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Censorship in Vietnam: JFK Miller Interviews Thomas Bass

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  • With permission from author Thomas Bass, The Vietnamese is pleased to reprint the interview Mr. Bass has given to JFK Miller, a Melbourne-based journalist, in February 2018 on his latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World 

Thomas A. Bass’s 2009 book The Spy Who Loved Us dissects the double life of Pham Xuan An, a correspondent for Time during the Vietnam War and a contemporary of Peter Arnett, Richard Pyle, and Morley Safer. As American radio blasted Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ to signal the evacuation of embassy personnel in those final tumultuous hours of April 30, 1975, An was Time’s last man standing, the magazine’s sole remaining reporter in Saigon as the North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. In truth, he was part of the welcome brigade. An was a spy who used his journalistic contacts to feed vital intelligence to Hanoi. Time’s Zalin Grant, who worked alongside An, called him “the first known case of a Communist agent to appear on the masthead of a major American publication.”

But An’s tale is a story within a story. Bass’s latest book, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), recalls his experience with Vietnam’s state censorship apparatus when he tried to get a translation of The Spy Who Loved Us published in Vietnam. He succeeded, but at a cost — five years of negotiations and no less than 400 cuts to his manuscript.

Was it worth it? Bass himself answers that question below. For me, the reader, the answer is a resounding yes. The censorship experience Bass recounts in his book paints a vivid picture of present-day Vietnam, and it’s not a flattering one. Economically, the country is one of Asia’s “new” tigers which last year posted the world’s second-fastest growth rate. Politically, however, it’s a paranoid and insecure beast which lacks the ability to confront its own past and look squarely at its own present (Bass does not mince words: Vietnam is “a culture in ruins,” he writes). I traveled to the country several times in the ’90s, but am ashamed to say my conception of Vietnam was cryogenically frozen somewhere between The Quiet American and Apocalypse Now. Well, it was, until I read this book.

My connection with Thomas Bass comes via our different but eerily similar experiences with state censorship – his with Vietnam, mine with China. As I worked my way through his book it struck me how alike the censorship systems in both countries are. And then on page 83, I learned why: Hanoi takes its cues straight from Beijing. The dissident novelist Pham Thi Hoai explains, “We always look to the Chinese and copy them… it is mandatory for every high Vietnamese official to get training in China once a year, just as it was in the time of the Cold War. It is no accident that every campaign and law adopted in China is introduced into Vietnam six months later.”

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Vietnam’s military conflicts with China, including the incredibly brutal 1979 conflict in which tens of thousands died on both sides in less than a month, are glossed over in school textbooks.

But this is simply one of the censorship’s many casualties. Writers and journalists are routinely given draconian prison terms for speaking truth to power. Criticism of the Chinese is censored, as is praise for the French and Americans (“they are not allowed to have taught the Vietnamese anything,” writes Bass). Disparagement of communism and communist party officials is banned, together with the discussion of “government policy, military strategy… minority rights, human rights, democracy, calls for political pluralism, allusions to revolutionary events in other communist countries, distinctions between north and south Vietnamese, and stories about Vietnamese refugees.”

Whether it’s novels or journalism, there’s an overarching optimism that must pervade writing in Vietnam that is forced upon its writers by state censors. Either be censored, self-censor, or be damned. A 1988 novel by the above-mentioned Pham Thi Hoai, The Crystal Messenger (which I’ve not read, but now want to because of Bass’s book), was banned for the reason that its view of Vietnam was “excessively pessimistic.” No surprise that she now lives in self-imposed exile in Berlin, a place where, unlike her homeland, she is lauded for her work.

My one criticism of Bass’ book is the choice of the most prosaic of titles – Censorship in Vietnam – with a nod to Huxley in the subtitle. But this is small beer. On the whole, this is a tremendously eye-opening book, and thoroughly readable. Our discussion follows.

***

Why was it important to you to have a translation of your book published in Vietnam, especially know that it would be censored?

Communicating across borders interest me. There is much to be learned and much to be unlearned, and even the misunderstandings are revelatory. Look what happened when I tried to mail you a copy of Censorship in Vietnam from the U.S. The book was returned to me several weeks later by “homeland security.” Who would have guessed that the “JFK” in your name – honoring of the 35th president of the United States – was suspicious? But apparently, according to the paranoids who patrol our borders, initials without complete first names imply criminal intent. So it took another 20 bucks and the entire “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” to get you a copy of my book.

