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Human Rights Peer Review of Vietnam Spotlights Persistent Rights Violations

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From left to right, Pham Doan Trang, Nguyen Tin, Nguyen Dai, three activists beaten by police in August 2018. Photo courtesy: HRW.

On 22 January 2019, Vietnam underwent for the third time a comprehensive peer review of its human rights record at the Human Rights Council (a process known as Universal Periodic Review or UPR), amidst what many rights groups and observers have called the worst wave of crackdown on dissent, activism and civil society in years.

121 governments took to the floor and made close to 300 recommendations on a wide range of human rights issues. Under the rules of the UPR, Vietnam can choose to “accept” or merely “note” the recommendations it receives and must do so in writing by the time the 41st session of the Human Rights Council begins in late June 2019.

Governments have the primary responsibility to implement those recommendations that they have accepted and report progress therein in the next cycle of review.

Many of the issues raised during the third review are the subject of recommendations that Vietnam had accepted to implement or noted in the two previous UPR cycles. Critics say that Vietnam not only failed to implement them but have taken actions to the contrary.

Prior to the latest review, numerous independent civil society organizations, both inside Vietnam and internationally, submitted parallel reports to the United Nations on the non-implementation of previously accepted recommendations and the overall deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam.

Below are some highlights of recommendations clustered by several major recurring thematic issues (the number preceding each recommendation refers to the paragraph number in the draft outcome report of Vietnam’s third UPR, followed by the name of the recommending country in parentheses):

  1. Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders
  2. Restrictive Laws and Regulations
  3. Death Penalty
  4. Discrimination, Inequalities and Vulnerable Groups
  5. Fundamental Freedoms
  6. Judicial System, Fair Trials and Due Process

Phan Kim Khanh, one of the youngest political dissidents in Vietnam. Khanh is currently serving a 6-year-prison term.

Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders

6.55 Take steps to protect human rights defenders, particularly by repealing or revising the provisions of the Penal Code that make reference to the concept of national security (France)

6.145 Immediately release prisoners who have been arbitrarily or unlawfully detained and allow them to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms in Vietnam, including Ho Duc Hoa, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Tran Thi Nga, Nguyen Bac Truyen, and the members of the Brotherhood for Democracy (United States of America)

6.175 Release human rights defenders sentenced to prison for exercising the right to freedom of expression (Iceland)

6.177 Take the necessary measures to ensure the freedom of expression of human rights defenders and journalists, in particular by investigating and punishing perpetrators of threats and reprisals against them (Argentina)

6.180 Protect human rights defenders and prosecute all persons guilty of violence or intimidation against them (Luxembourg)

6.186 Review regulations impeding the operation of Civil Society Organisations, to enable a more open space and ensure that national security provisions are not used to prevent peaceful debate and dissent (Ireland)

6.191 Release all human rights defenders as well as political and religious activists detained for the peaceful expression of their political opinions or religious belief (Poland)

6.198 Adopt measures in line with international standards to guarantee freedom of association, opinion and expression, including online, and to ensure that journalists, human rights defenders and NGOs can freely operate (Italy)

6.202 Guarantee Fully freedom of speech, the rights of peaceful assembly and association as well as the safety of journalists, and review cases of persons convicted for having freely expressed their opinion, including human rights defenders (Switzerland)

6.203 Improve protection of the rights to peaceful assembly and expression by reviewing existing legislation, and publishing and implementing clear, transparent guidelines on security personnel conduct in managing peaceful demonstrations (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)

6.205 Ensure consistent implementation of the Law on Belief and Religion particularly at the local level, including with respect to registration of Protestant groups and other groups in Northwest Highlands provinces, and remove undue restrictions on access to religious materials and clergy for those imprisoned and cease any harassment of independent groups on account of their religion (United States of America)

6.211 Publicly recognize human rights defenders and provide an environment in which they can carry out their human rights work safely (Belgium)

6.214 Nurture a culture of free expression online and offline, release all imprisoned human rights defenders, including bloggers and political dissenters, and put an end to their harassment (Czechia)

6.215 Create an enabling environment for independent civil society and ensure that the prepared Law on Association facilitates the registration, work and funding of NGOs free from undue State interference and restrictions (Czechia)

