In June 2018, many were shocked to witness the largest demonstration in Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975, where thousands of people marched on the streets of several major cities. One of the reasons that compelled the Vietnamese people to protest was because of the proposed Special Economic Zones Law, which their National Assembly’s members were going to pass.
Despite the fact that under public pressure, the draft bill was ultimately announced to be halted until the next National Assembly’s meeting in October 2018, people still protested against it. Their reason? They feared that they were going to lose essential portions of their country to foreign investors, namely, the Chinese. The government of Vietnam, on the contrary, continued to insist on the passing of this law, citing economic development and jobs opportunities for hundreds of thousands.
Which side is right?
1. What Is A Special Economic Zone?
A Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is defined as an area in which business and trade laws are different from the rest of the country.
Theoretically, an SEZ can attract foreign investment, expand production, create jobs, and boost export-import. However, that would only happen if a set of conditions is met: the rule of law, together with clearly defined laws and regulations that both facilitate production and business activities, which are binding on all investors and able to adjust market failures, as well as other public issues.
In practice, and in the particular case of Vietnam, the government has yet to make available any information regarding the conditions under which the proposed SEZs will operate.
Can the SEZs create real jobs for the Vietnamese people? Can they boost production and trade? If they fail, and the nation falling into debts, who would be held accountable, and how? What are the punishments against them? Alternatively, will they say, “It’s none of your concern; it’s the Party and the State’s business”?
The above questions remain unanswered.
2. What Is The SEZ Project?
The SEZ project is a “grand policy” of the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), to establish three special economic zones in Van Don (a district in the Northeastern Province, Quang Ninh), Bac Van Phong (of Khanh Hoa Province), and Phu Quoc (of Kien Giang Province) as shown in the picture above. Foreign investors shall be granted special favors in these areas, for example, the 99-year land lease.
This project is codified in the proposed SEZ Law or the “Law on the Special Administrative-Economic Units”. Traditionally, and as in this time, the government of Vietnam does not publicize the names of the lawmakers concerned in any lawmaking process, so no one knows the architects behind the SEZ Law.
In case this SEZ Law is found to have contained some defects, or its enforcement would lead to severe consequences, no one, especially Party’s officials, shall be held responsible due to the lack of transparency and accountability in the country.
3. What Is “Special” About These Three Zones?
Overall, conditions in Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quoc are not favorable for development. These include infrastructure, skills of the labor force, science and technologies, and financial-economic facilities.
Regarding geographic location, however, all the three districts are located in critically strategic sites of Vietnam, and they hold a crucial implication for national security. To make matters worse, Vietnam’s northern giant neighbor, China, where most of the potential investors would come from, has for centuries been known to keep an ambitious dream of becoming a hegemonic superpower.
China pays particular attention to Van Don and to Vietnam in general, whom she considers being the “buffer zone” for her to “move southward” to the geo-strategic South China Sea. For this reason, even when the SEZ law does not mention China but only refers to “foreign countries,” obviously China is the only nation the Vietnamese people are concerned about.
4. What Are The Goals Of The SEZ Project?
The SEZ project revolves around these promises: the three SEZs shall be where new institutions are tested and adopted with more freedom and less control, where innovation is stimulated, where more jobs are created, and more incomes are generated for local people. In short, the SEZs shall boost production and commerce, and lead to economic growth.
However, all of those promises remain vague and unfounded. Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quo as stated, do not have favorable conditions to establish SEZs, because of poor infrastructure and technological bases and an unskilled labor market.
Most importantly, no political leader, no official of the VCP and the State shall bear any responsibility if those promises become unfulfilled. If the project fails, or if it causes any adverse consequences for the people and Vietnam, the victims would have no meaningful recourse.
5. What Are the Potential Consequences Of The SEZs That Vietnamese People Fear?
5.1. Territorial concession
By stipulating a land lease of up to 99 years and granting other special privileges to potential Chinese investors, the SEZ Law is paving the way for China to infiltrate Vietnam under her “salami-slicing” strategy.
Salami slicing is a strategy that the communist Chinese government has used since 1949 to take over territories in the South China Sea and the Himalayan region, in a gradual, step-by-step manner. The tactics were to open the door for Chinese immigrants to settle, do business, set up Chinese language schools, establish their own administrative system, and promote Chinese culture and customs in foreign lands. By doing that, they have legitimized China’s presence and power in the area and gradually built up Chinese autonomy inside Vietnam. If and when the time comes, this group with absolute autonomy could “rise” to demand sovereignty or for the Chinese-controlled area to “exit Vietnam and come back to merge into the motherland of China.”
