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North / South

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Saigon in 1965. A propaganda poster in the city centre exalts people to "Unite, to defend the South and liberate the North!" Photo courtesy: Warren G. Reed Collection.
  • The Vietnamese would like to thank the author, Mr. Will Nguyen, who has given us permission to republish his article, North/South, which was first published in New Naratif.

April 30, 2018|I’ve always been into the idea of counterparts—“separate but equal”, to borrow the politically dangerous phrase. Captain PlanetSailor MoonThe Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers—these shows were always particular favourites of mine as a child because each contained an episode or arc where analogues to the good guys arose: Captain Pollution and his team of toxic “planeteers”, the Four Sisters of the Black Moon, or the Dark Rangers. I find the inherent sense of balance in counterparts intensely satisfying, like yin-yang writ large.

As I’ve grown older, this affinity for correlates extended to international politics, in particular, ideologically-opposed, directionally-split countries, i.e. North and South Korea, or East and West Germany.

The time when the modern Vietnamese nation-state existed as two separate entities naturally possesses a particular gravity in my mind, as I’m sure it does in the minds of many overseas Vietnamese. After all, that pair’s existence, its mutual antagonism, and one’s annihilation of the other is single-handedly responsible for the dispersal of Vietnamese people across the globe, a burst of human photons in one of many collisions between communism and anti-communism.

I was born in America; unbeknownst to me at the time, all the Vietnamese I ever encountered were former citizens of the Republic of Vietnam (i.e. South Vietnam) or as I’d known it, Vietnam. There was no alternative, no other. The yellow flag with three red stripes were ubiquitous and the only representation of Vietnam I knew.

The “right” and “wrong” anthem

Encarta Encyclopedia 97 provided me the first hint of another truth, of another “Vietnam” – the “evil” one, I would quickly learn. I remember doing a project in fifth grade which required us to produce a “country profile” on a nation of our choosing. I referred to the CD-ROM encyclopedia and, without giving it much thought, copied out the red flag with yellow star, Vietnam’s official flag as listed within the country’s entry.

My grandmother was the first to “correct” me, scolding me as Encarta played “Tiến Quân Ca”, the national anthem of North Vietnam from 1945-1975, and after the war, the official one of all Vietnam. That was not the “real” anthem, she told me. The information in that article was “wrong”. When I asked her what the real anthem was, she hummed “Tiếng Gọi Công Dân” – the national anthem of South Vietnam from 1948–1975 – a tune I was much more familiar with.

As I finished up my project, I asked my mother to look over my work. What she did, whether intentional or not, resounds with me to this day. Rather than make me remove my drawing of the yellow-starred red flag, she had me draw South Vietnam’s red-striped yellow flag next to it, presenting both flags as equally valid.

It took me at least another two decades to realise this, but my mother’s simple gesture was both an extremely powerful teaching moment and a representation of my intellectual angst with the overseas Vietnamese identity. It was my first taste of the concept of contradictory but co-existing truths.

Growing up, I never gave that distant land of Vietnam too much thought; the framework for that place and its people had been set up for me. We (the southerners) were the good guys; they (the northerners) were the bad. Everything we said was true; everything they said was lies. I never wondered why we were the ones living in another country.

College, membership in an active Vietnamese student association, and a kind-hearted Vietnamese professor ushered in a new era of knowledge for me. I began taking my first steps toward balance, and further steps towards the truth… or rather, truths.

North to South

In Vietnam, “nam tiến”, literally meaning “march to the south”, refers to the expansion of Vietnam southwards, from the Red River Delta down to the Mekong River Delta. This development shapes Vietnam’s long-standing stereotypes between northerners and southerners. Contrary to people who like to compare the shape of Vietnam to a bamboo yoke or the letter ‘S’, I like to think of the state in more metaphysical terms: a past-oriented north that flows to a future-oriented south.

Photo courtesy: Wikipedia.

 

The Red River Delta is held up as the “birthplace” of Vietnam, the traditional seat of culture and politics. The northern region and its people are perceived as conservative, ascetic, and prone to resource and food shortages. This has bred a northern character that prizes resilience, indirect communication, the concept of “face” (linked to the concept of one’s honour and prestige), and a muted cuisine that uses fewer herbs and spices.

As the state advanced into Cham and Khmer territory, a separate centre of power began developing in the south, attracting those drawn to “frontier” life and a multi-cultured existence. By virtue of self-selection, Vietnam’s expansion south drew the free-wheeling, the forward-looking, the liberal, the cosmopolitan. The south was more abundant in food and resources; Saigon – formerly known by its Khmer name Prey Nokor and currently by its Sino-Vietnamese name Ho Chi Minh City – drew traders from the world over, and life was on the whole, easier and more prosperous.