6.216 Lay ground for political plurality and democracy and guarantee its citizens the full enjoyment of the rights to vote and to be elected and to take part in the conduct of public affairs (Czechia)

A policeman, flanked by local militia members, tries to stop a foreign journalist from taking pictures outside the Ho Chi Minh City people’s court, where a human rights case was taking place in August 2011. Photograph: Ian Timberlake/AFP/Getty Images

Restrictive Laws and Regulations

6.73 Adapt the Code of Penal Procedure to international standards and amend Articles 109 and 117 on “activities against the State” in the Penal Code, in line with human rights standards (Switzerland)

6.167 Repeal or amend provisions in the Penal Code and Cyber Security Law so that provisions relating to national security are clearly defined or removed, to ensure that they cannot be applied in an arbitrary manner to endanger any forms of freedom of expression, including internet freedom (Finland)

6.171 Review all convictions based on laws restricting freedom of expression and opinion, in particular articles 79 and 88 of the Penal Code, according to the revised penalty ranges (Germany)

6.174 Consider revising national legislation, including the Law on Belief and Religion and the media Laws, in order to harmonize it with international standards regarding the right of freedom of expression and of religion (Brazil)

6.183 Amend, within one year, the 2015 Penal Code, Decree 174/2013, Decree 72/2013, Decree 27/2018, the 2018 Law on cybersecurity and articles 4, 9, 14 and 15 of the 2016 Press Law, to guarantee offline and online freedom of press and expression, and the right to privacy, in line with articles 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Netherlands)

6.185 Related Cybersecurity Decrees should include clear provisions for interpretation of the Law on Cybersecurity according to international standards on freedom of expression (Ireland)

6.187 Ensure that the legal framework protects freedom of expression both offline and online and accordingly amend the Penal Law and Law on Cybersecurity to ensure consistency with international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (New Zealand); Ensure that freedom of expression is protected online and offline by amending national security provisions in the Penal Code, and the Cybersecurity law and its implementing decree, so as to comply with article 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other commitments (Sweden); Guarantee the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and amend the penal code and the Cyber Security Law to make sure that the limitations on the right of freedom of expression are in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Austria); Review the Criminal Code and the law on cybersecurity to harmonize it with international standards related to the freedom of expression, association and assembly (Canada)

6.188 Revise the provisions of Articles 117 and 331 of the 2015 Penal Code and other relevant laws that restrict the ability to exercise fundamental freedoms and allow free operation of national and international media (Norway)

6.193 Ensure full implementation of its international human rights obligations regarding freedom of religion and belief by reviewing the Law on Belief and Religion to bring it into line with article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Poland)

6.194 Abolish prior censorship in all fields of cultural creation and other forms of expression, both online and offline, including by bringing the restriction to freedom of expression under the 2016 Press Law in line with international standards and fostering a pluralistic and independent media environment (Portugal)

6.197 Review and amend national legislations in order to enable the effective exercise of the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in line with the standards enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Seychelles)

6.212 Review the law on religion and belief to enable religious groups to practice freely (Canada);Review the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion and bring it in conformity with international human rights standards and freedom of religion or belief standards (Croatia)

Nguyen Thi Loan, mother of Ho Duy Hai. Photo credit: Nguyen Lan Thang.

Death Penalty

6.5 Accede to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aimed at abolishing the death penalty (El Salvador); Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty (Montenegro); Ratify, without reservations, the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty (Slovenia); Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty (Croatia)

6.140 Initiate a moratorium on the imposing of capital punishment and especially for non-violent crimes (Finland); Consider implementing a full moratorium on the death penalty (Georgia); Impose a moratorium on executions and abolish the death penalty (Iceland); Establish a de facto moratorium on the death penalty with a view to its abolition (Portugal); Establish a moratorium on the application of the death penalty as a step towards its definitive abolition and modify the Penal Code to reduce the number of crimes for which the capital punishment can be imposed (Spain); Impose a moratorium on executions with the goal of abolishing the death penalty (Albania); Establish a moratorium on the death penalty as a step towards complete abolition of this practice (Australia); Immediately adopt a moratorium on the death penalty with a view to ultimately abolishing it (Austria); Take the necessary measures to establish a moratorium on executions of death row prisoners as well as to repeal the death penalty from their national legislation (Argentina)

