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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.

Politics

Is Vietnam Now A Country Without A Solid Leader?

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President Nguyen Phu Trong. Photo Credits: Getty Images

For more than half a year, the health of Vietnam’s President Nguyen Phu Trong has remained a top secret while rumors and speculation about him continued to spread across social media. Trong was not able to visit the United States in October 2019 as planned, and that fact stirred up new discussion about his health. Surprisingly, the health of the man who currently holds the top positions as the president of Vietnam and general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) remains a state secret in Vietnam.

How is that possible?

According to the new Law on the Protection of State Secrets (link inVietnamese), passed in November 2018, all information that “protects the health of the top leaders of the (Communist) Party and of the state” is a state secret. 

This law now appears to be coming under increasing public scrutiny as a result of growing  speculation regarding the current health condition of the most politically powerful man in Vietnam. 

Rumors about Nguyen Phu Trong’s health have consumed the entire nation since mid-April 2019, and effectively bumped his name to the top of Vietnam’s Google trends on the weekend of April 13, 2019, pushing it to the No. 2 slot that Sunday evening. 

It apparently all began with a Facebook post by freelance journalist Le Nguyen Huong Tra, which quickly went viral after she announced around 4pm on Sunday, April 14, that the 75-year-old Trong suddenly became ill while visiting Kien Giang province in the south. Helicopters were called to take him from the province back to Ho Chi Minh City for an emergency admission to Cho Ray Hospital. 

Later that evening, more rumors from social media pieced together the puzzle and alleged that Trong had suffered a brain hemorrhage, probably the result of a stroke, which affected the left side of his body. Some pictures, allegedly taken late Sunday afternoon at that hospital, also showed police officers surrounding the premises, leading more people to believe Trong was indeed admitted there for emergency treatment. 

As the country’s other top leaders remained completely silent, pro-government trolls on Facebook immediately went to work. 

Kien Giang province, however, has long been perceived by many Vietnamese as a “kingdom” that belongs to the family of Nguyen Tan Dung – Vietnam’s former prime minister,  a man who was also Trong’s old foe and his rival for the top Communist Party post in 2016. The place is Dung’s hometown, and where his power has taken firm root. In fact, Dung’s eldest son, Nguyen Thanh Nghi, currently holds the top leadership position in the Communist Party’s provincial committee there. 

The animosity between the two former rivals, Trong and Dung, is not believed to have ever ceased to exist. If anything, it has intensified with Trong’s anti-graft campaign in recent years, in  which most of the convicted corrupt officials were identified as Dung supporters in the past. As such, the rumor that Trong felt seriously ill in Kien Giang became even more of a tantalizing tale that the public failed to resist. 

Trong, as the leader of both the state and the Communist Party, has been enjoying an unprecedented power that has not been seen since Le Duan’s death in 1986. The possible downside of this setup, perhaps, would be that the country’s future hinges on his wellness. And in the worst case scenario, the Party will have to promptly fill two top positions at the same time to maintain stability until its next Party Congress. It would, then, seem to be a reasonable demand from the public to ask the government for an official account of Trong’s current condition.

But with the current Law on Protection of State Secrets, however, the details of the health of a Vietnamese leader may never be disclosed, even when the public does have a legitimate reason to demand the facts, as in the case of President Trong. 

At the time this law was under debate in the National Assembly, one legislator, Bui Dang Dung, had questioned whether it was reasonable to classify leaders’ health as a state secret. Nevertheless, he was in the minority and the law was passed with a more than 91 percent approval.

But why can’t the public in Vietnam be informed about the health of their top leaders and about their fitness for office? 

The answer probably would lie in the manner with which the Communist Party controls and decides elections, as well as its appointment of the top leadership in Vietnam. Despite having a law on elections, in reality, voting in Vietnam is essentially meaningless. Vietnamese people often joke that we don’t have free elections, but rather a selection. And it is a selection that takes place among the Communist Party’s factions, after all the infighting has settled.