Another answer to your question has to do with surviving as an author. My books have been translated into various foreign editions, and I enjoy traveling to literary events in far-flung places. So why not add Hanoi? Nha Nam, the Vietnamese publisher of my book, was supposed to be the country’s best. I would be joining the likes of Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Orhan Pamuk. Not bad company.

But I think you’re asking a more serious question, which is the subject of Censorship in Vietnam. If I knew how much grief I would be getting for translating The Spy Who Loved Us into Vietnamese, why did I invite it? The answer is pretty straightforward. I wanted to conduct an experiment. Exactly how much grief was coming my way, and who would be cranking the handle?

Did you brace yourself for a rough ride, or did you go into it thinking that you might perhaps get away with more than you thought you could?

I knew that chunks of my book on Pham Xuan An would be removed. It was full of subversive material – by which I mean material that the Vietnamese consider subversive – conversations with exiled writers, accusations of corruption in the Communist Party of Vietnam, jokes about how ugly the language has become in postwar Vietnam.

My Vietnamese publisher and my literary agent in New York and subagents in Tokyo and Bangkok all assured me that I had nothing to worry about, that none of the books they had published in Vietnam had been censored. They were either ignorant or lying, but it’s also true that no one pays much attention to foreign rights. A book goes into Polish or Portuguese, and very few authors have the time or skills required to check the translation. I had been tipped 3 off to the fact that even novels and poetry are censored in Vietnam. So a nonfiction book about a Vietnamese spy who claimed to have loved the United States and the values of investigative reporting and Western journalism was certainly going to be censored.

For the few hundred bucks my literary agent was making on the deal, he kindly allowed me to rewrite the standard publishing contract for the sale of translation rights, and then we patiently negotiated these changes as the contract was bounced back and forth between New York and Hanoi. I inserted clauses about prior review and final approval of the translation, and I larded the contract with trip switches, so that every time the censors moved on me I had to be notified. The manuscript became a kind of early warning system, ding, ding, dinging on my desk, at every stroke of a censor’s pen. And in Vietnam, as you yourself found in China, there is not just one censor, but various tag teams and competing groups of censors, which operate in a hierarchy of censors that stretches all the way up to the head of the Communist Party. Each level in this hierarchy is afraid of getting whacked by the one above it. So the natural urge is to adopt what the French call langue de bois – the wooden speech of martinets and political hacks. This is how a culture dies … but at least the censors will never be out of a job.

Given my jerry-rigged publishing contract, I owe a great debt of thanks to the editors at Nha Nam who honoured this contract. I was a pain in their necks, if not dangerous to the survival of their company, but still they notified me every step along the way. At the end of five years, my book was radioactive. My original editor had quit the company and quit publishing altogether. The project had been at death’s door a half dozen times, and many of us were surprised when printed copies of the book finally appeared – briefly – on bookshelves in Hanoi and Saigon.

Did you ever consider simply pulling the plug and abandoning the translation altogether?

Remember, this was an experiment, with every twist and turn in the process producing “data.” At the most basic level, I was studying the Vietnamese language. How has it changed since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975? Pham Xuan An complained about these changes when I was interviewing him for “The Spy Who Loved Us,” which began as an article for The New Yorker and later became a book with the same title. He said the Vietnamese language was being corrupted by Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook borrowed from Russia and Maoist terms imported from China. To learn how to speak this new language, An was sent to a “re-education” camp for ten months. “I was a bad student,” he said. “They never understood my jokes, but at least I didn’t do anything serious enough for them to shoot me.” (An’s “re-education camp” was actually a military academy outside Hanoi for training high-level officials, but I believe him when he says the experience was bone-chillingly boring.)

Censoring books in Vietnam begins before the first word is translated. In this case, the person chosen to translate my book was a north Vietnamese journalist fluent in gobbledygook. He produced quotes that sounded nothing like the south Vietnamese spy about whom I was writing. The publisher was surprised that I cared about these things or knew enough to want the language changed. A nonfiction book for them was the equivalent of an encyclopedia entry. Give us the information, and give it to us in today’s language – in this case, the language spoken in North Vietnam, which is where most of the book-buying public lives. There was also a good dose of prejudice at work. The South Vietnamese lost the war, which means that not only their political system but also their culture and language are in the process of being effaced.

After the censored Vietnamese-language copy was published in print, you released an uncensored version on the Internet. Can you explain why this was important to you?

Censorship is so crushing in Vietnam that many authors are skipping printed publications and releasing their work directly to the web. In my case, I wanted to see what the printed book looked like. I wanted to evaluate the damage done to the text by Vietnam’s censors, count up the number of cuts and alterations, and study the people and ideas that got erased.