6.141 Abolish the death penalty and, without delay, reduce the number of offences punishable by the death penalty (France); Abolish definitely the death penalty and ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the Abolition of the Death Penalty (Luxembourg); Continue reform towards abolition of the death penalty, including by continuing to reduce the list of crimes punishable by the death penalty under the Penal Code 2015, in particular non-violent crimes, and by providing greater transparency about the numbers, methods and associated crimes relating to its use (New Zealand); Abolish the death penalty for all crimes, and consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at abolishing the death penalty (Uruguay)

6.142 Further reduce the list of offences punishable by death, eliminate the death penalty for “activities against the people’s government”, “espionage”, “embezzlement”, and “taking bribes” as well as for serious drug offences (Germany); Continue to reduce the number of crimes subject to the death penalty and consider introducing a de facto moratorium on its application (Mexico); Continue to reduce the scope of crimes subject to the death penalty only for “most serious crimes” and consider introducing a moratorium (Norway); Continue the process of reduction of offences subject to death penalty, until the abolition of the capital punishment and to publish statistics on the use of death penalty in Vietnam (Romania); Further reduce the offences punishable by death penalty and provide official figures regarding death sentences and executions; consider to introduce a moratorium of death penalty (Italy)

6.143 Reduce further the list of crimes punishable by the death penalty, in particular economic crimes and drug-related offences, and envisage a complete moratorium on the application of the death penalty (Switzerland)

6.144 Assist the process of national discussion on death penalty with a view of its eventual abolishment (Ukraine)

6.146 Restrict the use of the death penalty to crimes that meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” under international law (Belgium)

6.290 Cease applying the death penalty for non-violent crimes, including drug offences (Australia)

6.291 Introduce a national moratorium on the death penalty, aiming at complete abolition. Until then, reduce the number of crimes subject to the death penalty, ensuring that it does not apply to offences other than the “most serious” crimes, in accordance with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Sweden)

A group of Jarai people in Vietnam’s Highlands. Photo courtesy: Thinh Nguyen.

Discrimination, Inequalities and Vulnerable Groups

6.90 Continue efforts in eliminating inequalities in access to public services (China)

6.92 Increase efforts in addressing discrimination, in line with its international obligations, and towards improving its legal framework against gender-based violence (Greece)

6.93 Enact legislation to ensure access to gender affirmation treatment and legal gender recognition (Iceland)

6.96 Continue to conduct studies with a view to amend existing or introduce new legal instruments to eliminate all forms of discrimination against people living with HIV (Malaysia)

6.97 Take further steps to ensure the protection of all vulnerable groups in society including LGBTI persons (Malta)

6.98 Legalize same-sex marriage before the next UPR (Netherlands)

6.99 Explicitly provide “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as a forbidden ground of discrimination in the revised Labour Code and other relevant laws (Norway)

6.107 Take further measures to reduce inequalities and enhance access to services especially to vulnerable persons, including women, children and disabled (Bhutan)

6.108 Review the Labour Code and the law on gender equality to include a detailed definition of sexual harassment (Canada)

6.109 Develop legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity (Chile)

6.153 Set up a robust legislative framework prohibiting and sanctioning all discriminatory practices, enabling victims access justice (Madagascar)

6.170 Take measures to combat religious motivated violence and harassment and ethnic discrimination and inequality (Brazil)

6.217 Revise the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code and criminalise all forms of violence against women, raise public awareness on gender equality and combating discrimination against women and girls, enhance efforts and measures to prevent and combat human trafficking, especially that of women and children (Hungary)

6.229 Adopt marriage equality legislation, extending full marriage rights to same-sex couples (Iceland)

6.230 Review the Law on Marriage and Family with a view to setting the same minimum age for marriage for women and men (Zambia)

6.231 Review the law on marriage and the family to guarantee the equality to same sex couples (Canada)

6.259 Step up the efforts for the participation of woman in political and public life and their representation in the decision-making bodies (Ethiopia)

