The Right to Protest In Vietnam Is Not Only Legal, It’s Constitutional

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

On June 14, 2018, AFP reported, the spokesperson of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Le Thi Thu Hang, told reporters that Vietnam was holding an American citizen of Vietnamese descent, Will Anh Nguyen, under the suspicion of “disrupting public order.”

Online video clips showed Nguyen being dragged away by several men with his head covered in blood, and that he was thrown into the back of a police car. Later that day, news surfaced on Vietnam’s social media that he was arrested for being part of the demonstration.

One probably would stop and wonder: Is protesting illegal in this country?

Simply put, the right to protest is not only legal in Vietnam, but it is also the people’s constitutional right.

Article 25 of Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution prescribes:
The citizen shall enjoy the right to freedom of opinion and speech, freedom of the
press, of access to information, to assemble, form associations and hold
demonstrations. The practice of these rights shall be provided by the law.

Not only that, Article 166 of the 2015 Penal Code makes it a crime to infringe upon the human rights of others with the maximum sentence of up to five years in prison.

Nguyen very likely did not violate any law when participating in a march in Ho Chi Minh City while on vacation; the problem was: he had exercised his universal human rights in the wrong country.

His arrest is now making international headlines where most of the major media outlets have covered the story, and it also brings many people’s attention to the right to protest in Vietnam.

As in all of the protests that happened before, this time, again there were allegations that the police used excessive force to suppress the peaceful demonstrators.

Yes, in one province – Binh Thuan – riots broke out between the protestors and the police, but everywhere else, they were mostly peaceful, including the one that Will participated.

The UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia stated on June 14, 2018: “We are particularly concerned about allegations that some protesters were beaten by law enforcement authorities.”

Any seasoned pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders will tell you what has happened to Will Anh Nguyen this past weekend is the same routine violation of human rights in Vietnam when people dare to exercise the right to demonstrate.

First, Vietnam still has no law providing for the practice of any of the rights stated in Article 25 of the Constitution.

While the legislative body of the nation kept delaying passing such a law, the government in March 2005 issued Decree 38/2005/NĐ-CP to regulate “public gatherings”.

Accordingly, a public gathering of more than five people must be approved by the Provincial People’s Committee, unless it was organized by the government or social and/or political organizations belong to the government.

This Decree has been quite effectively used by the government to wrongfully break up protests and to arrest people in the past. Nevertheless, its language has been denounced by both legal experts in Vietnam and the international community because of human rights violations.

It is worth noting that the Decree does not mention the word “demonstration” anywhere, so it can be argued that legally, it cannot be used to regulate protests.

Thus, in 2011, during the height of another wave of protests across the country, a group of activists and lawyers petitioned the National Assembly’s Standing Committee for a review of Decree 38.

Vietnam does not have a constitutional court. Instead, the National Assembly has the power to interpret the Constitution, but to date, they have not responded to the petition filed back in 2011.

In fact, the National Assembly of Vietnam has never exercised this power to interpret the law.

In a nutshell, the law on the practice of demonstration seems to have been strategically delayed while an allegedly unconstitutional government’s decree will act as the only official tool to round up peaceful protesters and arresting them.

The nation-wide protests broke out in Vietnam last Sunday, June 10, 2018, against the proposed Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and the cybersecurity draft laws, were estimated to have had thousands of people marching.

Some sources believed around 300 people were later arrested in Ho Chi Minh City alone, and one of them was Will Anh Nguyen.

Since his detention on Sunday afternoon, his family has been actively working with the U.S embassy to get him released.

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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.