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Vietnam, Where A Folk Hero And His Incense Burner Became A Political Dilemma

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Tran Hung Dao Statue and the incense burner before removal. Photo courtesy: Internet/Pinterest.

Some Vietnamese had sarcastically joked in the past few days that the “spirit” of Grand Lord  (in some other translations, Grand Prince) Tran Hung Dao (1228-1300 AD), a General of the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400AD), just became the country’s newest victim of injustice due to the forced removal of his property.

Three days ago, the giant incense burner which has been placed in front of the Tran Hung Dao statue during the last five decades was suddenly removed by the city on February 17, 2019.

Taking away the incense burner could be seen as an inexcusable behavior in a society where veneration of ancestors and past national heroes still plays a significant role in the people’s beliefs and religious practices.

The decision indeed has caused an angry storm that swept across Facebook in Vietnam with no signs of slowing down, despite the following explanation offered by the city’s officials.

The incense burner suddenly became a political dilemma for the Vietnamese Communist Party’s leadership in Ho Chi Minh City.

Tran Hung Dao, whose real name was Tran Quoc Tuan (Hung Dao was his posthumous title), probably is the most revered General in Vietnamese history.

His statue has stood tall at Bach Dang Pier of Saigon River, in Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, untouched since 1967.

To pay respect to Tran Hung Dao, people would come, burn incense, and put them in the giant incense burner in front of the statue.

During certain commemorating events, some people also come to the location and burn incense.

In the morning of February 17, 2019, however, the top leaders of Ho Chi Minh City allowed a forklift to come and remove the giant incense burner that had been part of the statue since it was first installed.

The timing of the removal was probably the most insulting factor, according to those who were offended by it.

February 17, 2019, marked the 40th commemoration of the Vietnam-China Border War which lasted over a decade. Vietnam claimed the loss of over 60,000 lives from just between February 17, 1979, to March 4, 1979.

Vietnamese people revered Tran Hung Dao as a folk hero because he represents the people’s resistance against China’s aggression.

For generations of Vietnamese, regardless of religious background, Tran Hung Dao was a Sage who had saved the country and its people three times from the Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty which ruled over China and a vast territory in Asia and Europe during the 13th century. His statute had risen to the level of a deity that people worship with the deepest respect.

Known for his military skills during the battles on waters in ancient time, the modern Vietnamese saw him as the protector of their naval forces. The pier where his statue locates also got named after his famous battlefield: Bach Dang River.

At a time when China has become more aggressive in the South China Sea, any signs of remote disrespect to Tran Hung Dao could cause an uproar among the Vietnamese people, and this time, it certainly did.

During the last three days, social media in Vietnam was full of posts and comments about what happened to the Grand Prince Tran’s statue. They range from satire, criticism, to even cursing at the decision makers. All major newspapers in the country also wrote about the story.

Adding oil onto the fire, however, more people became upset when the Secretary of the VCP’s Division in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City – Tran Kim Yen – explained to the media about the city’s decision on February 18, 2019.

According to Ms. Yen, proper worshipping activities should be done at temples and pagodas. The city had decided that the incense burner should be at the Tran Hung Dao Pagoda in Tan Dinh Ward, so they removed it and placed it at the “appropriate” location.

Many people were not satisfied with the decision, especially when it was unilaterally decided by the officials without public consultation.

Opponents of the decision quickly pointed out that there is an incense burner at the King Ly’s statue in Hanoi where top VCP’s leaders come together and burn incense to pay respect during the Lunar New Year every year.

They also posted pictures of incense burners standing in front of many statues of Ho Chi Minh across the country to dispute the official’s explanation that worshipping activities could only be done in temples and pagodas.

Some people – like dissident attorney Le Cong Dinh – questioned the fact that the explanation came from a leader of the VCP, and not from the administrative branch of the government. He also initiated an online protest, requesting the city government to put back the incense burner.

Not forget to mention, the night before the removal, social media in Vietnam was circulating a document stamped “Secret,” allegedly coming from the VCP.

The document requested that the local authorities must stop self-organized groups from organizing any events to commemorate February 17, 1979, at the statue’s location.

The removal of the incense burner created an ongoing discontentment among not only the residents of Ho Chi Minh City but the Vietnamese people at large, where they raised questions about the ability to lead of the VCP’s officials in Ho Chi Minh City.

Press Release

Vietnam: Stop The Continued Harassment And Intimidation Of Our Editor, Pham Doan Trang

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Pham Doan Trang and her two books written in recent years.

March 18, 2019, The Vietnamese Magazine’s editorial board received an urgent message tonight from journalist Pham Doan Trang that the secret police have found her current residence and started to surveil the location.

Ms. Pham is a member of our editorial board and a founding member of our Vietnamese site, Luat Khoa online magazine.

From around the Tet celebration in February 2019, it had been brought to our attention that the secret police began to surveil the home of journalist Pham Doan Trang’s mother in Hanoi, Vietnam. Ms. Pham believed that the police was waiting for her to go back and visit her family during the Lunar New Year celebration so that they could arrest her like they did last year.

However, because she did not go back to Hanoi, the secret police utilized different methods, trying to locate her whereabouts.

As she recently published a book on public policy and the Special Economic Zones draft bill, they have pretended to be her readers, contacted her on social media, and asked if she could give them copies of her new book.

Those who helped deliver her books were followed, and hackers have attempted to gain access to Ms. Pham’s Facebook on numerous occasions.