After assembling my literary seismograph – in other words, after The Spy Who Loved Us was translated and released in Vietnam (although not under that title, which the censors considered far too dangerous)-I felt obliged to provide my Vietnamese readers with a copy of the original book. This too is standard practice in Vietnam. Even when a book is printed, people go to the web to find what everyone assumes will be a more accurate version online.

At the same time, I wanted to conduct a second experiment. Vietnam’s censors work across borders. You can’t publish books online with impunity. Electronic publications will be attacked by trolls, worms, viruses, denunciation campaigns, denial of service attacks, bribery, extortion – whatever works to get them taken down. I don’t want to exaggerate the risks I took, which were nothing compared to my Vietnamese colleagues, but the Vietnamese version of my book – the complete version published online in Berlin on computers hardened against attacks from Vietnam’s censors – invited retaliation. It was attacked in a variety of ways. The translator was forced to drop out. He also pulled his translation, which we could no longer use. People threatened to sue me. The internet lit up with chatter maligning me and the project. The Berlin web site went down a few times, but it held fast against the censors and trolls, due to the good work of exiled author Pham Thi Hoai, whose site for many years has been the rallying point for opposition to Vietnam’s communist police state.

When you engaged the dissident Pham Hong Son to translate your book for the Berlin release, did it weigh on your mind that you might be condemning him to another hefty prison term? (Son had already spent five years in prison and another seven under house arrest for translating essays on democracy).

As I mentioned, the first translator for the unexpurgated version of The Spy Who Loved Us, was forced to quit. Enough threats were brought to bear that he felt he had no choice. Pham Hong Son is a different kind of person altogether. After spending five years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, for translating an essay on democracy and recommending this form of government to his fellow countrymen, he went on doing exactly the same thing after he was released to house arrest. Trained as a medical doctor, a true intellectual and patriot, he is a brave man, someone whom I admire and am lucky to count as a friend. He did the work for free because he thought it was important, and ever since then, I have been looking for some way to repay him.

In your book’s foreword you ask the question central to all of this. Could China and Vietnam’s governance model become the new normal? It pains me to acknowledge this, but democracy, with all its trappings – not least of which, freedom of speech and freedom of the press – is in bad odor at the moment, while the Vietnam/PRC model, which puts economic development above free speech, is in the ascendancy. Add to this, declining American power and an Oval Office occupant who has turned American democracy (indeed all democracy, I would argue) into a global laughing stock, and Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” now looks like a faltering candle. Is it any real surprise that countries like Vietnam and China seem to have more faith in their political systems than we currently do in ours? And do you not think that democratic reformers in Vietnam are, at least for now, fighting an impossible battle?

This is the key question of the moment. As the western democracies falter and lose faith in themselves, as they debase their elections, trade freedom for security, and forget their founding principles, people think that police states with good shopping look attractive.

This is an illusion. In fact, it is a dangerous illusion. Censorship can kill you. The absence of free speech can kill you. Not knowing the truth can kill you. These are fundamental values, not to be sold at any price, but they are also tools for survival. This argument was made by Nobel-prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, when he was asked by the Indian government to advise them on which model they should choose for development: the open societies of the West or China’s surveillance state, which is attractive at the moment because of its economic growth. Sen warned his compatriots not to go for the shiny lure. He reminded them about China’s Great Leap Forward, which was actually a great leap backward, killing at least 30 million people in a devastating famine. What caused this social collapse? Censorship – a skein of lies spun to please Chairman Mao, ignorance about what was happening in the countryside, courtiers, and buffoons who reported good news in place of facts. Exactly what’s happening in the United States today.

China has been called “a consumerist totalitarian state.” The description is just as apt for Vietnam, I think. In this type of polity, economic growth trumps personal freedom. The idea is that you cannot have both, that personal freedom must give way to economic development, that the two cannot possibly work in tandem. First World economic parity must be attained before you can even start to think about personal freedoms.

Vietnam, like China, is indeed a consumerist totalitarian state, and it too believes that good shopping can replace good governance. It thinks that substituting material goods for freedom is a bargain its citizens will buy. The people I write about in Censorship in Vietnam disagree. For them, freedom is a muscle that atrophies if you don’t use it. They think that all this talk about putting development first and democracy last is a bunch of ideological hooey. This argument is good for nothing more than buttressing the police state and building the walls behind which the ruling elites do their serious stealing. Who ever said that economic development and personal freedom are mutually exclusive? The history of our two countries, the United States and Australia, proves that the opposite is true. In fact, as the United States becomes less democratic and slides toward authoritarian rule, its economic development and leading role in science and technology will be weakened.

