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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 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.

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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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Vietnam: When Workers’ Rights Face Resistance From A Socialist Government

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Vietnamese factory workers. Photo courtesy: Betterwork.org

Vietnam’s dismal human rights records in 2017 and 2018 could play a role in delaying the ratification of the much anticipated European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EV-FTA) this year.

A group of MEPs from across the EU Parliament’s political spectrum has repeatedly demanded that Vietnam improves its human rights conditions before they would vote on the trade deal.

The latest demand was a joint letter to President Nguyen Phu Trong on February 1, 2019, sent by nine MEPs on the case of Hoang Duc Binh, an environmental and labor rights activist who was sentenced to 14-year-imprisonment in 2018.

Releasing political dissidents and activists would indeed be a sensitive issue for the communist regime to compromise, even for the sake of clinching the ambitious EV-FTA deal where Vietnam could expect a 15% GDP gain.

But there has always been another human rights condition which one would assume that it should have received natural cooperation from the socialists in Hanoi: the ratification of the remaining three ILO (International Labor Organization) conventions.

That, however, has not been the case.

Vietnam, while rejoined the ILO since 1993, to date, has yet to ratify the following three conventions:

  • ILO Convention No. 87 – Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87)
  • ILO Convention No. 98 – Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98)
  • ILO Convention No. 105 – Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)

In late 2018, Vietnam ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CP-TPP) where a specific clause (Article 19) also addresses similar conditions regarding labor and workers’ rights.

On the ground, the Vietnamese government is proposing a roadmap that could take almost five years to get all three ILO conventions ratified.

It is not fast enough for the EU’s MEPs, and as of right now, these ILO conventions continue to be part of the obstacles to move the EV-FTA forward.

Vietnam maintains that its current Labor Code and legal framework would protect the rights of workers in the country while waiting for the Draft of the amended Labor Code to be reviewed and passed by its Congress later in 2019, paving the way for the ratification of the ILO conventions to take place between now and 2023.

In reality, impracticality contradicts the government’s claim.

For example, it is not meaningful to discuss the right of association and the protection of the right to organize according to ILO Convention No. 87 when Vietnam, to date, has refused to pass laws on the freedom of association and the right to assemble and demonstrate although their Constitution of 2013 guarantees these rights to all of its people.

Participation in demonstrations, moreover, could likely lead to arrest, detention, and conviction for “inciting public disorder” in Vietnam.

In June 2018, mass protests broke out in a few major cities against the then pending draft bills of the cybersecurity law and the development of three special economic zones in Vietnam. In response, the police arrested and detained hundreds of people.

One of the “hot spots” considered by the police of Ho Chi Minh City as reported by state-owned media at the time, was near the Taiwanese Pou Yuen factory in Binh Tan District where some workers did join in the protests between June 9 and June 13, 2018.

According to the organization The 88 Project, more than 60 people were arrested, tried, and sentenced to between 24-36 months imprisonment due to their participation in those demonstrations. Some of them are believed to be factory workers from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.

The legal system continues to create hurdles in the registration processes for independent organizations. It is an issue which the UN Human Rights Committee has brought up with Vietnam before its upcoming CCPR (Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) review in March 2019.

At the end of 2016, Vietnam had attempted – but failed – to pass the Law on Association when it faced a defiant opposition from civil society organizations, both registered and unregistered.

One of the reasons which caused the majority of NGO workers in Vietnam to go against the proposed bill then, was because it attempted to criminalize the receiving of foreign funding and gave preferential treatment to GONGO(s) (Government-organized non-governmental organizations).

The Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL) – the only labor union in Vietnam right now – is not only a GONGO but also takes directives from the Vietnamese Communist Party.

During his speech in front of the National Assembly on November 2, 2018, the Vice-Chairman of the VGCL, Ngo Duy Hieu, cautiously reaffirmed that the ratification of the CP-TPP requires Vietnam to recognize independent unions while tried to cast doubts on their credibility.

At the same time, the government has yet to legally recognize any organization – large or small – formed by private citizens that could remotely represent an independent union for workers.

Vietnam, in 2017, reported an estimated population of approximately 26M workers in a variety of different industries.

The possibility of getting arrested and jailed under the current legal scheme, however, did not seem to deter a portion of these Vietnamese workers from exercising their rights.

Protests organized by workers continued to happen in Vietnam regardless, with the most common reason often linked to improving wages and working conditions – which ILO Convention 97 on collective bargaining could help.

Indeed, the government probably has already anticipated that the ratification of the ILO conventions would encourage even more workers to come together and organize themselves, independent from the VGCL in the future, once the legal landscape changes.

