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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.

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Pham Doan Trang Received Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 Press Freedom Awards

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Photo credits: RSF

On September 12, 2019, our editor Pham Doan Trang had received the Prize for Impact from Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Awards 2019 in Berlin, Germany.

Trang was not able to travel and received her award in person. Instead, our editor Trinh Huu Long and also the editor-in-chief for Luat Khoa magazine was representing Trang to accept it.

Being her colleagues, The Vietnamese magazine’s staff is delighted and honored that Doan Trang received the Impact award. We have all been inspired and moved by her tireless efforts – as she stated – to make sure that “journalism is not a crime anywhere in the world.” Together with her, we all work for Vietnam to soon be a democratic country.

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Imprisoned Dissident – Anh Ba Sam – Encountered Odd Events Before Release Date

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Portrait of Anh Ba Sam. Photo credits: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Journalist Nguyen Huu Vinh (whose pen name is Anh Ba Sam) faced quite a few peculiar encounters in Prison Center Number 5, Yen Dinh district, Thanh Hoa province in recent months.

According to Le Thi Minh Ha, his wife, on December 9, 2018, a man in a police uniform came to visit Vinh in his prison cell and spent an hour and a half talking to him. At the end of their conversation, the man left behind an envelope full of money and told Vinh that after his release from prison he should support To Lam, the current minister of public security – the national police force in Vietnam.

Mrs. Ha told Luat Khoa magazine: “My husband recounted the story to me when I visited him. Neither one of us could grasp what was happening. Who was this man and who had directed him to do such a thing? Was he someone who works for To Lam or someone who wanted to harm To Lam? Nevertheless, it could also be intimidation. We think we should publicize this information to protect Vinh.”

Both Ha and Vinh went to college with the current Minister To Lam in the 1970s, where all three were studying at the People’s Security Academy. This school is where the Vietnamese government trains its future secret police force officers.

Vinh was arrested on May 5, 2014, and at the time, To Lam was the vice minister of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS). He was held in pre-trial detention for almost two years before being convicted of “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the rights and interests of other entities and citizens,” and sentenced to five-year-imprisonment on March 23, 2016. Before his arrest, he was the owner of the blog site Anh Ba Sam – one of the most famous online newspapers in Vietnam during the past few years.

Another event – which also caused Ha to have more concerns over her husband’s safety – happened on January 27, 2019, the day of her monthly visit to Prison Center Number 5.

She stated that one prison guard had requested to meet her in private and told her: “On the release day (which will be May 5, 2019), if there are only family members then the center will process the paperwork and release him at the gate of the prison. If there are other non-family members accompanying (you), carrying banners and posters with them, then the prison center will take Vinh to a remote area and leave him there by himself.”

“On March 4, 2019, my husband called me from the prison center in accordance with the monthly allowance of five-minute-phone calls, where he told me that the same prison guard met with him again in private and told him the same thing,” Ha informed Luat Khoa magazine.

Mrs. Ha had already sent a letter of complaint to Prison Center Number 5 on February 1, 2019, to report the previous incident. She received a response dated February 25, 2019, which insisted that no prison guard had communicated any such content to either her or Vinh at the center.

Luat Khoa indicated that its reporter contacted the prison center with the number Ha had provided in April 2019, but the person who answered the phone refused to acknowledge the name of the alleged prison guard. Instead, he stated that the name belongs to someone who lives near the prison center. When the Luat Khoa reporter pressed for the current condition of Nguyen Huu Vinh, the person then said he did not know.

Mrs. Ha had also lodged complaints regarding the threat to release Vinh in a desolate area with Minister To Lam, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the National Assembly Judicial Committee and its Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, as well as Ho Thanh Dinh – The head of the Prison Management Bureau. However, all of her complaints eventually were passed down to Prison Center Number 5 to resolve.

“The person who threatened me and my husband was an officer at Center Number 5, and if all of my complaints were making their way back to this same place, then it would be meaningless. Both of us are feeling anxious and scared now that they (the prison guards) might try to harm Vinh one way or another,” Ha said.

On March 4, 2019, she also sent a letter to an alumni group consisting of her and Vinh’s former classmates at the People’s Security Academy, to suggest that if any one of them is going to accompany her on his release day, then please don’t bring any banner or poster so that they would be “in compliance with” the prison center’s request.

*** This story was first written in Vietnamese by Tran Ha Linh for Luat Khoa magazine on April 12, 2019. The Vietnamese has reviewed all of the complaints and letters which Mrs. Ha submitted and the official reply from the prison center. But because we only received information from Mrs. Ha, we decided at this time not to reveal the names of the prison guard or of the man in police uniform mentioned in this story.