Ms. Pham wrote on her personal Facebook tonight:

“If you hear, in the coming days, that I am involved in a traffic accident or suddenly got attacked somewhere, then it must be the planning and actions of the secret police. There would not be any ‘citizen actions’ that could have caused it.”

We strongly condemn the ongoing harassment and threats directed at our editorial member by the Vietnamese secret police due to the peaceful exercise of her human rights. These conducts are in direct violation of both Vietnam’s and international laws, and as such, they have put Ms. Pham in grave danger where both her physical and mental health have been negatively affected.

We, therefore, call on the relevant authorities of Vietnam to immediately intervene and cease the ongoing illegal surveillance and intimidation against Ms. Pham, investigate the unlawful individual conducts listed above, and prosecute those who have committed such crimes in accordance to the current legal standards in Vietnam.

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Vietnam Continues To Violate People’s Rights After Human Rights Dialogue With EU

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Vietnamese Anti-riot policemen. Photo credits: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images

Less than a day after the Human Rights Dialogue between the European Union and Vietnam on March 4, 2019, was conducted, the Vietnamese police continue to commit blatant violations of the people’s rights.

Two hours ago, the police came and arrested one of the active members of a group consisting of concerned citizens who have been fighting against what they alleged as illegal activities associated with the BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) toll booths across Vietnam.

Ha Van Nam, the victim, posted on Facebook that the police came and searched his house. Later, other Facebookers cited his wife’s statement to confirm his arrest.

Ha Van Nam was viciously beaten up by men in plainclothes back in January 2019 whom he alleged that they were plainclothes officers. He suffered two broken ribs and other injuries. The perpetrators later threw him at the front gate of Dan Phuong hospital in Hanoi.

Today, his last post on Facebook stated that the police came to his house and alleged that he committed the crime of “inciting public disorder.”

“Inciting public disorder” is a crime that has been routinely used against activists and protestors in Vietnam in the most arbitrary manner.

Often, the government would accuse anyone of committing this crime when they participate in any civil disobedience act.

Journalist Pham Doan Trang wrote on her Facebook this morning after the incident went viral on social media:

“Upon the arrest today of driver Ha Van Nam for ‘disrupting peace,’ once again, we highlight that it is time the Vietnamese government immediately decriminalizes and depoliticize civil affairs. We firmly believe that government-endorsed violence with impunity can only lead to more violence in society.”

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English Speakers In Vietnam Got A Taste Of Censorship Over An Article On Pollution

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Screen caption of the removed article on VN Express on February 21, 2019.

February 20, 2019, a few foreigners living both inside and outside of Vietnam were sharing the news that an English article published on the site VN Express was taken down before they could read it.

Some of them suspected that it was the state’s censorship or even the beginning of the enforcement of the new cybersecurity law.

As of press time, still, the link is not working.

The article was about the lone man’s trip across the country of a Vietnamese photographer, Nguyen Viet Hung, to raise awareness on marine pollution in Vietnam using what he knows best, photography.

The story of Hung was becoming quite popular in Vietnam during recent days.

He is a well-known photographer whose trip was published on social media and a few newspapers, including one that is under the ownership of the Ministry of Public Security, Cảnh Sát Toàn Cầu online (Global Police Force).

The 3,260 km long journey, dubbed “The Green Journey” on social media, was documented by Hung and his photography skills

He began his trip in August 2018.

Along the way, he was documenting the danger of improper waste disposal, especially plastic waste, and its effects on the environment.

There was an incident where Hung said he felt scared for his life when taking a picture of a truck dumping trash into the ocean because he thought the truck driver was calling more people to come over and intimidate him.

The story was well-received by the public because it raised concerns over an urgent matter that all Vietnamese people face daily: how to deal with garbage disposal in the country.

Marine pollution and pollution, in general, have gained more attention among the public because the amount of trash being disposed in Vietnam on a daily basis is quite alarming.

In 2018, Vietnamese people became even more concerned when a report placed their country among the top five ocean polluters regarding plastic waste became viral.

Like many other censored topics in Vietnam, we could never fully understand why an article suddenly becomes “unavailable” when the web link stops working.

One may suspect that it was because the story placed equal responsibility on both the people and the state for marine pollution, where the failure of the garbage disposal system in Vietnam played a significant role.

Hung said in one of the Vietnamese articles, that while at Sa Ky Harbor in Quang Ngai Province, it was impossible for him to find a garbage can. As the result, all local residents living in the area would dump their trash directly into the waters which they also use for bathing and consuming.

Regardless of the reason, Nguyen Viet Hung’s photographs bring about a reality that both the Vietnamese people and their government must face: marine pollution in Vietnam is a code red issue where drastic measures, as well as immediate behavioral changes, must happen now.

Hung had put this succinctly in the only paragraph left from the taken-down article:

The farther I went, the more I realized that the environment in general and marine environment in particular of our country are being seriously destroyed. Most people are not aware of the scale of the problem, and this should change, Hung said.

A few photographs from Nguyen Viet Hung’s trip:

Plastic rubbish filled the land near a market place in Tuy Phong, Binh Thuan Province. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

Lacking proper garbage disposal, people dumped their trash directly into the ocean. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

Children were playing near a creek filled with garbage. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

A child was picking up near the seashore. Photo courtesy: Nguyen Viet Hung.

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