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Saying Goodbye to John McCain: Salute to an American Who Helped Changed Vietnam Until His Last Days

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John McCain and Vietnamese activists in Hanoi, circa 2015. Photo courtesy: US Embassy in Hanoi.

No other foreign politicians have thus far achieved what John McCain was able to do in Vietnam in the recent decades.

In a country where he was captured, tortured and held as a POW for five years and a half, two of which were in solitary confinement, McCain had emerged during the past thirty-something years as a symbol of integrity and righteousness for Vietnamese people from all walks of life.

The love and respect which the people, from the once upon a time’s “enemy’s land,” have for John McCain also help answer a question many foreigners often wonder, do Vietnamese hate America or Americans?

As shown in the case of John McCain, we don’t.

Vietnamese people paid respect to John McCain by placing flowers at the very same spot where he was shot down and captured during the war. Photo courtesy: Facebook.

Vietnam – which till this day – continues to be divided by ideologies and remnants of the Civil War (1954-1975), to a certain extent, still haunt its future generations. Till this day, the debate about the legitimacy of the two flags, the yellow-starred red flag of the current regime and the yellow flag of the former Republic of Vietnam in the South, has yet subsided. Nevertheless, John McCain is considered by both the public in Vietnam and among the diaspora communities living overseas, as an American politician who had worked tirelessly to better the lives of many Vietnamese.

It is well-covered in the news about McCain’s efforts in the normalization of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. So it could be entirely understandable to see the affection that many Vietnamese people have shown for McCain.

The lifting of the embargo back in 1994 brought sizeable changes in every day’s lives of the ordinary people. With economic growth, what also came along was the certain rising standard of living for the majority of the population. However, that would not be all of the reasons for why Vietnamese around the globe respect John McCain.

One of a few stories you will not read about John McCain in Vietnam’s state-run media would be his close ties with the human rights and democracy activists’ community, whom he had continued to fight along their side until his very last days.

Dissident and former political prisoner, attorney Le Quoc Quan wrote on his Facebook upon learning about John McCain’s passing that as late as June 2017, during his last trip to Vietnam, McCain still insisted on meeting with the human rights and democracy activists in the country like how he had been doing for years.

While the Vietnamese government could not stop McCain, they tried to intimidate activists like Quan to stay away. But they also failed. Quan recalled, “I still went to see him (McCain) because he is a righteous friend of mine and Vietnam. Even if they (the police) tried to stop me, I would still find a way to go to the meeting. It is my way of delivering this very message to my government.”

In 2007, John McCain signed a letter to the then President of Vietnam, Nguyen Minh Triet, to demand the release of Quan, who was arbitrarily arrested and detained for a few months. Shortly after the letter was sent and made public, Vietnam did release him.

Other activists also offered their condolences on social media, recounting numerous times that John McCain spoke up on their behalf and stood by them in their fight for democracy in Vietnam.

However, McCain’s office was frequented not only by activists from Vietnam and their advocates but also members of the overseas Vietnamese community.

When working on restoring the United States’ diplomatic relation with Vietnam, McCain did not forget the human rights and democracy agenda in the country. He also remembered the fate of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees still languishing across numerous camps in Southeast Asia at the time. He certainly did not ignore the South Vietnamese men who had fought along the Americans and suffered retribution after the war ended.

John McCain participated in the establishing of the Humanitarian Operation, which was a special deal with Hanoi in 1990, to allow the South Vietnamese officers and soldiers who could not escape Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and had undergone the “re-education camps,” sometimes for tens of years, to leave for the United States. By 1994, 50,000 service members of the old South’s regime and their family members have arrived in America.

After April 1975, the Vietnamese Boat People’s Exodus made international headlights where hundreds of thousands had lost their lives at sea while escaping Vietnam by small fishing boats. The “Orderly Departure Program” was an effort created by the American government to put an end to this tragedy, by offering a special visa policy for Vietnamese to leave Vietnam to the United States directly and not having to escape to a third country first.

John McCain co-sponsored what was now known as the McCain Amendment to the ODP, which continued to allow unmarried children of the former South Vietnamese officers to immigrate to America with their parents’ refugees status, after the policy concerning their derivative refugee status expired in April 1995.

