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From #MeToo to ‘Creating Our Own Tables’: How High Is The Glass Ceiling in Vietnam?

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Photo courtesy: kathmandupost.ekantipur.com.

The glass ceiling for women in Vietnam, to me, is as high as the sky for most.

Recent stories about sexual assault and other violent crimes against young girls and women not only caught the public attention but also gave observers glimpses of a patriarchal society which has remained – for centuries – the same in term of gender equality.

On May 28, 2018, Phụ Nữ (Women) newspaper published an online story, detailing a groping incident three days before, where the victim was one of the biggest music stars in Vietnam, Mỹ Tâm. As one of the most beloved pop singers in the country, known to many of her fans as the Queen of Ballads, Mỹ Tâm probably has one of the largest fan bases, if not the largest.

But none of that great fame was able to protect her from being a victim of sexual assault.

To add insult to injuries, Mỹ Tâm was assaulted while performing on stage at a private event in front of the whole audience, yet all she could do was to retreat to the backstage.

No one came to assist her; no one confronted the perpetrator who was mentioned in the article as an “important official.” The only kind gesture to show some sympathy for Mỹ Tâm was the fact that someone dared to make a report to the press.

It is still a big taboo for women who accuse men of sexual harassment and assault in a country like Vietnam because there would always be the fear that the public may not be sympathetic toward the victims.

It is true that when compares to other East Asian countries like its neighboring Japan, Vietnamese society shows signs that it is catching on to the #MeToo movement where people publicly support the victims.

The recent alleged rape allegations made by an intern at Tuổi Trẻ newspaper helped demonstrated this point.

But in a culture where, for thousands of years, women have been taught and praised for being able to keep quiet of their sufferings while making sacrifices for the sake of others, victim-blaming in most cases should come as no surprise.

People may not defend the perpetrators, but they will judge the women if they don’t fit the “proper” Vietnamese woman standard.

On April 27, 2018, dancer Phạm Lịch publicly alleged rocker Phạm Anh Khoa had made improper sexual advances at her. About a week later, another female dancer Nga My and an unnamed stylist also made public allegations against Pham Anh Khoa for sexual misconducts. And while Khoa eventually apologized for his behaviors on May 15, 2018, he only did so after UNFPA dropped him as one of its goodwill ambassadors, his appearances on TV were canceled, and a rock concert in Hochiminh City pulled the plug on him.

The public backlash against Khoa began after an NGO that works to promote gender equality in Vietnam, CSAGA, organized an event for him to explain his side of the story.

People quickly pointed out that CSAGA was given Khoa a platform to normalize improper and illegal behaviors against women because he was not acknowledging any faults, he was explaining that his conducts were “industry standards.” Phạm Lịch recently told reporters that she could not find any work for the past month after making her allegations against Khoa public. It is not too far-fetched to infer that she is likely being punished by the industry for breaking the silence on sexual abuse.

Both Khoa and CSAGA apologized immediately after the backlash, but with his half-hearted attempt to explain himself, Khoa inadvertently opened the pandora box and revealed a culture of subtle victim-blaming in Vietnam.

Such a culture became even more vividly portrayed just last week when a nude model alleged that a famous artist had raped her at work. Many commentators online, including democracy activists and lawyers, shifted the burden of proof to the alleged victim and insisted that she must prove she had forcibly fought back during her ordeal or it would not be rape.

No means no simply was not enough.

The victim’s credibility was questioned, and her job as a nude model took away a significant portion of public sympathy. People, women included, scoffed at her story when information surfaced that the perpetrator allegedly had used a condom.

Just this week, the case of alleged child abuse against Minh Tiệp, a sports newscaster at the national television broadcasting company VTV shows how victim-blaming extends to cases involving teenage girls as well.

When first asked about the alleged abuse, Minh Tiệp used the media to paint the victim, his 15-year-old sister-in-law, as a “bad girl.” She was, according to him, someone who has been dating as early as in 6th grade and always talked back at him and his wife, her older sister, while they were trying to teach her right from wrong.

