all information which is deemed to be detrimental to the State, according to Articles 46 and 47.

Again, we find the same regulating language in China’s Cybersecurity Law. This time is located at Article 28, which demands that “network operators shall provide technical support and assistance to public security organs’ and state security organs; lawful activities preserving national security and investigating crimes”.

6. Forcing tech companies to follow government’s technical standards

Article 46 mandates all businesses involved in the production and putting in commerce digital products, as well as providing Internet services, shall be in accordance with the provisions of laws and with the “mandatory quality assurance of State standards”, before releasing their products to the market.

The State also shall pass laws which set the standards for the hardware and software to be used with the above-mentioned technical measures, as well as make sure that the applicable entities shall comply.

This provision also serves as the legal basis for the State to enact the necessary decrees and orders, regulating the specificity of the technical measures mentioned and how to enforce such measures.

Compare to China, the Chinese government had required all new computers to be pre-installed with the automatic content-control software – Green Dam – and also forced businesses, including Google, to have this software installed on all their computers.

The fact that the Vietnamese government had become increasingly more and more interfering with the technical measures regarding the high-tech market highlights the fact that it has opened the doors for corruption and abuse of power from the MPS, the Ministry of Defense (MOD), Ministry of Science and Technology, and other related governmental agencies.

7. Forcing all entities that have relations with “critical information” to be evaluated by the State when buying hardware and software.

Articles 11, 16, and 48 of the Draft Law gives the MPS, the MOD, and other State’s agencies, the authority to review equipment, networks products, and services which may be related to the national critical data system before they could be put into use or upgrade.

This is similar to Article 35 of China’s Cybersecurity Law.

Accordingly, this regulation means that any governmental agency or private business – who maintains an information system which related to energy, national finance, banking, transportation, chemicals, medicine, natural resources and environment, media, news and publishing, shall go through the MPS and/or the MOD when purchasing the necessary hardware, software, Internet service provider for their operation.

It probably makes sense to see this regulation being applied to government’s agencies, but the fact that it is stepping into fields such as banking, medicine, news, and publishing, raises questions about the State’s ambition in controlling information in society at large.

These regulations would grant the police and military the all-access key to both government’s agencies’ and private businesses’ hardware and software. This would be an opportunity for them to exert pressure on other agencies, businesses, as well as putting the whole society at risk for corruption and abuse of power.

The above were only seven strikingly obvious similarities between the Vietnam’s Draft Law and China’s Cybersecurity Law. With an in-depth reading of both documents, one probably finds, even though smaller, much more alike features.

This article is translated into English by Tran Vi from the article “Dự luật An ninh mạng: Hàng Việt Nam ‘Made in China’?“ that was published on Luat Khoa magazine on November 4th, 2017.

Death Penalty

Wrongfully Convicted Ho Duy Hai Languishes on Death Row

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Ms. Nguyen Thi Loan, death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai's mother petitioned again for his innocence in December 2017. Photo credits: Unknown social media source.

During these last days of 2017, be it rain or shine, people in Ha Noi, Vietnam, could often spot a frail, weary middle-aged woman holding up a sign “Do Not Kill My Innocent Son, Ho Duy Hai” near the government’s headquarters.

She is death-row inmate Ho Duy Hai’s mother, Nguyen Thi Loan.

Since Hai’s conviction in 2008, Ms. Loan has begun her own crusade to petition for his release. In the past few years, she especially traveled more often to Ha Noi where the central government is located to raise awareness of Hai’s case because time might be running out for him.

Ho Duy Hai’s execution was halted once in December 2014 due to public outcry, but recently, local authorities had expressed their impatience for having to continue keeping him on death row.

On December 7, 2017, at a meeting of the People’s Committee of Long An Province, Dinh Van Sang – Prosecutorial General of the People’s Procuracy of Long An Province had suggested that the execution of Ho Duy Hai should be carried out as soon as possible because “the imprisonment of this kind (of prisoners) would be too burdensome (for the government).”

Ho Duy Hai and his sister in a family picture. Photo credits: Kienthuc.net.

It often goes without exception in the majority of jurisdiction, that one shall not be convicted based solely on his or her confessions.

The criminal law principle of corpus delicti requires a higher burden of evidence from the prosecution and provides that a defendant’s confession – on its own – is not enough for a conviction.