These historical circumstances have defined what it means to be a southerner: we speak with a relaxed drawl and in a straightforward manner, we cook flavourful, vivacious, eclectic dishes, and we possess a progressive, open outlook that embraces global trends. It was no surprise that the south Vietnamese eagerly adopted American dress, customs, and culture during the 1950s – 1970s.

But it isn’t just a matter of character traits and cuisine; regionalism in its extreme form has repeatedly led to Vietnamese killing Vietnamese. Historian Huy Duc describes Vietnam as a home “whose walls are made of flesh and blood”. It’s not just a metaphor.

North versus South

A civil war in the 17th century proved to be an eerie foreshadowing of events three centuries later. The north and the south were split into two separate polities: “Đàng Ngoài” and “Đàng Trong”, literally the “outside” and the “inside”. The Trinh lords ruled over the north, the Nguyen lords the south. In 1802, the southern Nguyen lords ultimately triumphed over their northern Trinh rivals, uniting the country under its Southern aegis. Inklings of this contentious period still remain in our language: to this day, Vietnamese still say they are going “out” to Hanoi and “into” Saigon.

The 20th-century civil war between North and South was a reverse iteration. The 1954 Geneva Accords split Vietnam into directional counterparts once more – a communist north versus a democratic south – with nationwide elections set to unify the country in two years’ time. Ho Chi Minh was predicted to win. Knowing this, Ngo Dinh Diem declared the formation of an independent southern republic that technically was not signatory to the Geneva Accords and thus un-beholden. The United States supported the non-communist South Vietnamese government, pouring in financial aid. The northern victory in the Vietnam War in 1975 unified the country once more, but different perspectives persist. Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 – the day the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured Saigon – is described either as a liberation or an invasion.

Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 is described either as a liberation or an invasion

My mother regularly reminds me I’m from the south. When I first began taking Vietnamese language classes in college and started pronouncing my v’s, qu’s, and final consonant n’s, she and my eldest aunt jested that I’d “become a northerner”. In class, I quickly learned that much of the Vietnamese I spoke at home was heavily marked by southern vocabulary used pre-1975. The enormous amount of South Vietnamese who had transplanted themselves in the 1970s and 1980s had led to the creation of communities that were essentially living time capsules.

The southernness of my spoken Vietnamese comes and goes depending on how inebriated I am, but the pride is palpable. On the first day of my advanced Vietnamese class at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012, the professor asked me where I was from – “Will là người gì?”

Without thinking, I responded, “Will là người nam (I’m a Southerner).”

Taken aback but pleasantly surprised, the professor said that, in her 30 years of teaching, she’d never heard such a response from a “foreign-born”. I quickly corrected myself – “Will là người Mỹ gốc Việt (I’m a Vietnamese-American)” – but the identity ambiguity persists.

Conversations

My investigation of the history between the north and south often involved prodding fellow southerners with sensitive topics. Once, I asked my Vietnamese professor in college in the United States about one of the war’s alternate names in Vietnam – “Chiến tranh chống Mỹ cứu nước (The war to resist America and save the nation)” – which heavily implied that we southern Vietnamese were imperialist collaborators. (For the record, the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were both assassinated with tacit American support for not being compliant enough.) It was a mind-blowing experience to later see the phrase in propaganda posters on the streets of Saigon.

I had, of course, to thoroughly research the other side as well; I read numerous books and watched countless interviews from individuals on the Communist side, both those based in Hanoi as well as those hidden away in the jungles of South Vietnam.

On my first trip to Vietnam in the summer of 2007, I took liberties during my research project on gay culture in Saigon to randomly ask locals their thoughts on the war, on life post-1975, on their current government.

A propaganda poster displayed in Da Nang. Similar posters can be found in Ho Chi Minh City and other Vietnamese cities. By Dragfyre [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

“These colorful billboards… on every corner. They’re so strange, aren’t they?” That was how I broached the topic with the motorcycle drivers. Casual. Open-ended. The propaganda signs, with their blocky, solid-colored, Soviet-style imagery, were a genuine curiosity to me. They were government-sanctioned, overtly political signs, exalting the Communist Party’s leadership in history, in the South’s “liberation”, in developing a “modern”, civilised Vietnam. And they were literally everywhere. As we drove by the myriad signs peppered around the city, I would use the occasion to ask the moto-drivers their opinions of the political status quo.