6.260 Prohibit all forms of violence against women and strengthen women’s access to justice (Iceland)

6.261 Continue to strengthen measures to prevent abuse and violence against women (Japan)

6.262 Adopt a national plan of action to prevent all forms of violence against women and assign sufficient resources for its implementation (Spain)

6.263 Further invest in women’s economic empowerment and promote decent work for women in partnership with relevant international organizations (Thailand)

6.268 Implement the policy on promoting gender equality and bridging the gender gap, which focusing on enhancing the role and participation of women in the political, economic and social spheres (Cambodia)

6.284 Develop, in line with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, community-based and people-centred mental health services that do not lead to institutionalization and over medicalization and that respect the free and informed consent of persons with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities while combatting stigma and violence against them (Portugal)

6.288 Pursue efforts to adopt national legislation to ensure further respect of the rights of migrants, to prepare the ground for the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (Egypt)

6.289 Continue its efforts on prevention and reduction of statelessness through among others reacquisition of Vietnamese nationality and prevent children statelessness (Kenya)

Protest in Ho Chi Minh City on June 10, 2018. Photo courtesy: Facebook, unknown author.

Fundamental Freedoms

6.42 Enhance efforts to comply with the recommendations accepted during the second Universal Periodic Review cycle on guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression (Chile)

6.168 Take steps to guarantee freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, including on the internet, in the context of the adoption of the law on cybersecurity (France)

6.179 Protect civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association (Luxembourg)

6.184 Restrictions on freedom of expression, and particularly online freedom, be lifted in line with Vietnam’s obligations under international law (Ireland)

6.189 Strengthen efforts to ensure the freedom of expression, including in the digital environment (Peru)

6.195 Ensure freedom of expression, including online, and promote actions to ensure freedom and independence of the media (Japan)

6.196 Continue the measures aimed at lifting all restrictions on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to allow bloggers, journalists and other internet users to promote and protect human rights (Romania)

6.199 Enhance efforts to guarantee freedom of religion or belief, also by further reducing administrative obstacles to peaceful religious activities and by combating violence and discrimination on religious grounds (Italy)

6.200 Adopt legislative changes to guarantee the protection and free exercise of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly (Spain)

6.206 Take the necessary measures to eliminate administrative barriers in order to guarantee exercise of freedom of worship (Angola)

6.207 Enact laws to provide for freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Australia)

6.209 Take further steps to ensure an independent and pluralistic media landscape, including by reducing political influence on media outlets (Austria)

6.210 Safeguard freedom of religion and believe for all in Vietnam (Kenya)

6.213 Increase and ensure Vietnamese citizens’ access to information, including by increasing radio and television coverage in all parts of the country (Cyprus)

6.236 Allow for the establishment of independent trade unions and to recognize their right to organise (Canada)

Four death-row inmates from left to right, Ho Duy Hai, Le Van Manh, Nguyen Van Chuong, Dang Van Hien. Photo courtesy: Luat Khoa.

Judicial System, Fair Trials and Due Process

6.147 Ensure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible in trial in keeping with Viet Nam’s obligations under the Convention against Torture (New Zealand)

6.148 Take steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention and punish the perpetrators (Togo)

6.150 Abolish immediately at all levels the exercise of outdoor trials to ensure the right to the presumption of innocence, effective legal representation and fair trials (Denmark)

6.152 Revise the judicial system to provide a safer environment to victims in case of all crimes (Hungary)

6.156 Pursue judicial and institutional reforms to bring them into line with international human rights standards (Senegal)

6.158 Ensure that fair trial guarantees and due process rights, as provided in international law and standards, are respected and upheld in all cases (Slovakia)

6.164 Amend the Criminal Procedural Code so that persons are represented by a lawyer immediately following their arrest and to guarantee their right to a fair trial (Canada)

About the Author

Shiwei Ye is an Asia-based independent human rights analyst, strategy advisor, trainer, and civil society consultant.

Land Rights

Tensions Mount in Aftermath of Attack on Dong Tam Village

Leader Le Dinh Kinh killed, wife tortured, and 22 others charged, as civil society demands answers from government

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As details and testimonies slowly emerge from Dong Tam after a surprise government raid early the morning of January 9, tensions between officials and civil society activists continue to mount as the two groups fight to clarify events that led to the deaths of 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh and three police officers, as well as the arrest of more than 30 villagers.