Having credible physical evidence from the prosecution then becomes the determining factor in convincing a jury or a judge, that the government has satisfied the burden of proof and that they have proved the defendant was, in fact, guilty of the crime charged.

Vietnam follows this general rule in prosecuting criminal cases.

Yet, such a rule only exists in law books and legal codes.

In practice, people not only got convicted solely on their confessions but very often, they confessed because they were beaten and tortured by the investigating officers.

Ho Duy Hai was one of them.

In March 2008, Hai – a then 23-year-old recent graduate from Long An Province located in the Mekong Delta south of Sai Gon – was arrested, charged and convicted of double homicide and sentenced to death.

The only evidence used to convict him was practically his confession, which he later recanted and revealed that he was forced to confess by the police during his detention.

The prosecution not only did not offer any credible physical evidence, they even committed basic prosecutorial mistakes.

The time of death was never established for the two victims, making it impossible for the defendant to come up with an alibi.

The murder weapons were “lost” by the forensic team and other items were later “purchased” a local market by witnesses who vouched for their similarities if compared to the real ones.

None of the fingerprints found at the crime scene matched Ho Duy Hai’s.

A special team of legal experts set up by the Vietnamese National Assembly and led by the current Commissioner of the National Assembly’s Judiciary Committee – Le Thi Nga – visited Hai in the end of December 2014 after his family successfully used social media campaign to halt his execution (which was set to be carried out earlier that month).

The report signed by Ms. Le Thi Nga in February 2015, found that Hai’s case was riddled with irregularities and prosecutorial mistakes and that the prosecution did not present sufficient evidence to support a conviction. It also called for a trial of cassation for Hai.

2018 will be three years since the government’s legal experts concluded that Hai’s case deserved a review and ten years since Hai’s life as a free man ceased to exist, yet it seems as if the legal obstacles have stacked even higher against him.

Hai remains in prison, his youthful years waste away with each day spent on death row.

With the assistance of a local artist, Thinh Nguyen, Ms. Loan and other parents of wrongfully convicted death-row inmates appeared in several video clips to raise public awareness on the reality of forced confessions and prosecutorial irregularities in Vietnam’s criminal cases.

And even though the videos are well-received, it seems as if these efforts are to no avail, at least for the time being.

His mother has also written thousands of petitions pleading the government to not kill her innocent son, and she would talk to anyone – be it the personnel from foreign embassies or just about any passerby on the streets – whoever would spare a few minutes listening to her telling the story of Hai’s wrongful conviction.

Her hope is that one day, not only the people will stop and listen to her, but so will government officials and that they will take up Hai’s case and declare him a free man.

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Human Rights

Vietnam: Increasing Cyber Attacks on Activists Portray A Shrinking Internet Freedom

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A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang

During the last week of November and in early December 2017, many of the independent media websites in Vietnam reported that access to their sites had been blocked. This includes The Vietnamese. Readers confirmed they could not access the attacked sites unless they installed VPN to get over the firewalls

Another independent news project also runs by The Vietnamese’s editorial board, Luat Khoa online legal magazine, was also blocked in Vietnam starting around December 4, 2017. Luat Khoa has been in operation for the past three years with over 90k likes on Facebook and an average of 500,000 pageviews per month. This is the first time Luat Khoa gets blocked in the country.

In a more severe case, on December 5, 2017, Dan Luan – another well-known independent site – shared on Facebook that their website was under DDoS attack for about a week in late November. A DDos attack is defined as “an attempt to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources”.

Earlier last month, there were also failed attempts trying to inject Dan Luan’s website with malicious scripts via Cross-Site Scripting (XSS). Dan Luan frequently suffered cyber attacks, which they believed were the works of government-controlled hackers.

Also in November 2017, a handful of popular Facebookers lost access to their accounts because they were reported by anonymous users to Facebook for violations of community standards. Among them was blogger Nguoi Buon Gio, who now lives in exile in Germany.

It seems quite likely that the Vietnamese government would rely on cyber attacks as an important tactic for oppression in recent years when the numbers of Internet and social media users increased dramatically in the country.

In July 2017, We Are Social, a social media marketing and advertising reported Vietnam had surpassed Thailand to become the 7th country with the most Facebook users worldwide.