A member of Vietnam’s National Assembly – Phạm Tất Thắng – played down the case as “one of those that should be dealt with by the family,” even after the father of the teenager told newspapers that Minh Tiệp slapped his daughter. Mr. Pham is a Vietnamese congressperson who belongs to a committee which deals with culture, education, women, children, and teenagers matters.

These stories should not come as surprises once you realized that they all attempted to portray the victims as being “improper.”

Because the “proper” Vietnamese woman only dresses and speaks in an approved manner, she will not work certain jobs, and above all, she endures her sufferings for the sake of others. She will not bring attention to herself and definitely keeps quiet about her injuries and her pains if they would bring shame to her family.

This proper woman thus is a virtuous one who would sacrifice all that she is for the well-being of her loved ones, and for that, she has been idealized, worshipped and expected to be placed on a pedestal throughout Vietnamese history for future generations of girls and young women to follow.

We were taught folklores like Quan Âm Thị Kính, a woman who was being misunderstood all her life, wrongfully accused of crimes she never committed and yet she never tried to explain herself. She would keep her mouth shut and endured the injustice until the day she died, and only after death that her name was cleared.

Then there was the story of Thiếu phụ Nam Xương, a lady wrongfully accused of infidelity by her husband who left for military service and returned home years later. Again, just like Thị Kính, talking back and explaining herself were not the options. And like the other story, our heroine could only use death to prove her innocence, so she killed herself.

Being demurred, forcing oneself to bite her tongue instead of speaking up, and learning the ability to suffer in silence and not complaining are virtues that aspiring young girl was told to keep.

I grew up in such a society for the first 12 years of my life, and despite being raised by parents who would raise other people’s eyebrows for the way they let me speak my mind and shout back at them when I think they were wrong, I had mastered those virtues by the age of 5. I was often seen as a quiet girl, sitting properly and politely with a half smile on her face, whose voice was rarely heard when visiting homes of my parents’ friends. I had convinced myself then, that conforming to societal norms would be the best and easiest way to save myself and my parents from unnecessary headaches.

For the next twenty years though, my life drastically changed as my family immigrated and I was growing up in the West, adapting to a new set of values. I have grown up to become a Westernized woman, one that my parents’ old friends from Vietnam could no longer recognize as the same quiet and demurred child they have met back in the home country.

But who could believe that it only took less than 15 months of living in the old settings among Vietnamese people to morph my 30’s something-year-old self back to my pre-teen’s personality?

I work in the NGO sector, and one would have thought that I must be among comrades who promote the same values as mine – gender equality included – but I have found that I needed to put in twice the efforts compared to my male counterparts in most things that I do. I always felt the need to prove my self-worth to others, and I was constantly looking for approval. Even in my field of work – where people often believe they are somewhat more progressive than the rest of society – it still seems as if the “seats reserved at the table” are only offered to women who fit the “proper” descriptions.

So I bit my tongue instead of speaking back and letting others know how I felt, how I did not agree with them, and how I thought that they were wrong. I sacrificed my happiness to keep others happy. I had changed so much that I could not recognize myself when I stared at the woman in the mirror on the wall one day in the middle of Southeast Asia, and I broke down, completely.

If life was this difficult for me – a woman with an advanced degree from the West – imagine how it would be for those who have fewer opportunities and those who never had the chance to live outside of Vietnam.

While I was lucky to get out of that environment to save myself a trip to the emergency room for depression treatment, it dawned on me how high the glass ceiling is for most Vietnamese women. The #MeToo movement has brought many important issues about women’s rights to the discussion table in Vietnam, and I hope gender equality will now receive the attention it deserves.

Opinion-Section

The Intertwining Of Science, Politics, And Ideology In Vietnam’s COVID-19 Crisis

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People line up to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in HCM City, June 24, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, a moment for science

The escalation of COVID-19 in Vietnam, especially in Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City), is sending millions of people into crisis. They have struggled on multiple fronts, from healthcare and making sense of varying isolation requirements to obtaining food and necessities amidst strict yet incoherent travel bans and supply shortages. 

The double target of trying to contain COVID-19 while simultaneously continuing economic activities that the government persistently defended and adhered to since the start of the pandemic has been abandoned. This is indicative of how serious the situation has become. Over the past few weeks, Saigonese have experienced life in a way they could never have imagined.

