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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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Robbery Unwittingly Exposes Potential Corruption In Vietnam

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Comics about the BOT robbery exposing potential corruption on Tuoi Tre Comics. Photo courtesy: Tuoi Tre Cuoi.

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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Vietnam: When Workers’ Rights Face Resistance From A Socialist Government

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Vietnamese factory workers. Photo courtesy: Betterwork.org

Vietnam’s dismal human rights records in 2017 and 2018 could play a role in delaying the ratification of the much anticipated European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EV-FTA) this year.

A group of MEPs from across the EU Parliament’s political spectrum has repeatedly demanded that Vietnam improves its human rights conditions before they would vote on the trade deal.

The latest demand was a joint letter to President Nguyen Phu Trong on February 1, 2019, sent by nine MEPs on the case of Hoang Duc Binh, an environmental and labor rights activist who was sentenced to 14-year-imprisonment in 2018.

Releasing political dissidents and activists would indeed be a sensitive issue for the communist regime to compromise, even for the sake of clinching the ambitious EV-FTA deal where Vietnam could expect a 15% GDP gain.

But there has always been another human rights condition which one would assume that it should have received natural cooperation from the socialists in Hanoi: the ratification of the remaining three ILO (International Labor Organization) conventions.

That, however, has not been the case.

Vietnam, while rejoined the ILO since 1993, to date, has yet to ratify the following three conventions:

  • ILO Convention No. 87 – Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87)
  • ILO Convention No. 98 – Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98)
  • ILO Convention No. 105 – Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)

In late 2018, Vietnam ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CP-TPP) where a specific clause (Article 19) also addresses similar conditions regarding labor and workers’ rights.

On the ground, the Vietnamese government is proposing a roadmap that could take almost five years to get all three ILO conventions ratified.

It is not fast enough for the EU’s MEPs, and as of right now, these ILO conventions continue to be part of the obstacles to move the EV-FTA forward.

Vietnam maintains that its current Labor Code and legal framework would protect the rights of workers in the country while waiting for the Draft of the amended Labor Code to be reviewed and passed by its Congress later in 2019, paving the way for the ratification of the ILO conventions to take place between now and 2023.

In reality, impracticality contradicts the government’s claim.

For example, it is not meaningful to discuss the right of association and the protection of the right to organize according to ILO Convention No. 87 when Vietnam, to date, has refused to pass laws on the freedom of association and the right to assemble and demonstrate although their Constitution of 2013 guarantees these rights to all of its people.

Participation in demonstrations, moreover, could likely lead to arrest, detention, and conviction for “inciting public disorder” in Vietnam.

In June 2018, mass protests broke out in a few major cities against the then pending draft bills of the cybersecurity law and the development of three special economic zones in Vietnam. In response, the police arrested and detained hundreds of people.

One of the “hot spots” considered by the police of Ho Chi Minh City as reported by state-owned media at the time, was near the Taiwanese Pou Yuen factory in Binh Tan District where some workers did join in the protests between June 9 and June 13, 2018.

According to the organization The 88 Project, more than 60 people were arrested, tried, and sentenced to between 24-36 months imprisonment due to their participation in those demonstrations. Some of them are believed to be factory workers from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.

The legal system continues to create hurdles in the registration processes for independent organizations. It is an issue which the UN Human Rights Committee has brought up with Vietnam before its upcoming CCPR (Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) review in March 2019.

At the end of 2016, Vietnam had attempted – but failed – to pass the Law on Association when it faced a defiant opposition from civil society organizations, both registered and unregistered.

One of the reasons which caused the majority of NGO workers in Vietnam to go against the proposed bill then, was because it attempted to criminalize the receiving of foreign funding and gave preferential treatment to GONGO(s) (Government-organized non-governmental organizations).

The Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) – the only labor union in Vietnam right now – is not only a GONGO but also takes directives from the Vietnamese Communist Party.

During his speech in front of the National Assembly on November 2, 2018, the Vice-Chairman of the VGCL, Ngo Duy Hieu, cautiously reaffirmed that the ratification of the CP-TPP requires Vietnam to recognize independent unions while tried to cast doubts on their credibility.

At the same time, the government has yet to legally recognize any organization – large or small – formed by private citizens that could remotely represent an independent union for workers.

Vietnam, in 2017, reported an estimated population of approximately 26M workers in a variety of different industries.

The possibility of getting arrested and jailed under the current legal scheme, however, did not seem to deter a portion of these Vietnamese workers from exercising their rights.

Protests organized by workers continued to happen in Vietnam regardless, with the most common reason often linked to improving wages and working conditions – which ILO Convention 97 on collective bargaining could help.