5.2. A dumping ground for China’s waste
The SEZs may face the risk of failing to absorb advanced technologies and management skills, but that’s not it, after all. They are likely to become a market for low-quality products made in China and a dumping ground for her waste, most seriously toxic and e-waste.
5.3. The conflict between local people and Chinese immigrants
Overpopulation in China has led to high rates of unemployment and illegal immigration into neighboring countries, especially in Vietnam, where the government with its lousy governance fails to take control of the issue. As a result, bitter conflicts have arisen between local people and Chinese immigrants, which remain unresolved. In recent years, incidents of violent clashes have occurred between Chinese immigrants and the local Vietnamese community in Hai Phong, Quang Ninh, Thanh Hoa, Ha Tinh, as well as other provinces in Vietnam.
For example, in Quang Ninh in the mid-2000s, Chinese immigrants had thrown stones at Vietnamese people. In Thanh Hoa and Ha Tinh, drunken Chinese workers even falsely imprisoned a few local people after collectively assaulted them.
5.4. Economic loss
Accordingly, once the SEZ Law is passed, $70 billion USD shall be invested in the three SEZs, and that is like gambling ours and our children’s future on an uncertain race. Besides, with special favors granted to investors (mostly foreign) who could hardly be controlled, the government would definitely take the risk of substantial tax losses and budget deficits.
Many precedents can be found for this decision like this. One among them is the bauxite mining project in Tay Nguyen (Vietnam’s Central Highlands), which is also another grand policy of the VCP and the State. It was implemented despite public demonstration, notably the fierce protest from the late military general, Vo Nguyen Giap, and 4,000 Vietnamese intellectuals, domestic and overseas. The grand project lost almost US$170 million between 2013 and 2016. No one among those who made the promises for economic development and job opportunities for the locals were to take any responsibility for this loss.
With the government’s current institutions and management capacity, the SEZ project cannot and will not ensure economic success. The issue confronting the state is that if it fails like the Tay Nguyen bauxite mining project, no political leader shall bear any responsibility. Worse, if the SEZ project leads to territorial concessions, then it does not matter which leader or official of the VCP and the State takes responsibility, Vietnamese citizens would still suffer the irreversible consequences.
6. Why Does the VCP Insist On Implementing The Project?
The answer lies in the entrenchment of crony capitalism, with interest groups collaborating closely with the corrupt central and provincial governments, seeking to gain in grand projects in the name of “development.”
Also, “the obvious answer is ‘casinos and red-light districts,’ as these SEZs are the only places in Vietnam where these people can do business freely…. another reason that many people are aware of but still reluctant to spell out (for ‘political sensitivity’) is ‘the China factor.’ Otherwise, there is nothing else there” (Nguyen Quang Dy, 2018).
7. Is There Any Alternative Solution To The SEZ Project?
Experts point out that the SEZ idea was something that belongs to the last century, that it has become out of date, and that the SEZs are not relevant to the current circumstances of Vietnam. Instead, the urgent thing to do now is to launch a fundamental and comprehensive institutional reform in the nation, focusing on:
– setting the private sector as the basic economic sector, contracting the state sector to its minimum;
– recognizing and protecting private ownership of land;
– establishing democracy, and protecting and promoting freedom rights to mobilize the citizenry for the development cause of the nation.
Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party
“I have lost my license to practice law forever, with no apparent recourse available,” Vo An Don, one of Vietnam’s most well-known lawyers in recent years, lamented on Facebook on April 9, 2019. Last week, a high court in Danang ruled that the minister of justice’s decision to affirm his disbarment in 2018 remained effective and final.
The 42-year-old lawyer from Phu Yen province, however, is widely recognized for his fierce advocacy. In the past five years, Don took on cases involving some of the more popular political dissidents, such as blogger Mother Mushroom. But he gained the most public attention when he represented the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu, a man who died while in custody after being beaten by the police in 2014. Don had demonstrated tireless efforts in bringing those who committed police brutality to justice in Kieu’s case. Yet on November 26, 2017, he was disciplined by his provincial bar association, and his bar license was taken away. In April 2019, the People’s High Court in Danang sided with the disciplinary decision and let the decision stayed.
According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, the reason for the disciplinary action was because of Don’s “abuse of democratic freedoms to write and to give interviews to foreign press and broadcasters to defame lawyers, the prosecutorial bodies, the (Communist) Party and the State of Vietnam with the intent to incite, propagandize, and misrepresent the truth which had negatively affected the reputation of the Party, the State, the prosecutorial bodies, and other Vietnamese lawyers.”
The Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association’s decision to disbar him came only a few days before the appeal trial of Mother Mushroom, which was on November 30, 2017. Don stated at the time in an interview with BBC-Vietnamese that such a decision was probably politically motivated.
It was not the first time, however, that his local bar association had attempted to discipline Vo An Don. In another interview with RFA in 2014, Don already disclosed that the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association had tried, unsuccessfully, to disbar him a few times during his representation of the family of Ngo Thanh Kieu. But Don was unfazed and continued with the case, successfully bringing the offending officers to justice.
The case of Ngo Thanh Kieu was probably the first one in recent years where the court convicted a group of police officers for causing death to a suspect in custody. Public opinion, however, was split about the sentences handed down to the former police. Some people thought that the jail terms were too light as the longest one was only a five-year-imprisonment. At the same time, many people also saw Vo An Don as the lawyer who fought for the people’s rights and stood against what they perceived as a corrupt system.
The unintended popularity could be the root of the troubles that later followed the lawyer, who practiced law in one of the poorest areas in Vietnam. Don is often dubbed the “farmer lawyer” in social media because he still has to continue farming to support his family. Practicing law in an honest way, he said, cost him opportunities to “get rich” because he refused to be part of the widespread corruption in Vietnam’s judiciary. His popularity and his candid words about the profession together made him an unpopular person among his fellow attorneys. His allegation of corruption among lawyers was one of the statements that cost him his bar license, as reported by The Law newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City on May 24, 2018.
After the Phu Yen Provincial Bar Association issued its disciplinary decision on November 26, 2017, Vo An Don petitioned the Vietnam Bar Federation in December 2017 for a review. Over 100 Vietnamese lawyers signed a petition asking the Federation to stand by its member’s freedom of expression and stated that the disciplinary action would be a dangerous precedent for the law profession. The Federation still rejected his petition on May 21, 2018.
Don continued to appeal his case with the Ministry of Justice later last year, but the minister of justice also decided against him.
Finally, in December 2018, Don initiated a lawsuit against the administrative decision to uphold the disciplinary action by the minister of justice. But as stated, the court system also did not side with him and effectively allowed the disbarment to remain in effect. The high court in Danang agreed that the dismissal of Don’s case by a lower court was proper.
Both courts had reasoned that the minister of justice’s decision to uphold the disbarment was done within a professional and social organization – the Vietnam Bar Federation. Such a decision did not fall under the categories of subject matters that could be decided in a lawsuit against an administrative order.
At this time, even Vo An Don does not seem to think that there could be any other recourse for him. In the meantime, Don’s case has raised sufficient concerns about the freedom of expression of lawyers in Vietnam and whether their human rights will continue to be subjected to professional disciplinary actions.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam: The Country That Rejects Political Pluralism
A colleague recently showed me a picture of a document entitled “Personal History” that her friend had sent over. This person was applying for a new job, and even in this day and age, he still had to submit this intrusive Communist-era form along with his employment application, even though the job was private-sector.
This document, in particular, caught my attention because it asked detailed questions about an applicant’s participation in political parties, and quite interestingly, included whether or not he or she had an affiliation with any “reactionary” political parties before 1975, the watershed year in which Vietnam was de-facto reunited under communist party leadership.
The idea of having to include a “Personal History” when applying for a job nowadays is quite perplexing, given the fact that Vietnam has been a “one-party-state” with the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) effectively controlling the state apparatus for the past 44 years. Vietnamese under 35 years old have always lived with only one party.
After the Vietnam War, when the two former rival nations of North and South Vietnam de-jure reunited and formed the current Socialist Republic of Vietnam in July 1976, political parties turned into fiction, starting with the official dissolution of all parties previously existing in the former South.
The 1980 Constitution, Vietnam’s first after reunification, granted the VCP absolute leadership over the state and its people with Article 4, a much-maligned article that has survived two rounds of constitutional amendments in 1992 and 2013.
By 1988, the VCP officially became the only party remaining in the country. Two other political parties which had been the allies of the VCP in the North during the Vietnam War, the Social Party and the Democratic Party, announced their dissolution after having completed their “historic mission.”
Even after admitting that these two parties had always followed its directives and never really acted as political opposition forces, the VCP implemented a zero tolerance policy towards other political organizations, allies or not. History, according to the VCP, had decisively chosen the one-party system for the country.