In this grim picture, Tuoi Tre Online reported on July 10, 2021, that Ho Chi Minh City’s Party Committee Secretary Nguyen Van Nen is now looking to scientists for advice.[1] The secretary’s words were quoted widely in the news: 

I feel that we need to consult the scientists…. At any time, I want specialists and scientists to see flaws in our strategy to fight the pandemic and contact me; I will consider their advice and respond timely. 

A Facebook influencer reacted to this news with a sense of irony and bitterness:[2]

So what expertise have you relied on to fight the pandemic? Anything but science? Have you been kidding your citizens all along? For one and a half years now, have you been playing with the life and death of millions of people? So, after all, is it true that the tools you have taken to fight a pandemic are simply government decrees and [the manpower of] the Communist Youth League? I feel so ashamed of being led by national leaders who are both blind and arrogant.  

It is rather apparent that in a pandemic, one had better look to the scientists. So, why is a government official only bringing them to the table now? The next question is, how critical can scientists be, with a government that does not like criticism? At the highest level, one must wonder where science and scientists are in the decision-making concerning public matters in non-democratic Vietnam? A look into the Vietnamese Communist Party’s (VCP) ideology that it has followed and its practices could explain this conundrum.

In ideology: the suppression of civil society and communicative rationality

In the United Kingdom, at the start of the pandemic, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was activated. Since then, it has been working closely with the government as an external body to advise on making appropriate decisions regarding COVID-19 in the country. The importance and weight of scientific advice cannot be underestimated; UK scientists successfully convinced Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet to abandon their herd immunity strategy and adopt a nationwide lockdown in March 2020. 

Without this lockdown, the United Kingdom could have seen 80 percent of its people infected and 500,000 deaths.[3] On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the physician-scientist and immunologist Anthony Fauci, in his role as the chief medical advisor to the US president, has been a pillar in handling COVID-19 in the United States.

Liberal democracy entails the practice of taking advice from scientists and not restraining those who deliver honest yet uncomfortable truths to people in positions of power. The two hallmarks of liberal democracy that shape this practice are civil society and communicative rationality.[4] 

Civil society in a liberal democracy comprises actors and institutions that are supposed to be independent of the state and who act to balance state power. Therefore, universities and the myriad of civil associations in democratic countries are autonomous and can freely critique the conduct of the government or oppose laws and policies they view as problematic without fear of punishment. 

On the other hand, communicative rationality, an ideal of liberal democracy, means that people arrive at a collective agreement about something via genuine, intelligible conversations. Thus parliamentary debate and rebuttal in classroom discussions are part and parcel of a healthy democratic life and politics.  

Nowhere in the ideological textbook of the VCP can one find any sign of friendliness towards the idea of an autonomous, independent civil society, nor communicative rationality in the way the state relates to other estates in society. The Vietnamese government condemns independent civil society as a strategy of ‘hostile forces’ to undermine political stability.[5] Following the Marxist-Leninist ideology, the Communist leaders control civil society and use civil society organizations, such as the press, schools, and mass associations, to garner consent from the people for its rule.[6] Likewise, the Party believes in ‘self-criticism,’ rather than opposition or open, genuine debate in the National Assembly or in other venues where the state and citizens can talk to each other.[7]

In practice: the strategic mobilization of scientists while confining them within governable spaces

Since 1975, the Vietnamese State could be described as developmental. In the pursuit of economic growth and technological and social development, the state needs the expertise of scientists and intellectuals. This is evidenced by the existence of a wide range of research and scientific centers and institutions funded by the State that operate within the scope prescribed for them by the government. However, the system ensures that scientists and intellectuals employed in these research centres do not threaten the state.[8]

Despite these state-employed scientists and intellectuals, the Vietnamese government rarely describes its style of governance as “evidence/science-based.” This suggests that the VCP still aspires to be a good disciple of Marxism-Leninism when it comes to organizing the political system and governance. “The Party knows best” is apparently its motto. In other words, the Party sees itself as the supreme source of authority and expertise. This also makes Vietnam’s developmentalism different from, for example, Japan’s.  Japan’s developmentalism is based on rationality, whereas Vietnam’s is based on ideology.[9]

Speaking of rationality, communicative rationality still has no place in Vietnam’s politics nor in the civil sphere. The National Assembly has shown little sign of becoming a place for open, genuine debate about public matters. Critical thinking is still lacking in the way students are educated. The free press is still a wild dream for Vietnam. 