The government has not exactly been shy in expressing the desire to tighten their grip on controlling the virtual world. As previously reported, Vietnam claimed to have worked with Facebook and Google to remove thousands of videos and accounts that allegedly contained anti-state materials.

Earlier this year, in May 2017, Gen. Nguyen Danh Cong of the Ministry of Public Security stated during an intra-departmental meeting, that the MPS had successfully blocked thousands of websites which they deemed to be anti-state and reactionary contents.

Four years before that, on May 5, 2010, Gen. Vu Hai Trieu, the then Deputy Director of the MPS, announced: “Our technical departments have destroyed 300 Internet web pages and blogs posting unsuitable contents.”

Coincidentally, it was in early November 2017 that the Washington D.C.-based cybersecurity firm, Volexity, issued a report, confirming it has been – since May 2017 – monitoring an active operation of mass surveillance and cyber attacks operating out of Vietnam.

This operation includes the maintenance of an active group of hackers whose mission is to target Vietnamese activists and dissidents, as well as foreign citizens, corporations, and governments with interests in Vietnam.

It was not the first time that the international cybersecurity community had warned about hackers who seemed to have had a close tie with the Vietnamese government. In the past three years, besides Volexity, at least two other organizations, Electronic Frontier Foundation and FireEye, had issued similar reports.

Vietnam’s government is believed to have been maintaining a cyber espionage group calls OceanLotus since at least 2014. OceanLotus (or SeaLotus) is also known as APT-C-00 or APT32 according to these organizations.

There was also other information leading people to believe that OceanLotus was related to the hacker group Sinh Tu Lenh.

Sinh Tu Lenh became famous among Vietnamese cyber community about a decade ago when it was named as the party responsible for the numerous cyber attacks, aiming at dissidents, activists, and independent news sites, including Dan Luan, Talawas, Xcafevn, Anh Ba Sam, and Mother Mushroom.

Also recently, on November 14, 2017, Freedom House issued its Freedom on the Net report and named 30 countries where the government paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda. Vietnam was one of them.

According to Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House: “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

The report also quoted Sanjia Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project: “Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an anti-democratic agenda.”

“Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”

But activists in Vietnam are not new to this form of government’s suppression. Back in 2014, our editorial board’s member, Pham Doan Trang, had met with Google and Facebook representatives in the U.S. where she forwarned them about the daily attacks these “paid opinion shapers” had fired at activists and bloggers in Vietnam and how such conducts affected democracy movement.

During the summer of 2014 alone, over 40 accounts of activists were reported, and in turn, got shut down by Facebook.

Calling themselves the government’s “cyber army forces”, these online bots repeatedly reported activists and bloggers’ Facebook accounts, effectively causing their shut-downs.

Taking advantages of Facebook’s loosely defined rules and standards of conducts for the users’ community, the troop of “opinion shapers” would abuse the Facebook’s “Report Abuse Button” with thousands of reports a day on a specifically targeted activist’s account.

Yet, to date, it seems that the activists and the democracy movement have proven their potential sustainability in Vietnam, because people are still actively promoting their causes and Facebook continues to be the main platform for advancing social changes, despite all odds.

Back in March 2015, facing the city government’s immediate decision to cut down some 6,700 trees in Hanoi, activists created a Facebook group and organized people for peaceful protests. They were able to mobilize residents of Hanoi and successfully stopped the city government from going forward with the plan.

In 2016, Facebook again proved its effectiveness, as it was one of the best platforms for informing the public about the Formosa environmental disaster in Central Vietnam. During the height of the weeks-long protests against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Plant – the company responsible for causing the pollution – access to Facebook was blocked on a few weekends. But its popularity among the general public had caused the government to undo such decision almost immediately.

This year, in the recent months, drivers who were passing through a BOT toll in Cai Lay Ward, Tien Giang Province have been protesting the improper location of said toll. Their acts of civil disobedience – through various forms of slowing down the process of paying toll fees and causing the toll to close down – were followed closely by the public on Facebook and other social media platforms.

To protect themselves and fight back, Vietnamese activists have received technical assistance from organizations, such as Access Now, when they got reported by the government’s bots on Facebook or got struck by some other forms of cyber attacks.

In the meanwhile, the Draft Law on Cybersecurity – which mirrored that of China – is now waiting for the National Assembly’s approval.

And as such, the battle in the cyber world continues.

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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.

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