Throughout 2018 and up until yesterday, January 24, 2019, the world continued to witness Vietnamese people’s love of football exploded, and the South Korean coach, Park Hang-seo, solidified his status as the country’s new, de-facto national hero.
Images of people stormed the streets or “đi bão” – literally means “ride the storm” in Vietnamese – across major cities after each team’s win seemed to reaffirm that belief.
While it may be fair to conclude that the majority of Vietnamese cares more about a football match than the other political issues in the country, we probably should pay attention to a different side of Vietnamese society that a foreigner may not see quite readily in recent days.
Two nights before the last football match against Japan during the Asia Cup, from 8:30 P.M. to midnight of January 22, 2018, there was another international event concerning Vietnam: its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) cycle.
This particular UN mechanism – which only came into play on the world stage during the past decade – is where a state would undergo peer-review put on by other countries regarding its human rights’ records every 4.5 years.
It is doubtful that the word UPR is popular, even in the West.
But the January 22, 2019 event had attracted over 90,000 Vietnamese to tune in and watched to date, with over 4,000 comments and over 1,000 reactions on a live-stream posting by the Facebook page UPR Vietnam.
UPR Vietnam is a collective effort of independent CSO workers in the country who want to bring more awareness of the human rights conditions in Vietnam to its people.
Of course, comparing the number of people who went online to watch a UN’s human rights event to a football match does not mean much. But it is only fair if we put it within the context of Vietnam’s political background so that we could see why this group of viewers does show a different side of the country.
Vietnam is probably a mini version of China with more free internet. That is one of the simplest ways – yet quite correct – to envision the country and its political structure.
For almost 80 years in the North and more than 43 years in the entire country, the Vietnamese Communist Party ruled the state under a dictatorship.
In Vietnam, there is no other political party. The VCP is the only political force.
Young children would be indoctrinated at an early age when they joined the Communist Youth League.
When they grow up, becoming a member of the VCP could also mean being part of a privileged class because the Party is the leading force that runs the country.
VCP members take the majority in all branches of the government. The decision of the VCP’s Politburo would trump all others.
Ho Chi Minh was taught to be loved and admired, even worshipped as the one hero who liberated his people from French colonization. History books spent 90% of the time teaching only historical events happened after 1945 and about how the VCP came to absolute power.
The intent is clear and simple, to ensure that no one should have even the slightest doubt about the perpetuity of the VCP’s leading role in Vietnam.
Not a single sign of dissent has been tolerated by the regime, especially in recent years.
During the past two years, the political will of the VCP seemed to have hardened with 97 arrests of political dissidents compares to 43 in 2017, and 18 in 2016.
The most significant difference between Vietnam and China is probably the fact that the government has failed to build a “Great Firewall” which let the internet and social media became the much needed civic space where people could come together and discuss current affairs and politics.
That online space is now under threat with the new cybersecurity law that was passed in June 2018 and took effect on January 1, 2019.
Along with the new law, a more rigid approach by the VCP in dealing with its own members also emerged.
At the end of 2018, a well-respected intellectual and a long-time VCP member – Professor Chu Hao – was disciplined by the Party in a series of events which some people have dubbed “the VCP’s waging war against intellects.”
It seemed, however, the Party and its leader, Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, were only acting in line with their manifesto.
The hope that the Party would reform itself and be tolerable to the ideas of forming democratic institutions and the rule of law which some people might have carried on throughout the past four decades, seemed to have ended bitterly with the former Deputy Minister Chu Hao’s withdrawing himself from the Party.
Getting over the status quo is never easy for any given society, not to mention one that has been under decades of authoritarianism.
The fact that there is still a minority group of people (most of them are under 40-year-old) who – despite being born and grew up in such a political context – still cares about human rights does matter.
It matters because only five years ago, during the last UPR cycle, not a lot of people in Vietnam know much about human rights and could care less about the UPR process.
It matters, even more, when the one recommendation from the Czech Republic to Vietnam during this UPR cycle, asking the government to allow political pluralism and democracy in the country, also became one of the most read news of January 2019 on Luat Khoa online magazine just 24 hours after being published.
Recognizing that there is a small, young sector of the population who is still willing to speak up when faced with harassment and even imprisonment as the government hardened its oppression methods, is, therefore, essential.
It is the other image of Vietnamese that the world needs to take notice because we are more than just a fun, tropical travel destination with good foods and hard-core football fans.
Although a new draconian cybersecurity law went into effect earlier this year, there are still people who refuse to censor themselves or curb their online activism in any way.
Instead, they have continued fighting for what they believe is right.
They are the drivers protesting against BOT An Suong, the lawyers and activists exposing the government’s wrongdoing in Loc Hung vegetable garden’s forced eviction, the environmentalists trying to save the rainforest in #SaveTamDao campaign, and many more.