It is a slippery slope that Hanoi fears as it may spread to other sectors in society, which could explain the cautious approach in their proposed roadmap for the ratification of the three ILO conventions.

Accordingly, Vietnam proposed that they will present the National Assembly with the Draft of the amended Labor Code in May 2019 and expected the new law would pass at the next congressional meeting in October 2019. Also in 2019, the President will present ILO Convention No. 98 to the National Assembly for ratification. Next, it would be ILO Convention 105 in 2020, and finally ILO Convention No. 87 to be presented in 2023.

The proposed roadmap by the Vietnamese government, however, seems to have failed to convince the EU Parliament that workers’ rights are being protected, enough to move the EV-FTA forward.

The European Council has delayed their vote for EV-FTA last month. With the deadline for amendments also get postponed indefinitely, it is unlikely that the current EU Parliament will vote on the EV-FTA before their upcoming election in May 2019.

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Vietnamese Communist Party Turns 89, And The People May Have Had Enough

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Hanoi during the VCP's anniversary celebration in 2017. Photo courtesy: Zing VN

February 3, 2019, the Vietnamese Communist Party celebrates its 89th anniversary.

In a recent speech to commend the auspicious event, Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong wrote: “The Party stays strong, the country prospers, the people concur.”

However, on Facebook, the people’s reactions to both Trong’s writing and other propaganda, do not seem to show a public consensus as to the VCP’s leadership role in Vietnam.

Today, the users’ reactions to a posting on Facebook seem to suggest the Party’s legitimacy is being called into question by the very people it tries to lead.

A Facebook page names Vietnam’s Politics (Chính trị Việt Nam) identifies itself as a source for government’s news and uses a webpage domain of www.nguyenxuanphuc.org – which also is the name of the country’s current Prime Minister.

The website posted a piece of writing entitles “Our Party” (Đảng Ta) in celebration of the anniversary.

The writing did not deviate far from other propaganda materials in past decades, praising the accomplishment of the VCP, reaffirming its leading role in society for years to come, and confessing the love of the Vietnamese people for the Party.

However, Facebook users were not willing to let that slides and quickly took the opportunity to express their distrust and unhappiness with the way “Our Party” has been leading society and the country in the comment section.

A few hours after its posting on Facebook, the piece received over 400 reactions from Vietnamese users, about one-fourth of them was the “laughing” icon.

Not stopping at that, the majority of the people who commented also raised a series of issues, such as corruption and nepotism within the VCP. They also questioned the legality of the recent National Assembly’s election result and pointed out the wealth discrepancy between the VCP’s members and the non-member citizens.

The overall picture of the people’s reactions on the post shows an alarming sense of distrust in the VCP, leaving doubts to the other readers as to whether the VCP could still maintain the position of the leading and only political party in the country indefinitely.

Other reactions from the Vietnamese people to the political events in another country during the past few weeks may cause the leaders of the VCP more worries.

The recent political turmoil in Venezuela has been receiving a lot of attention in Vietnam with the majority of the people supporting Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition front. When Nicolas Maduro used the example of another Vietnam to warn against an American invasion, he probably did not know that the majority of Vietnamese are strong supporters of the Trump administration’s decision to back his political opponent.

Back to the comments on this posting, it is not difficult to detect that the support for the VCP among its non-member citizens is waning. While the VCP certainly can continue to enjoy the political monopoly for being the only political party in the country, even its top officials may not be sure of its future – if and when a political opposition surfaces.

The lacking of confidence that it still has the mandate to maintain the legitimacy among the majority of Vietnamese people could explain the VCP’s enhanced oppression against political dissidents in recent years.

Most recent was the Party’s effort to silent online criticisms with the new cybersecurity law of 2018.

Vietnamese internet users appear to be very well aware of the purpose and intention of the government in passing such law.

One comment on the post did mention the potential application of the new cybersecurity law against internet users in cases like this: “The page administrator purposely posted this (writing) to incite the people to react and then (the government) threatens us with the cybersecurity law.”

At the same time, there are no clear signs that online activism in Vietnam has been slowing down since the new law takes effect earlier this year although it is true that just in January 2019, there have been reports of two confirmed arrests of Facebookers and one incident of police questioning a university student over his Facebook’s activities.

Vietnam has been increasingly repressive in the past two years. Not only the number of arrests have been steadily on the rise, but the sentences in political cases also became a lot harsher compared to a few years ago, often in the range of one to two decades behind bars.

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