“They’re a bunch of liars.”

“They don’t really care about the people.”

As one driver zoomed past a particularly large mansion, he told me that it was the residence of a prominent Communist Party member. There was a consistent sense of cynicism among these working class motorists.

An older, southern woman’s story was particularly interesting, as she was old enough to have experienced the “liberation” and the years that followed. I met her through a family friend of my mother’s. (My mother had been terrified for my safety; I was the first family member to return to Vietnam since they fled, and I would be traveling completely alone as the child of a “collaborating” family.)

Upon arriving at the house, I was impressed by how large and modern it was. It had granite countertops, hardwood floors, and classic, imposing cherrywood furniture. This was luxury by Vietnamese standards; with at least four motorcycles sitting in the spacious courtyard, it was clear this family was relatively well off.

Auntie and I were sitting in the living room having a casual chat about our families, when the conversation turned to what life was like immediately after 30 April 1975.

At this point, she got up to close all the doors and windows, drawing the curtains. She whispered for the rest of the conversation. Her family had been businesspeople during the Republican era, accumulating a good deal of wealth. After the Communists came to town, local party members, aware of the family’s affluence, found an excuse to confiscate the house. It was impossible to dispute the move, so the family decided to work within the new system, establishing enough political connections to eventually reclaim the house within a decade or so. There was a healthy dose of disdain for the powers-that-be in her stories, but her family’s resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness overshadowed all else for me. It was an injustice corrected through cunning manipulation of an alien political system. That she was still paranoid about being overheard 20 years later speaks volumes of the pervasive and oppressive surveillance state the Vietnamese live under.

A different perspective came in the form of a Northern shopkeep at a propaganda poster shop. She’d noticed my many visits to her shop, and figuring out that I was Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese), took the initiative to engage me in conversation about history and politics.

I was taken aback but excited by her friendliness and eagerness to help me understand Vietnam. She told me to ask her anything I wanted. Aware that I was part of a Southern family that had fled after the war, she knew I’d been served a healthy dose of skepticism regarding Communism and the current political regime, and tried her best to argue for the other side. She’d moved to Ho Chi Minh City, she said, after its liberation.

“When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive”

I got straight to the prickly issues. Why had so many people from the South fled? What of the re-education camps? How can the powers-that-be call the current system “democratic” when there’s only one party in charge?

“People fled because they feared retribution,” she said. “When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive.”

The re-education camps, she went to on say, were not all that bad: “The ones I visited even had nice gardens and flower beds. And in any case, you have to understand the situation that the new government was in. You had an entire population grow up under an enemy’s regime. When you come to power, you have to make sure this group cooperates, you have to make sure this group is educated in the ways of the new regime.”

Her answers started to waver, though, when it came to the current “democratic” system. “We have elections. We have voting. We have representatives who form a national assembly,” she said.

“Yeah, but all that stuff doesn’t really matter when you can only pick representatives from one party,” I argued back. “If everyone is forced to follow the same ideology, the same ideas, choice is a moot point. True democracy involves multiple parties.” She disagreed, insisting that because the organs existed, democracy existed in Vietnam.

Conviction and democracy

To be sure, truth is a sensitive topic on both sides; I’d had just grown up entrenched in the anti-communist camp rather than the anti-capitalist one. Various attempts to remedy the situation have led to some rather awkward moments. I remember a conversation between my aunt and my mother where my mother said she had to give credit to the Communist government for keeping the country together and growing the economy at an appreciable clip, but my aunt quickly retorted that my uncle – who had served in the South Vietnamese army – would have maimed her if he heard her talking like that.

I’m still researching today, adopting a less polarised, more nuanced approach to the war and its competing ideologies than perhaps my mother would like. During a BBC interview, southerner Nguyen Thi Binh, former foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam and prominent Communist figure at the Paris Peace Accords, was asked for her thoughts on Vietnamese dissidents and their desire for a better nation. She retorted: “How are they any different from me?”

The dichotomy of “good versus evil” had been so deeply ingrained in the narratives of north and south that, until I heard that comment, I’d never really thought of it that way. These people, these Communists, laid down their lives for their ideals, for their country, and perhaps most meaningfully, for their countrymen. Can, or should, we cynically believe that those who fought on the northern side sacrificed the spring of their lives, and sometimes their lives altogether, simply to gain power at the expense of their fellow Vietnamese?

