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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.

Human Rights

Pham Doan Trang’s Indictment Is Public Today; What Do We Know About Her Case?

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Pham Doan Trang (Photo: Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera). Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

The indictment against journalist and democracy activist Pham Doan Trang was made public on October 18, Vietnam time. We are summarizing the main issues from the 15-page indictment, which you can read here in Vietnamese.

The main points of the indictment are:

  • The indictment stated that the investigation was done between September 22, 2016 and October 7, 2020. October 7, 2020 was also the day that the authorities arrested Doan Trang.
  • The Department of Cyber Security and High Tech Crimes under the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the national police in Vietnam, petitioned the investigation department to pursue legal proceedings against Doan Trang on May 4, 2020 and October 7, 2020 and included its documents and materials against her.
  • The Department of Information and Communications of Hanoi City also submitted two petitions with documents and materials to the MPS on December 26, 2017 and January 7, 2019, requesting legal proceedings against Doan Trang.
  • The Investigation Unit of Hanoi City’s Police formally opened the investigation on September 10, 2020.
  • The decision to initiate criminal proceedings against Doan Trang was issued on September 28, 2020.
  • Doan Trang was arrested under a warrant on October 7, 2020 in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • She refused to provide her laptop’s password to the police and accordingly, the police could not access its data.
  • She also refused to acknowledge the Facebook account of the name “Pham Doan Trang” belonged to her, and the investigative unit could not charge her for the information posted via that account on social media.
  • Doan Trang acknowledged that she was one of the authors of the “Report Assessment of the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion in relation to the exercise to Freedom of Religion and Belief in Vietnam” in both English and Vietnamese. This report was published on the website of Luat Khoa Magazine.
  • On February 19, 2021, the Authority of Information Security (under the Ministry of Information and Communications) submitted a document to the investigative unit which stated that it could not determine who owned and managed the domain name luatkhoa.org to pursue further legal proceedings against it.
  • The indictment stated that Doan Trang repeatedly committed unlawful conduct which can be used to increase her punishment.
  • The indictment also did not find any facts to reduce the punishment against her.
  • The investigation of her case was concluded on August 26, 2021.
  • The indictment stated that Doan Trang continued her unlawful conduct from 2017 to 2019 so both the 1999 Penal Code and the 2015 Penal Code (which took effect on January 1, 2018) could be used to prosecute her.
  • However, the indictment also stated that Doan Trang did not confess to any of these crimes and that the 1999 Penal Code would be more beneficial to the defendant since Article 88 of that penal code starts the sentence at 3 years imprisonment versus 5 years imprisonment under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code. Therefore, the government dropped charges under Article 117 and only prosecuted Doan Trang under Article 88.

The Evidence against Pham Doan Trang under the indictment:

  • English document named “Brief report on the marine life disaster in Vietnam”;
  • English document named “General Assessments of the human rights situation in Vietnam”;
  • English and Vietnamese versions of the “Report Assessment of the 2016 Law on Belief and Religion in relation to the exercise of the right to Freedom of Religion and Belief in Vietnam”;
  • Two interviews with Pham Doan Trang by BBC News  Vietnamese and Radio Free Asia – Vietnamese (RFA) in 2018.

Formal indictment:

The Hanoi People’s Procuracy Office prosecuted Doan Trang under Article 88, Section 1, subsections a, b, and c for “propagandizing against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam ” of the 1999 Penal Code. The sentencing for this crime will be 3 to 12 years imprisonment.

The indictment is dated August 30, 2021. However, it was only made public on October 18, 2021, in Vietnam, just more than two weeks before Pham Doan Trang’s trial. For almost two months, Doan Trang’s family and her attorneys, as well as the public, have been kept in the dark about the case Vietnam has against her. 