The Vietnamese immigrant children under these programs have since grown up and assimilated well into American mainstream society. Tram Ngo, a young Vietnamese American wrote on her Facebook: “McCain championed Vietnamese Boat People when it was politically unpopular to do so. For that, he will always have a dear place in my heart.” Her feelings and sentiment would certainly be mutually shared and acknowledged by many of her peers.

While John McCain’s five and a half years at the Hanoi Hilton is a well-known fact to many, the Vietnamese state-owned media has not dared to go into the details of his torture and the extent of the physical and mental abuse he suffered while in prison. However, with the blooming of the Internet and especially with the popularity of social media platforms in the past decade inside the country, such information is no longer “state’s secrets.” One could also say that the respect for John McCain accelerated when people learned about the events related to his treatment in prison. He has been widely praised for being able to put the past behind and worked to improve the life of the ordinary Vietnamese.

Truong Huy San, who is also known as author Huy Duc of The Winning Side (Bên Thắng Cuộc), shared his thoughts about McCain on Facebook:

“If he had not put aside his weapons and medals and treated them as memorabilia of the past, then he would have stayed all along within the war; if he had harbored vengeance, then his whole life would only have enemies. Moreover, he could only be a ‘war hero,’ but would never become the ‘political hero’ that he was.”

This post received close to 5,000 reactions within one day.

A friend, a comrade, a benevolent senator to the refugees, a supporter of the democracy movement, or a political hero? Those are the many sides of John McCain that Vietnamese people see. While each of them could be entirely different from one another, what matters most is that John McCain will forever be a part of this country’s history, not only in the past but as well as in the present and its future.

In March 2016, John McCain penned an op-ed in the New York Times upon learning of the passing of an American Communist, Mr. Delmer Berg of California, and he cited Donne’s poem to connect himself to Berg. Today, many Vietnamese people around the world – regardless of the ideologies they each hold – would probably want to say the same thing to Mr. McCain:

“No man is an island, entire of itself.” He is “part of the main.” And I believe “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

So was Mr. McCain. He didn’t need to know for whom the bell tolls. He knew it tolled for him. And I salute him. Rest in peace.

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Vietnam: The Communist Party Declared Internet “A Battlefield”

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Vo Van Thuong - Head of the VCP's Central Propaganda Committee at the Press Annual Congress 12/28/18. Photo courtesy: Dai Doan Ket newspaper.

The Head of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Committee – Vo Van Thuong – declared, during his concluding remarks at the committee’s year-end congress on December 29, 2018, that “the internet (in Vietnam) has become a new battlefield” for the Party in the fields of politics, thoughts, and culture.

A day earlier, Thuong also made another remark at a different congress held explicitly by and for the press, telling journalists in the country to overcome having “vague political thoughts” as news reporters, especially when it comes to posting on social media.

For non-Vietnamese, Mr. Thuong’s position seems to be quite intrigued and puzzling. Why would he get invited to speak to the journalists in the country at their year-end congress? What does his message to the media representatives even mean?

On the other hand, for some over 800 editors-in-chief of all newspapers in Vietnam, however, Mr. Thuong’s words equate to an ultimatum as he is the chief of all of them. They would write as his committee directs, and take down those articles when the same committee disapproves.

The Central Propaganda Committee is part of the VCP’s cord internal structure, with a mission to establish “direction for political thoughts in the field propaganda, news media, publishing, arts, and culture” for the Party. In reality, this committee’s job is not only to control the political thinking and shape the ideology of the four million VCP members but also the society in Vietnam as a whole.

Its job is so essential for the survival of an authoritarian regime which is to ensure that there would only be one political doctrine for every single citizen to follow: communism. Anyone dares to propose other ideas for a different political philosophy, in many cases, face prosecution and long jail time. Any sign of dissent would be deemed as not accepting the ultimate leadership of the VCP in the country, and is a criminal act.

However, for more than a decade, the VCP has failed to take control of the internet and social media in Vietnam. As the result, the people indeed took such opportunity to create a vibrant online civic space where they openly criticized officials, exposed wrongdoings, and even organized themselves.

While the government repeatedly applied draconian and vague penal codes to arrest and imprison dissidents and activists for “propagandizing against the State” and “abusing democratic freedoms”, social media – especially Facebook and Youtube – continues to play a vital role in disseminating information which the VCP may disapprove of, such as reporting on human rights abuses and calling for democratization in the country.

