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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.

Freedom of expression

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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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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