Indeed, the government probably has already anticipated that the ratification of the ILO conventions would encourage even more workers to come together and organize themselves, independent from the VGCL in the future, once the legal landscape changes.

It is a slippery slope that Hanoi fears as it may spread to other sectors in society, which could explain the cautious approach in their proposed roadmap for the ratification of the three ILO conventions.

Accordingly, Vietnam proposed that they will present the National Assembly with the Draft of the amended Labor Code in May 2019 and expected the new law would pass at the next congressional meeting in October 2019. Also in 2019, the President will present ILO Convention No. 98 to the National Assembly for ratification. Next, it would be ILO Convention 105 in 2020, and finally ILO Convention No. 87 to be presented in 2023.

The proposed roadmap by the Vietnamese government, however, seems to have failed to convince the EU Parliament that workers’ rights are being protected, enough to move the EV-FTA forward.

The European Council has delayed their vote for EV-FTA last month. With the deadline for amendments also get postponed indefinitely, it is unlikely that the current EU Parliament will vote on the EV-FTA before their upcoming election in May 2019.

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Vietnamese Communist Party Turns 89, And The People May Have Had Enough

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Hanoi during the VCP's anniversary celebration in 2017. Photo courtesy: Zing VN

February 3, 2019, the Vietnamese Communist Party celebrates its 89th anniversary.

In a recent speech to commend the auspicious event, Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong wrote: “The Party stays strong, the country prospers, the people concur.”

However, on Facebook, the people’s reactions to both Trong’s writing and other propaganda, do not seem to show a public consensus as to the VCP’s leadership role in Vietnam.

Today, the users’ reactions to a posting on Facebook seem to suggest the Party’s legitimacy is being called into question by the very people it tries to lead.

A Facebook page names Vietnam’s Politics (Chính trị Việt Nam) identifies itself as a source for government’s news and uses a webpage domain of www.nguyenxuanphuc.org – which also is the name of the country’s current Prime Minister.

The website posted a piece of writing entitles “Our Party” (Đảng Ta) in celebration of the anniversary.

The writing did not deviate far from other propaganda materials in past decades, praising the accomplishment of the VCP, reaffirming its leading role in society for years to come, and confessing the love of the Vietnamese people for the Party.

However, Facebook users were not willing to let that slides and quickly took the opportunity to express their distrust and unhappiness with the way “Our Party” has been leading society and the country in the comment section.

A few hours after its posting on Facebook, the piece received over 400 reactions from Vietnamese users, about one-fourth of them was the “laughing” icon.

Not stopping at that, the majority of the people who commented also raised a series of issues, such as corruption and nepotism within the VCP. They also questioned the legality of the recent National Assembly’s election result and pointed out the wealth discrepancy between the VCP’s members and the non-member citizens.

The overall picture of the people’s reactions on the post shows an alarming sense of distrust in the VCP, leaving doubts to the other readers as to whether the VCP could still maintain the position of the leading and only political party in the country indefinitely.

Other reactions from the Vietnamese people to the political events in another country during the past few weeks may cause the leaders of the VCP more worries.

The recent political turmoil in Venezuela has been receiving a lot of attention in Vietnam with the majority of the people supporting Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition front. When Nicolas Maduro used the example of another Vietnam to warn against an American invasion, he probably did not know that the majority of Vietnamese are strong supporters of the Trump administration’s decision to back his political opponent.

Back to the comments on this posting, it is not difficult to detect that the support for the VCP among its non-member citizens is waning. While the VCP certainly can continue to enjoy the political monopoly for being the only political party in the country, even its top officials may not be sure of its future – if and when a political opposition surfaces.

The lacking of confidence that it still has the mandate to maintain the legitimacy among the majority of Vietnamese people could explain the VCP’s enhanced oppression against political dissidents in recent years.

Most recent was the Party’s effort to silent online criticisms with the new cybersecurity law of 2018.

Vietnamese internet users appear to be very well aware of the purpose and intention of the government in passing such law.

One comment on the post did mention the potential application of the new cybersecurity law against internet users in cases like this: “The page administrator purposely posted this (writing) to incite the people to react and then (the government) threatens us with the cybersecurity law.”

At the same time, there are no clear signs that online activism in Vietnam has been slowing down since the new law takes effect earlier this year although it is true that just in January 2019, there have been reports of two confirmed arrests of Facebookers and one incident of police questioning a university student over his Facebook’s activities.

Vietnam has been increasingly repressive in the past two years. Not only the number of arrests have been steadily on the rise, but the sentences in political cases also became a lot harsher compared to a few years ago, often in the range of one to two decades behind bars.

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