What, on the other hand, was the South fighting for? Trudging through American history books, one would be hard-pressed to find any real, fleshed-out answer beyond “the domino theory”, a theory that argued that the fall of one country to Communism would lead to a domino effect among its neighbours. Reading such material, it was hard not to buy into the (Hanoian) idea that South Vietnam was a propped-up American creation. In fact, the more I researched, the more I realised that it was a deep sense of ambivalence among the southern population that lead to South Vietnam’s embarrassingly quick demise.

When asked why they were fighting and what they were fighting for, South Vietnamese soldiers often turned out not to be very firm believers in their own cause. Boots and uniforms stripped off and abandoned in place by soldiers deserting on 30 April 1975 testify to that fact.

The wartime South Vietnamese population might not have been able to answer the question of “what are we fighting for?”, but the next few decades of economic mismanagement and political oppression after unification would provide a resounding answer, especially for those not able to escape the country.

By the early 2010s, after nearly a decade of research and reading, my viewpoint had matured from “acknowledge that our side may have been ‘wrong’, and then find out what happened on both sides” to “never lose sight of the fact that democracy as the South attempted to espouse it trumps the totalitarian communism adopted by the North.” Both were foreign, imposed ideologies, and the fact that one conquered the other has no bearing on virtue. As the Vietnamese author and political dissident Duong Thu Huong so eloquently put it: “Beauty does not always triumph.”

Though film and media are thoroughly dominated by northerners, southern defiance is coming to the surface. “We only learn how to cherish things when we’ve already lost them,” the 2017 trailer of Cô Ba Sài Gòn (The Tailor) begins. The southern voiceover is immediately followed by a close-up of Saigon’s city hall, with the camera focused squarely on the flagpole – there the flag of South Vietnam flutters. Yellow with three red stripes. It is subtle but perceivable for those who look for it.

But of course, if that is too subtle for you, you can always rewind a few seconds and there staring you in the face from the very moment the trailer starts is the flag on the áo dài. The tailor’s hand gently caresses a swath of yellow with three red stripes. Genuinely ask yourself if this is all coincidence. Of all the patterns in the world that the filmmakers could have featured on the dress, why this one? And why does the voiceover make the statements she does as this pattern is displayed?

A slow zoom-out, followed by shots of economic prosperity and vibrant displays of traditional áo dài to emphasise the blossoming of Vietnamese culture under a “fascist”, “puppet” regime. That these scenes managed to make it onto the big screen directly undermines the communist narrative of Saigon needing to be “liberated”. A particularly salient question asked among dissidents, both in and outside the country, is “who liberated whom?” Did the impoverished North really liberate the wealthier South? Or was it the other way around? Moreover, what exactly did the South need liberating from? A comfortable, prosperous, peaceful life?

The film champions the preservation of the áo dài – the traditional Vietnamese outfit – over Western fashions in 1960s Saigon, but the subversive message, wrapped in the garb of an innocent movie about fashion, is unmistakable. For South Vietnam, the loss is more political than cultural: no longer do citizens possess freedom, democracy, and a vibrant civil society. Even if imperfectly practised in South Vietnam, greater freedom of expression brought prosperity and a society of better quality than what Vietnam has today. Many Vietnamese, unable to express dissatisfaction with the status quo at the ballot box, vote with their feet. Leaving the country is the dream for those who have means to do so; Hanoi readily acknowledges that Vietnam suffers from brain drain.

Even so, it must be acknowledged that the war was a manifestation of North and South both wanting the best for the Vietnamese people while choosing drastically different paths. It would be unforgivably cynical to believe otherwise, to view either government as monolithic entities not made of Vietnamese individuals who loved their country. The root of the conflict stemmed from both sides competing to be the only good. Both the North and the South had causes they believed to be just – a fact which native and overseas Vietnamese have yet to fully accept.

On paper and in diplomatic circles, there is only one “true” Vietnam. Although the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist after 30 April 1975, it lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Vietnamese who abhor communist totalitarianism. It lives on in its enforced absence within Vietnam’s national discourse. A silent, de facto ban of the yellow flag with three red stripes, of any positive mention of the southern republic, of anything related to the former state is, in a way, perpetuating South Vietnam’s existence. And if history is any indication, the South remembers.

About the Author:

  WILL NGUYEN

Will Nguyen considers himself a “Schrödinger’s cat” of East and West. He is Vietnamese or American, depending on who’s looking. Will graduated from Yale University in 2008, with a Bachelor’s in East Asian Studies. He is currently completing his Master in Public Policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (NUS), where he has pursued topics of Vietnamese history, culture, and politics.