The new cybersecurity law of 2018 is the latest attempt from the government to practice absolute control over the internet in Vietnam. It is then not a surprise for us to hear strong and determining words from the Head of the Central Propaganda Committee, declaring war on bloggers and freelancers on social media.

However, in the first few days of the year since the cybersecurity law took effect, the discussions on social media in Vietnam remain active and critical of the government.

The most recent “battle” between Vietnamese netizens and Mr. Thuong’s Central Propaganda Committee happened last week, concerning the news that the VCP’s Politburo has approved more money to fund the development project for a metro system in Ho Chi Minh City.

On January 4, 2019, most of the major newspapers in Vietnam published one same article online, stating that the Politburo has approved more than 50 billion VND for the construction of two metro lines in Ho Chi Minh City. Immediately, prominent bloggers and dissidents on social media like attorney Le Cong Dinh[1], questioned the legality of that decision.

In Vietnam, the power to approve funding of similar projects supposedly belongs to the most powerful governmental body – the National Assembly. However, in reality, the Politburo would be the ultimate decision maker.

In April 2018, when the people of Vietnam questioned the National Assembly’s reasons to pass the Special Economic Zone draft bill, the Chairwoman responded: “the Politburo has already decided, and the draft bill is not unconstitutional. We have to discuss and come up with the bill.”

Nevertheless, this time, the Politburo seems to have to forego a “battle” on social media. By the end of the day, all of the articles about the funding of the metro project were taken down, probably at the order of the Central Propaganda Committee.

***

[1] Le Cong Dinh was tried together with Tran Huynh Duy Thuc for subversion against the state in January 2010 where he was sentenced to five years imprisonment and three more years under house arrest.

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What Should Be On New President Nguyen Phu Trong’s Agenda?

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Photo courtesy: VTV1 live

On October 23, 2018, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong took the oath of office as the new president of Vietnam. He was the only candidate introduced by the Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). Earlier in the day, the National Assembly confirmed Trong by 99.79% in a secret vote, effectively making him one of the most powerful men in the history of the VCP, right up there next to Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan.

Approximately one month after the funeral of the late president, Tran Dai Quang, the country is about to face a new era under the absolute leadership of Trong. Being both the leader of the VCP and the head of state, Trong now possesses the kind of power that has been unseen in Vietnam during the past several decades.

As state-owned media praises his accomplishments and compares him to Ho Chi Minh, for better or worse, Trong now has the opportunity to lead the country towards an unprecedented future.

However, great power indeed comes with great responsibilities. For the time being, President Trong’s agenda should take a serious look at a few urgent matters.

Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law of 2018

International human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have rebuked Vietnam for its new cybersecurity law with harsh criticisms throughout this year.

In a country that ranks 175/180 on Reporters Without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, and which is listed as “not free” by Freedom House, the internet plays a vital role in providing Vietnamese citizens with an alternative public sphere to express themselves, to criticize the authorities, and even to mobilize opposition.

With the new bill, the government seeks to further restrict the people’s freedom of expression and their freedom to access the internet. The government plans to do this by targeting service providers and tech giants, such as Facebook and Google, requiring them to store users’ personal data inside Vietnam and to turn such data over to the police upon request.

The seemingly unlimited power of the police in enforcing the new law – which appears to lack any judicial oversight as detailed in the draft decree released in early October 2018 – raised the most concerns. It also prompted civil society groups to call on the government to indefinitely halt its effective date of January 1, 2019.

A few even suspected that Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law could very well be the late president’s brainchild. After all, it was during Tran Dai Quang’s tenure as the head of the Ministry of Public Security in 2014 that the national police force formed the Bureau of Cybersecurity.

Quang also authored the book “Cyberspace: Future and Action” published in 2015 by the MPS, where he outlined the very concept that has become the backbone of the new law, which emphasized the issue of national sovereignty in cyberspace.

Even in his last days, Tran Dai Quang still refused to take any action on the controversial bill. According to Vietnam’s laws, once the National Assembly passes a bill, the president will have 15 days to sign an order publicizing it to complete the process. Back in June 2018, Quang disregarded the plea made by close to 30,000 Vietnamese netizens via an online petition asking him to not publicize the new law.

However, the new President Trong may not be able to ignore the mounting opposition to the cybersecurity bill for much longer.

As the third cycle of Vietnam’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is rapidly approaching in January 2019, one of the most controversial items to be discussed is expected to be this new law.

