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Vietnam: The Communist Party Declared Internet “A Battlefield”

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Vo Van Thuong - Head of the VCP's Central Propaganda Committee at the Press Annual Congress 12/28/18. Photo courtesy: Dai Doan Ket newspaper.

The Head of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Committee – Vo Van Thuong – declared, during his concluding remarks at the committee’s year-end congress on December 29, 2018, that “the internet (in Vietnam) has become a new battlefield” for the Party in the fields of politics, thoughts, and culture.

A day earlier, Thuong also made another remark at a different congress held explicitly by and for the press, telling journalists in the country to overcome having “vague political thoughts” as news reporters, especially when it comes to posting on social media.

For non-Vietnamese, Mr. Thuong’s position seems to be quite intrigued and puzzling. Why would he get invited to speak to the journalists in the country at their year-end congress? What does his message to the media representatives even mean?

On the other hand, for some over 800 editors-in-chief of all newspapers in Vietnam, however, Mr. Thuong’s words equate to an ultimatum as he is the chief of all of them. They would write as his committee directs, and take down those articles when the same committee disapproves.

The Central Propaganda Committee is part of the VCP’s cord internal structure, with a mission to establish “direction for political thoughts in the field propaganda, news media, publishing, arts, and culture” for the Party. In reality, this committee’s job is not only to control the political thinking and shape the ideology of the four million VCP members but also the society in Vietnam as a whole.

Its job is so essential for the survival of an authoritarian regime which is to ensure that there would only be one political doctrine for every single citizen to follow: communism. Anyone dares to propose other ideas for a different political philosophy, in many cases, face prosecution and long jail time. Any sign of dissent would be deemed as not accepting the ultimate leadership of the VCP in the country, and is a criminal act.

However, for more than a decade, the VCP has failed to take control of the internet and social media in Vietnam. As the result, the people indeed took such opportunity to create a vibrant online civic space where they openly criticized officials, exposed wrongdoings, and even organized themselves.

While the government repeatedly applied draconian and vague penal codes to arrest and imprison dissidents and activists for “propagandizing against the State” and “abusing democratic freedoms”, social media – especially Facebook and Youtube – continues to play a vital role in disseminating information which the VCP may disapprove of, such as reporting on human rights abuses and calling for democratization in the country.

The new cybersecurity law of 2018 is the latest attempt from the government to practice absolute control over the internet in Vietnam. It is then not a surprise for us to hear strong and determining words from the Head of the Central Propaganda Committee, declaring war on bloggers and freelancers on social media.

However, in the first few days of the year since the cybersecurity law took effect, the discussions on social media in Vietnam remain active and critical of the government.

The most recent “battle” between Vietnamese netizens and Mr. Thuong’s Central Propaganda Committee happened last week, concerning the news that the VCP’s Politburo has approved more money to fund the development project for a metro system in Ho Chi Minh City.

On January 4, 2019, most of the major newspapers in Vietnam published one same article online, stating that the Politburo has approved more than 50 billion VND for the construction of two metro lines in Ho Chi Minh City. Immediately, prominent bloggers and dissidents on social media like attorney Le Cong Dinh[1], questioned the legality of that decision.

In Vietnam, the power to approve funding of similar projects supposedly belongs to the most powerful governmental body – the National Assembly. However, in reality, the Politburo would be the ultimate decision maker.

In April 2018, when the people of Vietnam questioned the National Assembly’s reasons to pass the Special Economic Zone draft bill, the Chairwoman responded: “the Politburo has already decided, and the draft bill is not unconstitutional. We have to discuss and come up with the bill.”

Nevertheless, this time, the Politburo seems to have to forego a “battle” on social media. By the end of the day, all of the articles about the funding of the metro project were taken down, probably at the order of the Central Propaganda Committee.

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[1] Le Cong Dinh was tried together with Tran Huynh Duy Thuc for subversion against the state in January 2010 where he was sentenced to five years imprisonment and three more years under house arrest.

Politics

Is Vietnam Now A Country Without A Solid Leader?

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President Nguyen Phu Trong. Photo Credits: Getty Images

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? 

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Vietnam: Lawyer Disbarred For Speaking Ill Of Regime and The Communist Party

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Lawyer Vo An Don. Photo credits: Tuoi Tre newspaper.

“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.

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The Socialist Republic of Vietnam: The Country That Rejects Political Pluralism

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Members of the VCP at their 12th Party Congress in 1/2016. Photo credits: Dantri.com

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.”

His observation echoes that of other foreign governments and international human rights experts, who all recently recommended that Vietnam allows political pluralism to continue its progress.

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.

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