Opinion-Section

With Economic Development Comes Greater Government Oppression: Why the EU Must Reconsider Its Free Trade Deal with Vietnam

The agreement threatens to legitimize a brutal regime unless greater human rights protections are incorporated.

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On the same day in 2020 that Vietnam chaired its first Security Council meeting in New York, just a few hours earlier and some 8000 miles away near its capital, Hanoi, the Communist Party of Vietnam directly attacked Dong Tam village for refusing to give up its land.

The result? Police shot dead Dong Tam’s beloved leader and former Party village chief, Le Dinh Kinh, an 84-year-old veteran who had been a Party member for 57 years; three police officers also died after falling down a sky-light, ostensibly pursuing “suspects” who resisted the authorities. Twenty two villagers have subsequently been arrested, with twenty being charged with murder. If convicted, these villagers could face the death penalty. 

The Dong Tam land seizure event of last week is therefore a watershed moment in Vietnam’s post-war history for many reasons. First, it marks for the first time in the age of social media an open and deadly clash between the Party and its once loyal support base: villagers in northern Vietnam. According to a 2015 Bloomberg finding, almost 70% of Party members live in the north, even though the north is home to less than half of the country’s population of 96 million.

Second, it shows the Party’s determination in ending the dispute, no matter the costs, and the great lengths it will go to muzzle public outcry afterwards, both on- and offline.

Just two days after the incident, the Ministry of Information, which controls and censors all media content in Vietnam, called for Facebook – by far the most popular social media platform in Vietnam, used by some 55 million netizens – to be punished for ‘not following Vietnamese laws’ in allowing ‘distortion and fake news’ to be spread on its platform.

Following official warnings and thanks to a large cyber-troop force the government employs, some users reporting on Dong Tam have been locked out of their accounts or had content taken down by Facebook, a fact Amnesty International has confirmed in recent days.

Offline, the Party’s determination couldn’t be more clear. Less than 24 hours after the incident, the most senior member of the Politburo and Vietnam’s top leader, Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, posthumously awarded the officers killed the title of “martyr”, designating them as first-class heroes.

A week later, in an elaborate ceremony held at the State Funeral House, the Prime Minister himself along with other Politburo members, including the powerful Minister of Public Security, attended the funeral, noting that the officers ‘sacrificed their lives to protect national security’.

It is, indeed, not surprising that the Party views the incident as a matter of significant national security. After all, though land disputes are common in Vietnam because the government does not recognize private land ownership, never before has an entire village dared to resist government seizure of its land at all costs and announce its intentions accordingly on Youtube and Facebook.

With Vietnam’s economy expected to grow faster in the next decade, land designated for development purposes and seized by the government will likely exacerbate the security situation on the ground if not dealt with decisively. In the case of Dong Tam, the land seizure was for Viettel Group, Vietnam’s military-run communications company. They had to act.

But the timing could not have been worse. In the coming days, the EU Parliament’s Trade Committee is expected to vote on the EU – Vietnam Free Trade Agreement, worth 42 billion dollars annually and described by the EU as ‘the most ambitious free trade deal ever concluded with a developing country’. If passed, it will go to Parliament for a final vote on February 10.

According to Human Rights Watch, already there is significant concern among some EU MEPs regarding Vietnam’s worsening human rights record. Just last month, they also discovered that the trade deal rapporteur, MEP Jan Zahradil, has institutional links with the Party, leading to his immediate resignation.

With the latest incident in Dong Tam, it is also important for the 751 MEPs to realize that while the deal will bring more economic benefits to Vietnam, without clear and concrete human rights benchmarks, the deal will likely provide more incentives for the Party loyal and powerful to grab more land from the poor for developments without proper compensation and recourse.

As a result, if passed in its present form, expect more land losses and tragic deaths in villages across Vietnam, not less. After all, 65% of Vietnam’s population still lives in rural areas.

As for the Security Council of which Vietnam is the President this month, expect no resolutions on the matter. Dang Dinh Quy, head of Vietnam’s permanent mission in New York, is a Communist Party member himself.

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Opinion-Section

Vietnam’s Travel Bans Infringe on Activists’ Rights And Violate Own Constitution

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Vietnamese police officer stands behind a barricade in Hanoi. Photo credits: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

On November 20, 2019, Father Nguyen Dinh Thuc, a Vietnamese Catholic priest, posted on his Facebook page that he was not allowed to leave Vietnam to go to Japan to meet with the Pope during the papal visit to Asia. The immigration police gave Father Thuc a document explaining the reason why the government did not allow him to travel abroad. It stated that the priest was banned from leaving Vietnam because the authorities believed they were preventing possible crimes against “national security and public order” according to Article 21, Section 6 of Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. This decree was issued (link in Vietnamese) by Vietnam’s executive branch on August 17, 2007.