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Vietnam Briefing

Vietnam Briefing: Pham Doan Trang’s Trial Expected To Begin In November; Vietnam Slowly Reopening Its Economy After Long-Running COVID-19 Lockdowns

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Photo credit: Pham Doan Trang/ RFA. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnamese court to try Pham Doan Trang and two farmer activists this November

The Vietnamese Magazine reports:

  • On October 14, 2021, attorney Dang Dinh Manh, one of Pham Doan Trang’s lawyers, posted on his Facebook that the People’s Court of Hanoi will try the prominent journalist and writer on November 4, 2021. Also, according to Manh, the same court will try two of the Duong Noi land activists, Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam, one day earlier, on November 3, 2021.
  • Earlier, on October 6, the Hanoi People’s Procuracy Office notified Doan Trang’s family that they had decided to transfer the case to the People’s Court of Hanoi after recommending her indictment on August 30, 2021. 
  • As of October 15, the government has not officially recognized or appointed any of the lawyers to be her legal representatives. As a result, both Doan Trang’s family and her attorneys have not received her indictment and still do not know what evidence the government has or the details of the charges against her. Doan Trang’s attorneys will file a motion to delay her trial so that they can better prepare for her defense
  • Pham Doan Trang marked her first year being held incommunicado last week. She is being charged with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” which falls under Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code. She faces the possibility of a 20-year sentence if convicted.

Jailed Vietnamese land activist tortured to extract a confession

RFA reports:

  • Jailed Vietnamese land activist Trinh Ba Tu was brutally tortured in detention as part of a bid by authorities to force him to plead guilty to charges of “anti-state activities,” according to his elder sister, Trinh Thi Thao. The alleged action by the Vietnamese authorities has prompted calls by human rights groups for an immediate investigation into his case.
  • On October 14, Thao told RFA Vietnamese that she met with her brother’s lawyers on Monday and learned that he had been badly beaten during an interrogation following his June 24, 2020 arrest. Tu laso reportedly required hospitalization for a kidney inflammation. “My brother Tu said that the prosecutor insulted him during the interrogation—the prosecutor’s name is Minh and he’s a prosecutor from Hoa Binh Province,” Thao said.
  • After receiving treatment, Tu was returned to detention and told to sign a false statement confessing to the crime of “creating, storing, disseminating anti-State materials” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code. The accusation is related to his online posts criticizing the government’s brutal handling of a long-running land dispute with Dong Tam villagers. “During the investigation process, investigators promised Tu that if he pleaded guilty, he would be jailed for only six years, but that otherwise he would have to serve eight,” Thao added.
  • Tu and his mother, Can Thi Theu, who was arrested the same day and similarly charged, were both sentenced on May 5 to eight years in prison and three years on probation. His brother Trinh Ba Phuong and land activist Nguyen Thi Tam were separately arrested on June 24 on the same charges of “propagandizing against the state.” Phuong and Tam remain in detention pending trial, which is expected to begin on November 3.

A Protestant follower in Vietnam was arrested for “insulting” the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh

VOA Vietnamese reports:

  • On October 14, Tra Vinh Province police arrested Thach Rine, a Khmer Protestant, for posting an edited portrait of late Communist leader Ho Chi Minh on his Facebook account, which was regarded as “defamatory” by the Vietnamese authorities.
  • However, according to some observers, the alleged arrest of Thach Rine was due to his religious beliefs and his activism for the human rights of indigenous Khmer Krom people. The local police had reportedly been watching Thach’s online political activities and periodically harassed and detained him. 
  • On July 1, 2021, the Belgium-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) criticized the Vietnamese government for the detention of Thach Rine for wearing a T-shirt with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals logo advocating for indigenous people’s rights.

Vietnam arrested and charged another member of the U.S.-based Provisional Government of Vietnam

RFA reports:

  • On October 15, Vietnamese authorities arrested and charged a man with “carrying out activities to overthrow the government,” making him at least the fourth person this year apprehended for joining the Provisional Government of Vietnam, a U.S.-based exile Vietnamese organization branded by Hanoi as an overseas terrorist group.
  • Nguyen Doan Quang Vien, 39, of Lam Dong Province and Ho Chi Minh City, had asked to join the Provisional Government of Vietnam after learning of its existence on social media in 2017, according to a police investigation.
  • Authorities have this year arrested and convicted at least three people for allegedly joining the political group. In August, the court sentenced Tran Huu Duc of Nghe An Province to three years in prison and Ngo Cong Tru from Phu Yen Province to 10 years. Police detained another member, Le Thi Kim Phi from An Giang Province in September, but she has not yet been sentenced.