I interviewed the head of Luat Khoa Tap Chi not long ago. He described the prominent culture in Vietnam as a “culture of obedience and singular thinking” rather than critical thinking and genuine, intelligible debate. Last but not least, we shall not forget that in 2007, when the Institute of Development Studies was established by renowned intellectuals and scientists of the country to speak truth to power, it went into so much trouble with the government and was eventually disbanded.[10] 

Prospects of the VCP democratizing itself?

Not so much. In Saigon, what the Party Committee Secretary Nguyen Van Nen said about consulting scientists is most likely just a moment of him forgetting the Party’s line he should be toeing. Indeed, just a week after his statement, a Facebook influencer reposted on his Facebook page a VNExpress interview with Vu Thanh Tu Anh of Fulbright University Vietnam, which reportedly was removed from VNExpress’s website immediately after it was posted.[11] In this interview, Tu Anh discusses some failures in the government’s strategy to contain COVID-19.[12]

In conclusion, for scientists to speak truth to power, or at least to save Vietnam from this deadly pandemic, they require a change in both ideology and politics, which the VCP seems to be neither willing nor ready to take.  

Bibliography:

  1. Bí thư Thành ủy TP.HCM gặp gỡ các chuyên gia, nhà khoa học cùng bàn cách chống dịch COVID-19, 10 July 2021. Tuổi Trẻ Online. Available at: https://tuoitre.vn/bi-thu-thanh-uy-tp-hcm-gap-go-cac-chuyen-gia-nha-khoa-hoc-cung-ban-cach-chong-dich-covid-19-20210710120636333.htm
  2. Thai Hao’s Facebook page, 10 July 2021. The full post is available at: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1029231357886052&id=100023975920044
  3. Grey, Stephen & MacAskill, Andrew, 7 April 2020. Special Report: Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-britain-path-speci-idUSKBN21P1VF
  4. The background of my understanding of liberal democracy in this paragraph comes from Alexis de Tocqueville (on civil society) and Jurgen Habermas (on communicative rationality).
  5. See, for example, an article in Cong an Nhan dan, available at: http://cand.com.vn/Chong-dien-bien-hoa-binh/Canh-giac-thu-doan-loi-dung-xa-hoi-dan-su-de-chong-pha-che-do-581991/; another one in Nhan dan, available at: https://nhandan.vn/tin-tuc-su-kien/xa-hoi-dan-su-mot-thu-doan-cua-dien-bien-hoa-binh-392081/
  6. The reality of ‘state-led civil society’ in Vietnam, most prominent before the late 1980s, is discussed widely in the academic literature. For example, I suggest Landau, I. (2008). Law and civil society in Cambodia and Vietnam: A Gramscian perspective. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38(2), 244–258; and Salemink, O. (2006). Translating, interpreting, and practicing civil society in Vietnam: A tale of calculated misunderstanding. In D. Lewis & D. Mosse (Eds.), Development Brokers and Translators: The Ethnography of Aid and Agencies (pp. 101–126). Kumarian Press.
  7. See, for example, a discussion session organized by a mass organization, in Tortosa, A. (2012). Grassroots democracy in rural Vietnam: A Gramscian analysis. Socialism and Democracy, 26(1), 103–126. https://doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2011.645661
  8. See Morris-Jung, J. (2017). Reflections on governable spaces of activism and expertise in Vietnam. Critical Asian Studies, 49(3), 441–443. https://doi.org/10.1080/14672715.2017.1339448
  9.  For more on developmentalism and plan-rationality versus plan-ideology, see Johnson, C. (1993). The Japanese miracle. In MITI and the Japanese miracle: The growth of industrial policy, 1925-1975 (pp. 1–34). Stanford University Press; and Woo-Cumings, M. (Ed.). (1999). Introduction: Chalmers Johnson and the politics of nationalism and development. In The developmental state (pp. 1–31). Cornell University Press.
  10. Morris-Jung, J. (2015). The Vietnamese bauxite controversy: Towards a more oppositional politics. Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 10(1), 63–109.
  11. Thanh Nguyen’s Facebook post, 17 July 2021. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/paulothanhnguyen/posts/4395856270458582
  12. On 20 July 2021, another scientist, Vu Hong Nguyen, also shared on his Facebook page that his contribution to a TV program in Vietnam about COVID-19 vaccines was abruptly removed. He explains that his skeptical view of the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm, which he planned to talk about in the TV program, was not welcome. He titles this post on his Facebook page as ‘Do not let politics interfere with science’. Nguyen’s Facebook post is available at: https://www.facebook.com/vu.nguyen.758/posts/4726456800701987  

