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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.

Land Rights

Land Dispute in Hanoi Prompted Police Officers To Protest, Is That Illegal?

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Police protested in Hanoi, Vietnam
Police's banner calling to end corruption during their land dispute protest in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo credits: YouTube

On the morning of  November 12, 2019, a protest over a land dispute broke out in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. However, unlike in other recent protests, the protesters were not beaten up and arrested by the local authorities. This is probably because the people protesting were police officers of Dong Anh District and so their protest was not deemed illegal by the Hanoi government. This scenario was rare and not the typical case for most of those who protest in Vietnam because in most cases protesters have been assaulted and arrested by local authorities. 

During the last few years, whenever I have had an opportunity to speak with foreigners, I have defended the right of the Vietnamese people to engage in peaceful assembly, which is protected by Vietnam’s Constitution. The problem is that the  government of Vietnam has always classified the right to demonstrate and gather for peaceful assembly as a “disruption of public order,” and so the authorities have arrested hundreds and thousands of its citizens over the years because they joined protests. 

As it turns out, many foreigners have the false belief that demonstrating is illegal in Vietnam and that people are not allowed to protest. The largest protest in Vietnam after our civil war ended in 1975  happened last year, in June 2018. And at that same time, The Vietnamese also clarified that the right to protest was not only legal, but it was a people’s constitutional right. Yet government officials continued to condemn the people’s right to demonstrate and have vowed that they will not allow any crowd to gather publicly. One of the most strident officials supporting the  banning of all protests is To Lam, the minister of public security – the head of the national police force of Vietnam. 

On November 12, 2019, social media and non-governmental media of Vietnam began to report that these police officers had gathered to protest a land dispute involving houses being constructed in Dong Anh district in Hanoi. The cause of the demonstration was very similar to the case of many farmers who had lost their land because of rapid plans for real estate developmental projects in recent years. Those protesting police officers had paid substantial amounts of money to purchase their homes some 17 years ago, but they had not yet received them. The police officers suspected corruption and went to protest against it. In Vietnam’s state-owned media, these protesters were classified as retired police officers who are not currently on active duty. It is likely that the government wants to soften up the fact that it was a case of actual, currently on duty went on protest for their land right to call these protesters as “retired.” However, the land dispute was confirmed to be true as was the fact that these officers did not receive their houses which they had already paid for. 

Whether these officers are retired or not, this is one of the very few incidents in which people who belong to a police unit have found themselves in the same position as other victims who have lost their land. In this case, it was the land rights of former police officers that had been violated and they could not find a proper way to resolve the problem. Protesting against alleged corruption was the only option for them to raise their voices and to address this issue. 

Police forces in Vietnam have always played a close role in carrying out the government’s actions and will. They have been cast as active members of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP)  who were assigned to fight opposition movements and the people who do not agree with the way the VCP leads. During the November 12, 2019 incident, the protest by these police officers was not abruptly stopped by the authorities. None of the retired officers got arrested and none were classified as “reactionary forces” in Vietnam’s state-owned media, as has been the  case with others who have protested.

This is an indication of the big difference in how the government treats its own police officers versus how it treats Vietnamese citizens during protests. Nevertheless, the protest by police in Dong Anh district earlier this month has underpinned that land disputes are becoming a wild beast in Vietnam. This social problem will not exclude government workers and police who will soon join the masses of people in the country who have suffered the injustice of seeing their land taken from them. 

Earlier this year inJanuary, in the Loc Hung Garden Incident, local authorities wrongfully evicted and destroyed over 100 households in Tan Binh district in Ho Chi Minh City. The residents of Loc Hung have filed their petitions and they are continuing their legal struggle with the authorities right up until now. In a major city such as Ho Chi Minh City, the Loc Hung residents have only faced losing their homes and their land but in other remote areas, the victims have faced physical harm and some  have even lost their lives. That is the story of death-row inmate Dang Van Hien. 

Dang Van Hien and his neighbors from Village 1535, Quang Truc ward, Tuy Duc district, who come from different areas of the country, have become adjusted to living in poverty since the time they were born. They gradually saved up enough money and bought a small piece of land, but all they could afford was property in areas off the  beaten track or remotely placed in the jungle. They have been living as the modern “les miserables” in a remote area in Dak Nong province in the Central Highland of Vietnam. 

These farmers were there to farm and live peacefully until a private company – Long Son Investment & Commercial – came and disputed their land ownership. Tragedy struck when the government granted Long Son 1,079 hectares of forest land without first doing a proper land  survey, which resulted in the company’s claims overlapping the parcels of land owned by these poor farmers. Over the last 10 years, these farmers have tried everything they could to petition the government to correct the improper land assessment. At the same time, Long Son used force to destroy their crops and tried to kick them off their lands and out of their homes. 