This was not the first time Father Thuc was prevented from traveling overseas. About two years ago, he was also blocked from traveling to Taiwan to attend meetings with Taiwanese civil society organizations regarding an environmental disaster involving a Taiwan enterprise, the Formosa Plastics Corporation. In one of Vietnam’s four central coastal provinces, Father Thuc had helped some of the victims of the Formosa incident voice their concerns over a legal fight and the aftermath of the disastrous environmental situation. 

The case of Father Thuc again demonstrates how the Vietnamese government bans human rights activists from traveling in order to stop them from participating in international advocacy efforts. The Vietnamese authorities have confiscated the passports of more than 100 Vietnamese activists, banning them from traveling by citing the same legal section: Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. Activists are deemed by police as a threat to Vietnam’s national security and public order when they go abroad. 

This incident also explains why we seldom see activists from Vietnam taking part in international advocacy for human rights in Vietnam. And even when activists do travel, they may not want to expose themselves publicly during advocacy events for Vietnam’s human rights because they could lose their passports upon returning home. Dinh Thao, an environmental and human rights activist, had her passport confiscated after being detained for several hours by police after returning to Vietnam this month. In the last three years, she traveled the world publicly advocating for human rights in Vietnam, and the confiscation of her passport was the price she had to pay for her actions. 

The story of Dinh Thao is the same dilemma that almost all Vietnamese activists have had to deal with in the past five or six years. If they travel abroad and publicly advocate for human rights in Vietnam, they face the possibility of being blocked from traveling again after they return to Vietnam.  When Vietnam underwent its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2014, activists accused the government of reprisals when it prevented activists from leaving the country to advocate for Vietnam’s human rights. Among them, Paulo Nguyen Ho Nhat Thanh, Pham Chi Dung, and Nguyen Bac Truyen were not allowed to depart the country to go to Geneva, Switzerland in January and February 2014 when their passports were confiscated. Pham Le Vuong Cac was also detained and had his passport confiscated in August 2014 when he returned to Vietnam after attending the UPR in Geneva. During the last UPR in 2019, Nguyen Thi Kim Khanh, wife of political prisoner Truong Minh Duc, participated in advocacy activities to raise her husband’s case in Europe and was detained for five hours upon her arrival in Vietnam. The police also took her passport without any judicial oversight, stating it was for national security.

Without their passports, these activists are prevented from traveling abroad and if they leave the country without it, they risk being considered illegal immigrants or worse, being accused of taking part in human trafficking schemes. 

The ban on activists traveling overseas is illegal, and it also directly violates Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution. Article 23 of the Constitution guarantees that “citizens shall enjoy the freedom of movement and of residence within the country; and can freely travel abroad and return home from abroad.” By issuing governmental decrees like Decree 136/2007/ND-CP in 2007, the Vietnamese government has violated the rights of its citizens. 

These decrees were not introduced, debated, and passed by the legislative branch but were executive orders whose constitutionality should ideally be decided by a judicial review. Sadly, Vietnam’s court system is not independent, and there is no constitutional court in the country. The government is able to issue unconstitutional decrees to suppress people’s rights without having any form of checks and balances. 

The right of movement has met the same fate as the right for peaceful assembly: both of these rights have been violated by governmental decrees with the people having no means at all to fight back. In Vietnam, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee has the right to exercise the power to interpret the law, including constitutional law. This is the committee that can decide whether a law or a decree is constitutional. Unfortunately, the Standing Committee has never exercised that power.

The government also does not notify activists when it puts their names on a “no travel ban” list, and some of them only find out upon arrival at the airport, as was the case of Father Thuc. Some people, such as Dinh Thao, had their passports confiscated by the police immediately after they returned to Vietnam from overseas. 

And yet, when the authorities infringe upon these activists’ right of movement, the police do not even follow the prescriptions as stated in Decree 136/2007/ND-CP. Article 22, Section 1(d) of this decree states that if a person is prevented from traveling because he or she is suspected to be a threat to national security or public order, such a decision to ban travel must be issued by the minister of the Ministry of Public Security – the head of the national police. In reality, none of the documents banning activists from traveling are signed by the minister. In the latest case of Father Thuc, the decision was signed by an immigration police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Phan Huan. 

