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.
Is Vietnam Now A Country Without A Solid Leader?
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?
Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party
“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.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam: The Country That Rejects Political Pluralism
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.”
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.
Is Vietnam Now A Country Without A Solid Leader?
The Vietnamese: On Our Second Anniversary
39 Vietnamese Froze To Death In England: A Question On The Rule Of Law
Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – August 2019
Updated Report on Freedom of Religion in Vietnam – July 2019
The Vietnamese: Call for Pitches
Wrongful Death Penalty Cases And The Families That The Inmates Left Behind
Pham Doan Trang Received Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Awards
Montagnards: Persecuted in Vietnam, Living in Limbo in Thailand
The 88 Project: Bringing the silent voices of Vietnam to a larger audience
39 Vietnamese Froze To Death In England: A Question On The Rule Of Law
Is Vietnam Now A Country Without A Solid Leader?
The Vietnamese: On Our Second Anniversary
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