On October 23, 2016, a deadly altercation happened involving Hien, his friends and the workers of Long Son. Hien fired a self-made gun killing three workers and injuring some others when workers invaded his farm with bulldozers and weapons. He was sentenced to death in 2018 and the highest court upheld his sentence this year. His life may be spared if President Nguyen Phu Trong grants him a reprieve. However, there is no indication that this will happen.

The Vietnam Land Law has faced a lot of controversies and criticisms in public because its ambiguity has resulted in the many land disputes that people have been facing. Yet, because the state wants to securely own all of the land in the country, individuals and private entities cannot own land and can only receive land use rights from the state. As a socialist country, the Communist Party does not allow private property ownership, and yet the law defines nicely that land ownership in Vietnam “belongs to the entire people” “with the State acting as the owner’s representative and uniformly managing land.” The State also gives itself the power to “hand over land use rights to land users in accordance with this Law.” (Article 4, Land Law 2013). This clause that the state shall “hand over land use rights” has created land disputes in Vietnam over the past decades and continues to do so because of corruption. 

With the recent story of police officers protesting for their land rights this month in Hanoi, we can see that disputes involving land will continue to be a problematic social issue growing inside the country and that no one will be spared, including government workers and police officers. And if the president of Vietnam does not save the life of Dang Van Hien, Hien will be the first person to be executed due to a land dispute and his case may put more pressure on land administration in Vietnam.

To protect their land rights everyone has to fight, from a poor farmer living in the Central Highlands to the police officers in Vietnam’s capital. The consequences each of them may face for protesting for their rights may be very different. But they all have no other choice but to oppose those who violate their rights. The people have waited patiently and petitioned for 10 or 20 years to protect their rights, but they still have not gotten any response from the judicial system. Corruption and secret deals between some local authorities and real estate developers coupled with an ambiguous law on land administration have worked together to prevent victims of land disputes from having their day in court and receiving justice. 

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Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – August 2019

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Focus:

  • The Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist sect objected to the plan to change the original tiles of its An Hoa Tu Pavilion of Ancestral Worship.
  • The first observance of the International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief has demonstrated that many independent religious sects in Vietnam practice their religions inside their homes. 
  • Vietnam began a Human Rights Dialogue with Australia on August 29, 2019, in Canberra.
  • Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc met with leaders of government-approved religious institutions to guide, propagandize, and manage religious practice to be in accordance with the state authorities.

Changes in the law regarding religious practices

The government did not propose any new legal changes to religious practice in Vietnam this month.

Events that stood out during the month of August

Events by religious institutions

1. At the beginning of August 2019, the Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist sect – a religious organization that is not recognized by the Vietnamese government – objected to a plan to replace the original tiles of the An Hoa Tu Pavilion of Ancestral Worship. The tile replacement plan was proposed and was to be carried out by the government-approved Central Executive Committee of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Organization. 

An Hoa Tu is a pavilion of ancestral worship, a common house for all Hoa Hao Buddhists, and where they organize all of their devotions. An Hoa Tu was built in the early years of the 20th century and founder Huynh Phu So selected it to be the center of the Hoa Hao sect. Therefore, it is a temple consisting of many spiritual beliefs. Its pillars, its tiles, or even just a tree, can carry a special meaning for the Hoa Hao Buddhists. The religious teaching of the Hoa Hao also encourages prudence in building temples and worshipping practices. It is why the replacement plan of the tiles has caused the Hoa Hao Buddhists to worry that this may go against the religious sect’s tenets and the teaching of their founder. 

The Pure Hoa Hao Buddhist sect is an independent religious organization. Its members often are harassed by the local authorities because their religion is practiced independent of the state. These members are not allowed to organize their worshipping ceremonies publicly according to the traditions of their religion because the state only allows the Central Executive Committee of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Organization to have the right to organize such activities. The conflict between the two institutions has lingered for many years.

2. On August 22, 2019, many religious groups solely organized their observance ceremonies for the International Day Commemorating Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. We have not received any reports that the state interfered with these ceremonies. The Cao Dai, Buddhists, Hoa Hao Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants all proceeded with their ceremonies on private lands and not at their public places of worship. This event strongly demonstrated that many religious groups could not register their activities officially and so could only practice their religions on private premises. For example, regarding the Hoa Hao Buddhists, the state only recognizes the Central Executive Committee of the Hoa Hao Buddhist Organization. If the Hoa Hao Buddhists organize any ceremonies with people gathering, they would be deemed to have violated the law. 

There are also no reports of government-recognized and registered religious organizations that have organized to observe this day.

State events

1. On August 9, 2019, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and senior officials met with 126 religious leaders from all the government-approved religious institutions in Danang City. This meeting was held to promote the state’s management and propaganda among the leaders of these religious organizations. 

According to the People’s Daily newspaper, Nguyen Xuan Phuc acknowledged that Vietnam leads the world in religious equality because it is a country that does not have ethnic or religious intolerance.

