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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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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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FAQs About The Special Economic Zones and Vietnam’s SEZ Draft Bill

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The locations of the three proposed SEZ. Photo courtesy: https://www.luatkhoa.org/dac-khu/

In June 2018, many were shocked to witness the largest demonstration in Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975, where thousands of people marched on the streets of several major cities. One of the reasons that compelled the Vietnamese people to protest was because of the proposed Special Economic Zones Law, which their National Assembly’s members were going to pass.

Despite the fact that under public pressure, the draft bill was ultimately announced to be halted until the next National Assembly’s meeting in October 2018, people still protested against it. Their reason? They feared that they were going to lose essential portions of their country to foreign investors, namely, the Chinese. The government of Vietnam, on the contrary, continued to insist on the passing of this law, citing economic development and jobs opportunities for hundreds of thousands.

Which side is right?

1. What Is A Special Economic Zone?

A Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is defined as an area in which business and trade laws are different from the rest of the country.

Theoretically, an SEZ can attract foreign investment, expand production, create jobs, and boost export-import. However, that would only happen if a set of conditions is met: the rule of law, together with clearly defined laws and regulations that both facilitate production and business activities, which are binding on all investors and able to adjust market failures, as well as other public issues.

In practice, and in the particular case of Vietnam, the government has yet to make available any information regarding the conditions under which the proposed SEZs will operate.

Can the SEZs create real jobs for the Vietnamese people? Can they boost production and trade? If they fail, and the nation falling into debts, who would be held accountable, and how? What are the punishments against them? Alternatively, will they say, “It’s none of your concern; it’s the Party and the State’s business”?

The above questions remain unanswered.

2. What Is The SEZ Project?

The SEZ project is a “grand policy” of the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), to establish three special economic zones in Van Don (a district in the Northeastern Province, Quang Ninh), Bac Van Phong (of Khanh Hoa Province), and Phu Quoc (of Kien Giang Province) as shown in the picture above. Foreign investors shall be granted special favors in these areas, for example, the 99-year land lease.

This project is codified in the proposed SEZ Law or the “Law on the Special Administrative-Economic Units”. Traditionally, and as in this time, the government of Vietnam does not publicize the names of the lawmakers concerned in any lawmaking process, so no one knows the architects behind the SEZ Law.

In case this SEZ Law is found to have contained some defects, or its enforcement would lead to severe consequences, no one, especially Party’s officials, shall be held responsible due to the lack of transparency and accountability in the country.

3. What Is “Special” About These Three Zones?

Overall, conditions in Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quoc are not favorable for development. These include infrastructure, skills of the labor force, science and technologies, and financial-economic facilities.

Regarding geographic location, however, all the three districts are located in critically strategic sites of Vietnam, and they hold a crucial implication for national security. To make matters worse, Vietnam’s northern giant neighbor, China, where most of the potential investors would come from, has for centuries been known to keep an ambitious dream of becoming a hegemonic superpower.

China pays particular attention to Van Don and to Vietnam in general, whom she considers being the “buffer zone” for her to “move southward” to the geo-strategic South China Sea. For this reason, even when the SEZ law does not mention China but only refers to “foreign countries,” obviously China is the only nation the Vietnamese people are concerned about.

4. What Are The Goals Of The SEZ Project?

The SEZ project revolves around these promises: the three SEZs shall be where new institutions are tested and adopted with more freedom and less control, where innovation is stimulated, where more jobs are created, and more incomes are generated for local people. In short, the SEZs shall boost production and commerce, and lead to economic growth.

However, all of those promises remain vague and unfounded. Van Don, Bac Van Phong, and Phu Quo as stated, do not have favorable conditions to establish SEZs, because of poor infrastructure and technological bases and an unskilled labor market.

Most importantly, no political leader, no official of the VCP and the State shall bear any responsibility if those promises become unfulfilled. If the project fails, or if it causes any adverse consequences for the people and Vietnam, the victims would have no meaningful recourse.