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Exploring Tam Dao National Park, Group Of Vietnamese Youths Robbed And Beaten By Unknown Men

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Pictures recently take by Vietnamese who responded to the call to save Tam Dao rainforest. Photo credits: Save Tam Dao Facebook.

“My body crumbled because of the pain, but this group of strangers continued to beat me while using words to taunt me: ‘Aren’t you scared now, Hung? Don’t you care about your friend, dear?’”

In a Facebook’s post, the victim, Ta Manh Hung, recounted the horrible experience that he and four of his friends encountered on the evening of April 6, 2019, on Tam Dao mountain.

The group was traveling together that weekend, hoping to explore one of Vietnam’s most praised national parks and its rainforest, located in Vinh Phuc province near Hanoi. Prepared to spend the night at a camping grounds inside the forest, yet halfway to the destination, their journey was abruptly cut short when about a dozen strangers, all males, surrounded the group. The men then proceeded to use force to tie each of the youngsters to a tree stump about 20 meters apart and then they assaulted them.

The ordeal lasted for a couple of hours until nightfall, and when the weather began to get cold in the forest, the assailants decided to take off. They left the victims still tied up and took all of their personal property, including their mobile phones, cameras, watches, Kindles, back-up chargers, and the wallets that contained their identification papers.

Cold, scared and beaten, these youngsters, however, were able to use their teeth to slowly untie each other. Afterward, they managed to go to the nearby Tay Thien Pagoda to seek refuge for the night. The next day, local people helped them report the incident to the police of Tam Dao district.

The group’s violent encounter was first reported on Facebook in Vietnam last week. As it went viral, the public started to demand answers from the local authorities, prompting the mainstream media also to cover the story. In an interview with Nation (Tổ Quốc) newspaper, the police of Vinh Phuc province stated that they took the incident seriously and that they would handle it according to the law and regulations.

The public’s anger, however, may also be explained by the fact that Tam Dao national park has attracted the concern of many in recent months. Vietnamese people were wary that an ongoing development project, being constructed in the center of the rainforest might destroy its natural landscape and ecosystem.

A little more than three months ago, there were reports that Tam Dao’s primary rainforest and its diverse fauna and flora were under threat of environmental destruction.

Sun Group – one of Vietnam’s largest real estate developers – together with the government of Vinh Phuc province had initiated the construction of a resort in the middle of the national park. While the developers insisted that they were building an “ecotourism” project, environmentalists in the country decried the idea, stating that it would cause irreversible damages to the hundred-million-year-old rainforest’s ecosystem.

A Facebook group called Save Tam Dao started to document the current stages of theSun Group development project. It also called on others to join in and save the rainforest. Save Tam Dao has received quite a lot of support from Facebook users in Vietnam, especially among the younger generation.

Last month, together with other environmental activists and organizations, this group also initiated an online petition with Avaaz.org, calling on the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to publicly reveal the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment.

Groups of youngsters have also started to travel more frequently to Tam Dao to take pictures of nature’s beauty. Some of those pictures, however, also showed the devastating damage that the resort’s development project had created thus far.

Hung’s group attempted to do the same thing during the previous weekend: travel to Tam Dao and explore the rainforest’s beauty. But its members tragically had a terrorizing encounter where they were robbed and assaulted.

It was, however, quite peculiar that the attackers also forced the group to give up the passwords of their phones. Once able to gain access, they then immediately began reviewing all of the stored messages and photos at once.

Hung was the only one that had refused to give up his passwords. As he later stated, he did not want unknown strangers to intrude on his privacy. The moment he did not comply, his suffering increased. These men tied him up, covered his head and beat him for hours, trying to get him to give up the password.

Irritated by his continuing refusal, the assailants threatened to plant drugs on his body and report him to the police. Then, they carried him up, still with his head covered, and told him that they would throw him down the abyss. Seeing Hung did not respond to the threats, they started to put various types of insects inside his clothes to let them bite him. To prevent others from hearing his screams, they stuffed Hung’s mouth with some handkerchief.

What was so important that the assailants were willing to use such tactics to gain access to Hung’s phone and would even use torture to get it? We may have to wait for the police investigation report to find out more.

This latest attack, however, raised many questions about public security and safety in the area. Tam Dao is a national park; it belongs to all of the people, and all of its people should be able to enjoy its beauty safely. But right now, it seems that not only the rainforest at Tam Dao is crying for help but so are the ones who love it.

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