According to the government’s electronic gateway, the prime minister has alleged that there have been situations where people have abused religious freedom for the purpose of engaging in national separationism, and to complicate security, social order, and to affect Vietnam’s reputation. Nguyen Xuan Phuc declared two extreme points to guide religious practice in the country:

  •  All religions must join with the government, follow the laws, and resolve all conflicts with openness and goodwill along with the authorities.
  • All religious leaders and their members must  be loyal to the great ethnic unity of the state, and refuse to be used by civil society groups that have activities related to “democracy, human rights, and religious freedom.”

2. On August 29, 2019, Australia proceeded with the Human Rights Dialog with Vietnam in its capital in Canberra. It was the 16th dialogue between the two countries. In the previous dialogue, Australia expressed its concerns to Vietnamese authorities about the limitations on civic space for civil society organizations, limits on civil and political rights, and the increase in harassment, arrests, and the detention of human rights activists.

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Religion

Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – July 2019

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Introduction to the first report

Dear Readers:

Religion and beliefs play an essential part in everyone’s life. There are people who practice their faith by going to a church, a temple, or just praying in their own homes. This colorful picture of religious practice is actively ongoing with many different patterns.

Religious institutions also play a role in the background of a country’s civil society. Before 1975, there were many religious institutions maintaining schools, hospitals, charity organizations, and more in the south of Vietnam. Throughout Vietnam’s history, religious institutions have played a significant role in the life of our people.

However, after the war ended in 1975, and the country was united into one, freedom of religion in Vietnam became lamentable. While the government has begun to recognize the polychromy of religions, at the same time, severe violations of freedom of religion continue to happen in Vietnam.

Because of the issues mentioned above, The Vietnamese and Luat Khoa magazines wish to share with our readers news about the freedom of religion in Vietnam through our monthly newsletter. You are reading the first update on this topic. 

Starting from July 2019, we began doing monthly updates on the situation of religion in Vietnam via a newsletter in Vietnamese published by Luat Khoa and with an English version appearing on The Vietnamese web site.

We sincerely hope to receive your feedback regarding improving our upcoming newsletters via the email address editor@thevietnamese.org

 The focus of the July 2019 Report:

  • Ho Chi Minh City authorities attempted to force the Thu Thiem Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross and Thu Thiem Church to donate their lands for a road-building project along the Saigon River.
  • Two activists from Vietnam who focus on freedom of religion met with US President Donald Trump in mid-July 2019 to share information regarding violations of religious freedom in Vietnam in conjunction with a meeting with victims of religious persecution around the world.
  • Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs alleged that the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report was not objective because it relied on what it termed biased evidence.
  • Many baptized Vietnamese Montagnards living in Thailand seeking asylum were arrested and detained by Thai police this year, including women, on charges of illegal residence.

Changes in the law regarding religious practices

There were no legal changes regarding the issue of religion in Vietnam in July 2019. We will soon share with our readers the statutory regulations and how they affect freedom of religion in Vietnam.

Events that stood out during the month of July

Events by religious institutions

On July 17, 2019, together with many international victims who suffered violations of their freedom of religion, two activists from Vietnam – Luong Xuan Duong from Cao Dai Buddhism and Protestant minister A Ga – met with US President Donald Trump. They presented the US   president with details regarding the current situation of freedom of religion in Vietnam. Both Mr. Duong and Minister A Ga were being sponsored for political asylum in the United States and faced danger while advocating for religious freedom in Vietnam. This meeting took place at the second  US Ministerial Meeting to Advance Religious Freedom, which was attended by more than 100 foreign ministers and victims of religious persecution from around the world.

At the beginning of July 2019, a Luat Khoa journalist visited Vietnam’s Protestant Montagnards who fled their homes in the Central Highlands to seek asylum in Bangkok, Thailand. As of now, there are approximately 500 Montagnards who have sought refuge in Bangkok. After the arrest and detention of 133 Montagnards in August 2018, the community believed that the Thai authorities were still holding their relatives for illegal residence in the country. The Montagnards said that they had to flee from Vietnam because the authorities harassed, abused, and imprisoned them for their Protestant beliefs.

State events

On July 4, 2019, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs raised its objection to the International Religious Freedom Report that the US Department of State published. This report contains allegations that the current state of religious freedom in Vietnam is just as miserable as in previous years. It also raises the case of six members of Hoa Hao Buddhism being harassed by local authorities, the persecution of Protestants in the Central Highlands, as well as individual members of religious institutions that the local authorities have not allowed to practice their religion. The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the US Department of State received incorrect information and so was unable  to objectively judge freedom of religion in Vietnam. Le Thi Thu Hang, spokesperson for MFA, said that Vietnam would cooperate and that it would enter into a dialogue with the US regarding freedom of religion in the country.

According to Thanh Nien newspaper, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee has decided to join with the People’s Committee of the Second District to sternly advocate the Church of Thu Thiem and the Thu Thiem Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross turn over their lands to be used in a project to build roads along the banks of the Saigon River, which is the site of the Thu Thiem New City project.

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