Compounding tensions is the fact that Vietnam is a one-party authoritarian state in which all official news, press, and media outlets are controlled by a single communist party. Citizen-journalists make ample use of social media to counter the systemic bias, as the general population struggles to establish the facts.

State media announced yesterday that 22 individuals have been charged: 20 for murder, including two of Kinh’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, as well as 2 others for obstruction of officials. Murder is among the most serious charges of the Vietnamese penal code, with punishment ranging up to and including the death penalty.

The clash in Dong Tam was the culmination of a land dispute that had been simmering for years over private farmland earmarked for a military airport (Mieu Mon). Experts state that land disputes in Vietnam have become increasingly common, at Loc Hung garden in Ho Chi Minh City most recently, due to the ambiguous laws that the ostensibly “communist” country has enacted regarding land ownership.

According to villager testimonies, around 3 AM the morning of January 9, 2020, approximately 3,000 officers from the police, riot, and armed forces carrying clubs, sticks, guns, shields, and tear gas grenades poured into Dong Tam village (My Duc suburban district, Hanoi), targeting village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house.

Collecting eyewitness accounts, citizen-journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang explained: “as violent skirmishes broke out, police used an explosive charge to blow a hole into village leader Kinh’s house, all while firing bullets and tear gas. Other officers tightly sealed off all the paths and alleyways in the village and used German shepherds to hunt down ‘culprits’. The villagers responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Police completely collapsed the roof of Le Dinh Kinh’s house and more than 30 members of his extended family were taken away.”

Trang reports that the Dong Tam area is currently under complete lockdown and no independent journalists have been allowed in, noting state media outlets simultaneously began reporting the same story January 9, citing a single source: Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security. The brief statement from the ministry stated that a number of officers ‘sacrificed themselves’ in the line of duty, while one ‘hostile culprit’ died.

It was not until January 10 that state media identified the “hostile culprit” as village leader Le Dinh Kinh himself, who was accused of leading a mob of villagers to “obstruct officials” who were working on constructing a wall delineating Mieu Mon Airport. Officials did not explain why this work was being done at four in the morning, nor why 3000 officers were present in the village rather than closer to the Mieu Mon work site, a few kilometers away. Officials handed over Kinh’s body to villagers the same day (January 10).

Security footage showing numerous riot police marching through Dong Tam, early on the morning of January 9. Photo: Trinh Ba Tu

Luong Tam Quang, deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security, explained at a press conference January 14 that Kinh was shot because he was “holding a grenade” and posed a threat to security forces. Quang, however, confirmed that the Ministry of Public Security did not have an arrest warrant for anyone when police stormed Kinh’s private residence.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, told land rights activist Trinh Ba Tu that Kinh was shot right in front of her, twice in the head, once in the heart, and once in the left foot. A viral video of Kinh’s body on social media showed a single bullet hole near his heart, and an unexplained long surgical scar down his abdomen.

Kinh’s funeral was held January 13, but the area of Dong Tam remained under high security, with the internet cut. Little to no footage of the funeral is available, and supporters were largely prevented from attending.

Public outpouring of support for Kinh has been swift on social media, with many seeing him as a exemplary moral leader who consistently fought for the weak. In his lifetime, Kinh was a peasant farmer, a revolutionary soldier who had fought against the Americans, a Communist Party member at 20, head of police in his village, and both party secretary and chairman of the village’s Party committee in the 1980s.

That the Vietnamese government has killed a model Party member has intellectuals commenting on the inherent symbolism, stating Kinh’s murder represented the communist regime “digging its own grave”.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, herself suffered harsh mistreatment from the authorities, and in a surreptitiously recorded video that has spread on social media, she details how police slapped and kicked her repeatedly to force her to falsely confess to using grenades and petrol bombs.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, explains how police repeatedly slapped and kicked her to force her to sign a false confession.