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Vietnam’s Unprecedented COVID-19 Challenge Compounded By A Deficit Of Trust In The Government

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A locked down area in Saigon, Vietnam. Photo: Zing News. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnamese people are no strangers to natural disasters or political calamities that demand personal sacrifice and collective effort. Yet, why is the government’s‘COVID-19 Vaccine Fund’ being met with so much public backlash? A closer look into these criticisms reveals a deficit of trust in the government, in more ways than one, with nobody taking the initiative to deal with this problem.     


June 2021 saw Vietnam facing a massive COVID-19 outbreak, especially in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). By the end of the month, the number of cases remained relatively high. The implications of the government’s difficulty in containing COVID-19 in Saigon are considerable. 

First, it is the largest city in Vietnam and the economic flagship of the country. Thus, placing the entire city of Saigon under lockdown is arguably not an option the government would want to entertain. This is evidenced by government officials still stubbornly clinging to their “double target” goal [1] of attempting to suppress COVID-19 while at the same time maintaining economic activities. Time will tell if Vietnam will pull through or if this “double target” will turn into a “double failure.” 

Second, the bitter history between Saigon, South Vietnam’s former capital during Vietnam War, and the Communists from Hanoi often resurfaces at times like this. This has cultivated a persistent lack of trust between many Saigonese and government leaders in Hanoi. Thus, it is not surprising to see many angry comparisons by Saigonese. They speak of the government’s unfair treatment of Saigon, as they perceive that less support has been given to the city to cope with the outbreak than was the case with northern provinces. When economic and political concerns are put together, they believe that Saigon is merely seen by the government as a cash cow – heavily milked yet poorly treated by Hanoi leaders.

However, this troubled past between the north and south regions is far from being the only reason for the lack of trust between the state and the people in Vietnam. With the unprecedented high number of daily cases and deaths, the Vietnamese finally realize the urgency of acquiring vaccines. Yet, the government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, which calls for voluntary donations from individual citizens and the corporate sector to buy vaccines from overseas, has been met with strong criticism. 

As expressed on social media, these objections seem to boil down to “I can’t trust the government with my money” or “I don’t trust the government to act in my best interest.” This lack of faith in the state is situated against a backdrop of multiple corruption scandals and a lack of transparency throughout the 2010s and taxpayers’ increasing scrutiny of public spending in recent years, which has resulted in their frustration. 

To wit, the government announced in late June its plans to build more public statues, with the one in Thanh Hoa province alone costing approximately 255 billion dong (US$11 million).[2] The government could not have chosen a better time, or a better way, to add fuel to the fire.[3]

In a country where anti-China sentiment runs high, the government’s approval of the Sinopharm vaccine and putting it into use only worsens the situation.[4] Skeptics of the VCP and China have every reason to be worried about the money in the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund being used to purchase only the Sinopharm vaccine.

With this perfect opportunity for public intellectuals to speak truth to power, economists Vu Thanh Tu Anh (from the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management) and Vu Tu Thanh (deputy regional managing director and Vietnam representative for the US-ASEAN Business Council), regrettably miss the point. Tu Anh’s Facebook post on June 8 rightly explained that the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund is a way to correct “government failure.” [5]

However, he mainly focused on the technical workings of the government’s budgeting related to COVID-19. Likewise, Tu Thanh’s post on his own Facebook page, posted on the same day, defends the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, stating that no vaccine manufacturer in the world can sell its vaccines to non-state actors at the moment and that the government is still responsible for the lion’s share of the amount used to purchase them.[6] 

Mistaking politics for policy, both Tu Anh and Tu Thanh fail to address the issues underlying the criticisms of the COVID-19 Vaccine Fund, which are the deficit of trust between Saigon and the north, the lack of confidence of the Vietnamese people towards their government, the bitter irony of billions of Vietnamese dong going to statue-building amidst a pandemic, and concerns about China’s vaccine. They also miss how the government should be held accountable for the “failure” Tu Anh mentioned, a failure of the government’s own making. While these issues are not dealt with, the deficit of trust remains and could worsen over time.