Human rights activists in Vietnam face blatant violations of their rights by the government daily as reprisals for their work, but the government cannot stop the democracy movement from expanding. The activist community continues to grow and they willingly face harassment and imprisonment. In recent years, Vietnam has arrested more people for political dissent and handed down harsher sentences. Posting on Facebook with information that the government dislikes may land a person in jail for a decade, as we saw earlier this month. But at the same time, more people are willing to write and expose corruption and official wrongdoing in Vietnam. This is a time for political change and Vietnamese citizens want to be a part of this change. They are increasingly daring to face the consequences. 

In all of the human rights dialogue that the West participates in with Vietnam, putting an end to the travel ban should be top priority. If that happens, then the world will be able to hear Vietnamese activists express their struggles on the international stage. The advocacy to improve the human rights situation in Vietnam should start with eliminating the travel ban now.

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Opinion-Section

How Can The EU Parliament Convince Us That Vietnam Will Improve Its Human Rights Record When Dissidents Continue To Get Jailed For Exercising Their Rights?

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Photo credits: tapchitaichinh.vn

The European Union – Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EV-FTA) is expected to be a comprehensive win-win deal for both sides, ambitiously seeking to improve trade and boost mutual economic growth. As with all free trade agreements to which the EU is a party to, a human rights clause is built into this FTA with Vietnam. Many EU officials and parliament members that I have met in the past two years through my advocacy for Vietnam’s human rights situation earnestly believe that Vietnam will improve its record once the FTA takes effect. 

In the past, these friends have asked me to have some faith in the current regime, assuring me that our Vietnamese human rights activists and defenders will have better days in the future. It is a very typical “give them more time” argument that they expect me to accept. Yet the record shows that Vietnam’s aggression against human rights activists increases every year while government-controlled courts continue to hand out harsh sentences. I often wonder how EU officials still want to convince me to have such faith? 

In March 2019, I met with an EU official who was participating in the negotiations of the EV-FTA. She expressed great sympathy for human rights defenders in Vietnam and even realized the situation for human rights there was worrying. And yet, towards the end of our conversation, she asked me what I thought about one of Vietnam’s ministers, whose name I will not disclose. She seemed to be fond of the guy and praised him for belonging to a “progressive group in the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP)” that she said hopefully would one day push for an improvement in human rights in the country. 

As a democracy activist, I personally think that regardless of whether a person is progressive or not, none of the VCP members right now would dare to inch away from the Party’s political monopoly inside the country. And I frankly stated that the Ministry of Public Security – the national police – would never allow any official to raise his or her voice over the human rights situation in Vietnam. Asking for political pluralism, an improvement in the human rights situation, and democracy would place anyone in danger of being sent to prison for more than a decade, as the latest political trials have shown this year. 

I met with the official right after attending the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s 125th session in Geneva, Switzerland where the Committee completed its third periodic report on Vietnam’s implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Vietnam submitted its report after a 13-year delay in December 2017–the original deadline was set for August 2004. The Committee sadly acknowledged that in Vietnam’s review “less information was provided on the actual implementation of ICCPR and application of domestic laws in practice, where concrete data was crucially lacking.” 

Vietnam ascended to the ICCPR in 1982, but with regard to complying with the international covenant on human rights, it didn’t actually provide any opportunities for people to learn and exercise their rights. More than that, the government did not allow the Vietnamese people to use the ICCPR in courts to defend themselves when such rights were being violated. 

The point is that more than three decades after Vietnam joined the ICCPR, the human rights situation in Vietnam remains hopeless and people’s rights are being violated on a daily basis. How can we believe that the EV-FTA will improve such a situation when the ICCPR has so far failed so miserably?

I began to write this article after receiving the news that a close friend, an activist from Vietnam, had been detained upon arrival at the Noi Bai International Airport, where she was put into detention by 10 security police. Dinh Thao is an environmental and human rights activist who left Vietnam to study and work abroad as an advocate for human rights more than three years ago. She was a medical doctor before becoming an activist and I am sure some of the EU parliament members must remember her because she advocated for Vietnam’s human rights situation in Brussels a few years ago and may have met some of them. 

Thao is non-violent and even created a project to educate people about peaceful demonstrations. Yet she was detained by the police immediately after her arrival in Vietnam. What crime did she commit to deserve such treatment? Or is it just simply the fact that the government violated her rights in retaliation for her advocacy internationally for more human rights in Vietnam? 