COVID-19 situation in Vietnam

  • Several Vietnamese cities began to relax the months-long strict lockdowns and reopen their economies, while citizens were required to continue to follow pandemic preventive guidelines: Starting from 6 a.m., October 14, Hanoi will allow on-site dining and reopening of parks, hotels and public transportation as companies, offices and businesses resume operations as normal. Meanwhile, from October 6, the city of Da Nang will resume almost all of its production, tourism and service businesses, including indoor activities such as museums, cinemas, sports centers and amusement venues. The slow reopening takes place amid Vietnam switching from its zero-COVID policy to “living with the virus.”
  • Ho Chi Minh City police summoned members of Revival Ekklesia Mission, a Protestant organization, including juveniles aged from 11 to 13 years old, over its alleged accusation of “transmitting dangerous infectious diseases.” According to RFA and VOA Vietnamese, the church founders and its members were summoned on October 14 for further investigations regarding the incident on May 26, when a coronavirus cluster in the religious group was detected and believed to infect a large number of people. The local authorities later indicted the group for failing to follow health guidelines and causing the virus to spread, but its founders said that they had always properly complied with antivirus measures.
  • South Korea to donate over 1.1 million vaccine doses to Vietnam, writes The New York Times: “South Korea plans to ship almost 1.6 million doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine to Vietnam and Thailand this week, the foreign ministry announced Tuesday, as the Southeast Asian nations struggle to contain the spread of the virus. […] About 1.1 million doses will go to Vietnam and 470,000 to Thailand, South Korea’s government said.”
  • Vietnam received nearly another two million Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines from the United States, bringing the total number of doses that the country received from the United States to 9.5 million. The U.S. Department of Defense also provided Vietnam with 111 ultra-low temperature freezers for vaccine storage, according to a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.
  • Vietnamese factory workers hesitate to return to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening the problem of global supply chains, writes Bloomberg: “Now staff-starved companies are imploring workers like My to return for what would normally be peak production for winter clothing and Christmas gifts. The government is offering transportation back and companies are upping pay and benefits, but little is working.” It was estimated that around 1.3 million migrant workers had returned to their hometowns between July and September due to the COVID-19 pandemic and harsh lockdown mandates.

Vietnam’s coal-fired electric generation may double by 2030 under draft power plan

Reuters report:

“Vietnam may double the amount of coal-fired electric generation it installs by 2030 under a draft power development plan submitted to the prime minister for approval this week.

The draft plan guarantees that Vietnam will become more reliant on coal to power its fast-growing economy at a time when financiers and insurers are refusing to back new projects because of fuel’s large climate change impact.

Coal-fired power plants will account for up to 31.4% of as much as 143.8 gigawatts (GW) of installed generation capacity planned in 2030, according to a copy of the so-called Power Development Plan 8 (PDP 8) reviewed by Reuters.”


Vietnam Insight: Learn more about Vietnam

COVID-19 Made Life Even Worse for Japan’s Foreign Trainees

The Diplomat/ Moeka Iida/ October 15

“The trainee program depends upon the recruitment of young people from less developed economies who are desperate to work in advanced environments and eager to earn Japanese yen. However, there is a risk of exploitation even before these young recruits leave for Japan. Vietnamese trainees must pay a slew of pre-departure fees to brokers and sending organizations that push many to secure loans and mortgage assets. Although this amount varies, trainees can pay up to 1 million yen (around $9,000), plunging them into substantial debt.”