Moreover, just this month, Vietnam is one step closer to sealing the deal with the EU for a Free Trade Agreement, one that is believed to be the most ambitious trade deal in which the EU has made with a developing country.

The EU-FTA, nevertheless, comes with a human rights clause where a material breach could allow the other side to suspend the entire agreement unilaterally.

Both domestic and international rights groups have analyzed and concluded that the new cybersecurity law violated numerous international human rights standards. It is likely that Vietnam, under President Trong’s leadership, will have to address and provide a reasonable resolution regarding this issue before the EU Parliament meets in the spring of 2019 to consider whether it should ratify the FTA.

Wrongful Death Penalty Cases

The life of Dang Van Hien, a farmer who killed three workers from an investment company who were involved in land disputes with him and other farmers in his village in Dak Nong Province that dragged on for almost a decade, is now in the hands of President Trong.

The case has captured the attention of the entire nation, raising serious questions about the reality of land disputes and land grabbing in Vietnam.

Over 3,000 people signed an online petition immediately after an appellate court in Ho Chi Minh City affirmed Hien’s death sentence. People believed that there were extenuating circumstances in the case that should overturn the death sentence given to Hien, and they were calling on the president of Vietnam to grant him a reprieve.

In response to the people’s plea, about one month before his passing, Tran Dai Quang had taken notice of Dang Van Hien’s death sentence. In a letter addressed to both the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuracy Office, Quang requested them to review and report the case to the president’s office.

Dang Van Hien would be the fourth death penalty case which requires President Trong’s immediate attention. During the past decade, three wrongful death penalty cases have also captured national attention in Vietnam: Ho Duy Hai, Nguyen Van Chuong, and Le Van Manh. Under Vietnam’s laws, the president has the power to pardon death penalty inmates and grant a reprieve in criminal cases.

Since 2005, Le Van Manh underwent a total of seven court hearings, including three trials, three appeals, and one cassation trial. In total, he has been on death row for 13 years. Nguyen Van Chuong has been kept on death row for 11 years, while Ho Duy Hai was sentenced to death 10 years ago.

All the requests for cassation trials and reviews of their sentence were ignored, leaving these three men languishing on death row for more than a decade while their family members, with very limited means, have tried desperately to save them. As recent as October 10, 2018, World Day Against the Death Penalty, these families again attempted to raise public awareness by advocating for their release in Hanoi.

During Truong Tan Sang’s presidency (2011-2016), the former president granted reprieves for 179 death row inmates. In December 2014, President Sang also personally signed an order indefinitely halting Ho Duy Hai’s execution after a public outcry about his case erupted on social media.

These four well-publicized death penalty cases should become one of President Trong’s priorities. It is not only a matter of saving lives, but these cases also carry the Vietnamese people’s hope to see justice carried out.

The Ongoing Fight Against Corruption 

The VCP has meticulously crafted President Trong’s image as a “clean” politician.

It was his public dedication to fight corruption in Vietnam that distinguished him from his political foe, former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, during their rivalry for the VCP’s top leadership position, in which Trong came out as the winner in February 2016.

However, the strong demand for Trong to disclose his personal assets as required by law, first initiated by a group of former VCP members back in May 2018, has been making headway in recent months.

Feeling the pressure mounting during the days leading to his inauguration, the Party provided statements from members of the National Assembly on the same day he took office as the new president, asserting that they had reviewed his assets declaration, and that it showed that Trong was “absolutely clean.”

Corruption remains a critical problem for Vietnam and it will require President Trong’s immediate attention as it is believed to be the roots of other social and political issues in the country. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in 2017, Vietnam was rated 35/100, putting the country among the group of “highly corrupted” nations.

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Vietnamese Government Celebrates National Day By Violating Its Own Constitution

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Today| marks the 73rd year since Ho Chi Minh stood at Ba Dinh Square on September 2, 1945, and proclaimed that all people shall enjoy their natural rights in the pursuit of happiness. Thus, it is quite hard to imagine that the current regime – who is supposedly following Ho Chi Minh’s teachings – has decided to mark such an auspicious occasion with a stern, yet illegal, warning to all citizens: do not go out and protest.

But that is precisely how the Vietnamese authorities have decided to honor the birth of their nation this year, by loudly ordering the people not to participate in any form of public demonstration on Vietnam’s Independence Day.