On the same day that Dinh Thao was detained, November 15, 2019, another Vietnamese was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment and five years of house arrest. Nguyen Nang Tinh, a  music teacher who also advocated for human rights and democracy for Vietnam, was accused by the state of “propagandizing against the government” via his Facebook posts. Tinh denied that the alleged Facebook account belongs to him, but if you read the posts in that account you’ll see that there was nothing that called for a violent overthrow of the regime. If you search for him online, you will see videos of him teaching young children patriotic songs, songs that demand human rights for the people. How could his activities be called “propaganda against the state”?

As I have worked to protect the human rights of activists in Vietnam for many years, I have often recounted their stories to many Western politicians and officials. The activists I have met are people who had the opportunity to learn about the concept of human rights and who then started to defend such rights for others and also sometimes for themselves. They are the people who believe in the spirit and the universal values of human rights and they also believe that international laws, such as the ICCPR, will protect them. They probably had hoped that the ICCPR would be implemented in Vietnam at their trials. But that hope was never realized because we have never seen arguments articulating any of the articles of the ICCPR, such as Article 19, which protects the freedom of expression, presented in Vietnamese courts. 

And as a result, human rights activists and defenders have often typically been sentenced in rushed one-day trials without an independent judiciary. Sometimes the decisions handed down include lengthy jail sentences, as in the case of Nguyen Nang Tinh, which happened this month. 

In response to the EU officials who asked me to “have faith” in the regime, I point to a database built by the independent civil society organization The 88 Project, which catalogues the arrest and detention of political prisoners in Vietnam. A representative of that organization informed me a few days ago that in 2018, the Vietnamese government had arrested 145 people. These arrests showed the authorities’ blatant violation of the human rights of citizens. That number was greater than the number of arrests Vietnam made in 2017, 2016, and 2015 combined. In 2018, the number of arrests went up because the government detained and sentenced many people after large demonstrations happened in June 2018, in protest against the new cybersecurity law and the development of special economic zones with Chinese investment. 

It is not only human rights activists who are being treated unfairly and who are suffering mistreatment in Vietnam. There are also other groups, such as the workers, for whom the EV-FTA probably has some aspirations to improve their work environment and living standards. Many EU Parliament members have urged the Vietnamese government to quickly ratify the remaining three International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions prior to EU voting on the trade deal. Vietnam has promised to ratify the three ILO conventions over a time period of five years beginning in 2018. However, ratification of international laws is one thing, while the reality of how the Vietnamese authorities have failed to improve workers’ lives is another story. 

In Taipei, Taiwan, legal migrant workers from Vietnam went on a protest this month to demand the abolition of broker fees that each of them had to pay to be able to work in Taiwan. These broker fees are considered to be part of the most exploitative system of all of the countries in Southeast Asia from which these workers come from. What does the Vietnamese government know about this system and why does it allow such a broker fee system to continue to exploit their people? Would the EV-FTA be able to eradicate that system to improve the lives of these workers? How can I have the faith to believe that the Vietnamese government will ever take care of these people? 

Recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia released 70 opposition activists in order to improve his country’s human rights image after the EU threatened the withdrawal of special trade preferences. Cambodia’s political system has many aspects that are far better than in Vietnam. That country at least has an opposition political party – the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). On the contrary, the Vietnamese Communist Party has a political monopoly and we don’t have a single other political party. 

Running for office as an independent candidate will not lead to any success as the 2016 elections have demonstrated. Being a member of a political party that was formed overseas was the reason that Vietnam sentenced a 70-year-old Vietnamese-Australian man, Chau Van Kham, to 12 years in prison earlier this month. 

And yet, the EV-FTA provides for a lot more benefits for Vietnam than compared the trade preferences that Cambodia would get from the EU. How can Cambodia demonstrate a greater willingness to improve its human rights record while Vietnam just keeps getting worse? How can I have faith that Vietnam will eventually improve?

During these days, police brutality in Hong Kong has increased dramatically as we see from the recent news coming out from universities there. And as we support and pray for young people there, I hope none of the international politicians and officials will say “give China more time” so that they can resolve their human rights problems. 

In my personal capacity, despite all my efforts, I have yet to make Vietnam’s human rights situation become more well-known in the world. However, I can not look at all of my human rights activists friends in Vietnam and tell them to be patient and to give the government more time. 

We need to raise our voices and demand right now that the Vietnamese government make an effort to improve its human rights record. Should Vietnam make some improvements prior to the EU Parliament vote on the FTA trade deal? Yes, absolutely. Vietnam has to show its good faith by releasing the more than 200 political prisoners who are currently serving time and by allowing the emergence of political pluralism with fair and free elections. 

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