How Asia’s Rice Producers Can Help Limit Global Warming

The Diplomat/ Oliver Frith, Reiner Wassmann, Bjoern Ole Sander/ October 13

“There are already several validated management options to mitigate methane emissions in rice, which maintain or improve yields, enhance profitability, and increase climate resilience. For example, integrating locally adapted best management practices with water-saving techniques, such as Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD), reduces methane emissions by 30-70 percent. In Vietnam, this has also improved farm profitability by up to 13 percent (around $100 per hectare).”

Time is right for Vietnam’s digital transformation

Asia Times/ Minh Ha Truong/ October 7

“The timing couldn’t be better. With a population of 97 million, the Internet penetration in Vietnam is high, standing at 70% and increasing by 6.2 million in a single year. The nation is set to see its mobile transactions increase by 300% between 2021 and 2025 due to the strong growth anticipated in mobile payments.”

Vietnam and Economic Reopening: Roadmap Needed

Fulcrum/ Tuan Ho/ September 16

“Facing economic slowdown pressures while still unable to control the pandemic, Vietnam is currently at a crossroads regarding its pandemic fighting strategy. While Prime Minister Chinh has suggested that Vietnam is shifting away from a ‘zero Covid’ strategy and preparing to ‘live with it’, the delay in reopening Ho Chi Minh City implies that some Vietnamese leaders are still embracing the idea of completely suppressing the pandemic, out of both public health concerns and possibly considerations about their political prospects. Their decision was also based on concerns that reopening the economy prematurely may be counter-productive.”

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Human Rights

Vietnam To Try Pham Doan Trang For Propagandizing Against The State On November 4, 2021

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Pham Doan Trang. Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

On October 14, 2021, attorney Dang Dinh Manh, one of Pham Doan Trang’s lawyers, posted on his Facebook that the People’s Court of Hanoi will try the prominent journalist and writer on November 4, 2021. Manh further indicated that the same court will also try Trinh Ba Phuong and Nguyen Thi Tam – two of the Duong Noi farmers – on November 3, 2021.[1]

Furthermore, sources informed The Vietnamese Magazine that the authorities have yet to officially approve any of Doan Trang’s attorneys to be her legal representatives. Attorney Manh confirmed that the government informed him of the information about Doan Trang’s trial via telephone. 

On October 6, 2021, Pham Chinh Truc, Doan Trang’s brother, received a notice from the Hanoi People’s Procuracy Office regarding his sister’s case status. That day also marked one year since the Vietnamese authorities arrested Doan Trang in Ho Chi Minh City. During this entire time, she has been held incommunicado. Her lawyers also received minimal information from the authorities about her case. 

Hanoi People’s Procuracy notified Truc that they had decided to transfer the case to the People’s Court of Hanoi after recommending her indictment on August 30, 2021. 

The Procuracy, however, did not specify what its recommendations are and what have been her conducts that fall under its possible charges against Pham Doan Trang. It is charging her with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” which falls under either Article 88 of the 1999 Penal Code; she faces the possibility of a 20-year sentence. The Procuracy also failed to provide any evidence that it may have found during the year-long investigation leading up to the case being transferred to the Court. 

However, because none of her attorneys have yet to be officially recognized by the government, they did not receive the government indictment. In other words, both her family and her attorneys still do not know what evidence the government has against Doan Trang or the details of the charges against her. In the next few days, her attorneys will file a motion to delay her trial so that they can better prepare for her defense, The Vietnamese Magazine has learned.

Trinh Huu Long, the co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam (LIV) and one of Doan Trang’s closest colleagues told The Vietnamese:

“It’s highly unusual that an activist is held completely incommunicado until just before the trial such as has happened with Doan Trang. This is nothing less than an extremely severe violation of both domestic and international laws. It is also ironic. The government wants to punish Doan Trang because she made it look bad, and Vietnam calls this is the rule of law, while the government itself has long gotten away with all sorts of inhuman treatment and violations of its own laws.”

Notes:

[1] Our previous version of this article has stated that Pham Doan Trang’s trial will be on November 3, 2021. However, Attorney Dang Dinh Manh since then has corrected his earlier statement and her trial will be on November 4, 2021.

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