Throughout August, high-ranking officials in the Vietnamese Communist Party have taken turns assaulting the human right to assembly, a right enshrined in Vietnam’s 2013 Constitution.

First, it was To Lam, head of the Ministry of Public Security (in charge of the national police force). Lam assured the Standing Committee of the National Assembly on August 13, 2018, that the police would take all possible measures to prevent people from participating in protests after he was admonished by Committee members for the mass protests that took place in June.

A few weeks later, Hanoi city leader and high-ranking police official Nguyen Duc Chung also vowed that he would not allow “any crowds to publicly gather” under his watch during Independence Day weekend.

Several state-owned media outlets during the past week “coincidentally” published articles condemning both the June 10th protestors and the call on social media accounts for a nationwide protest on September 2nd. The government seems to blame overseas groups, some of which have been declared “terrorist organizations” in recent years by Vietnamese authorities.

News has also surfaced both on social media and on official news agencies that the police have arrested a small number of individuals disseminating information “against the state”, including one who was caught trying to enter Vietnam through Cambodia with several weapons.

Minister To Lam has publicly congratulated the police forces of Binh Dinh and Phu Yen provinces for arresting the armed individual whom the government believes to be a member of Viet Tan, one of the aforementioned overseas groups. Viet Tan denied this accusation on the same day the individual was arrested.

While no protest broke out today, the political sphere remains tense, and Vietnam is not in much of a celebrating mood compared to previous years.

The Special Economic Zones draft bill is still dangling over citizens’ heads. The people are continuously wary of their country becoming ever more dependent on China.

The government is not exactly helping, with the national bank announcing last Thursday that the Chinese renminbi could soon be used in trading activities along the country’s northern border, starting in October.

There were also reports of the internet being down – again – due to cable issues during the last week of August (the fourth time in 2018 thus far). In Vietnam, internet outages often “coincide” with periods of social and political turmoil, as was observed when Vietnamese protested the Taiwanese steel mill, Formosa Ha Tinh, back in May 2016.

Earlier this month, activists were also brutally assaulted by police officers for simply gathering at a small concert in a Ho Chi Minh City cafe. Many of these activists were also placed under surveillance this holiday weekend.

Are the reactions from the Vietnamese government in August just overblown paranoia or do they have reason to fear the people?

It is difficult to say.

However, we do know from the writings of several state-owned newspapers that the government is extremely wary of anything remotely resembling the “color revolutions” or the Arab Spring in Vietnam. They prefer to take pre-emptive measures, using all means to prevent demonstrations, even if doing so would mean breaking their own laws and constitution.

Moreover, the Vietnamese government does not distinguish between peaceful dissidents and those who call for a violent overthrow of the government, and the case of one of their most famous political prisoners, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, is the best example.

Thuc was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment back in 2009 for “subversion against the state,” and the evidence used to uphold the conviction included his writings pleading with the government to take rapid and immediate action to preserve economic growth and avoid over-dependence on China.

Before his arrest, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was one of Vietnam’s most successful entrepreneurs, with the government unable to find any evidence of wrongdoing within his multi-million dollar business after raids. Western countries have offered Thuc political asylum on multiple occasions, but he refuses to leave his country to live in exile.

His latest defiant act—a hunger strike—protesting what he calls “an unjust judicial system,” again put the Vietnamese government in a predicament: they could not justify his imprisonment to the increasingly informed public. September 2, 2018 marks the 20th day of Thuc’s hunger strike.

Up until last month, Thuc had received the longest sentence for a political prisoner: 16 years imprisonment, followed by 5 years of house arrest.

In August, the record was surpassed by Le Dinh Luong, who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, again for “subversion against the state.” Luong was known by his peers as an activist who campaigned against the environmental destruction caused by corporations and development projects.

The VCP has managed – especially in recent years – to ensure that its human rights records rival that of its big Communist brother, China, with more suppression and harsher sentences against activists.

But will more suppression lead to a stable and peaceful society as the VCP hopes for, or will blurring “peaceful dissent” with “subversion against the state” further chip away at the government’s legitimacy? The answer remains unclear.

What we do know, however, is that history has never been on the side of regimes that refuse to engage in dialogue with dissenters, that refuses to heed the people’s discontent. One need only look at Vietnam’s own history to see this fact in action.

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