In the book, you write that state censorship is producing an intellectual wasteland in Vietnam, and yet I can’t help but think that we’re also suffering from this in the West, despite our having all the freedoms available to us and all the advantages of the digital age. We live in an era where knowledge has never been more widely available, and yet we seem to have succeeded in becoming remarkably ignorant (the rise of populism is not just restricted to the U.S). In a way, it makes us more culpable for our ignorance than those who live under authoritarian regimes. In their system, censorship is preventing them from getting to the truth, but we in the West have no such excuse.

I agree with you that these are perilous times. We are dancing on the edge of the volcano. We are distracted, forgetful, ignorant about our history, and incurious about our future. Plato wrote about this in his allegory of the cave, and here we are, twenty-five hundred years later, still chained to our seats, staring at shadows on the walls. “Democracy dies in darkness” is the motto adopted by The Washington Post after last year’s election in the United States. This sounds vaguely apocalyptic, but the paper’s editor is not looking for salvation in a Batmobile. He is reminding us about the importance of getting the news and learning how to sift truth from falsehood. You know the old joke, “What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist is better informed.” This is the golden age of journalism. I can wake up in the morning and before my first sip of coffee peruse headlines from Tokyo to Timbuktu. Sure, the amount of fake news and the stupidity of my optimistic neighbors is unnerving. But in this case, it’s up to me to loosen my chains and turn around if I want to see outside the cave.

You write that censorship exists in all societies, whether it is the state censorship of authoritarian regimes like Vietnam or the “soft censorship” of Western liberal democracies where dissenting views are side-lined. I want to take issue with this, if I may. To me, this a false equivalency. Here, people can express their opinions, while in authoritarian states they are prevented from doing so. Someone may risk marginalisation for expressing a non-mainstream view (whether it’s unpopular, unpatriotic, unorthodox, racist, or simply ignorant), but that person still has the right to say it.

I wasn’t arguing that “soft censorship” is the same as the hard variety, which is enforced by prison sentences or, in the most extreme cases, by death. I think that censorship exists along a continuum. It begins with ideological conformity, fear of retribution, a limited number of media outlets owned by large corporations, PR campaigns, book bannings, surveillance, disinformation, and propaganda. It moves from there to state-run security apparatuses, government control of the media, gulags, torture, and other means by which the state exercises its power. I oppose all forms of censorship, whether they be ideological or market-based. Some deserve more strenuous opposition than others, but all merit the light of discovery and condemnation.

What reaction (or denunciation) from Hanoi do you expect for publishing Censorship in Vietnam?

When the uncensored Vietnamese translation of The Spy Who Loved Us was published in Berlin – with side-by-side comparisons showing the 400 passages that had been cut or altered and with extensive commentary on how censorship works in Vietnam – the publication provoked a firestorm of criticism on the Vietnamese web. Hundreds of messages (not all of them written by trolls) accused me of “betraying” my subjects. I had quoted people without their permission or refused to remove their names when they asked me to do so. (Censoring books after publication is standard operating procedure in Vietnam. If something becomes too controversial or people get scared about being quoted, then a book disappears from the shelves. Even newspaper interviews are never conducted “on the record,” because the record can always be revised or erased.) The firestorm of criticism became the party line on Thomas Bass. He’s a backstabbing, bumpy-nosed betrayer of Vietnamese values who deserves to be censored and, in fact, he reveals the value of censorship, if it keeps people like him out of Vietnamese bookstores. At moments like this, I remember the advice of Henri Beyle, better known to us by his pen name Stendhal, who consoled himself by saying that he wrote for “the Happy Few.”

Now that your book has been published do you have any reservations about returning to Vietnam? Say you were invited to speak about your book at a literary festival in Hanoi. Would you be concerned about any repercussions?

I would be pleased to return to Vietnam. In spite of their benighted government, the people and the country are quite marvelous. Many brave dissidents are currently at work in Vietnam, and I would like to support them. I don’t know whether I’m brave or foolhardy or simply have the bones of a working journalist, but on my next trip to Vietnam, I plan to stuff my suitcase with copies of Censorship in Vietnam and try to carry them over the border. The electronic edition has yet to appear, and I have a lot of friends who would appreciate receiving a copy – even if they have to wrap it in brown paper or hide it under their beds. This will be another small attempt at lighting a match in the darkness.

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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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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