Her son Le Dinh Cong, adopted daughter Bui Thi Noi, and her grandchildren Le Dinh Doanh and Le Dinh Quang are also likely victims of forced confessions, as their battered images appeared on state television January 13, stoically confessing to making petrol bombs and other weapons to attack police. They admitted they had broken the law, even implicating prominent activist Nguyen Anh Tuan and blogger Le Dung Vova in encouraging “anti-state” activities.

All four subjects were covered in scrapes, black eyes, bruises, and swellings, and looked down as they spoke during the entire recording, appearing to be reading from statements off-camera.

Forced scripted confessions, particularly those aired on state television, are common in authoritarian regimes, like Vietnam, China, and North Korea.

State media also reported that Le Dinh Chuc, Le Dinh Kinh’s second son, is laying in a hospital; his condition is unknown.

The January 14 press conference further identified the three police officers killed in the raid as: Colonel Nguyen Huy Thinh, Captain Pham Cong Huy, and Lieutenant Duong Duc Hoang Quan.

After days of state media reporting that the villagers attacked and killed the officers by grenades, knives and petrol bombs, deputy head Quang admitted that the three individuals had fallen down a four-meter skylight in Kinh’s residence while pursuing suspects. He alleges that Dong Tam residents, upon seeing the officers in the well, poured gasoline and lit them on fire.

All three officers have been given posthumous awards and the honorary title of “martyr” by President and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their service.

Vietnam has cracked down on those challenging the official narrative, and according to citizen-journalist Pham Doan Trang, the government has arrested people in Can Tho, Quang Ngai, and Dak Nong for posting online about the event. She also notes that land rights activists (and brothers) Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong, who are in direct contact with the Dong Tam villagers and have worked to smuggle information out, are currently at high risk of arrest.

Facebook itself is now complicit in the oppression, activists say , as the government—using a cybersecurity law it passed in 2018—has succeeded in pressuring the company to remove videos and posts regarding the Dong Tam attack; Vietnam’s own online army has succeeded in bringing down some activists’ profiles through coordinated campaigns.

An example of a notification that users in Vietnam see for “banned” content. Photo: Dinh Thao

Vietnamese civil society organizations have responded accordingly, organizing several campaigns to bring awareness to the event, as well as pressure the Vietnamese government to address inconsistencies and unknowns in the government’s “evolving” narrative.

Luat Khoa Magazine, an independent journal that covers legal and political issues in Vietnam, has mailed a letter to To Lam, head of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security with a list of fundamental legal questions for Mr. Lam to answer (English translation here), while a nationwide, weeklong “Pray for Dong Tam” color campaign launched Sunday, Jan 12, calling for calm, mourning, and an objective investigation into what transpired January 9 (English translation here).

Perhaps most significantly, the “Dong Tam Task Force”, an ad hoc organization established by leading Vietnamese activists, launched January 13 to organize, coordinate, and facilitate fact-finding in the Dong Tam attack (English translation here). It also aims to protect the remaining village witnesses from further government harassment and arrest.

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Land Rights

Long-simmering Land Dispute in Hanoi Suburb Explodes in Violence, Killing 4

In scenes resembling a war zone, Dong Tam villagers vow to fight to the death to resist “corrupt” land reclamation

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Amid sounds of explosions, screams, and gunfire, the villagers of Dong Tam, a rural commune 35 km southwest of Hanoi, clashed with Vietnamese police in the early morning hours of January 9, killing three police and one civilian, state-controlled media reported this afternoon.

According to the BBC, at 4 AM, police cordoned off Dong Tam in coordination with local ground forces and forcefully reclaimed 59 hectares of land from villagers who had battened down the hatches in anticipation of the move. The villagers, who were never officially notified but had only heard through unofficial channels, declared in video recorded an hour before the attack that they would “fight to the death”.

In a message to fellow Vietnamese citizens, a villager of Dong Tam states that the government is shooting at them. He declares that the villagers will “fight to the death”. Nguyen Anh Tuan

The land had been earmarked since 1980 to form a part of the Mieu Mon military airfield, but in 2015, the plan was expanded to take up more nearby farming land and generalized to become an airport.

Citizen-blogger social media reports say police burst into the village with tear gas and grenades filled with plastic ball bearings, and descended upon village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house, shooting and killing one individual, who remains unidentified as of this report.