Observers later commented that it was the looming revolutions in the Soviet Bloc at the time which had caused the VCP to quickly sweep away any remnants of a pluralistic past.
It probably was the right decision for the Party’s survival. Vietnam to this day remains one of the last few communist countries in the world, with the VCP effectively consolidating power under its authoritarian rule. In 2006, dissident Hoang Minh Chinh, a former member and general secretary of the Democratic Party, announced his party’s re-establishment and openly challenged the authority of the VCP. His efforts, however, were short-lived. Hoang Minh Chinh passed away in 2008 after losing his battle to cancer.
In March 2019, the Secretariat of the VCP announced that it would begin implementing Directive 33-CT/TW, to develop and strengthen the Party’s membership within the private sector. The directive called for recruitment of new Party members among the leadership of private enterprises, a move that strongly indicated the Party’s continued unwillingness to end its current political monopoly.
It may be a surprise for many Westerners to learn that today, North-Korea has more political parties than Vietnam. As such, elections in Vietnam are probably even more pointless and uneventful than its neighboring communist brothers in Asia although all of them are close to 100% predictable.
In Vietnam, all candidates must get their pre-approval from the VCP by going through a mandatory three-round-vetting process organized by one of its affiliated organizations, the Vietnamese Fatherland Front, before their names could proceed to the ballots.
As the result of this rigorous vetting procedure, nearly all of the 500 seats in the country’s National Assembly (the legislative body and the only group that is elected by the people during elections) belong to the VCP. A handful of “independent” seats go to VCP-approved candidates who are not official party members but have already pledged allegiance to the VCP’s directives.
The National Assembly – according to Vietnam’s Constitution – should be the most powerful branch in the government because it is supposedly “formed by the people, of the people, and for the people.” However, due to the Party’s total control of the electoral process and the complicity of the National Assembly, Vietnamese people do not have much to say in their country’s affairs.
In June 2018, after members of the National Assembly showed overwhelming support for the new Cybersecurity law, with nearly 97% of member voting yes, citizens started calling their assembly representatives to question how they had voted. Over 90% of these representatives refused to respond, with the majority of them not even bothering to pick up the phone.
Members who did pick up loudly shouted back at the callers and told them that they had no right to question their representatives’ votes. When confronted with the fact that the constitution explicitly affords citizens this specific right, representatives abruptly hung up.
All of these interactions between members of the National Assembly and citizens were documented on social media. It became an awakening moment for some Vietnamese because it was quite clear to them that this legislative body was not working “for the people”.
However, bringing up the issue of political pluralism with the current ruling party is harmful to those who dare to ask.
Nothing could land a Vietnamese person in jail quicker than a public announcement that he or she will start a political party. The formation of any kind of political organization alone, like the Brotherhood of Democracy which involves dissident attorney Nguyen Van Dai, or the more recent Coalition for Vietnamese Self-Determination, would cost its members decades behind bars.
All “national security crimes,” as defined in the Penal Code and as interpreted in actual cases at trial, equates any faint sign of opposition against the VCP’s directives and policies with subversion against the people’s government or propagandizing against the state.
On October 23, 2018, VCP General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was confirmed president of Vietnam by the National Assembly with 99.79% of the votes. Trong was described as a “party builder rather than a reformist” in a recent piece penned by the experienced Swedish diplomat, Börje Ljunggren, who was Sweden’s Ambassador to Vietnam in the late 1990s.
Trong is, indeed, a stern protector of the VCP’s manifesto, and his famous words in February 2010 is often quoted by the Party’s numerous propaganda materials:
“Vietnam has yet to perceive the objective necessity of having a pluralistic regime, at least for now.”
Former Ambassador Ljunggren, however, has suggested that to fully realize the country’s economic power in this new era, Vietnam must “dar[e] to move beyond the party-state [to] realiz[e] Vietnam’s huge potential.”
These messages, however, may not be enough to convince the Party’s leaders. The government stubbornly continues to credit the VCP for its economic development, again and again echoing Trong’s words from almost a decade ago that the Party does not need any political opposition. Indeed, the March 2019 directive doubles down on the Party’s determination to hold onto power.
It is unlikely that the quest for political pluralism in Vietnam will find answers from within the VCP, including its reformists if there are any.
The future for a pluralistic society in Vietnam is more likely to be found in the growing independent civil society movement and the younger generation. While observers from outside Vietnam may not always see the growth and tireless efforts of these activists, they exist. And while the VCP refuses to acknowledge them, these activists persevere.