5. What Are the Potential Consequences Of The SEZs That Vietnamese People Fear?

5.1. Territorial concession

By stipulating a land lease of up to 99 years and granting other special privileges to potential Chinese investors, the SEZ Law is paving the way for China to infiltrate Vietnam under her “salami-slicing” strategy.

Salami slicing is a strategy that the communist Chinese government has used since 1949 to take over territories in the South China Sea and the Himalayan region, in a gradual, step-by-step manner. The tactics were to open the door for Chinese immigrants to settle, do business, set up Chinese language schools, establish their own administrative system, and promote Chinese culture and customs in foreign lands. By doing that, they have legitimized China’s presence and power in the area and gradually built up Chinese autonomy inside Vietnam. If and when the time comes, this group with absolute autonomy could “rise” to demand sovereignty or for the Chinese-controlled area to “exit Vietnam and come back to merge into the motherland of China.”

5.2. A dumping ground for China’s waste

The SEZs may face the risk of failing to absorb advanced technologies and management skills, but that’s not it, after all. They are likely to become a market for low-quality products made in China and a dumping ground for her waste, most seriously toxic and e-waste.

5.3. The conflict between local people and Chinese immigrants

Overpopulation in China has led to high rates of unemployment and illegal immigration into neighboring countries, especially in Vietnam, where the government with its lousy governance fails to take control of the issue. As a result, bitter conflicts have arisen between local people and Chinese immigrants, which remain unresolved. In recent years, incidents of violent clashes have occurred between Chinese immigrants and the local Vietnamese community in Hai Phong, Quang Ninh, Thanh Hoa, Ha Tinh, as well as other provinces in Vietnam.

For example, in Quang Ninh in the mid-2000s, Chinese immigrants had thrown stones at Vietnamese people. In Thanh Hoa and Ha Tinh, drunken Chinese workers even falsely imprisoned a few local people after collectively assaulted them.

5.4. Economic loss

Accordingly, once the SEZ Law is passed, $70 billion USD shall be invested in the three SEZs, and that is like gambling ours and our children’s future on an uncertain race. Besides, with special favors granted to investors (mostly foreign) who could hardly be controlled, the government would definitely take the risk of substantial tax losses and budget deficits.

Many precedents can be found for this decision like this. One among them is the bauxite mining project in Tay Nguyen (Vietnam’s Central Highlands), which is also another grand policy of the VCP and the State. It was implemented despite public demonstration, notably the fierce protest from the late military general, Vo Nguyen Giap, and 4,000 Vietnamese intellectuals, domestic and overseas. The grand project lost almost US$170 million between 2013 and 2016. No one among those who made the promises for economic development and job opportunities for the locals were to take any responsibility for this loss.

With the government’s current institutions and management capacity, the SEZ project cannot and will not ensure economic success. The issue confronting the state is that if it fails like the Tay Nguyen bauxite mining project, no political leader shall bear any responsibility. Worse, if the SEZ project leads to territorial concessions, then it does not matter which leader or official of the VCP and the State takes responsibility, Vietnamese citizens would still suffer the irreversible consequences.

6. Why Does the VCP Insist On Implementing The Project?

The answer lies in the entrenchment of crony capitalism, with interest groups collaborating closely with the corrupt central and provincial governments, seeking to gain in grand projects in the name of “development.”

Also, “the obvious answer is ‘casinos and red-light districts,’ as these SEZs are the only places in Vietnam where these people can do business freely…. another reason that many people are aware of but still reluctant to spell out (for ‘political sensitivity’) is ‘the China factor.’ Otherwise, there is nothing else there” (Nguyen Quang Dy, 2018).

7. Is There Any Alternative Solution To The SEZ Project?

Experts point out that the SEZ idea was something that belongs to the last century, that it has become out of date, and that the SEZs are not relevant to the current circumstances of Vietnam. Instead, the urgent thing to do now is to launch a fundamental and comprehensive institutional reform in the nation, focusing on:

– setting the private sector as the basic economic sector, contracting the state sector to its minimum;
– recognizing and protecting private ownership of land;
– establishing democracy, and protecting and promoting freedom rights to mobilize the citizenry for the development cause of the nation.

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