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 with harsh criticisms regarding its new cybersecurity law throughout this year.
In a country that ranks 175/180 on the latest Reporters Without Borders’s Press Freedom Index, and is listed as “not free” by Freedom House, the internet plays a vital role in providing Vietnamese citizens with an alternative public sphere. It is where they could express themselves, criticize the authorities, and even 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 emphasizes 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. But back in June 2018, Quang disregarded the plea made by close to 30,000 Vietnamese netizens via an online petition asking him not to publicize the new law.
However, the new President Trong may not be able to ignore the mounting opposition to the cybersecurity bill.
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 EV-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 of an investment company that was involved in land disputes with him and other farmers in his village in Dak Nong Province in almost a decade, is now in the hands of President Trong.
The case had 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, asking the government to spare his life.
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 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-row inmates and grant a reprieve in criminal cases.
Since 2005, Le Van Manh had undergone 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 ten 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 minimal means, have tried desperately to save them.
As recent as October 10, 2018, on 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), he had 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 being 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 headlines again 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.