June 2021 has seen Saigon’s neighbourhoods barricaded, one after another, as more and more new cases emerged. A local man poetically, but sadly, called the city, “Thương thành” (City of Pain).[7] Meanwhile, other cities and provinces are nervously watching. The shortage of vaccines alone is challenging to deal with. Yet this summer sees the Vietnamese government running short of both vaccines and the trust of many of its people.  

Bibliography:

[1] T.H. (2021, June 3). Sáng tạo trong thực hiện “‘nhiệm vụ kép.’” Hanoi Moi. https://hanoimoi.com.vn/tin-tuc/Doanh-nghiep/1001503/sang-tao-trong-thuc-hien-nhiem-vu-kep

[2] L.H. (2021a, June 25). Thanh Hóa chọn mẫu xây tượng đài, khu lưu niệm 255 tỷ đồng. VNExpress. https://vnexpress.net/thanh-hoa-chon-mau-xay-tuong-dai-khu-luu-niem-255-ty-dong-4299756.html

[3] Facebook user’s criticism of the government’s handling of COVID-19 in Saigon, including its spending on building statues amidst. (2021, June 25). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/manhcuongvu/posts/10208783322656000

[4] Facebook user’s criticism of the Ministry of Health’s approval of the Sinopharm vaccine. (2021, June 4). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=4596848240329511&set=a.121001917914188

[5] Có nên lập quỹ vaccine phòng covid-19. (2021, June 7). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=5787526994651583&id=100001830205620

[6] Hiểu đúng về Quỹ vắc xin phòng chống COVID-19. (2021, June 8). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/vututhanh/posts/10222662130960010

[7] Thương Thành (2021, June 13). [Status]. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/le.h.lam/posts/10220397389070232

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Opinion-Section

The Power Of Your Ballot

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As election day approaches for seats in the Vietnamese National Assembly, it is important to take a step back and reflect on the significance of this political exercise as a whole and on our role as voters. 

It is common knowledge that several aspects of this entire electoral process are suspicious or perhaps even fraudulent. As such, a large portion of the Vietnamese population may choose not to vote at all, even though they seem to care greatly about the politics and elections of other foreign nations. At first glance, their actions are logical and make total sense. 

Why should Vietnamese citizens continue to take part in a rigged electoral system where their votes will not matter in the end? Why should they take time off from their day and exert effort to indulge in the whims of a government that hardly even cares about the well-being of its people? After all, non-participation is a form of civil disobedience in itself, and in most cases, it is effective and it works.

Yet, in the context of Vietnam, perhaps another way to express discontent might be more effective in bringing about lasting social and political change.

A History of Fraud and Deception

The Vietnamese government has constantly alleged a remarkable voter turnout since the 2002 election for the National Assembly, according to the IFES Election Guide. To be specific, Vietnam tallied 98.85 percent in 2002, 99.52 percent in 2011, and 99.35 percent in 2016. It is also expected that government claims for the turnout for the upcoming election will remain in a similar range. 

Yet, according to some experts, election results in Vietnam come as no surprise as these tallies could be mere fabrications, highly exaggerated, and may not accurately reflect reality. To support their opinions, these experts – such as Mu Sochua, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), and a former Cambodian Member of Parliament – state that the VCP will enlarge these numbers by relying on proxy voting – wherein one person can vote for his/her entire family – and pressuring local authorities to ensure high voter turnouts in their regions. 

Contrived voter statistics is not the only thing the Vietnamese government is guilty of; its claim of free and fair elections is also deceptive. Candidates for the National Assembly are closely scrutinized and vetted by the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, an arm of the VCP. In the upcoming elections, out of 868 candidates vying for 500 seats, only nine are self-nominated, with six of these also reported to be members of the VCP as well. From this, we can see that pluralism and choice are all but non-existent. 