The Party Congress is the backdrop for spectators to watch which candidates will come out as winners, or may we say, rulers of the country. This was the reason for the world to pay attention to Vietnam’s last Party Congress in 2016, where Trong triumphed over Nguyen Tan Dung. The Party members formed alliances and voted accordingly to protect their interests during that meeting. 

As citizens the Vietnamese people are presented with ballots to elect their representatives from among the Party-approved candidates during the general election that follows the Party Congress. The people rubberstamp Party choices for National Assembly members, which consist of those who will, in turn, rubberstamp the Party’s choices for our nation’s top leaders and policy decisions.

Every few years, however, rumors and unofficial accounts regarding the health of leaders mysteriously show up on social media in Vietnam. Sometimes, the rumors turned out to be true, as in the cases of Nguyen Ba Thanh (Head of the Internal Affairs of the party) or Tran Dai Quang (President). And at other times, the rumors turned out to be false, as with the story of the Minister of National Defense, General Phung Quang Thanh, back in 2015. Most of the time, the public would follow such news with keen interest, believing that they were getting a glimpse into the power struggle within the Communist Party. As the rumors have it, neither Nguyen Ba Thanh’s or Tran Dai Quang’s illnesses resulted from natural causes; instead they were likely poisoned by their political rivals. 

Regardless of whether such rumors contain any substance, negative information regarding a leader’s health can trigger factions within the Party to shuffle and change their alliances, causing the power paradigm to shift and create instability. For the Communist Party, it only makes sense that all information should be kept hidden and dealt with internally to avoid just that. The Party would, by all means, keep information away from the people’s scrutiny to avoid anything that could remotely affect its absolute political power in the country. 

After all, it does not matter how many factions there are in the Party and what they may fight about. Until now, Party members have always agreed, unanimously, that they must continue their political monopoly. With that, the culture of non-transparency and secrecy persists and continues, from the internal actions of the Communist Party to the governing functions of a state with no apparent distinction. 

The leadership of the Communist Party will be on full display in 2021 when their members meet for their Party Congress which will elect the next general secretary and the next group of leaders. During 2019, besides  Trong, the other two most powerful leaders of Vietnam,Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, have both faced major controversies that could diminish their power in their next Party Congress. But the health of Trong remains the top story among the public.

In October 2019, a video clip of less than 60 seconds showed Trong greeting Laotian leader Bounnhang Vorachith. In the video, viewers can see Trong’s frailty, probably due to an earlier stroke which left one side of his body extremely weak. His walking also showed problems and the question was once again raised among Vietnamese citizens: Is he well enough to lead his Party and the whole country? 

His failure to govern the country was exposed in the tragedy of the 39 Vietnamese citizens who froze to death in Essex, the United Kingdom, earlier this month. After the British and Vietnamese authorities confirmed the nationality of the victims, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc extended his condolences to their families. At the same time, President Trong remained silent, even though someone in his position – according to the Constitution – should offer state condolences to the victims and their families.

In Vietnam’s current regime, whether Trong is well enough to lead may not be a question that people may easily ask and have an answer for. Many people have assumed that it could very well be that within the Communist Party the infighting has already begun to choose the country’s next top leader. In the meantime, citizens can only pay attention to social media and non-governmental media outlets for news about the health of their leader and whether he is still be able to rule. 

For a bit over one year from now until 2021, VCP factions will continue to fight to select their leaders while close to 100 million Vietnamese citizens can only accept the party’s selection. How can this country have a solid leadership when the people do not have the right to elect their top leaders or to be informed about his or her ability to lead? 

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Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party

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Lawyer Vo An Don. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

“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.

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The Socialist Republic of Vietnam: The Country That Rejects Political Pluralism

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Members of the VCP at their 12th Party Congress in 1/2016. Photo credits: Dantri.com

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.”

His observation echoes that of other foreign governments and international human rights experts, who all recently recommended that Vietnam allows political pluralism to continue its progress.

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.

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