One example would be the organized advocacy against the recently-implemented Cybersecurity Law, which has been spearheaded collectively by many young activists across the country who remain hopeful for change. And while the law continues to be “in effect,” the government remains in a dilemma as it has not been able to provide an implementation decree for the law – a requirement in Vietnam if the law is going to be carried out in full force.
The struggle, of course, continues. It is, however, important to acknowledge the fact that such a struggle for change, for democracy and abolishing the political monopoly in Vietnam, exists.
Robbery Unwittingly Exposes Potential Corruption In Vietnam
The story first sounded like the twisted plot of a comedy about feudal Vietnam a few centuries back. It went like this:
Three bad guys robbed a court official’s post and shocked the township when news on the enormous amount of money the robbers had taken, spread like wildfire. The officials scrambled to explain the origin of the funds while trying to scale down its size, but only to raise even more suspicion on their corruption among the public.
It was, however, not a movie plot but a real story in Vietnam 2019 with a small difference: the location of the robbery was a well-known BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) toll booth near Ho Chi Minh City.
During the Tet celebration last week, three men robbed the BOT booth of the Ho Chi Minh City-Long Thanh-Dau Giay expressway in Dong Nai Province. They allegedly took over 2B VND or approximately 86k USD at once. The amount was rumored to be from only one shift of the BOT’s collection activities that day.
Netizens were quick to point out that the robbery happened during the biggest holiday in the country where traffic flow through the main highways and expressways decreased dramatically in Vietnam, leading people to believe that the usual amount this particular BOT booth collects during a regular day would have been a lot higher.
The BOT’s owner – Vietnam Expressway Services Engineering Joint Stock Company (VEC E) – tried to diffuse the situation in an interview with Tuoi Tre newspaper on February 8, 2019, the day after, stating that the amount taken was collected from eight different shifts, not one.
But by then, the amount taken by the robbers was no longer the public’s primary concern.
Instead, people started to demand answers on the validity of the very existence of the toll booth. According to the Facebook page of journalist Ngo Nguyet Huu, the information on how long this particular BOT could continue to collect toll fees seemed to be missing.
Quick math on the average amount of money the BOT booth could generate daily raised more concerns over the potential sum that could have been taken illegally from the commuters if it indeed, did not have the authority to collect.
Some people had pointed out that the BOT booth in question has been operating long enough for it to recover the costs of construction and make enough money in return, casting more doubts on the legality of its existence.
To add fuel to the fire, on February 11, 2019, people on social media went livid when VEC E announced that it would refuse services to two particular vehicles at their Ho Chi Minh-Dau Giay BOT booth indefinitely, alleging the drivers of these cars “had incited disorder behaviors.” Its decision would have the effect of not letting these two cars use the expressway where the BOT booth is located.
Almost immediately, netizens started to call VEC E’s action “unconstitutional,” violating the people’s freedom of movement. Others questioned the company’s authority to enforce their decision. Although considered as a “quasi” government enterprise in Vietnam due to its investment structure, whether VEC E could act under “state action” is still debatable.
The people’s anger has caused the Transportation Department to immediately reassure the public on February 12, 2019, that it will not allow VEC E to refuse services and that all violations at BOT booths should be dealt with according to Vietnam’s administrative procedures.
Allegations of corruption involving BOT booths have been raised in numerous cases in Vietnam recently, and some saw VEC E’s announcement as evidence of BOT’s investors acting under the “protection” of the authorities.
A group of drivers acting as Vietnam’s freedom riders has been protesting against some BOT booths where they openly questioned the legality of some of these booths.
Their works faced intimidation, false imprisonment, and physical assaults by masked men in civilian clothes when they protested at or near the locations of these BOTs.
When these drivers tried to complain to the authorities but only received a slow, and sometimes even no response from the local police forces, the public began to suspect shady business deals between the owners of the BOT projects and the officials.
One of the latest incidents of intimidation happened just last Saturday night, February 9, 2019. A driver names Nguyen Quang Tuy alleged that he was physically assaulted and suffered significant injuries after getting involved in a minor dispute over payment types at Ben Thuy BOT in Nghe An Province.
More Vietnamese people have become vocal and voiced their complaints and discontentment about the BOT fees because they see these as unreasonable additions to the transportation taxes already imposed on them by the government for roads maintenance.
During the past two years, with more than 60 booths stationed throughout the country’s main highways and expressways, BOT is a social and political problem that could only get more severe with time.
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