Le Dinh Kinh and his son Le Dinh Cong have served as village representatives during repeated land disputes with the government. Media outlets have been unable to reach Le Dinh Cong for comment, but villagers say Cong’s family is in police custody and his father Kinh had gone into hiding a few days prior to the showdown. Prominent activist Anh Chi says those in custody include at least Cong’s daughter-in-law and two other family members.

Village leaders direct statements to the country and to the world at 3 AM, January 9, an hour before police descend on Dong Tam village, demanding justice and protection against government oppression. Nguyen Anh Tuan

Another witness describes “thousands of police officers rushing into the village” using flash grenades, firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, blocking off all pathways and alleys, and beating villagers indiscriminately, including women and old people. The witness stated that electricity to the village has not been cut, but the internet has.

According to state media, which quotes an official statement from the Ministry of Public Security, it was villagers who attacked police with “grenades, petrol bombs, and knives” as officials tried to erect a wall delineating Mieu Mon airport. The statement accuses villagers of obstructing official duties and “disturbing public order”, a catch-all often used to describe anti-government actions in Vietnam.

Dong Tam previously made international headlines in April 2017 when it held hostage 38 government officials and police officers in another land dispute with Viettel, a military-owned telecommunications company.

According to VNExpress, 46 hectares were granted to Viettel in March of 2015, only for villagers to complain to the government in June of 2016 that the land was being taken away from farming. Villagers were able to successfully fight off land reclamation from late 2016 until February 2017.

The land dispute came to a head in April 2017 when villagers captured more than three dozen officials and police and held them hostage as leverage for government dialogue. All hostages were released by April 22, after the mayor of Hanoi, major-general Nguyen Duc Chung, came to negotiate with villagers personally.

The villagers of Dong Tam, in a past meeting regarding the land dispute. Le Dinh Cong sits in green, first row, farthest right. His father Le Dinh Kinh sits two seats to the left, in peach. BBC Vietnamese

Vietnamese activists and experts believe the central conundrum causing Vietnam’s land disputes lays in the country’s political regime: “how [does one] allocate land in a Communist country that allows quasi-private ownership rights but still considers all land to be state property”?

According to the NYTimes, “[i]n 2013, Vietnam tweaked its land law in ways meant to introduce more transparency into eminent domain [i.e. government land reclamation] cases. […] But experts say land disputes continue, in part, because the 2013 revisions do not allow private ownership or set clear definitions of what qualifies as the public interest in eminent domain cases.”

Mike Ives of the NYTimes reports further: “[l]and disputes are common on the fringes of Vietnamese urban areas, where land values are often high; villagers are typically compensated at prices well below market rates for agricultural land that is later rezoned for other uses. John Gillespie, a professor at Monash University in Australia who is an expert on land reform in Vietnam, said in an interview that the disputes tended to be more violent when villagers perceived that business interests outweighed public ones.”

Dong Tam, with a population of around 9,000, continues to be under siege, according to social media reports. All parties involved remain on edge, with activist Anh Chi stating that “Tuan Ngo, one of lawyers helping the villagers, came to Dong Tam but was stopped outside. He was threatened to be arrested by a man in plainclothes with aggressive words.”

Images of one of the police officers killed in the clash have also begun circulating on social media, with those on both sides of the land dispute expressing sympathy. Nhu Quynh, whose 27-year old husband appears to have been involved at Dong Tam, inadvertently revealed in her caption that 3000 police officers were deployed. The image (screencaptured below) has since been taken down.

Translated post: “Oh, my husband!!! Of 3 thousand officers, why did it have to be you?” The Vietnamese

Le Dung Vova, a well-known activist and writer has stated of land disputes in Vietnam: “Things will not stop at Dong Tam. […] Similar incidents will keep happening everywhere [as in Loc Hung Garden], with different levels of intensity, especially as land resources become more scarce.”

Update: BBC News has reported that Dong Tam’s leader Le Dinh Kinh has passed away January 10, after clashing with government forces in the early morning hours of January 9.

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Free Press

Minister of Propaganda Says Vietnam’s Press Should Serve Party, Prevent “Self-Evolution”

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At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”. 

Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”

In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.

In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.

“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.

Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.

The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure. 

Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.

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