In recent days, the people in Vietnam, again and again, have proven that social media was the most effective platform to express their discontent with various social and political issues in the country.
Around the first week of May 2018, people’s outpoured anger over an appellate court’s decision which reduced the sentence for a convicted child molester had forced the country’s top court – the court of cassation – to swiftly responded and reaffirmed the original sentence.
And just this week, when citizens discovered that their National Assembly was going to pass a law to create three Special Economic Zones (SEZ) at Vân Đồn, Bắc Vân Phong, and Phú Quốc, they again took to Facebook to express their objection to the government’s plan. Then, they used the social media to organize the actual demonstration.
The call for a nationwide protest on one Facebook page received more than 160,000.00 shares and close to 140,000.00 reactions within days.
Social media has proven that it still is the most effective tool to disseminate information in Vietnam and to raise awareness on a variety of issues.
It was precisely seven years ago this summer that a nationwide anti-China’s aggression in the South China Sea – Vietnam’s East Sea – broke out because of a call to protest on Facebook by the page Nhật Ký Yêu Nước – Patriotic Diary.
Since 2011, social media has witnessed the emerging democracy movement in the country where it served as the birthplace of many independent civil society organizations, online newspapers, and media agencies.
With some current 30 million Facebook users in a recent statistics, neither the government or its people would underestimate the power of social media and Facebook in Vietnam.
In both of the recent incidents, the people’s power prevailed, at least for now.
By the early morning of June 9, 2018, the Vietnamese government officially announced the SEZ bill would be postponed until the fall session of the National Assembly.
However, it does not mean that the government is ready to throw in the towel.
Another bill is pending for approval by the National Assembly on June 12, 2018, and it is what would become the infamous Cybersecurity law with at least seven strikingly similar provisions when compares to China’s laws.
More concerning is the fact that these provisions are more than “copy and paste” paragraphs from China’s laws. They are in direct violation of international human rights standards.
Explicitly, in 2016, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution without a vote, to include an addition to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognizing the right to Internet access is a human right.
The goals and objectives of this Cybersecurity bill will violate Article 19 because it gives the government and the police power to demand readily accessible information to all citizens’ Internet usage data whenever they want and without any due process.
Internet service providers will act as informants for the government, voluntarily give up users’ activities to police.
Foreign corporations such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and so forth, will most likely comply with Vietnam’s request to have their servers – which contain Vietnamese users’ data – to be stationed in Vietnam and must have an operating office located inside the country.
It would mean all of these companies’ stored data within Vietnam’s national territory will have to be given up to police once they demand it.
The European Union, its parliament, and its member countries should take careful notes of this Cybersecurity bill when they consider the ratification of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EU-FTA) in early 2019.
As in all EU trade agreements, the human rights clause have been maintained by EU officials and politicians as an essential condition, and that they reserve the power to suspend the agreement if there are going to be gross violations.
The Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee for International Trade, Bernd Lange, during his visit to Hanoi in September 2017, even declared that human rights and labor rights are at the center of the continued discussions about the FTA between Vietnam and EU.
If this Cybersecurity bill is passed, it will very well be in contradictions with the human rights clause of the EU-FTA. The U.S. government, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all seem to have taken this view.
The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi urged Vietnam in their statement issued late June 8, 2018, not to pass this bill, citing concerns that such law “may not be consistent with Vietnam’s international trade commitments.”
At the same time, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both declared that if the Cybersecurity bill is passed and goes into effect, it would violate Vietnamese people’s freedom of expression and their privacy.
Some Vietnamese are worrying that they might have spent too much time and efforts on the SEZ bill and neglect the one on Cybersecurity, letting it slips through.
Undoubtedly, the main reason that many Vietnamese were willing to take their anger from Facebook to the streets regarding the SEZ bill and in a certain extent, direct such outrage at their government this past week, was the China factor.
The people believed that the law would give Chinese investors and corporations an advantage as to the future development in those three locations.
Tensions between Vietnam and China are historical facts that no regime could re-write. It does not help either that in recent years, China’s rising aggression in the East Sea would continue to remind the younger generations in Vietnam that China has been, still is, and will be a threat to their nation’s sovereignty.
“Bringing the elephants home to demolish your ancestors’ grave” – an idiom that has been recited over and over again online during the past week – is probably the image many Vietnamese have in mind when they protest the SEZ bill.
If the Cybersecurity bill passes, the government can construe this very phrase (when use to object any of its decision – such as the SEZ bill this time) as “information which propagandizes, misrepresents, and defames the People’s government” according to its Article 15, and that will be the reason for people to find themselves in trouble with the laws.