Prior elections also illustrate this phenomenon and the distinct lack of choice. A report by Freedom House states that out of the 500 seats available for the National Assembly in 2016, 473 were taken by Vietnamese Community Party members while “independent” candidates, who were also vetted by the VCP, took 21. 

Independent candidates and those who are not part of the Communist Party also face an uphill battle in their bid to be candidates in the elections. While most don’t even pass the Vietnamese Fatherland Front’s scrutiny, some are imprisoned or pressured into rescinding their intention to run. 

The arrests of Le Trong Hung, Nguyen Quang Tuan, and Tran Quoc Khanh, as reported by Amnesty International, stand as recent examples.

Le Trong Hung was a citizen journalist who worked for Chan Hung TV and Nguyen Quang Tuan was a medical doctor. Tran Quoc Khanh ran a popular social media account, which he used to comment on social issues and to criticize the Vietnamese government. All three were independent candidates running for seats in the National Assembly in the upcoming election. However, they were arrested for allegedly violating Article 117 of Vietnam’s penal code, a statute which Amnesty International claims in the report, “ …violates Viet Nam’s international human rights obligations” and that Article 117 “should be repealed or substantially amended…”

To top all of this, the result of the National Assembly elections is more or less carved-in-stone and predetermined months in advance. This can be seen in the “tentative proportion” or “tentative allocation” data released by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee. The committee has portioned the number of available seats and through this, we can get a fairly clear picture of who will get “elected” and what the priorities of the National Assembly will be over the next five years. 

To Vote or Not to Vote 

Hence, we are faced with a conundrum.

Given the state of elections in Vietnam with all the deceit, manipulation, and unfairness involved, would it be proper and appropriate to still vote come election day, or would non-participation in the system itself be the better alternative?

The usual reaction, when faced with such a situation, would, of course, be the road of passivity and non-compliance. Ergo, to choose not to participate in the elections at all. 

This perspective is all well and good. After all, a lack of voters usually implies a government’s lack of legitimacy and the absence of its citizens’ trust. However, legitimacy does not seem to be the VCP’s concern and they would be more than happy to pad the actual number of voters through the use of various statistical anomalies. 

On the other hand, choosing to vote seems to be a fruitless and purposeless course of action when the result is more or less predetermined several months in advance. 

At the end of the day, it appears that no matter what we decide to do with regards to the elections, the Vietnamese government and the Communist Party emerge as the true victors.

Rays of Hope 

And yet, you have someone like Luong The Huy, an openly homosexual man, civil society activist, and gender expert, who is one of the few self-nominated candidates who somehow managed to slip through the Vietnamese Fatherland Front’s obscure vetting process. 

On election day, May 23, he and a few other candidates will take on a seemingly hopeless fight for a slim chance at winning a single seat in the National Assembly. The odds and the deck are stacked against them, but they still continue to push back; they refuse to remain silent in passive acceptance. 

And while most of us cannot run for any government position, choosing to vote is the next best thing; even though it feels like an exercise in futility, we should still force ourselves to vote come election day. 

Even though our choice may not matter, our mere participation in the simplest of democratic freedoms given to us shows the VCP that we are concerned and invested in the direction the country is moving towards. Even if the election is rigged from the start, the mere act of supporting a candidate that does not agree with the Party’s schemes shows the Party that we will not take kindly to the government’s machinations and ploys. Even the act of submitting a blank ballot carries much more weight than simply not voting at all. 

The VCP thrives on the growing apathy and passivity of its people and could care less about legitimacy. Hence, choosing to vote and then deciding to vote properly becomes an act of rebellion; it becomes revolutionary in that it respects the concept and sanctity of the democratic process itself rather than the Vietnamese government as an institution. And if enough people unite and vote for those actually deserving of a seat in the National Assembly, there is a minuscule chance that perhaps true and lasting change and reform can slowly come from within. 

The strength of your ballot lasts beyond election day and extends far into the uncertain future. And when your time comes to make a decision, we hope you make the right choice.

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